The question “what makes a film art?” has always been at the centre of debates in film studies.
In this essay I am going to explore the concept of ‘Authorship’ and define it through the analysis of Hitchcock’s work. In the 1950s films were seen as an industrial product that was impossible to be categorised as ‘Art’. In fact, films had first of all an industrial nature; in addition to that, they are the result of a collective creation. As a matter of fact, films are never a product of a single, but the combination of more people’s work (writer, actors, director, and so on). The set of these factors made difficult for critics to classify a film as the product of an artist, an author. Some critics claim that a film could be defined as art when it would be the expression of an individual artist. It was only thanks to the development of the ‘Politiques Des Auteurs’ that films were not seen only as the result of an industrial process, but as the expression of an artist.
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The new movement led by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Andre Bazin, aimed to convert the idea of Cinema to a proper form of art and to confer the status of artists to those working in the Hollywood industrial system. In what would be named the “auteur theory”, they designate the director as the author of the piece of art. As Pam Cook asserts: ‘the politique des auteurs proposed that, in spite of the industrial and collaborative nature of the film production, the director, like any other artist, was the creative source of the finished product’ (p.387, 2007). The actors, the scriptwriters, the producers and all the others behind the film production, also deserved to be called ‘artists’, but the director above all is the real auteur. What makes a director an auteur is the own, personal and original style that is possible to identify in his films. In fact, the director imprints his or her individuality through the mise-en-scene and the themes.
An important distinction has to be made between an auteur and a metteur en scene. Indeed, a director is defined ‘metteur en scene’ if he or she just adapts the material given instead of create its own. An auteur, on the other hand, fills his work with his personal ‘signature’ and meanings. As a matter of facts, “a director’s style can be discerned by viewing his work as a whole, because the true marks of an auteur will appear in all of them”(Leo Braudy; Marshall Cohen, p.556, 2004). Thus, for instance you can recognise a Van Gogh’s painting just looking at it, and in the same way one can watch a film without knowing who directed it and being able to recognise the director by his style. According to Andrew Sarris a director, to be called author has to fulfil three premises: the technical competence, the personality and the interior meaning.
In relation to these qualities Hitchcock satisfies all three premises. First of all, an auteur must be master of the technical aspects of a film. These includes mise-en-scene, editing, camera movements and sound of a film.
The aspect that makes Hitchcock famous above all is his ability of creating suspense. Through his brilliant editing combined with the sound and music, Hitchcock plays with the nerves of his audience and builds suspense. Is impossible not to mention the iconic scene from Psycho (Dir. Hitchcock, 1960, USA) where Marion is stabbed to death. Another aspect that distinguish his films is the use of his technique known as “the Hitchcock Rule”, which state that the size of the object in the frame should be proportional to its importance to the story at the moment.
For instance, in the opening sequence of Rear Window (Dir Hitchcock,1954, USA), we can see a lot of close-ups on some objects (Jeff’s cast, his broken camera and some of his photos). The objects occupy all the frame, they are the main focus in that moment as their function is to tell us the background of the main character: he is a professional photographer and he broke his leg taking a shot of some racing cars. The second premise of an auteur is the personality of the director in his films. ‘Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristic of style, which serve as his signature’ (Andrew Sarris, p 562, 2004). Hitchcock in his films often introduce the same features that can be considered as his signature. We can think of the recurrent image of a bird: in Psycho we can find one behind Norman Bastes in his office, or in the bus scene in To Catch a Thief (Dir. Hitchcock,1955, USA), or of course in the film The Birds (Dir.
Hitchcock,1963, USA). Another constant in his works is the blonde woman as main female character: Lisa Fremont in Rear Window, Marion and Lila Crane in Psycho, Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton in Vertigo (Dir. Hitchcock, 1958, USA), to name some. In many Hitchcock films there is a common incompetence in the authority. In fact, several police man in are represented as useless and incompetent. In Psycho the local police do not believe that Norman Bastes could be involved in the disappearance of Marion Crane; or again in Rear Window, the Detective Thomas Doyle is sceptical about the possibility that Lars Thorwald could have murdered his wife.
Another feature that can be considered as his signature is his appearance in the majority of his films. In fact, 39 of his films include a small cameo where he makes an appearance for a few moments. To name some: in Rear Window he is winding the clock in the songwriter’s apartment; in Vertigo he passes in front of the construction site; or in The Birds where he exits from the pet store. The final premise of an auteur is the interior meaning, which is to say that there must be “tension between the director’s personality and his material’ (Andrew Sarris, p.562, 2004). In his works Hitchcock loves to present to the audience not an external and detached point of view, but an “internal” one that follows the character’s point of view.
Two examples could be: the acrophobia episode of Scottie in Vertigo and in Rear Window the moment of blindness experienced by Lars Thorwald after Jeff uses the camera’s flash to stop him. The power of the point of view and watching in general, is another aspect that is relevant in Hitchcock production. In fact, in many of his films is presented the thematic of watching, spying and voyeurism. Actually, all Rear Window is based on the watching others and spying: Jeff spend all day and night looking out of his window, observing his neighbour.
But also, the voyeurism thematic shows up in Psycho, when Norman Bastes spies Marion through a peephole while she is changing.