Hitchcock: I Am a Cameo

When I first became interested in film, I was fascinated by Hitchcock’s cameos. Even if they seemed to work against an enveloping suspense narrative by giving a comforting reminder of the fabrication that is being presented to you, spotting them was a reward for attentiveness, an in-joke for the aware and an auteur’s signature. They usually come at points in the narrative where they won’t break the tension of a suspenseful set-piece, at moments of downtime, transitions between locations. In North by Northwest, he gets his obligatory appearance out of the way by the end of the opening titles, so that his unsuccessful dash for the bus coincides with his own oscreen credit; he seems to chase it off the screen, cementing the idea of his contact with the extra-diegetic structure of the film, as if to suggest that this figure has more power and influence than the other extras in these crowd scenes, even as he appears to be mocking himself.

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This will neatly correspond with a shot of Cary Grant also failing to get on a bus later in the film, subtly insinuating Hitch back into the fabric of the film through a delayed graphic match.

I’m very taken with David Sterritt’s discussion of the cameos in The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, so I reproduce a little of it here. He posits three key observations about the cameos:

“First, Hitchcock enters his movies not only to wink and wave at his audience, but to comment on the action in some small, sly way that accords with the manipulative, often sardonic attitude that characterises much of his work in general. Second, his presence indicates a wish to approach and ‘keep an eye on’ his characters. Third, the cameos signal to his audience (which normally receives the message on a subliminal level) that he is the presiding spirit of his films. Each movie posits a particular relationship between its characters, on one hand, and fate – or destiny, luck, the way of the world – on the other. In every case, it is Hitchcock who has determined what kind of relationship this will be and how it will work itself out through narrative mechanisms. His on-screen presence is a mischievously overt signature that proclaims his control over the narrative and the world that it constructs.”

“Another issue raised by Hitchcock’s cameos is his relationship – as an on-screen presence – to the fully developed characters in his films. Is he with or against them? like or unlike them? connected or unconnected to them? The answer can generally be found in the mood of benign detachment that typifies his appearances: He pictures himself as a comically inflected, almost painfully ordinary character in most cases, dropping into but barely participating in the world of the story and never suggesting an air of superiority to the characters around him. Still, we may see the very tangentiality of his stanceas further evidence that his incursions have another, unstated function: that of keeping his narrative symbolically under control, and of metaphorically spying on his characters – asserting his closeness to them, and his power over their world, from the nearest possible vantage point.”

This is a very tidy description, and it can also lead into a good summation of Hitch’s authorial presence as a prominent manipulator of the structure of his films, toying with characters and audiences simultaneously, and thus uniquely empowered to move inside and outside of the text. But I wouldn’t want to suggest that he is always doing the same thing in his cameos. While I would agree that this notion of the director hovering over his characters is the most apt way to understand them, each appearance is differently marked, representing a greater or lesser amount of interference. In Rear Window, he appears in the composer’s apartment, shortly before what we later must assume is the murder of Mrs Thorwald. He is winding the clock, symbolising not just his insertion into the narrative space, but his control over the temporal delivery of its secrets, even at this crucial moment where the spectator’s visual attention is most attuned to a hunt for significant clues.

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In Marnie, he seems to blunder into the film by accident, even looking directly into the camera. Sometimes the cameos are barely perceptible, such as the brief appearance of his logo on the backdropped cityscape of Rope, or in the newspaper ad that bears his image in Lifeboat – this two films were probably his most sustained attempt at spatial asceticism (being confined to single, restricted locations), environments which even he could not infiltrate. Hitchcock clearly relished his public role as a puppeteer of the emotions, and these appearances allow him to literalise that position onscreen. It’s not surprising that he is as widely watched by scholars as he is by normal people [insert disingenuous smiley face here], when he can make so brazenly flaunt his traversal of the boundaries between the interior and exterior of the text, the very same trip between critical distance and narrative immersion that we all hope to make but are sometimes too skilfully misdirected to manage.

16 thoughts on “Hitchcock: I Am a Cameo

  1. another talkative one: Frenzy
    “In the center of a crowd, wearing a bowler hat, three
    minutes into the film; he is the only one not applauding the speaker.”
    (by Col Needham)

  2. Psycho
    Four minutes in, through Janet Leigh’s window as she returns
    to her office. He is wearing a cowboy hat.
    (also by Col Needham)

    In Gus Van Sant’s remake, even this is copied, using a lookalike. Van Sant must have resisted the temptation to do it himself.

  3. Thanks, guys. I didn’t spot the Psycho walk-on when i watched it again recently. It’s not that obvious, and I’d forgotten to look for it. Am I the only person left who thought Van Sant’s Psycho was quite “interesting”? More of an aesthetic experiment than a commercial remake. And on this topic, it’s noteworthy that, while Hitchcock didn’t interject himself during major set-pieces, Van Sant intercuts the famous highpoints (shower scene, Arbogast murder) with some of his own signature shots (cows on a road, timelapse clouds).

  4. “The explicit masturbating bit annoys me, though.”

    Quite. And I don’t remember any reviews of Hitchcock’s original saying “It’s suspenseful, frightening and brilliantly edited. But it needs more wanking.” There’s a poster-quote for you…

  5. I’ve just come across Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excoriating review of Van Sant’s Psycho. It’s rather damning, and he certainly has no time for critics who attempt to rationalise it as a valuable formal exercise. Yikes:

    http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?cat=5

    e.g. “The biggest theoretical problem for me with the whole enterprise is the assumption that color could be an adequate “equivalent” to black-and-white–an assumption clearly made by money, not aesthetics. Manny Farber once perceptively remarked that “the first third of Psycho is as bare, stringent, minimal as a Jack Benny half hour on old TV”–and by “old TV” he means, more than anything, black-and-white. There’s nothing remotely bare, stringent, or minimal about the first third of the new Psycho, because the color provides far too much extraneous and therefore useless information, so the nightmarish pacing, tone, and texture of the original isn’t even hinted at; if it’s a dream, it’s much closer to Pee-wee’s Playhouse than Jack Benny.”

  6. Matthew, according to Rosenbaum:

    “However, “only convention” has persuaded us that Renoir pinks don’t have a legitimate place on a van Gogh canvas, and the minute someone with money decides, rightly or wrongly, that more money can be made by applying them, you can bet that some reviewer somewhere will be waiting to offer aesthetic justifications for the maneuver.”

    You see that reviewer? That’s you that is.

    Goodness, I haven’t done that joke since the 90s. Seriously, though, I’ll check out the Criteriuon thread…

  7. hi, Catherine,

    I think you’re right. I was trying to find a frame grab to prove it, but that’s definitely GVS talking to pseudo-Hitch.

  8. Dear Spectacular:

    Great blog on Hitch!
    In the past when I have written a piece or two on his style, the posts have usually attracted quite a few readers.
    Still a legend!
    Kind regards…
    Julian Ayrs

  9. Hi, Julian,

    I’m always surprised by what gets a big readership, but it also depends on whether or not someone links to your blog from a better known site. My Tati and Tarr articles have had a lot of hits, although the “180-degree rule” is the one that gets searched for the most, probably by new film students. That’s what it’s there for…

  10. Hi Dan and everyone,
    I show the original Psycho and Van Sant version side-by-side (literally–with two televisions) in my high school film class after we watch the original in its entirety. I agree that Van Sant’s is not nearly as good (how could it be?), but when you see how tirelessly he and crew must have worked to get the timing exactly on cue with Hitchcock’s, and then of course, seeing where they speed up too much, losing the momentum of suspense…well, watching it becomes an exercise in just what a master Hitchcock really was. A true artist. And students who balk at Psycho’s black and white composition usually change their tune when they are blinded with the overly saturated colors in the remake. Thanks Dan for a great site!

  11. Pingback: Back to Bazin Part III: De la Politique des Auteurs « Spectacular Attractions

  12. How about Hitchcock cameos outside of Hitchcock’s own films? The first that comes to mind is the bizarre cardboard cutout hovering amid the hotel corridor shadows in Resnais’s “Last Year in Marienbad.” This is of course one of the least analysable (and idem most analysed) of films, so I will not attempt to “explain” the presence other than to suggest Resnais was using Hitchcock at once as a wink to the spectator, a tribute and a McGuffin – if this is going to be a suspense movie, it’s certainly not going to be the kind of suspense you’re used to.

    Another possible wink happens in “Play time”. Several pseudo-Hulots appear throughout, but the first appearance of the real Hulot is as he steps out of a bus that doesn’t look too unlike the one Hitchcock misses in “North by Northwest”. Again, no real theory as to what, if anything, that might mean; but since Tati’s impressions of New York were an acknowledged inspiration for “Play time”, perhaps a nod to another film that deals with confusion. disorientation and loss of identity in that city might have been in order?

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