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.
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.
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.