Fragment #32: Vertigo, A Sequel, by Laurence Goldstein

When Alfred Hitchcock traveled underground
And settled his famous bulk in Charon’s boat
(‘A star vehicle at last!’), and heard the sound
Of oars, and felt the deathship float,

He turned for one last framing glance
At the cool blondes, the shapely auburn-haired,
Whose shades whirled about him in a bawdy dance,
Lifting their crimson dresses, bosoms bared.

His fingers trembled toward Grace
Who modeled once more the postures of sin.
He read the brazen line on her painted face:
‘I don’t like cold things touching my skin.’

He would kill her, again, for saying that.
Strangle or stab, in living room and shower …
Hell swung into view like a Hollywood matte;
Kim and Tippi spun beyond his power.

At the helm, some likeness of their leading men
Directed his freight toward the paysage triste,
But their king-sized genius, scissors in hand,
Gazed backward till their movement ceased.

Laurence Goldstein, “Vertigo: A Sequel,” in Goldstein & Konigsberg (eds) The Movies: Texts, Receptions, Exposures. University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Fragment #14: Alfred Hitchcock’s Alternative Ending for Blackmail

[In Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released in silent and talkie versions in 1929, Alice White (Anny Ondra) kills an artist who has attempted to rape her. She is protected by her boyfriend, a London detective, but blackmailed by a petty thief who had witnessed her leaving the scene of the crime. In the original ending, the thief dies being pursued by police when he becomes the prime suspect for the murder. Here, Hitchcock outlines how he would have preferred the film to end.]

The blackmailer was really a subsidiary theme. I wanted him to go through and expose the girl. That was my idea of how the story ought to end. I wanted the pursuit to be after the girl, not after the blackmailer. That would have brought the conflict on to a climax, with the young detective, ahead of the others, trying to push the girl out through a window to get her away, and the girl turning round and saying: “You can’t do that – I must give myself up.” Then the rest of the police arrive, misinterpret what he is doing, and say, “Good man, you’ve got her,” not knowing the relationship between them. Now the reason for the opening comes to light. You repeat every shot used first to illustrate the duty theme, only now it is the girl who is the criminal. The young man is there ostensibly as a detective, but of course the audience know he is in love with the girl. The girl is locked up in her cell and the two detectives walk away, and the older one says, “Going out with your girl to-night?” The younger one shakes his head. “No. Not to-night.”

That was the ending I wanted for Blackmail, but I had to change it for commercial reasons. The girl couldn’t be left to face her fate. And that shows you how the films suffer from their own power of appealing to millions. They could often be subtler than they are, but their own popularity won’t let them.

Alfred Hitchcock, “Direction” in Charles Davy (ed.) Footnotes to the Film. London: Lovat Dickson Ltd, 1938.

Picture of the Week #52: Happy Birthday Joan Fontaine

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Every time I see Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, a pristine piece of storytelling clockwork, I’m reminded of the greatness of Joan Fontaine’s central performance. It’s perfectly balanced, incredibly detailed and heartbreaking in its uncompromising depiction of a woman who devotes her life to a true love who barely registers her existence over all the years that have passed since their paths first crossed. Wrapped up in immaculate design and gleaming cinematography is  a tale of aching, ultimately defeated love, a tragedy of disconnect between a woman’s conception of her encounter with a charming concert pianist, and his inability to tell her apart from the roster of other random women he has seduced and discarded. This film is so painful I can hardly bear to look it in the eye again. And it’s all because Joan Fontaine achieved the near-impossible task of playing a character who makes a series of spectacularly poor judgment calls and still remains sympathetic (although a number of my undergraduates annually pin her down with the label “stalker”). I could make similarly glowing comments about her performances in Rebecca, Suspicion and Jane Eyre, in all of which her characters struggle to find their individuality in the shadows of controlling men (even as Suspicion (no spoilers) makes play with exactly this archetypal partnership).

The other thing I’m reminded of is the fact the Joan Fontaine is still with us, one of the few remaining stars who give us a direct link to Hollywood’s golden age. Today is her 93rd birthday, and even though she has chosen to live privately, away from the arc lights of publicity (go elsewhere if you’re looking for gossip on her alleged feud with sister Olivia de Havilland, who is also still going strong), Spectacular Attractions is honoured to salute her once again and wishes her the very best of health.

Picture of the Week #49: “But What I Really Want to Do is Paint…”

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A while ago I posted some paintings by film directors. To cut a(n already not very) long story short, here are some more. See if you can guess who painted the the pictures in this post without looking at the captions. Match the pictures to the directors who created them: Alfred Hitchcock, Satyajit Ray, Jan Svankmajer, Peter Greenaway, Dennis Hopper, Jean Cocteau, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, John Huston, Josef von Sternberg, Mike Figgis and Sergei Eisenstein. Some are more obvious than others.

These are selections taken from Karl French, Art by Film Directors (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2004)

Picture of the Week #45: Matt Needle’s Modern Hitchcock

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It seems there’s a very deep pool of young artists making their own movie posters from classic material, often in a minimalist style. This week’s gallery showcases the series of Hitchcock designs by Matt Needle. See more of his work at his Flickr page, or buy prints of these posters at his website.

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Fragment #10: David Campany on Acting and Posing in North by Northwest

How does the dialectic of stillness and movement impact upon the representation of the human body? Let us consider ‘posing’ and ‘acting’ as two distinct modes of bodily performance. We might associate acting with unfolding or ‘time-based’ media like cinema or theatre. Posing may suggest the stillness of photography or painting. Of course, plenty of examples complicate this. Think of scenes of arrest such as the tableau vivant in theatre, cinema’s close-ups of faces in stilled contemplation, blurred gestures caught but escaping a long exposure, or narrative scenes acted out for the still photograph. Such things are too common to be exceptions.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), Cary Grant’s entire performance is a series of balletic swoops and pirouettes strung between archly frozen poses. He is on screen almost the whole time and his inter- mittent halts provide the suspense in the hurtling story of mistaken identity. Early in the film he stoops to aid a man who has been knifed in the back. Stunned, Grant puts his hand on the weapon and becomes easy prey for the incriminating flash of a press photographer. We see the resulting image on the cover of a newspaper: his indecision has framed him decisively. He flees in panic, setting the plot in motion.
Grant’s performance is a slick and knowing commentary on the very nature of screen presence. Each pose is a wink to the audience that he is toying with his own identity and celebrity. Fans knew Grant began life as plain Archibald Leach, a circus tumbler from Bristol. In the film he plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken for the non-existent spy George Caplan. Grant holds his poses for longer than is strictly necessary, long enough for the story to fall away momentarily and allow the audience to stare at a man with four names. At one point Grant breaks in through a hospital window. A woman in bed yells ‘Stop!’, first in shock, then with a comic swoon. What if your movie heart-throb really did spring to life from a frame on your bedroom wall? Grant’s technique, much like Hitchcock’s, is extravagant but it differs from convention only by degree. Hollywood performances, especially in thrillers and dramas, criss-cross between filmic character and the excesses of star persona, between acting and posing.
From David Campany, Photography and Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2008)

Double Take Double Take

To coin a Gumpism, studies of Alfred Hitchcock are like a box of Jaffa Cakes: even though I’ve probably had enough, I always think that one more can’t possibly do any harm. How fortunate then, that Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is a fresh and fascinating look at the big guy. The film plays upon motifs of doubling, repetition, and the cyclical broken-record rhetoric of Cold War paranoia, but itself seems at times like a doppelganger. Is it a coincidence that I feel like I’ve seen and heard most of this before?

Of course, I could have been just as entertained by watching a compilation of Hitch’s trailers and introductions for his TV show: these are always arch, often hilarious and ever-so-slightly threatening snippets of self-promotion, authoring a detached and knowing view of his work for the benefit of his spectators. Hitchcock loved to play upon his public role as master of ceremonies, posing as the only participant unaffected by his tales of obsession, terror and perversion. You can see it in his advertisements for Psycho, where he acts a as a nonchalant tour guide for the locations where the film’s murders take place:

Double Take intersperses archive footage of the Space Race, TV debates between Kruschev and Nixon, Nixon and Kennedy, Reagan and Gorbachev, Reagan and anyone who would listen, and Hitchcock himself, along with a bunch of Hitchcock lookalikes. On the soundtrack are sinister quotations from Bernard Herrmann‘s Hitchcock scores, the Supremes, and a reading of Jorges Luis Borges’ essay 25th August 1983, with the dates changed and Borges’ name swapped for Hitchcock’s. In this short fictional anecdote, Borges recounts the tale of a meeting with his double, who is on the brink of death. Given Borges’ recurrent interest in mirrors and simulacra, he seems like the perfect gatekeeper for a  series of allusive musings on the ways an author might exist independently of the persona he creates and unleashes for public consumption.

I wasn’t familiar with the “kitchen debate” between Kruschev and Nixon in 1959. At the American National Exhibition in Moscow, the two leaders met in a specially built house that was designed to show the kinds of home all Americans could afford, with domestic appliances and mod cons that demonstrated their facility with labour-saving equipment, presumably in stark contrast with the drudgery of bread-and-water existence in that land of commies. Nixon’s attempt to explain the idea of colour TV to his opposite number is a wonderful bit of patronising idiocy, but the staging a TV debate in a fake house compounds the problem of a system of facade and surface sheen.

I think I’ve had my fill of collage documentaries cross-cutting between footage of militarised horrors and perky advertising: pointing out the contradictions of a culture built simultaneously on apocalyptic dread and aspirations for trivial crap. It’s all very Adam Curtis in its juxtapositions of mushroom clouds and coffee commercials, lending an air of menace to archive footage that urges new contemplation of the deceptive purposes for which it was originally forged (though I would suggest Barbara Kruger as an uncited influence on this kind of sloganeered montagery).

The end titles produce a breakneck montage of bellicose and paranoid speechifying. Ronald Reagan’s ramble about aliens is laid over shots from Independence Day of shadows cast over Washington by offscreen invading spacecraft (doubling the earlier shots from Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956)), and Donald Rumsfeld’s “Known Unknowns” (c)rap, surely the orthodox citation for a reductio ad absurdum of this sort of thing, has the last word.We are told that Hitchcock was invited to the White House in a memo dated the day before Kennedy was assassinated, clinching the links between Hitchcock’s knowing deployment of scare tactics and their po-faced political analogues. Hitchcock has been our guide through a densely packed nest of impersonations, mirrorings, twins and duplicates. But his fictions effortlessly transcend the ham-fisted attempts of government and advertisers to ensnare an audience and keep it in a perpetual back-and-forth between fear and covetousness.

I liked Double Take a lot, even if I had to generously attribute its familiarity to a deliberate commitment to doubling. It piles up its own connected inferences, such as the repeated use of the Empire State Building as a mutable symbol of technological primacy, a magnet for threatened disaster, or a transmitter of symbolic importance (and less figurative signals). Hitchcock himself is a monumental master of ceremonies, an artist who seemed to absent himself from the business of commenting on the historical moment, preferring to probe less contingent, more universal questions of human identity. He always disingenuously implied that he was only interested in provocative entertainments, but his observers have repeatedly extracted social commentaries and prescient, oracular wisdom from his body of work. There’s always a thrill to be gleaned from these polemical documentaries that suggest the interconnectedness of things; they comfort us with an impression of clarity amidst the infinite chaos of history. That it also exudes a whiff of paranoia and sensationalism doesn’t prevent it alighting on some truths about how enemies circle each other, ignoring the similarities in their ideological anatomies, wishing to see as opposites the people who end up closer to their mirror images. This sort of film ought to be the spur to, not the settlement of, historical narratives.

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Vertigo Randomised


What better way to ease myself back into the blogging routine after a forced absence than to return to a series that I very much enjoyed, the Randomised posts. In case you don’t know what this means, check out some of the others in the category’s archive. In short, I use a random number generator to give me three figures which will automatically decide three frames from a film, and these frames become the basis for a (hopefully) asymmetrical discussion of the film. It stops tired critics like myself from banging on about the best bits from their favourite films while ignoring the more interesting corners of a well known film. Of course, because it’s random, you might get the most famous, or the most banal images from your chosen text. That’s the fun. You just never know…

Probably because it’s familiar to me, and partly because the orange case makes it jump out at me from the DVD shelf, I’ve chosen Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) this time around. It’s admittedly an orthodox choice, so much so that it’s easy to forget that its masterpiece status is well-earned. It’s haunting and dreamy, unfurling as many strands of meaning as you want to drag out of it: that’s Hitch’s real achievement – making populist packages that entertain but which can also explode with jack-in-a-boxes of complex perversity if you look even slightly deeper.

The randomiser has given me 17, 37 and 111. And the first image, from the 17 minute mark, is…

Vertigo 17th minute

… ablaze with red. Scotty (James Stewart), a retired, traumatised detective, has been hired as a private investigator by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife around San Francisco in an effort to explain her odd behaviour. Elster has set up a scene where Scotty will get a good look at his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) as the pair have dinner. In this shot, Scotty watches her leave. The stately, prowling camera is not quite Scotty’s point-of-view, but the embodiment of his increasingly inflexible gaze. It also stands in for our own fascination, allowing you, dear viewer, an out-of-body float through spaces where people look you in the eye but don’t know you’re there. In this shot, Madeleine is leaving, approaching the camera. Her husband looms behind her (fortuitously positioned in a manner that visualises his manipulation of his wife from the shadows), and the vivid decor plunges back into a distance of nested spaces. If these are not mirrored zones, they certainly look as if they might be. The green of Madeleine’s dress, and the gold of her hair, not to mention her central framing, make her the undoubted focus of the image: the rest of the composition has been cleared of any similar colours, and her skin is lit to glow brighter, blonder than anyone else in the room. At the right of the frame, though, is a tiny insurgence of green in the leaves of the pink rose. It’s an inkling of the importance of flowers in the iconographic identity (flowers, paintings, hair, jewellery) that Scotty gathers up and pegs on her.

Vertigo 37th minute

At 37 minutes, we’re in the Argosy bookstore, where Pop Liebel (Konstantin Shayne) is telling the sad story of Carlotta, the mysterious woman with whom Madeleine appears to be fixated. I’m sure that, even before I’ve finished typing this sentence, you’ve noticed that all three of the carefully staged figures in this composition are looking in different directions. Ever more disconnected, Scotty listens while facing away. He holds his hat as if in reverence. He’s a strange investigator. Rather than interrogating his lead he passively takes the information, concentrating on selecting the bits that can be moulded to match his suspicions, his desire not uncover the truth but to confirm Madeleine’s desirous vulnerability. Ever-faithful Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes – hey, trivia fans, did you know that Jimmy Stewart starred with both Miss Ellies from Dallas? Bel Geddes’ replacement, Donna Reed, played the love of his life in It’s a Wonderful Life) is shunted into the shadows, intently watching the storyteller. She also is not necessarily interested in the truth, but in anything that might rationalise Scotty and bring him back into the scope of her fond attentions. Her simple love for him has a stifling insistence about it, but it’s never at the ferocious level of his obsession. It’s the most consistently touching aspect of the film, I find. Midge (another “M” name, but a witheringly diminutive one, loaded with unprecious overfamiliarity) enacts a simpler form of romantic love built on protective concern and stable availability. Scotty is already away, though, in pursuit of a beautiful ghost. The stillness, and dimness of the scene (the bookshop is a place of deep, arcane knowledge) is contrasted with the brighter lateral activity on the street outside. As with the previous image, the background action is oblivious to Scotty’s fixations, which find stillness and purpose by latching onto objects and making them stand out amidst the busy surroundings.

Vertigo 111th minute

We finish in one of the unsettling scenes where James Stewart grimly, palm-sweatingly attempts to make over his new girl, Judy, into a perfect replica of Madeleine. It’s discomfiting to see America’s favourite actor so fixated on the finer points of female couture, and his needling, pathetic need is similarly shocking. It’s as if Madeleine’s fixation on a phantom presence from her past (all a fabrication anyway) has passed on to Scotty like an infectious dream. In describing this shot, I feel suddenly redundant. So efficient is the signification, through mirrors, of Judy/Madeleine’s duality and the crossfire of dishonest gazes at, but not really at, one another, that it seems trite to point it out. Mirrors are cinema’s most portable symbolic props, but here it is precise, as Judy retreats to a corner only to be confronted by the image of her own duplicity even  as Scotty tries to reduce her to a mirror image of his absent object of desire. Note also the brown colour palette in this shot, in stark contrast to the earlier shots of Madeleine as a Vistavisioned semi-divinity. It is only when Judy’s transformation is complete that the screen once again explodes with colour.

Obviously, I can’t cover everything, so if you have any further observations about these images, please feel free to comment below.

Back to Bazin Part III: De la Politique des Auteurs

[See also Back to Bazin Part 1: The Ontology of the Photographic Image and Back to Bazin Part 2: The Myth of Total Cinema]

andree_bazin_1When Andre Bazin made his intervention in the auteur debate in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, the cinephilic journal he co-founded in 1951, it read like a stern finger-wagging in the direction of some of his more boisterous protegés. La politique des auteurs was the debate which bubbled around the core contention that, even though it was produced in a collaborative environment, usually under the auspices of a production-line studio system, films were most valuable when they represented the distinctive vision of their director. In English we call it the authorship debate, or, as Andrew Sarris later translated it (with a slightly different inflection), the auteur theory. The writers, actors, producers and other personnel might have significant input, the Cahiers critics argued, but because the director was in command of the mise-en-scène (the stuff in front of the camera), a medium-specific mode of film criticism and appreciation could be fostered through study of a director’s authorial stamp, observable in the visual style that could be traced across a range of works “signed” by that particular artist. Richard Dyer has given a cogent summary of the debate’s legacy in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies:

“[Auteur theory] made the case for taking film seriously by seeking to show that a film could be just as profound, beautiful or important as any other kind of art, provided, following a dominant model of value in art, it was demonstrably the work of a highly individual artist. Especially audacious in this argument was the move to identify such artistry in Hollywood, which figured as the last word in non-individualised creativity (in other words, non-art) in wider cultural discourses in the period. The power of auteurism resided in its ability to mobilise a familiar argument about artistic worth and, importantly, to show that this could be used to discriminate between films. Thus, at a stroke, it both proclaimed that film could be an art (with all the cultural capital that this implies) and that there could be a form of criticism – indeed, study – of it.”

truffautOne of the keystones of this debate was François Truffaut’s A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema, published in January 1954. Truffaut rejected the French cinema’s slavish adherence to a “tradition of quality” that cannibalised and diluted the literary heritage of the nation and did little to foster a distinctive, innovative form of cinema that advanced the perameters of the art form. He picked on writers Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche as indicative of a trend in safe adaptations and artistic concessions to public taste:

“To their way of thinking, every story includes characters A, B, C, and D. in the interior of that equation, everything is organised in function of criteria known to them alone. The sun rises and sets like clockwork, characters disappear, others are invented, the script deviates little by little from the original and becomes a whole, formless but brilliant: a new film, step by step makes its solemn entrance into the ‘Tradition of Quality’. They will tell me, ‘Let us admit that Aurenche and Bost are unfaithful, but do you also deny the existence of their talent…?’ Talent, to be sure, is not a function of fidelity, but I consider an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema. Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary men and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it. They behave, vis-à-vis the scenario, as if they thought to re-educate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they’ve ‘done the maximum’ for it by embellishing it with subtleties, out of that science of nuances that make up the slender merit of modern novels.”

Stirring stuff. But there are also some sarcastic, moralistic generalisations in Truffaut‘s argument. He contends that “the hundred-odd French films made each year tell the same story: it’s always a question of a victim, generally a cuckold”, and complains that Aurenche and Bost attempts at earthy realism have lowered the tone of dialogue scenes: “In one single reel of the film, towards the end, you can hear in less than ten minutes such words as: prostitute, whore, slut and bitchiness. Is this realism?” And later on:

“Long live audacity, to be sure, still it must be revealed as it is. In terms of this year, 1953, if I had to draw up a balance-sheet of the French cinema’s audacities, there would be no place in it for either the vomiting in Les Orgueilleux or Claude Laydu’s refusal to be sprinkled with holy water in Le Bon Dieu Sans Confession or the homosexual relationships of the characters in Le Salaire De La Peur…”

Whoa, there. Is that really François Truffaut, firebrand polemicist and co-founder of the Nouvelle Vague, talking like a square? It looks a bit strange now, finding such prudism used to drive through his more powerful argument that film criticism should celebrate the things that make film special and in the process nurture a new kind of cinema that engages with those distinctly filmic qualities. Whatever, this article was crucial in ushering in a new critical stance at Cahiers that celebrated the work of Hitchcock, Bresson, Hawks Nicholas Ray and many more whose artistic personae could be observed even in the work they produced according to the dictates of major studios. And that’s where Bazin steps in:

“I realise my task is fraught with difficulties. Cahiers du Cinéma is thought to practise the politique des auteurs. This opinion may perhaps not be justified by the entire output of articles, but it has been true of the majority, especially for the last two years. It would be useless and hypocritical to point to a few scraps of evidence to the contrary, and claim that our magazine is a harmless collection of wishywashy reviews. Nevertheless, our readers must have noticed that this critical standpoint – whether implicit or explicit – has not been adopted with equal enthusiasm by all the regular contributors to Cahiers, and that there might exist serious differences in our admiration, or rather in the degree of our admiration. And yet the truth is that the most enthusiastic among us nearly always win the day.”

Note that Bazin’s opening is rather subtly barbed, in contrast to Truffaut’s show-boating. He wants to put forward the temperance argument that usually gets shouted down by colleagues who have little but “enthusiasm” in their corner. He wants to draw attention to the flaw in a critical stance that, in its most “enthusiastic” incarnations, ends up aggrandising artists in an uncritical way, since “enthusiastic” admirers of Hitchcock, Land or Hawks end up presenting these directors as infallible, and their every film as  a consistently valuable contribution to an ingenious oeuvre. Bazin saw himself as out of step with the critical consensus at Cahiers, where his defence of individual works by “lesser” directors represented a “critical contradiction”. In short, he is frustrated by the partiality of some of his fellow critics. An auteurist critical position is untenable as long as it requires you to appreciate anything made by a celebrated director, assigning a film value according to its author rather than to its objectively noted merits. In even shorter shortness (!), he says, this kind of hero worship clouds the critical faculties. It is an ahistorical approach that isolates the revered artist from social and cultural contexts; and it’s a blind alley – who wants to read a review of a film when you automatically know that the critic is going to be favourable to a director who has already been garnered with the title of auteur? The Cahiers critics distinguished between metteurs en scène, those directors who competently converted a screenplay into a film for the studio, and auteurs, whose films exhibited distinctive formal and stylistic properties even when working at the behest of an overseeing institution. The establishment of this special club of invitees (Bazin warns against an “aesthetic personality cult”) might have led to certain directors getting certain privileges at the hands of certain critics, as if the larger project of encouraging film appreciation might overrule individual acts of objective engagement with particular films.

Bazin doesn’t want to stem the flow of auteurist criticism – he just wants to divert its course. The focus on “the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference…” he says, “has the great merit of treating the cinema as an adult art and of reacting against the impressionistic relativism that still reigns over the majority of film reviews.” In other words, he recognises the polemical value of examining cinema with a particular bias towards a certain kind of film-maker or from a certain angle of inquiry (focusing on mise-en-scene or thematic intertextuality, for instance). But partiality and personal preference should be kept in their proper place:

“Every critical act should consist of referring the film in question to a scale of values, but this reference is not merely a matter of intelligence; the sureness of one’s judgement arises also, or perhaps even first of all (in the chronological sense of the word), from a general impression experienced during a film. I feel there are two symmetrical heresies, which are (a) objectively applying to a film a critical all-purpose yardstick, and (b) considering it sufficient simply to state one’s pleasure or disgust. The first denies the role of taste, the second presupposes the superiority of the critic’s taste over that of the author. Coldness … or presumption! What I like about the politique des auteurs is that it reacts against the impressionist approach while retaining the best of it. In fact the scale of values it proposes is not ideological. Its starting-point is an appreciation largely composed of taste and sensibility: it has to discern the contribution of the artist as such, quite apart from the qualities of the subject or the technique: i.e. the man behind the style. But once one has made this distinction, this kind of criticism is doomed to beg the question, for it assumes at the start of its analysis that the film is automatically good as it has been made by an auteur. And so the yardstick applied to the film is the aesthetic portrait of the film-maker deduced from his previous films.”

The most famous point that Bazin makes concerns the studio system itself. The Cahiers critics provocatively lauded directors who were firmly imbricated in the Hollywood production line system, as if to test the limits of their argument by focusing on artists whose personal signature would rise to the surface of their films despite the industrial strictures that might have seemed to depersonalise the individual works. This, Bazin argues, should instigate a more nuanced attitude to the creative role of the studios. Genre, for instance, might be seen as “a base of operations for creative freedom”, perhaps because it allows the personality of the director to be revealed through a series of dialogic interactions with and commentaries upon a pre-existing set of texts:

“The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable , i.e. not only the talent of this or that film-maker, but the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements … ?”

An excellent question, I feel. While the concept of a director as an authorial presence is undeniably tenacious, and often very useful, it is not the case that the communication between director and spectator is mono-directional: the author is a conceptual filter through which we interpret a film; that is, our page_ms_hitchcock_01_0705241228_id_9532intertextual, accreted construction of Hitchcock, for instance, inflects our viewing. My Hitchcock is not necessarily your Hitchcock, even if we’ve read the same books about him and seen the same selection of his films. The “genius” of the system might be that it commercialises that complex interaction, settling it into a saleable brand name as if it represented a shared and cohesive set of propositions (i.e. “if you liked Hitchcock’s last film, this new one has enough similarities that we’re sure you’ll like (and pay to see) this one, too). Or, more optimistically, the system might be ingenious in a creative sense, providing the framework in which a varied set of artists can be set similar tasks (e.g. the making of a genre film), testing them out in an environment that invites comparative analyses and foregrounds their personal answers to impersonal questions. That system requires a kind of criticism that provides those analyses, but Bazin suggests, I think, that it demands a wider view of the context in which, individual creativity takes place, and the formative limitations that are imposed upon it.

[For my quotations I have used the translations of Truffaut and Bazin’s articles in Barry Keith Grant’s fine collection, Auteurs and Authorship (London: Blackwell, 2008).]

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.


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.