The acknowledged master of the thriller genre he significantly developed, Alfred Hitchcock was also a brilliant technician who skilfully blended sex, suspense and humour. He began his filmmaking career in 1919 illustrating title cards for silent films at Paramount’s Famous Players-Lasky studio in London. There he learned scripting, editing and art direction, and rose to assistant director in 1922. Hitchcock got his first break when he was asked to direct The Pleasure Garden, which would be his first complete film as director. The picture was a slight melodrama, but it obtained good reviews and brought attention to Hitchcock as a capable director. Other films followed and soon Hitchcock had earned the title ‘auteur’ due to his unique style and techniques. However, what exactly makes Alfred Hitchcock acceptable enough to be comprehended, as ‘auteur’ will be he focal point of this essay. This will include a close observation of the unique way movie-making elements were used by Hitchcock to earn him the title ‘auteur’ instead of director.
If the word ‘Auteur’ was to be observed under a French dictionary we are able to see it is French for ‘author’. However in terms of directing, it is used to describe ‘a director who has obtained the status of an artist or author’. French critics originally used the word to define a certain pattern and style a director had in his films. Moreover the director would have distinctive camera angles, use of sound, lighting, narrative and generic elements that cause the recognition of their movies from others.
Looking at contemporary directors who have been labelled ‘Auteur’ we can see they all have a certain element, which they exercise in all their films. For example the Oscar award-winning director, James Cameron, has established himself as a leading sci-fi auteur and a visionary of cinematic special effects. He craftily mixes and matches genre principles, effective cultural signifiers and top-notch effects to comment on both big issues like fears of nuclear holocaust and interpersonal relationships, transforming spectacles into personal films. Each film, however, ups the gamble, pushing the limits of what is affordable and what is cutting-edge. A key theme of a Cameron film is the loss of humanity because of modern technology. Examples of his films that maintain this description are films like The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Titanic and the Aliens series. Another well-known director, Quentin Tarantino can also be categorized as ‘auteur’. Tarantino has combined sex, action and has gangster style themes. Tarantino writes in a novelistic way that irritates as many as it enthrals.
His characters reside in a world where people talk more than they act and are given generous opportunities to wield verbal swords in witty, indirect word barrages. Reading Tarantino is not unlike reading a play written for the stage. The characters talk in rapid fire, listen, and talk some more. In other words, Tarantino breaks every rule taught to students of screenwriting the world over. Story structure is the area Tarantino really takes Hollywood to task. He typically employs an answers first, questions later approach, involving the reader in the aftermath of events that will be explained later. In “Reservoir Dogs,” he starts with the mortally wounded Mr. Orange in the backseat of a car. Who this man is and how he got there are not fully revealed until the middle of Act II. The coffee shop robbery that begins “Pulp Fiction” isn’t threaded to the main plot until the very end and thus Tarantino can be seen as an auteur due to this unique style of filming.
To begin exploring Hitchcock and what defines him as ‘Auteur’, we should examine his camera angles. We can see Hitchcock uses these devices to add a certain feeling and emotion upon the audience. By using different camera angles Hitchcock understands that not only will it bring attention but he will also be able to control his viewer’s emotions. Examples of these can be seen in Hitchcock’s U.S, 1960 hit thriller ‘Psycho’ during the shower sequence where he uses bizarre camera angles and fast duration shots to discomfort the audience and cause the scene to be more brutal that it already is.
During Hitchcock’s time, which was around the 1920s-1980s, contemporary directors never used camera angles viciously as he did. Smooth camera angles were always used and the duration of shots were always level. By using fast duration shots and shocking camera angles would draw much attention and astound the audience. Other examples such as ‘Notorious’ another U.S hit, during the scene where the two main heroes of the film are walking down the staircase to reach the front door whilst the gangsters stand in the doorway. A tilt-down shot is taken and we, the audience, are looking down towards the gangsters, who stand still. By choosing this camera angle the scene becomes more sinister and the audience will feel a sense of discomfort to the proceeding scene.
As well as using diegetic (sound effects) and non-diegetic sound (voice over background music), Hitchcock uses parallel sound (background music) to add ambience to the scene. Hitchcock toggles with this device in his thriller films to create the scene to be scarier than it is. Without parallel and diegetic sound a movie would fail to scare the audience. The opening sequence films such as ‘Rear window can verify this statement whereby calm music is used to add a calm atmosphere whereas in ‘Psycho’ during the shower sequence, sharp music is used to add horror and violence to the scene. And as for his use of diegetic sound, in ‘Rear Window’ he used the chirping of birds and a hint of cars to add a fairly stereotypical atmosphere but in ‘Psycho’ Hitchcock stabbed a watermelon to simulate the sound of a victim being stabbed.
Another interesting element used in Hitchcock’s films is his use of narrative structure. The narrative structure of a film is usually used to describe how the film is narrated to an audience. This can by using sound, motion and lighting. Hitchcock fiddles around with restricted (if we know as much as the character) and unrestricted (if we know more than the audience) narrative. These particular devices can be guaranteed to found in all his films, normally during the opening sequence. Hitchcock uses this technique to foretell the film and to create the viewer to guess what the film will be about before it actually happens. Films such as ‘Rear Window’ can be analysed to explain this statement clearly. If we look at the opening sequence of this film we can see it begins with us looking through windows of other houses and into other peoples lives. Chirping of birds can be heard and generally we get the sense of a stereotypical environment and thus that brings us to our first thought; why is the atmosphere so normal and quiet? It is as if the environment is almost too quiet. The sequence continues as we are introduced to the main character of the film, Jeff.
The camera moves slowly across his belongings first and we are shown a broken camera and many photographs of interesting events, which bring us to our next idea; Jeff is obviously a photographer who has broken his camera. Jeff then wakes up and we see his leg is been broken and he has a cast on it. The telephone then rings and we establish the following things through his conversation; that Jeff is stuck in the flat for week, obviously unable to move, he is an extremely good photographer and the only thing he is able to do is look through the window. The audience, now having all this information, will have an idea on what the film will be about. They know Hitchcock is the director so therefore know what to expect thus Hitchcock has successfully narrated a film for us. However, the narrative is still restricted and Hitchcock still has the power to change the whole course of events. Music can also come under being used for narrative purposes as Hitchcock uses calm music suggesting the scene will be normal and sharp music for us to know the next scene will be horrific.
His use of shadows was one of Hitchcock’s the most well known techniques. Hitchcock was a master of “contrast,” and this particular contrasting of light and dark were effective in creating the mood for many of his scenes. The existence of shadows in a scene automatically creates a feeling of unease in the audience. It is a clue that the action unfolding is shady itself. Shadows raise the question of the unknown and ambiguous, a feeling Hitchcock often aimed to create amongst his viewers. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock employs this technique in the scene in which Pamela is eavesdropping on the spies in the inn. She herself is moving in and out of shadows, and this creates a tension between her being hidden and her being exposed. Lighting and shadow can also give us a sense of narrative, as by choosing a dark scene will make the viewer know it is going to be a creepy scene and a bright one will mean a cheerful scene. However, he can also fool the viewer with lighting by showing a murder in a well-lit place as he did in ‘Psycho’ during the shower sequence where the light is fully on.
Hitchcock did not achieve the status ‘auteur’ because he used the elements that have been conversed in this essay. It was the incomparable way he used it. The way he masterfully employed various techniques in order to create tension, suspense, and unease in each shot. His planning of every detail in advance with the help of storyboards, pictorial outlines, depicting specific scenes or shots created the films he directed to be inimitable by any contemporary director. In all of his great works, Hitchcock manages to manipulate the emotions on the screen and within his viewers.
Hitchcock took the thriller genre to the next stage and thus inspired successors such as John carpenter who made the ‘Halloween’ series and totally changed the way movies are now produced. So I end by saying that Hitchcock’s films are easily recognizable, not only because of his numerous cameo appearances, because of the Hitchcock style, which was a result of his complete control over the picture. By encompassing this marvellous control, Hitchcock has earned the right to obtain the title ‘auteur’ and his legacy will live on for future generations to explore.