On Hitchcock, Psycho and the Auteur Theory

The steamy shower, the shadow behind the shower curtain, the raised, knife-wielding hand, that shrieking soundtrack and a screaming Janet Leigh have not only become legend in film, but also legend in parody. It has become so recognizable in modern times that when it is parodied I can sense young people nodding their heads in recognition even when they have no idea about its origins.

Alfred Hitchcock is as old as feature films themselves. Born in 1899 in London, Hitchcock was 26 when he directed his first film. His first “Hitchcockian” film, however, did not come until 1927 when The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was released. With strangled blondes and young men falsely accused of crimes, it was a pre-cursor to many Hitchcock movies to come. By the time he was 30, he was on to his 10th film- Blackmail– which was one of the first sound films out of Britain. At the age of 30, he had moved to the United States and was working for acclaimed uber-producer David O. Selznick. The Hitchcock style had been established and was now being fine-tuned.

Hitchcock refers to Psycho– and Dial M for Murder– as films made for his “Peeping Tom” audiences. Audiences who felt as though they were watching something they should not be watching. Audiences who were secretly enjoying the immoral behavior of the characters before them. Secretly hoping that the character get away with their crime. In the classic Hitchcock film prior to Psycho, there was usually the straight, honest chap who is wrongfully accused. Not so, in Psycho. It provides us with the thrill of rooting for the dark side before Hitchcock pushes our curiosity over the edge. Then we crave resolution.

Psycho was the turning point in Hitchcock’s career. It was the moment, it is believed, when Hitchcock suddenly became self-aware. Until Psycho, Hitchcock was considered a skilled filmmaker who made films with broad appeal, phenomenal commercial success and little critical appeal. All of this changed around the year 1960, when a group of critics and filmmakers in France, lead by Francois Truffaut, were developing the theory of the director as the auteur- author- of a film. In their search for a poster-child to fit their theory, they found Alfred Hitchcock as a perfect fit.

Here was Hitchcock, a director with a clear cinematic style. You could show any film enthusiast a scene from a certain kind of film and they would say it was in Hitchcock’s style. Not in the style of his screenwriter, or his cinematographer, or his producer or his actors. If there was one internationally popular film director in the 1950s who fit the auteur theory, it was Hitchcock.

The French experiment was a grand success. Truffaut did a 300-page long interview with Hitchcock regarding the intricasies of each of his films, their symbolism and motivations. Suddenly the elite critics of the world sat up and took notice. Post-Psycho, every Hitchcock scene was viewed with awe and searched for hidden symbolism.

It also spawned an era when the director was king- an era that continues today. Prior to Psycho, the director was one of the players and usually second fiddle to the producer. After the auteur theory and Hitchcock’s critical acclaim became legend, the directors rose to the top of the pecking order and multiple super-directors emerged in the 1960s.

The French experiment was also a grand failure. The last two decades of Hitchcock’s career did not match up to the auteur hype. While technically sound and, in parts, critically acclaimed his subsequent films have not had the same lasting power as his early ones.

Alfred Hitchcock’s five films preceding Psycho were The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and North by Northwest. His five films after Psycho were The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz and Frenzy. Whether the auteur theory had truly gone to his head or not, the sun had clearly set on Hitchcock. In the words of William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, Hitchcock had become encased in praise and himself had become the man who knew too much.

Of course, even for a film as individual as Psycho, the auteur theory rings untrue. The film is nothing without Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, without the masterful John Russell behind the camera and especially without the screeching strings of Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock was the ringleader.

The auteur theory later faced an ironic twist- the careers of many of the French directors who championed it in the 1950s and 1960s made dramatic shifts away from the basic tenets of the theory. Godard started relinquishing control of his films and Truffaut is also believed to have embraced many of the ideas he had rejected.

Hitchcock produced Psycho himself with a TV crew and a budget of $800,000. The film went on to make $15 million and was one of his most profitable. As he told Truffaut, before Truffaut allegedly muddled his head, “That’s what I’d like you to do- a picture that would gross millions of dollars throughout the world![..] You have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays- for an audience.”

He died in the spring of 1980, as old as the feature film, as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Alfred Hitchcock was simultaneously prolific (58 movies in 38 years), popular, commercially successful and critically acclaimed, a feat that few have matched in a century of film.

[originally written as a Film Note for Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.]

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