Auteur Theory

In 1954,  François Truffaut wrote an essay entitled A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. In this work he claimed that film is a great medium for expressing the personal ideas of the director. He suggested that this meant that the director should therefore be regarded as an auteur.  In fact, Truffaut once provocatively said that: "There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors"

The worth of this theory has been questioned by some critiques. But, it is particularly useful as a starting point for the interpretation of some films.

Auteur Theory suggests that a director can use the commercial apparatus of film-making in the same way that a writer uses a pen or a painter uses paint and a paintbrush. It is a medium for the personal artistic expression of the director. The film theorotician, André Bazin, explained that: auteur theory was a way of  choosing the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of referencce, and then assuming that it continues and even progresses from one film to the next.

Sometimes this theory is useful when analysing the works of actors who are working within the ‘star system’.  For example, it is possible to interpret Terminator 3 in relation to the canon of films created with Arnie in them.

Auteur Theory suggests that the best films will bear their maker’s ‘signature’.  Which may manifest itself as the stamp of his or her individual personality or perhaps even focus on recurring themes within the body of work. Alfred Hitchcock plays this idea up in most of his movies where he makes sure that he appears on screen in a brief cameo spot. This became a game that viewers would engage in, waiting to find out when he would appear.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the first names who comes to mind when talking about auteur theory. His most famous films are Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window. Hitchcock’s story telling techniques were renowned for their intelligent plots, witty dialogue, and the smattering of mystery and murder. He has been attributed with revolutionizing the thriller genre. The reason for his success, however, was not the genre that he was working in, but rather the skill which he exhibited in the film-making.  ie his treatment of the subject in terms of the shots he uses and how he combines them are more important than the genre. One of Hitchcock’s best-known screen moments is the terrifying shower scene in Psycho. This shot features 70 distinct shots in less than 1 minute. They are fused together in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish between the Montage and the Mise-en-Scène.

Montage:  putting together the shots of the film (also known as cutting or editing). This term is used to suggest that the meaning of two different shots can create a deeper meaning by the juxtapositioning of the images. Montage is useful in conveying a lot of information over a very short period of time.

Mise-en-Scène: the term used to describe what actually goes into a shot and how the camera shoots it.

One of the themes that recurs quite frequently is the idea that innocent people can get caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes the characters are guilty of lesser crimes than the ones they are accused of but they are innocent of the crimes that are being attributed to them.  Refer to North by Northwest (1959). In this film Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is mistaken by foreign agents to be a fictional character which had been created by a US government agency (Hitchcock suggests this is the CIA). Unwittingly he is forced to take on this character in earnest in order to escape pursuit.

Hitchcock began his career in England, his most famous movie being The 39 Steps (1935). He soon caught the attention of Hollywood and he was lured there in the 1940s. Hitchcock became a household name with his TV series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents which ran for a decade (1955-1965). He was the host and producer and he became a famous celebrity. His particular voice, his body shape, and his eccentric mannerisms became instantly recognizable

Most of his ‘thrillers’ owe a lot to the power of suspence. As a director, he leans towards a presentation style which lets the audience into more than he lets his characters into. This means that part of the puzzle is to figure out what will happen when the character learns as much as we know.

Film is a voyeuristic medium. We passively sit back and watch what goes on on screen and constantly make value judgements about it. Hitchcock often makes it clear that even though we are a "respectable" audience we are also taking part in a peep show (which is highly unrespectable). Hitchcock brings this observation home to us in his movie Rear Window which features a character played by Jimmie Stewart called L.B. Jeffries. He has broken his leg and he spends much of the movie watching what happens in the neighbouring apartment building.

The ethical dilemma presented in the film is overtly signalled when one character says to Jimmy Stewart:

"What do you want of me?"

This may well have been said directly to the audience. In this same scene, this character breaks the cinema convention of not acknowledging the audience by turning directly to the camera. When filmmakers allow this to happen, they are overtly signalling the constructed nature of the medium and encouraging you not to be seduced by the ‘realistic’ effect that they have created.

Hitchcock was also well-known for his choice of heroines. They were typically beautiful blondes who appear to be respectable characters, but they  when they are in danger or trapped in some way, they react in an animalistic way (Sometimes this manifests itself in criminal activities). In To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly is a cat burglar and in Psycho, Janet Leigh's character steals $40,000 and gets murdered.

Hitchcock is also well-known for his innovative camera work.  One particular effect that he perfected in Vertigo is sometimes referred to as the Hitchcock zoom (see

One of the remarkable things about Alfred Hitchcock is that he worked through all of the technological changes in cinema. He began his career in silent film, worked with sound in the British film industry, moved to America where he worked in the Hollywood system, firstly in black and white and later, in colour. His contribution to each of these four areas was significant.

One of the problems with auteur theory is that it tends to diminish the role that others play in the creation of a film. Hitchcock himself downplayed the role that others played in his films. He was often critical of his actors and usually did not give his screenwriters the recognition that they deserved.

Other auteurs
You may be interested in finding out something about some of the other famous auteurs for yourself. 

Jean Renoir made extraodinary advances in French cinema during the 1930s.  Some of his films include Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Toni (1934), The Crime of M. Lange (1935), Grand Illusion (1937), and The Rules of the Game (1939). His films were socially sensitive and comic in style.

Ingmar Bergman gained world reknown with films such as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1958) and The Virgin Spring (1959). Like Hitchcock, Bergman was interested with some of the anxieties that dominated life during the 1950s and 1960s.