THE GENESIS AND
OF THE AUTEUR THEORY
During World War II, few, if any, then-current American motion pictures were imported into Europe. After the war, however, Europeans were able to view not only recent releases, but all the films they had missed during the war years. In the case of any prolific Hollywood moviemaker, this meant that several of his/her releases could be seen in succession.
Film is a highly collaborative art, unlike, say, sculpting or writing poetry. Nevertheless, upon viewing many works by a particular film director within a short time span, French film critics began to notice certain dominant stylistic and thematic preoccupations in some directors' works. It's as if a director were leaving an individual mark, a personal imprint on his/her body of work, typically called an "oeuvre." Out of this notion that a filmmaker can leave a unique signature on a body of work came the film theory called "la politique des auteurs," literally "authors' policy," commonly referred to as the auteur theory. It means t
François Truffaut, writing for the influential French film journal Cahiers
du Cinéma (helmed by film theorist André Bazin, Truffaut's legal guardian) was the
primary critic propounding this idea. (You may know Truffaut as a
prominent New Wave filmmaker or
from his on-screen role as a French paranormal scientist in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi classic Close
Encounters of the 3rd Kind.) Truffaut and other Cahiers du Cinéma writers
set forth the theory that some directors can be seen as artists rather than as
technician, by imbuing the films they direct with their personal touches. This way of analyzing films quickly spread to England and then to the United
States. Here, the influential film critic for the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris
(who would later serve as editor of Cahiers du Cinéma), championed the auteur approach,
first in his newspaper column and then in his 1968 book
The American Cinema, which has been touted as "the manifesto of the auteur
The auteur theory became a popular form of film analysis in the 1950s, and it remained in the forefront of analytic techniques throughout most of the 60's. At that point, the auteur approach lost some of its appeal, as other forms of analysis, such as feminist film theory, became more prevalent. Today, it is again considered a viable form of film analysis and has even regained some of its previous cachet. (Think of how Martin Scorsese, for one, is venerated by many as America's premiere contemporary film auteur.) However, now the auteur approach is often combined with other models of film analysis for a more thorough analysis.
An important aspect of the theory to keep in mind is that the Hollywood directors initially praised by the French film theorists as auteurs were not necessarily revered at home. American filmmaker John Ford, for example, was known for his westerns, hardly considered High Art. (Only three westerns have ever won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and movie westerns are sometimes even referred to derisively as "oaters.") Harold Hawks and Frank Capra are two other American film directors lauded as auteurs, and they typically worked in the genre of screwball comedy. Alfred Hitchcock made his name in thrillers, usually regarded as "B" movies. (Hitchcock never did win an Academy Award for Best Director.) My point is that these directors, praised as auteurs by the French, were really working in formulaic pictures. In fact, it is probably the individual twists and quirks they gave to their genre films that attracted the praise of the French. In other words, the auteur theory is based in part on an idea -- which was radical at the time -- that cinematic masterpieces were not the exclusive domain of culturally elite directors; rather, filmmakers who had previously been dismissed as commercial (see above) have indeed made significant personal statements in their oeuvres.
Of course, all auteurs are not American. Among the directors from other countries who have been accorded auteur status are Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, known as the most Western of Asian film directors, Italy's Federico Fellini, and Sweden's Ingmar Bergman.
Be aware that while a filmmaker does not have to be an auteur in order to be deemed a good director. The prolific John Huston, for example, made different kinds of movies. His directorial debut was the early noir classic The Maltese Falcon. He also directed The African Queen, and later, the James Bond spoof Casino Royale and the boxing drama Fat City. Other Huston films include the movie musical Annie, the darkly humorous Prizzi's Honor, and the evocative period piece The Dead. If you can find a singular strand running through these highly disparate films, enlighten me, as I cannot detect any commonalities, yet we'd be hard pressed to say that Huston was a mediocre director.
Another thing to note is that while the French pinpointed directors as film auteurs, and almost all film auteurs are directors, some critics with more open minds feel that an auteur does not have to be the director. A writer, cinematographer, even a producer may be an auteur. Steven Spielberg, for instance, lends his touch to films he's associated with, whether it's as director OR producer, as with The Goonies. A strong actor or actress can ALSO be an auteur. For example, we tend to think of an Arnold Schwartzenegger film, and we talk about a Barbra Streisand film, whether she's merely appearing in it or is also directing and producing. However, usually it is a film director that is accorded such status.
*Sarris ranked filmmakers according to their auteurship. Here is his list of top 20 auteur filmmakers: Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, F. W. Murnau, D. W. Griffith, Josef von Sternberg, Sergei Eisenstein, Erich von Stroheim, Luis Bunuel, Robert Bresson, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang and Robert Flaherty.
HITCHCOCK AS AN AUTEUR FILMMAKER
In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, a confluence of factors led film theorists to label him an auteur. As already mentioned, Hitchcock worked primarily in the thriller genre, giving his formulaic movies his idiosyncratic touches. (Your style sheet on Hitchcock spells out the stylistic visuals and thematic preoccupations that run throughout his body of work.)
The way Hitchcock worked also propelled him to auteur status. He pre-planned EVERY aspect of every shot, on storyboards. The set design, costumes, lighting, camera placement and angles, etc., were all decided ahead of time. Hitchcock even dictated the shade of blonde he wanted Grace Kelly's hair to be on the pictures she made with him, much the way we'll see James Stewart making over Kim Novak in Vertigo.
Working out the details in advance enabled Hitchcock to "cut in the camera." This means that his ratio of film shot to film actually used in the final cut was very low. Some directors, such as Charlie Chaplin, improvise in front of the camera, and they'll shoot literally hundreds of thousands of feet of film, with most winding up on the cutting room floor. This is both time-consuming and expensive. Hitchcock, on the other hand, having worked out everything in advance, worked quickly and economically. Very little editing had to be done, hence the term "cutting in the camera." Indeed, the few times Hitchcock worked with hands-on producers* such as David O. Selznick, they were frustrated by their inability to cut a film any way other than how Hitchcock cut it, as there was no gratuitous footage, such as master shots.
Since Hitchcock planned every detail in advance, the actual shooting of a film was boring for him. To stave off ennui during the actual filming process, Hitchcock would invariably start working on the storyboards for his next film project.
Again, for more insight into Hitchcock's visuals and beliefs, take a GOOD look at the style sheet on Hitchcock that you have -- access it here -- as well as at the links below.
*Since Hitchcock preplanned in such detail, his projects were usually completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Thus, most producer did not interfere with his filmmaking; instead, they allowed him to do his own thing, which, of course, furthers his auteur imprimatur.
More illumination on the auteur theory: