THE AUTEUR PRINCIPLE: Auteur Theory Through The Cinematic Lens Of Alfred Hitchcock And Stanley Kubrick

Paper by Jessie Reid.

The Auteur element in film has evolved to become the defining principle of filmmakers and the cinematic experience. This aspect of film has its inception in the earliest forays into the cinematic world of motion pictures. Through the works of filmmakers such as Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, and Georges Melies, the first tentative steps toward this innovative form of filmmaking can been viewed. The styles, themes, and production sensibilities that are the primary tenets of this type of filmmaking aesthetic have helped to reinvent and reimagine the filmmaking process, in part due to the visionary works of directors Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. Through an in-depth analysis of the historical context, conventions, and relevance in cinema, it will be shown that that the term Auteur was bestowed on only the most creative and innovative in the cinematic world. Through the examination of pivotal scenes from films of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, namely (namely Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), Rear window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), and A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), and the styles, themes, and conventions connected with them, it will be revealed that both undoubtedly deserved the title of master filmmaker, or Auteur, for their groundbreaking and artistic cinematic endeavors.

The history of the Auteur Principle in film can be traced to the emergence of a new aesthetic in the filmmaking process. As stated in the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of the term, Auteur Theory is the, “Theory of filmmaking in which the director is viewed as the major creative force in a motion picture. Arising in France in the late 1940’s, the auteur theory, as it was dubbed by the American film critic Andrew Sarris, was an outgrowth of the cinematic theories of Andre Bazin and Alexandre Astruc, (French film critics and theorists). A foundation stone of the French cinematic movement known as the nouvelle vague, or New Wave, the theory of director as author was principally advanced in Bazin’s periodical Cashiers du Cinema, (founded in 1951 this French language film magazine, reinvented the basic tenets of film criticism and theory). Two of its theoreticians, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, later became major directors of the French New Wave, (style of film by youthful filmmakers rejecting the filmmaking methods of the era). This rejection of the filmmaking status quo by a group of youthful “upstarts” would also be the guiding principle behind the auteur movement in film in the United States in later years. The Encyclopedia Britannica also states, “The Auteur Theory, which was derived largely from Astruc’s elucidation of the concept of Camera-Stylo, (camera-pen), holds that the director, who oversees all audio and visual elements of the motion picture, is more considered the “author” of the movie than is the writer of the screenplay. In other words, such fundamental visual elements as camera placement, blocking, lighting, and scene length, rather than plot line, convey the message of the film” (1). These elements of convention used to determine the “author” of the film through their directorial style, are exemplified in the techniques used by directors Hitchcock and Kubrick in their various motion pictures.

The Auteur Principle, in one form or another, has always been a facet of the filmmaking process. As contended earlier in this essay, the auteur principle could be seen in the initial forays in to film for innovative directors such as Georges Melies, and acclaimed directors D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Conventions such as special effects, fantastical narratives, and a childlike ghoulishness and be seen in the works of Melies, while Griffith and DeMille used unknown actors, (also a staple of later Auteurs), realistic sets, close-ups, parallel editing, artistic Mise-en-scene, and sadistic sensuality), to claim authorship of their respective works. As stated in Flashback: A Brief History of Film, (Giannetti, Eyman, 2010),” The problem with superlative talent is that it is always original, and always moves inexorably to express itself”. This creative vision is the foundation that these directors helped to anchor into place and on which directors such as Kubrick and Hitchcock, laid their own bricks of styles and sensibilities.  This contention is seen in Flashback, when it states that, “Melies, Griffith, and DeMille had done their best work. It was time for their insights and innovations to be adopted and utilized by others” (29). By adopting the innovative precepts that defined earlier directors, the directors that followed, (such as Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick), were able to imagine motion pictures in a new and wondrous light.

The ascension of Auteur Theory in the 1960’s helped to usher in a new, dynamic form of cinema. This rise of the role of the director in motion pictures can be ascertained through the tumultuous events in film that occurred in the late 50’s and early 60’s. As asserted in Flashback, “The Hollywood studios were crumbling financially, yet their products, mostly big-budget spectacle pictures, were lavishly produced, the overripe artifacts of an era of artistic decadence. Reeling from the competition of television, the industry cut back on production, averaging only 159 movies per year throughout the decade. By 1962, box office receipts in real dollars had shriveled to less than half the industry’s peak year, (1946). Hundreds of movie theaters across the country were closing for lack of product, and lack of audiences” (222). This “perfect storm” of outdated narratives and rising production costs, studios being purchased by corporations, (conglomeration), the invention of television, and the youthful cynicism and rebellious nature of the burgeoning counter-culture movement and their fascination with the European “Art Cinema” aesthetic, was the final death knell for the traditional Hollywood motion picture and its use of form and content. Though the traditional Hollywood conventions would have a renaissance in later decades, even this reemergence would be borne out by directors, (and those influenced by them), who began their careers actively seeking to dismantle and reinvent it.

This 60’s and the ascension of the Auteur helped to bring a new philosophy to the act of directing motion pictures, especially in the United States. This can be examined in the assertion by Encyclopedia Britannica concerning this period when it states, “Before conglomeration had completely restructured the industry, however, there was an exciting period of experimentation as Hollywood made various attempts to attract a new audience among the nation’s youth. In an effort to lure members of the first “television generation” into movie theaters, the studios even recruited directors from the rival medium, such as Irvin Kershner (A Fine Madness, 1966), John Frankenheimer(Seconds, 1966), Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, 1965), Robert Altman (Countdown, 1968), Arthur Penn(Mickey One, 1965), and Sam Peckinpah (Major Dundee, 1965). These directors collaborated with film-school-trained cinematographers (including Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, and William Fraker), as well as with the Hungarian-born cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, to bring the heightened cinematic consciousness of the French New Wave to the American screen. Their films frequently exhibited unprecedented political and social consciousness as well” (22). This deviation from the Classical Hollywood convention of film to a more “Art” type of film also precipitated the rise of filmmaker Roger Corman. While directing and producing for AIP (American International Pictures, an independent studio), he helped to mentor many of the directors and actors that would go on to fame and fortune in the “New Hollywood”.

The latter part of the decade, (60’s) would usher in the “Film School Brats” and other Auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick. The Encyclopedia Britannica states regarding this latter part of the era that, “The years 1967–69 marked a turning point in American film history as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn,1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey(Stanley Kubrick,1968), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah,1969), Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler,1969), and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper,1969) attracted the youth market to theaters in record numbers. The films were unequal aesthetically, but all shared a cynicism toward established values and a fascination with apocalyptic violence. There was a sense, however briefly, that such films might provide the catalyst for a cultural revolution. Artistically, the films domesticated New Wave camera and editing techniques, enabling once-radical practices to enter the mainstream cinema narrative. Financially, they were so successful that producers quickly saturated the market with low-budget youth-culture movies, only a few of which, Alice’s Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1969), Woodstock(Michael Wadleigh,1970), and Gimme Shelter (David and Albert Maysles,1970)—achieved even limited distinction. Concurrent with the youth-cult boom was the new permissiveness toward sex made possible by the institution of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system in 1968. Unlike the Production Code, this system of self-regulation did not prescribe the content of films but merely categorized them according to their appropriateness for young viewers. (G designates general audiences; PG suggests parental guidance; PG-13 strongly cautions parents because the film contains material inappropriate for children under 13; R indicates that the film is restricted to adults and to persons under 17 accompanied by a parent or guardian; and X or NC-17 signifies that no one under 17 may be admitted to the film—NC meaning “no children.” In practice, the X rating has usually been given to unabashed pornography and the G rating to children’s films, which has had the effect of concentrating sexually explicit but serious films in the R and NC-17 categories.) The introduction of the ratings system led immediately to the production of serious, nonexploitative adult films, such as Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger,1969) and Carnal Knowledge(Mike Nichols,1971), in which sexuality was treated with a maturity and realism unprecedented on the American screen” (23-4).

The Auteur use of dynamic new conventions of style, theme, and format, can be examined in the similarities of these conventions in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. Both directors during their respective times, (with an overlap during the climactic times of 60’s and 70’s) used their skills as “authors” of their respective films to bring a unique and non-traditional new insight to the cinematic process. As contended in, From The Writer’s Chair:An Exploration into the works of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, “In modern cinema both Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock are held as luminaries of their profession. Their pictures have visually, socially, and culturally influenced generations of moviegoers, not to mention aspiring actors, writers, and directors. With Hitchcock consistently referred to as “The Master of Suspense”, and Kubrick an undeniable genius, their collective impact upon modern cinema could not have been greater” (1). The assertion that these two cinematic masters influenced an entire generation of moviegoers and filmmakers is seen in the reintroduction and rerelease of films from both Auteurs and the influence of their styles that can be seen in the work of contemporary directors, most notably, Rear Window(Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)/Blow Out, Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma,1980-1), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock,1960)/Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick,1980)/1408 (Mikeal Hafstrom, 2007), and A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick,1971)/Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000). The similar styles and themes in the later works to the films of Hitchcock and Kubrick, (Lighting, Mise-en-scene, editing, etc.) gives us a glimpse of the enduring fortitude of these two visionary auteurs.

Through an examination of scenes from Rear Window, Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining, the similar aspects of the “author” style of Hitchcock and Kubrick will be revealed. Stanley Kubrick (7/26/28-3/7/99) and Alfred Hitchcock (8/13/99-4/29/80), both achieved an unparalleled legacy in their respective careers. Their ability to court heightened emotional states and controversy have left an indelible mark on the artistic world of motion pictures. As asserted in Blind Spots and Mind Games: Performance, Motivation, and Emotion in the films of Stanley Kubrick (Aaron Taylor, 2016) “One of the principal characteristics of classical cinema, it is said, is that the films that adhere to this group style should be comprehensible and unambiguous” (5). This blanket statement fails to take into account the unrestrained mind of the auteur Kubrick. Aaron Taylor in Blind Spots further states that, “And yet certain films working within the Hollywood tradition resist classical cinema’s “excessive obviousness”. Stanley Kubrick’s genre outings are amongst the more celebrated of these narrationally obtuse films” (6). This assertion can easily be applied to Mr. Hitchcock as well. The breath of their works and their ability to use the various tenets of Cinematography, Lighting, Mise-en-scene, Sound, and Editing, gives their works a verisimilitude, (sometimes one that is surreal), that has remained relevant and engaging as the decades pass.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange share attributes that are the hallmarks of a visionary auteur. In the Lo-key lit, medium framed to close-up, long take scene of the final confrontation between “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) and the deranged salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), we see many of the same conventions that are ingrained in the surreal scene of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself from the window of the home of Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), to escape the sounds of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As stated in, From the Writers Chair, “The visual style of this picture is masterful, although the idea of the voyeur witnessing a murder was nothing new nor unique, the manner in which Hitchcock presents it is singular” (6). This innovative aspect can be seen in both scenes as murder or suicide in film is nothing new, only the way in which they are presented can be unique. Both scenes use dynamic non-diegetic music to accentuate the action in the narrative, and Long Takes, Realistic Mise-en-scene, and Medium to Close-up shots to give us a subjective view of the events taking place.  There is also the distinctive symbolism that both directors were renowned for as “Jeff”, the morally ambiguous voyeur protagonist has to fend off the frantic antagonist in the person of Lars Thorwald, while our morally bankrupt protagonist in Alex DeLarge fends off the attack by the distressed victim in the guise of Mr. Alexander. The Hitchcockian conventions of falling from a high place, suspense, sexuality, the perfect murder, and the ordinary person are seen throughout this scene in A Clockwork Orange and the narrative of Rear Window. Similarly, these same conventions can be found intertwined into the narrative of other films by these to “authors” setting into place their respective individual styles.   Throughout the entirety of these two pivotal scenes we see the “authorship’” in the distinctive patterns of conventions that are used to engage the audience and allow the narrative to remain cohesive and suspenseful.

The same similarities of conventions can be examined in the shower scene from Psycho and the final conflict scene from The Shining. As examined in, From the Writer’s Chair, “The films of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock often focus on stories surrounding the darker sides of life” (2). This fascination for the macabre was a staple of both directors and as contended by, From the Writer’s Chair, “Some of the most starling images in contemporary cinema occur in Kubrick’s The Shining” (10). This ability to use images to terrify and emotionally titillate the audience was also an aspect of the works of Mr. Hitchcock. As Jeanne T. Allen contends in her examination of R. Barton’s “The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in Rear Window and Psycho (Cinema Journal, Winter 1985), “Hitchcock stayed in the audience’s guts even as he mastered the formal techniques for doing so” (54). Throughout the Lo-key lit, Medium-framed to close-up scenes, that employed jump-cut editing to achieve the frenetic sensation that was at the core of both scenes, we see the masterful styles and techniques that are examined by Ms. Allen and, From the Writer’s Chair. The seminal shower scene of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in the guise of “mother” attacking and killing Marion Crane(Janet Leigh), holds the same tension and suspense that permeates the final maze scene of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in a maddened state attempting to kill his wife Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny(Danny Lloyd). The use of the theme conventions of sexuality, the ordinary man, the likable sociopath, mothers, the perfect murder, and silent scenes, are the foundation for the mayhem and surreal verisimilitude that is ingrained in both cinematic representations. The ability of both auteurs to “stay in the audience’s guts” make these two snippets of celluloid terror at once thrilling and extremely engaging.

In conclusion, the respective works that are examined by these auteurs give us an insight into visionary minds honed on perfecting their craft. As stated in, From the Writer’s Chair, “The films of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock incorporate distinctive visual styles, have far reaching social connotations, and are revered in today’s modern culture as yardsticks’ for other filmmakers to aspire to. Twenty-six years after Hitchcock’s death and almost ten since Kubrick’s passing, their collective legacies are cemented” (12). Indeed, much like tombstones in a decrepit, foreboding graveyard, the chiseled in stone testaments to the works of these two prolific auteurs are forever frozen in time, daring today’s filmmakers and audiences to creep forward on any given gloomy night, and interpret them.


R. Barton’s “The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in Rear Window and Psycho. Allen, Jeanne. T., (Cinema Journal, Winter 1985) (54)
From The Writer’s Chair: An Exploration into the works of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. (Online Blog, 2016) (1,2,10,12)
Blind Spots and Mind Games: Performance, Motivation, and Emotion in the films of Stanley Kubrick (Taylor, Aaron. University of Texas Press, 2016) (5-6)
Encyclopedia Britannica (web articles, 2001) (1,22, 23-4)
Flashback: A Brief History of Film (Giannetti, Louis, Eyman, Scott. Pearson Publishing, 2010) (29,222)


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