From Master of Suspense to Auteur: The Battle for Hitchcock’s Reputation

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

When, in September 2012, Sight and Sound magazine announced that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1957) had been voted the greatest film of all time in its poll of critics, it caused an immediate media response. Newspapers, trade magazines and websites all reported that for the first time in fifty years, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1940) had been knocked from the top spot, and many questioned if Vertigo truly deserved its new consecration as the best film ever made. Did Hitchcock, a director of genre thrillers, really deserve to be held in higher esteem than the genius Welles and his Shakespearean-scale tragedies? In fact, however, Hitchcock’s San Francisco-set mystery, far from being an upstart contender, had been rising up Sight and Sound’s influential, ten-yearly list for years. It had first appeared in 1982, when it came seventh; by 1992 it had climbed to fourth; in 2002 it was rated second. This slow but inexorable ascendency, it could be said, mirrored Hitchcock’s own rise in critical esteem throughout his career and after his death in 1980. But how and why did critical perspectives of Hitchcock change over time? And why did Hitchcock, in particular, become the focus for such singular attention?

Young Alfred Hitchcock and his future wife Alma on the set of The Mountain Eagle, 1926

In March 1926, British film magazine Picturegoer ran an article entitled “Alfred the Great” by critic Cedric Belfrage, who, in response to having seen a film called The Pleasure Garden made the previous year, praised its 26-year-old, first-time director Alfred Hitchcock for possessing “such a complete grasp of all the different branches of film technique that he is able to take far more control of his production than the average director of four times his experience.” Ironically, by the time this review was published, the head of the film’s distribution company, Charles Woolf, had made the decision not to release it, believing its artistic embellishments would confuse audiences. Woolf made a similar judgment about Hitchcock’s next film The Mountain Eagle, and its follow up The Lodger, rejecting the latter for being “too highbrow.” Luckily for Hitchcock’s career, a few months after this original assessment the distributors took another look at The Lodger and decided they would, after all, release it. A special screening for the press resulted in rapturous reviews. “The experienced audience which viewed the film were gripped from the start,” wrote the Daily Express critic, “and hardly dared to breathe until the conclusion.” Another reporter simply described it as “the finest British production ever made.” When it was finally released to the public on February 14th 1927, The Lodger drew huge crowds and Hitchcock, in the words of biographer Patrick McGilligan, was “being touted as the boy wonder of British film.”

Ivor Novello in The Lodger (1927)

Though many of those lining up to see The Lodger were attracted by its star – popular matinee idol Ivor Novello – Hitchcock also received considerable newspaper coverage. According to Donald Spoto, The Lodger marked “the first time in British film history that the director received an even greater press than his stars.” Already adept at self- promotion, Hitchcock found ways to raise his profile further. A brief cameo in The Lodger became the first of an ongoing tradition that would make his physical appearance instantly identifiable by the public. Elsewhere he engaged in theoretical discussions on the emerging subject of film theory at The London Film Society and cultivated relationships with the press by writing articles about the art of film directing. In a piece for the London Evening News, written twenty years before critic Alexandre Astruc’s classic article La Camera Stylo equated the role of a film director with that of an author, Hitchcock drew similar comparisons:

Film directors live with their pictures while they are being made. They are their babies just as much as an author’s novel is the offspring of his imagination. And that seems to make it all the more certain that when moving pictures are really artistic they will be created entirely by one man.

From this article one could make the argument that Hitchcock was himself an inadvertent founder of auteur theory – the very theory that would eventually help to establish his own reputation as a great director. For now, however, Hitchcock was focused on commercial success rather than artistic recognition. Following the success of The Lodger, Hitchcock signed with British International Pictures for whom, over the next seven years, he made more thrillers (Blackmail, 1929; Murder!, 1930); theatrical adaptations (Easy Virtue, 1927; The Skin Game, 1931; June and the Paycock, 1930); and dramas (Rich and Strange, 1932; The Manxman, 1929). Though largely successful, a string of disappointments in the early 1930s (Rich and Strange, 1931; Number Seventeen, 1932; Waltzes from Vienna, 1933) left Hitchcock feeling he had reached what he later described as “the low ebb of my career.” He had pursued commercial success, found it, and lost it again.

His career lull, however, did not last long. Hitchcock was able to re-established his reputation when he joined new production company Gaumont-British under the leadership of Michael Balcon. Here he made a string of six thrillers in which he established a winning formula of suspense, humour and exciting set-piece scenes. The first, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), received rapturous reviews from critics and “broke attendance records for almost every theatre it played.” The following year The 39 Steps (1939) was another hit, not only in Britain, but also in the United States where André Sennwald, the critic for the New York Times, described its director as “a master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit.” Though the next three films in Hitchcock’s sextet – Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937) – were only moderately profitable, The Lady Vanishes (1938) was a major hit, going on to become one of the most successful British film up to that date.

Dame May Whitty, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Though the majority of English critic’s were dazzled by Hitchcock’s technique (“artless fiction, staged on a spectacular scale” raved the Kinematograph Weekly in their review of The Man Who Knew Too Much), there were some, like the novelist, and, at that time film critic, Graham Greene, who criticised the lack of realism in Hitchcock’s films. Reviewing The Secret Agent in the Spectator, Greene wrote, “How unfortunate it is that Mr. Hitchcock, a clever director, is allowed to produce and even to write his own films, though as a producer he had no sense of continuity and as a writer he has no sense of life.” The lack of realism or “verisimilitude” in Hitchcock’s movies would continue to be used as a reason to condemn his work as implausible, and therefore inauthentic, by some critics.

Such views, however, had little impact on the popularity of Hitchcock’s films. The success of The Lady Vanishes continued across the Atlantic where Hitchcock received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director in 1938. Unsurprisingly this renown drew the attention of Hollywood, and after lengthy negotiations, he signed with Selznick International Pictures in 1939 and settled permanently in America.

Hitchcock’s Hollywood career began auspiciously when Rebecca (1940), his sweeping adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, won immediate acclaim. “An altogether brilliant film, haunting, suspenseful, handsome and handsomely played,” wrote Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times in a typically laudatory review of the film. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Director, Hitchcock, the foreign outsider, had proved to the Hollywood moguls that he was a safe pair of hands who could helm a prestigious Studio picture.

Under the terms of his seven-year contract with Selznick International Pictures, Hitchcock could be loaned out for hire to other producers and so now alternated between work for independents such as Walter Wanger (Foreign Correspondent), other studios such as RKO (Suspicion), Universal (Saboteur; Shadow of a Doubt), and 20th Century Fox (Lifeboat), and further productions for SIP (Spellbound; The Paradine Case). In America, as in England, he continued to promote himself and his methods, encouraging his burgeoning celebrity-status whenever he got the opportunity. At some point in the 1940s, Hitchcock was nicknamed “The Master of Suspense”. The sobriquet stuck and became part of a colourful public image which Hitchcock happily played along with. In the American press he was celebrated as a skilled technician with a dark sense of humour. A lengthy and lavishly illustrated profile in The Saturday Evening Post entitled “300-Pound Prophet Comes to Hollywood” remarked that when he first came to America “Hitchcock’s physique made a greater impression on the film capital than his English reputation.” His propensity for practical jokes and habit of sleeping in public are also noted, as is his mastery of “the mystery melodrama.” Such articles, combined with Hitchcock’s regular cameo appearances in his own movies, helped to make him one of the most recognisable director in Hollywood.

Saturday Evening Post article on Hitchcock (1943)

While most critics were still at this time taking Hitchcock at face value, others, such as critic and later filmmaker Lindsay Anderson, were looking more seriously at his work. Writing in the British film magazine Sequence in 1949, Anderson praised the “inventiveness and visual dexterity” of Hitchcock’s style and his “concern with ordinary people (or ordinary-looking people) who are plunged into extraordinary happenings in the most ordinary places.” However, Anderson argued, after moving to America, Hitchcock’s work had deteriorated. The English films with “their humour, lack of sentimentality, their avoidance of the grandiose and the elaborately fake” had been replaced by “all that was worst in Hollywood – to size for its own sake, to the star system for its own sake, to glossy photography, high-toned settings, lushly hypnotic musical scores.”

Anderson’s article appeared at a time when Hitchcock’s commercial standing had begun to decline. Having finally completed his contract with Selznick in 1947, Hitchcock had teamed up with British producer Sidney Bernstein to form Transatlantic Pictures. The company’s first two films – Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949) –received mostly unfavourable reviews and poor box-office returns. In both cases Hitchcock had experimented with long-takes and elaborate camera moves, but the films’ lack of success seemed to bear out Anderson’s view that Hitchcock had become preoccupied “with technique to the detriment of the material.” Such an observation was consistent with the dominant view of many of the more intellectual film critics of the time who valued a film’s content over its style. For them, the films then coming out of the Italian neo-realist movement by directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica exemplified authenticity, and were “important” because of their social commentary. By contrast, what they perceived as the commercial productions made by Hollywood Studio directors like Hitchcock were artificial and compromised in comparison.

But then, in the early 1950s, Hitchcock found himself and his work unexpectedly lionized in the pages of specialist film magazines and journals in France. In publications such as Le Revue du Cinéma, La Gazette du Cinéma, and most famously, Cahiers du Cinéma, a new generation of passionate cinephiles were writing about cinema with an unusual intensity and intellectual depth. Favouring the style of a film over its content, these cine-literate young critics – among them Maurice Scherer (Eric Rohmer), Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut – contradicted the then orthodox view of European cinema as representing art and American cinema as mass entertainment. They argued that some of the most important contemporary directors, not least Alfred Hitchcock, were working within the Hollywood studio system. Hitchcock was, for them, the supreme example of what they called an “auteur”, or a director whose mastery of mise-en-scene and thematic consistency made them the true “authors” of their films.

Despite the enormous enthusiasm for his work in the cine-clubs of Paris, for most mainstream critics the idea that Hitchcock was a serious artist was shocking, or even, absurd. Even the editor of Cahiers du cinéma, the renowned critic and film theorist André Bazin, was not, at first, persuaded by his younger colleagues. Serge Toubiana, editor of Cahiers du cinema from 1973 to 1991, explained the feeling in France at the time:

I think for their generation – Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer – it was obvious that Hitchcock was an auteur. He was for them, as they say in French, an inventeur du form – one of those that invented aesthetical forms like Eisenstein. But at first it was a big fight, because Bazin was not convinced; and there were others at Cahiers like Jacques Doniol-Valcroze who were not convinced. Pierre Kast was very aggressive against him, because for him Hitchcock was just a filmmaker and entertainer. It was a huge battle in the 50s in France, but they succeeded, and Hitchcock was very well considered by the French critics after that.

In what Toubiana described as “a kind of putsch”, Truffaut and his colleagues took charge of the magazine for an October 1954 special edition of the magazine devoted to Hitchcock. The edition featured a number of articles and reviews of Hitchcock’s films, as well as a first interview with the director by Bazin. An opening elegy by Alexandre Astruc, entitled “What a Man”, set the tone:

When, over the course of thirty years and fifty films, a man tells more or less the same story–that of a soul at war with evil–and maintains the same style throughout his single trajectory, based essentially on stripping his characters bare and plunging them into the abstract universe of their passions, I have a hard time not admitting that we are confronting something that is, after all, extremely rare in this industry: a film author.

This critical recognition of Hitchcock’s artistry came at a time of unprecedented success for the director. Recovering from the disappointments of his early Transatlantic films, Hitchcock scored a series of box office hits in the early 1950s, including Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rear Window (1954). In the late 1950s, he divided his time between presenting the popular television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, directing popular thrillers such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and North by Northwest (1959), and less formulaic films such as The Wrong Man (1956) and Vertigo (1958). Among the few critics presenting sympathetic and thoughtful analysis of these more challenging films were Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, whose collaborative 1957 book, Hitchcock: The First Forty-four Films, was the first serious full-length study of the director’s work. But it was Truffaut’s book on the director, taken from a week-long interview recorded in 1962 and published in 1966, that would make the case most persuasively for Hitchcock’s status as an auteur. By then an internationally acclaimed director in his own right, Truffaut succeeded where others had failed in getting the ordinarily guarded Hitchcock to open up in detail about his craft. The book would go on to become one of the classic guides to the art and craft of filmmaking, inspiring generations of filmmakers.

Hitchcock in conversation with François Truffaut (1962)

Still, the American critical establishment remained resistant to Truffaut’s assertion that Hitchcock was a great director. It wasn’t until he was discovered by a younger generation of American critics, influenced by the writings of the French critics, that the establishment began to view him more seriously. One key figure was Andrew Sarris whose review of Psycho (1960) in the Village Voice declared: “A close inspection of Psycho indicates not only that the French have been right all along, but that Hitchcock is the most-daring avant-garde film-maker in America today.” It was Sarris who would popularize auteur theory in America in his 1962 essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory” and in his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1920–1968. Meanwhile, in Hitchcock’s native England, Robin Wood published Hitchcock’s Films (1965), a groundbreaking study of the director’s work that began by asking why we should take Hitchcock seriously and in a lucid, in-depth analysis of some of the director’s greatest films answered the question most emphatically in the affirmative.

Paradoxically, as Hitchcock’s critical reputation rose in America and England, his commercial prospects again faltered. Following the huge box office success of Psycho (1960) came the more modest returns for The Birds (1963), and the failure of Marnie (1964). While his more passionate supporters praised these works in the face of considerable opposition, few had much good to say about Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969). It was not until Frenzy was released in 1971, that a Hitchcock film once more received almost unanimous critical and popular success. The concept of auteurism had, by then, been accepted by many, and Hitchcock had begun to be viewed by the majority, not just as an entertainer, but also as one of the most important directors in the history of cinema.

Hitchcock filming Frenzy on location (1971)

Since the 1970s and in the years since his death in 1980, Hitchcock’s reputation as a director has continued to grow. The re-release of some of his greatest films in 1983, including Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), was a revelation for many, prompting ecstatic reviews. Even the more disturbing and controversial aspects of his work, especially the treatment of many of his female characters, have only added to the ongoing focus on his work. Indeed, over two hundred books have now been published on Hitchcock, more than any other director, as well as documentaries, museum retrospectives, feature films, video essays and thousands of internet articles. In a tribute in Sight and Sound, director Martin Scorsese spoke for many when he expressed why Hitchcock’s films mean so much to him:

You can watch Hitchcock’s films over and over and find something new every time. There’s always more to learn. And as you get older, the films change with you. After a while you stop counting the number of times you’ve seen them.

With the interest and support of each new generation of critics and directors, Hitchcock has slowly become recognised as one of the greatest, if not the greatest filmmaker in the history of the medium. As Scorsese further commented, “I’ve looked at Hitchcock’s films in sections. Just like the greatest music or painting, you can live with, or by, his films.”



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