Hitchcock’s Film Writing

Jean-Luc Godard and the other members of what would later be called the French New Wave made it a point to largely withhold praise from the generation of filmmakers that preceded them. It was that critical slightly cynical attitude that helped craft the unique voice of Cahiers du Cinéma. It was in the 15 May 1957 edition of Cahiers that François Truffaut railed against the “false legends” that he argued were suffocating the French cinema. There was certainly a sort of short list – the blessed few who happened to be approved by the Cahiers crowd. Most of these Cahiers-approved filmmakers have quite obvious ties to the output of the New Wave – the casual cool of Nicholas Ray, the visual dynamism of Fritz Lang – they stand out as direct predecessors.

It would have been easy for Godard to rail against the Hollywood monolith – to brush aside what could have been derided as a mere manifestation of American capitalism and artistic subservience. Godard however looks past the numerous problems that plagued Hollywood to find the inspiration for his own films.

I recently overheard a conversation in which someone recounted the reactions of Alfred Hitchcock to the analysis of his films by the Cahiers crowd – by the account of the anonymous film student he was quite bemused, if not outright hostile. Here is the public understanding of Hitchcock as a director as I see it – Alfred Hitchcock made films about murder and suspense meant to entertain thrill-hungry cinemagoers. Hitchcock has apparently assumed the mantle of the modern blockbuster – that peculiar distinction that labels one as both enormously successful and artistically void. Hitchcock, “The Master of Suspense” – everything about the modern iteration of the persona is very old fashioned. The man made a musical for God’s sake! Is all I can imagine anyone saying when confronted with the possibility that directors in a pre-auteur theory world consider themselves masters of a craft and true artiste.

However Hitchcock may be regarded it is simple fact that the man himself considered quite intricately the process of filmmaking and actively expressed very auteur-like opinions on his role as director well before any formal introduction of the term. Hitchcock, in both interviews and self-written articles for popular film magazines of the time imparts upon the reader a profoundly introspective style of writing in which he utilizes direct and sparsely elegant prose to develop concrete responses to what are often complex questions.

Hitchcock possessed some of the very same attitudes about film that would later go on to be extolled in the pages of Cahiers, he writes vividly on every part of filmmaking, from casting and script editing to the actual act of committing image to film. Those who would dismiss Hitchcock as a Hollywood director more concerned with success and audience appeasement alone would be very mistaken. Hitchcock did value the audience above all else and this was an essential part of what made him great – it was his 1948 film Rope that comes to mind immediately when audience reaction is considered. Hitchcock later admitted that the film was a “failed experiment” but one that was learned from.  It was these little things, surely that attracted the attention of the Cahiers crowd that would go on to champion such seemingly mundane directors as Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray.

No one else seemed to give Hitchcock his due for gradual experimentation both on screen and in writing. He wrote on a variety of topics for equally varied publications including Film Weekly and Sight and Sound. Although less relevant to Godard’s ascension as filmmaker than his compatriot in the New Wave, François Truffaur, Hitchcock also collaborated on a book length interview with said director. Perhaps the most introspective, most auteur­-like article that Hitchcock published was entitled The Master of Suspense: Being a Self-Analysis by Alfred Hitchcock. In this article, first published in the New York Times, is a short article that nevertheless reveals quite a bit about Hitchcock’s self-perception. Within the pages of the article he confronts the issue of the “The MacGuffin” head-on remarking that

“It can no longer be the idea of preventing the foreign agent from stealing the paper. It can no longer be the business of breaking code…yet these very same elements, disguised to fit the times, must still be there.”

thus Hitchcock’s self-awareness and willingness to change is presented right alongside that of the French New Wave. When examined more closely Hitchcock’s writing seems remarkably more in tune with the writing of the next generation, writing of introspection and personal reflection.

There exist two excellent compendiums of interviews useful for anyone interested in the Hitchcock/Nouvelle Vague interplay. Godard on Godard and Hitchcock on Hitchcock share much more than just titular form – each offers a more revealing and candid look into directors who tend to be much more guarded in their own writings. Jean-Luc Godard is, of course, widely renowned for his writing in Cahier du cinema, while Alfred Hitchcock has a significantly more obscure collection of writings that are no less important when considering the two as a connected pair.

Let us observe Hitchcock and Godard from a divorced perspective. From that of someone who, for the first time has Heard of these directors “Hitchcock” and “Godard”- perhaps only reading brief summaries or viewing trailers of their most popular work. Both directors appear technically developed – each with a distinct style and direction derived from many years of cinema direction (in Hitchcock’s case) or obsessive cinema criticism and deconstruction (in Godard’s).  Each filmmaker prefers certain actors and actresses, and failing that, they prefer certain types – Godard’s soap commercial Karina pairs naturally with Belmondo’s rakish gangster type. Both men recognize and fully utilize their stars with deft hands, the periods in which they were working could not be more different and yet some basics remained the same. Godard had his stars and Hitchcock had his – both recognized the importance of a good star for practical means.

Perhaps Godard’s most strikingly simple piece of film-wisdom is his quip that “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl” and here is where the typical confusion of Godard is most exacerbated. The quote has no context and can be interpreted (as many of Godard’s most repeated quotes) in a variety of ever contradicting ways. Godard is full of these quips and it is remarkable how often they a relevant to how he interprets the work of other directors. One gets the feeling that he does not derive his ideas about film so much from the physical act of making them than he does in the act of thinking, writing and viewing film. To Godard a statement about “his” film tends to become more of an overarching commentary on film in general – or at least what particular film has caught his eye at the moment.

-Ryan Blaydes


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