Auteur Theory


AUTEUR THEORY“The auteur theory is a way of reading and appraising films through the imprint of an auteur (author), usually meant to be the director.”

Andre Bazin was the founder, in 1951, of Cahiers du cinema and is often seen as the father of auteurism because of his appreciation of the world-view and style of such artists as Charlie Chaplin and Jean Renoir. It was younger critics at the magazine who developed the idea further, drawing attention to significant directors from the Hollywood studio era as well as European directors.

François Truffaut, possibly the most polemic Cahiers critic, coined the phrase ‘politique des auteurs’ (referring to the aesthetic policy of venerating directors). The French critics were responding to the belated influx of American films in France after World War Two (they had been held back by import restrictions for a number of years). Thus, directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford were hailed, often extravagantly, as major artists of the cinema.

Critics like Truffaut knew that American filmmakers were working within the restrictions of the Hollywood system and that the types of films and their scripts were often decided for them. But they believed that such artists could nonetheless achieve a personal style in the way they shot a film – the formal aspects of it and the themes that they might seek to emphasise (eg. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote a book on Hitchcock in which they highlighted recurrent themes in his films, including the transfer of guilt). With other, often European directors, the stamp of the auteur often involved them scripting and fashioning their own material.

With their auteurist approach, the French critics justified their appreciation of the Hollywood films they loved and to criticise the respectable French mainstream, which they viewed as having gone stale and uncinematic. It was an idealist declaration which provided something of a blueprint for their ensuing careers as film directors in their own rights, distinctive artists with a discernable personal styles and preoccupations.

The idea of the auteur gained currency in America in the 1960s through Andrew Sarris. He devised the notion of auteur theory (the French critics had never claimed the concept to be a ‘theory’). He used it to tell the history of American filmmaking through the careers and work of individuals, classifying them according to their respective talents.

“Over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature.” Andrew Sarris

Sarris’s approach led to the formation of a canon of great directors. But Hollywood was wary of the idea that it produced art rather than entertainment. Biographer Donald Spoto says that Hitchcock’s book of interviews with Truffaut “hurt and disappointed just about everybody who had ever worked with Alfred Hitchcock, for the interviews reduced the writers, the designers, the photographers, the composers, and the actors to little other than elves in the master carpenter’s workshop. The book is a valuable testimony to Truffaut’s sensibilities, and to Hitchcock’s brilliantly lean cinematic style. It is also a masterpiece of Hitchcockian self-promotion.” Many other Hollywood directors rejected the idea of themselves as serious artists: they just made movies. Many directors in the studio system would see themselves as un-self-conscious craftsmen. Others, like Hitchcock, cultivated their persona (he revelled in the guise of ‘the master of suspense’, introduced his own TV series and appeared in cameo form in many of his films.

Today, the notion of the individual as auteur is less theoretically constrained, so that we might consider actors as auteurs as well as directors and producers. The key thing is that a recognisable imprint is left on a body of films, and this may involve varying levels of creative input. For example, in the Laurel and Hardy partnership, Stan Laurel made the significant decisions about their act whilst Oliver Hardy did little more than turn up and get on with his job. But on screen we are only aware of the combined and instantly recognisable effect of the two performing together. When considering an actor, the important question to address is the kind of identity he/she projects and how this identity is created through their performances. Is their persona stable, or does it vary? Sometimes, actors are cast against type or give a markedly different performance to that with which they are associated – what is the effect of this?


Auteur Theory

Very simply the basis of auteur theory is that instead being a co-operative, industrial product, a film becomes identified with its director, who is seen as the ultimate creative impetus or force behind the film. It is actually more complex than this in theory but it does attempt to insert an author into the film. Of course not all directors are ‘auteurs’ and we will go into this a bit more later and what actually constitutes an auteur. Auteur theory is also very pervasive and has entered the popular discourse on films with critical opinion and reviews often articulated from this point of view eg the latest Tarantino release etc. My local DVD store even has a section dedicated to ‘great directors.’ In terms of film scholarship debates about authorship occupied a privaleged position in film studies from the 1950’s until the early 1980’s when audience studies became a more central focus – although I would argue that it is still quite persistent and often hovers in the backgound in a lot of critical writing. It must be emphasised that auteur theory is less a coherent theory than a variable set of critical practices and over time it has been appropriated, attacked and reformulated in many different ways. 

Prior to auteur theory ‘serious’ European film criticism had been established in the 1940s with the work of its principal figures such Andre Bazin in France and Siegfred Kracauer in Germany mainly driven by the relationship between film aesthetics and reality to which the concerns of the director were secondary. 

First articulation of a politique des auteurs (auteur theory) came from the critics (and later filmmakers) who wrote for the French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, in the 1950s:

François Truffaut
Jacques Rivette
Claude Chabrol
Eric Rohmer
André Bazin (not a filmmaker)

For examples of French auteurist criticism see Cahiers du Cinéma: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier and Theories of Authorship: A Reader, ed. John Caughie

The Cahier critics primarily developed their understanding of what makes a director an auteur in relation to the American cinema. In fact as Graham Turner writes “a polemical article by French film-maker Francois Truffaut, published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954 signals the beginning of ‘auteur theory’. Although its specific points were almost entirely enclosed within industrial and political conflicts in the French film industry at the time it essentially argued for the necessity of a personal vision or style in a director’s film and cited some films that were reflective of this in even the most industrialised conditions of Hollywood. As such the theory evoked the more romantic concept of the artist and what constitutes artistic standards, while paradoxically rescuing a large body of popular films (Jerry Lewis comedies for example) from the cultural junk heap where they had been assigned by critics and theorists alike. Genre films – in particular –westerns, musicals, thrillers, gangster films – were now deemed interesting. Film theory therefore became a critical practice which paralleled dominant modes of literary criticism complete with a ‘canon’ of great films which very simply were the particular directors best and most representative works. 

• Some American auteurs: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, Alfred Hitchcock (films made in America considered to be American films).

• Evidence of the primary, creative authority of the auteur director to be found in the articulation of a consistent, personal vision found throughout a body of work.

Personal vision articulated through:

– distinctive visual style –  which included an emphasis on mis-en-scene.
– repetition of narrative themes and motifs (including personal obsessions)
– self-consciousness (of convention) – idea that once the auteur realises his particular ‘signature’ conventions that these are then deployed in over a number of films in a self-aware manner – will discuss this later in regard to Tim Burton eg I am Tim Burton the auteur therefore I must include those elements in my films which are said to be a part of a Tim Burton film.
– originality (of generic interpretation)

André Bazin, “On the politique des auteurs” (1957):

• A critique of auteur theory but not a rejection of it.
• Emphasizes role of tradition and convention.

“… the cinema is an art which is both popular and industrial… What makes Hollywood so much better than anything else in the world is not only the quality of certain directors, but also the vitality and, in a certain sense, the excellence of a tradition.” 

“The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e. not only the talent of this or that film-maker, but the genius of the system…”Andrew Sarris: American critic who popularised auteur theory for American critics and audiences (writing in the Village Voice and Film Culture). Created a pantheon or canon of what he considered to be ‘best directors’ which is still effective in much film criticism today – the notion of ‘the great director’ is still important in much film criticism today and in film courses it can become an important aspect of the way cinema is learnt and understood. In fact I often find myself discussing film in this way, although I am aware of the theoretical complexities of auteur theory. Organising a significant component of my viewing practices in this way eg catching the latest release by Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) maybe – somewhat sadly – makes me excited. When I am watching it making sense of the film by my prior knowledge of his other films and evaluating this one alongside that also makes me feel excited. So there is a very practical and pleasurable aspect to the adoption of auteur theory for the cinephile like myself or even the more casual film-goer – and for arguments sake I don’t think this should be overlooked. 

“Notes on the Theory of Auteur Theory in 1962”:

“After years of tortured revaluation, I am now prepared to stake my critical reputation, such as it is, on the proposition that Alfred Hitchcock is artistically superior to Robert Bresson by every criterion of excellence and, further that, film for film director for director, the American cinema has been consistently superior to that of the rest of the world from 1915 to 1962.”

Re: Sarris: an auteur’s body of work is characterised by:

• technical flair
• recurring characteristics of style, which serve as the filmmaker’s signature.
• conveys the filmmaker’s personal vision of the world (what Sarris calls ‘interior meaning’).

Also see “Toward a Theory of Film History” (in Theories of Authorship, ed. Caughie)

“To look at a film as the expression of a director’s vision is not to credit the director with total creativity.”

As time went on auteur theory began to appropriate concepts form structural linguistics, semiology, and psychoanalysis and began to question the underlying assumptions of auteur theory such as ‘coherence’, ‘self-expression’, ‘creativity’ – did not destroy the theory but rather transformed it.

Eg Peter Wollen and British auteur structuralism, Robin Wood. 

Beginnings of a shift away from the notion of the auteur as originating source of the work towards the idea of the work as a set of contradictory relationships between structural elements which interact to produce the author’s world view rather than express it. Accepts that films are produced by film-makers, but also reminds us that film-makers themselves are produced by culture, therefore reconnecting the film with the culture it represents and also presents less of a totality or coherent world-view. Interested in ways of looking at film as a set of languages, as system for making meaning.  

‘Teach Yourself Film Studies’ by Warren Buckland

Theories of Authorship pt1

Theories of Authorship pt2

Example of an autuer
Alfred Hitchcock

Favourite of the Cahiers du Cinema people and of course Andrew Saris, Truffaut published a series of interviews with him in 1966. To these critics Hitchcock was a master of cinematic mise-en-scene who created an unmistakeable and homogenous world view, controlling the audience so they were completely at the mercy of his intentions. 

Hitchcock was actually British, from a lower-middle class Catholic family. He started making films in the UK in the silent period. During this period he became influenced by the work of the German Expressionists (he actually had a stint at working in Germany where he witnessed the work by expressionist greats such as Murnau and Lang. However he was even more influenced by the Soviet montage – the rapid juxtaposition of different shots to create meaning. Also crucial to his development was his marriage to Alma Reville, who as an experienced editor and scriptor, served for 50 years as an unofficial consultant and sometimes severest critic of his films. He made a cycle of thrillers in the UK including The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Moved to Hollywood in 1939 where he became contracted under producer David O Selznick – clash of personalities but made a series of films including Rebecca and North by Northwest (stunning visual sequences – such as Gary Grant in the corn field and concluding sequence on Mt Rushmore). Eventually could not stand working with Selznick – two control freaks who could not reconcile their visions. Formed his own production company which eventually went broke, then went on to Paramount where he was able to exert his personal and creative vision providing his films remained popular.

Hitchcock often expressed his belief in what he called “pure cinema” with his world- view being intimately bound up with the mechanisms of cinematic language and the relationship of the spectator to the film. He viewed himself as a master technician of the medium – often explained his ambiguous morality in this light – explaining it as an exploration of the potential of the medium.

William Rothman, Hitchcock – the Murderous Gaze (1982): eg. of contemporary auteur criticism.

Hitchcock’s body of work concerned with:

– self-consciousness: acknowledges its own narrative techniques (eg. witholding information)
– grand (narrative) finale eg North by Northwest, Vertigo
– brief, ritualised appearances of himself in films (thus declaring authorship). 
– metaphoric exploration of the relation between filmmaker/author and viewer – will see this later in relation to Psycho. Often deal with looking or spying, giving a centrality which transcends the plot, so it can be argued that a narrative of human psychology emerges in which character and cinema audience are involved in a play of exchange of looks. This drama opens up a scene of obsession, guilt, paranoia and phobia in which author, characters and audience are all implicated, but which Hitchcock as author ultimately controls it. Will explore this later using Psycho.

– thematic concerns: 

● guilt and innocence (and the difficulty of being able to tell them apart)
● the mystery of murder and the mystery of love (and the relation between them) 

Added to this could be 

• an obsession with enigmatic blondes eg Grace Kelly, Kim Novak (Vertigo)and Tippi Hedron (The Birds, Marnie). His relationship with Hedron marred by his obsessive, over control so that they eventually fell out. One of the questions raised in reference to Hitchcock is the extent to which he could be construed as misogynist  – I personally find the visual and technical intricasies of his work so clever and appealing that I overcome my objections on this score.

• The use of what he referred to as “a McGuffin” – a kind of narrative red herring eg in Psycho the narrative is obstensibly set up with Marion Cranes’s theft of the money – something that the film appears to be about but which actually amounts to nothing or nothing much anyway. What Hitchcock called “an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” He considered his best McGuffin to be the “government secrets” in North By Northwest.

• Also a level of humour often apparent in his films.

So common Hitchcockian themes –

The world is unstable and unpredictable (intensifies post Holocaust) and things are not what they seem – birds are killers, Marion is a thief and dies, Scotty in Rear Widow neurotic, obsessive voyeur. Nobody is innocent, no one is morally good – dark impulses in us all. Extends this to the audience so that we question it in ourselves. Controlling, manipulative cinema.


Begins with a normal view of the city and draws us deeper and deeper into the abnormal. It opens by making us aware of time and ends where a situation where it ceases to exist. The famous Shower Scene – randomness of Norman’s actions – meaningless of Marion’s Cranes death – since then this has been a well explored notion in film but Psycho first to do this. It ruptures our point of identification with Marion that the film has painstakingly built up – plunges from the neurotic hysteric (Marion thief) into world of psychosis and nightmare.  

The Famous Shower Scene

Impact of the scene is not only attributed to the rapid cutting to Bernard Hornmann’s ‘shrieking strings.’ The scene establishes a continuity between the abnormal and normal, between Marion’s neurotic compulsion and the psychotic behaviour of Norman that survives or carries on after the brutal disruption. Point of rupture is is as the bloody water spirals down the plughole, the camera cranes down into blackness. As it tracks back from the dark pupil of Marion’s dead eye the camera takes on the anti-clockwise movement of the water. Switch identification in the film to Norman Bates – long drawn out scene of him mopping up, hiding the car so in a sense we become the chief protagonist as we the we are the only aspect of continuity. 

Made to see deeper and deeper – to see things we are afraid to see. As Robin Wood writes: “hence the insistence on eyes, into which the camera, our own eyes, makes us look, to see the dark places of the human soul and beyond. And hence the dark glasses of the policeman; he is the only character whose eyes we never see, because it is he who is watching Marion and hence ourselves.” Later Hichcock continues the eye motif – focus on Marion’s eyes as she drives away form the policemen with growing hysteria, Norman Bates eyes as he spies on Marion and the close-up of the eye of the dead girl with the camera spiralling out from it as Marion is fixed as an object – could be argued as the reduction of the female protagonist from subject to object. However this argument is complicated by the way the film explores the boundaries of sexuality with both Marion and Norman displaying male and female characteristics. Norman’s tranformation into his mother also reflection of Hitchcock’s preoccupation with what he construed as the ‘perverse’.

Problems with Auteurism:

– participates in the cult of personality and celebrity at the expense of examining the collaborative dimensions of filmmaking (e.g. the contributions of screenwriters, cinematographers, & production designers). See Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane 1971 who argues that autuer critics of Orsen Welles don’t give enough credit to Welles collaborators on Citizen Kane – especially his cinematographer, Gregg Toland and writer Herman J Mankiewicz.
– ignores the extent to which auteurism is also a form of marketing & branding (particularly for the new crop of ‘indie’ directors: Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Williamson, Robert Rodriguez, Wes Craven, Anthony Minghella, and John Madden (Miramax)

This last point brings us to the work of Timothy Corrigan who takes a more postmodern approach to auteur theory and locates it squarely in the world of consumerism and constructs spectatorship in light of this ie. Spectators as consumers.  He argues that film directors are self-consciously styled and marketed as ‘auteurs’ with their own particular ‘star images’. Rather than being a critical category with any influence on the way his /her products are read, the auteur is simply seen as ‘a commercial strategy for organising audience reception, as a critical concept bound to distribution and marketing aims that iidentify and address the potential cult status of an auteur.”

In some ways he has a point – in one example the recent Chinese film Hero attached Quentin Tarantino’s name to it even though as far as I could make out he had little or nothing to do with the making of the film. It was marketed with the words “Quentin Tarantino presents…” 

However although such commercial strategies are present Corrigans theory comes across as a little overly cynical and fails to account for the complexities of the way texts are read by the spectator (ie rather than being just passive consumers the pleasure and challenges we may get from watching a particular director’s work) and also the myriad of influences that are appearent tin the production of meaning.

Edited from:

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One Response to Auteur Theory

  1. Pingback: Week 4: Unit 3 – Jobs (How To Become a Cameraman) – Katie McCamley

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