Alfred Hitchcock was a film director and a paradigmatic example of an auteur. Hitchcock’s most successful and well-known films is Rear Window, which he directed in 1954. Upon its initial release, the film was both a critical and commercial success and its reputation as one of the Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces has grown over the decades since. In a recent AFI (American Film Institute) poll, Rear Window came in at number 42 on the list of the 100 greatest films ever made with three other Alfred Hitchcock films in the top 100: Psycho (#18), North by Northwest (#40) and Vertigo (#61).
It is worth mentioning that in a similar BFI (British Film Institute) poll conducted a year later, Rear Window was ranked at #53 (interestingly enough in a tie with North by Northwest) whilst first place was actually taken by Vertigo. This points to a couple of interesting issues, not least of which is the unreliability of these kinds of polls! At the same time however, the ubiquitous presence of Alfred Hitchcock movies in any sort of “greatest ever film” list it is a testament not only to his abilities as a filmmaker but also the longevity of a career that spanned over 50 years. But it also needs further note that the four films mentioned above were all made between 1954 and 1960 and it is really these years that are considered Hitchcock’s golden period.
Alfred Hitchcock was a consummate filmmaker and a paradigmatic example of what is known as an auteur. He was obsessively concerned with every aspect and element of his films’ production from the editing to the set design to the costume to the sound production. He would meticulously storyboard every shot and scene before a single foot of film had been recorded.
Though he frequently worked with the same male actors in numerous films (James Stewart appeared in four of his movies), Alfred Hitchcock is most well-known for the ubiquitous presence of a succession “ice-cool blondes” such as Eve-Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman, TippiHedren, Janet Leigh, Doris Day, Kim Novak and, of course, Grace Kelly. In a series of interviews with the French director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock acknowledged this preference for a certain type of blonde actress because their icy aloofness offered (as Truffaut put it) “the paradox between the inner life and cool surface.”
This paradox points us towards an interesting and productive way to think about film generally which is to consider the relationship between surface and depth. In other words, and as the readings in your coursepack demonstrate, film is a complex, complicated, and multi-layered creative form. Even the most seemingly straightforward and traditional narrative film such as The Lion King (1994) contains layers of meaning that might not be immediately apparent if all we do is get sucked in by the story line and the emotional life of the characters.
What makes Alfred Hitchcock such an interesting filmmaker is that he builds into his films any number of oblique references and visual symbols designed to add depth to the film and enhance our enjoyment as spectators while, at the same time, offering us an intellectual as well as an aesthetic and emotional experience.
In view of the brief notes above and with reference to the readings in your coursepack combined with your own research into Alfred Hitchcock and Rear Window, please respond to the following questions:
1. In the context of film history and criticism, what is an auteur?
2. What is meant by the term genre? What genre is Rear Window and what recognizable elements are present in the film that help to identify its generic identity?
3. What are the principal themes in Rear Window? In other words, what is the film about? Bear in mind that this is a different issue than thinking about what happens in the film (though they are closely related of course). What are the bigger ideas to which the film is pointing us?
4. Identify a number of different analytical positions from which we can approach any film. Define each of them briefly and explain why a feminist perspective has been used so frequently to explain Rear Window.
5. Rear Window is now nearly 60 years old. To what extent has it maintained is ability to create fear, panic, and tension in an audience? Do you think it would be a “better” film if Alfred Hitchcock had had access to the kinds of seamless special effects we see in modern movies?
6. Who was Sigmund Freud and why might he so frequently be associated with the films of Alfred Hitchcock?
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