The emergence of Auteur theory in cinema can be associated with, among other things, the permanence of the medium. With regard to other art forms, especially theatre, the director is held hostage to the lack of repeated viewing and analysis concerning their final product. With cinema, this is not the case. In fact it’s repeated viewings that originally led to the advent of auteur theory when French film critics were able to view multiple films by a specific director in succession. They studied these films and recognized a series of reoccurring motifs, both narrative and formal, that created a signature style and form consistent in all of the director’s works.
Alfred Hitchcock is widely considered a master filmmaker and one of the quintessential figures concerning auteur theory. He is also widely considered one of the most popular and commercially successful directors of all time, and his strict relationship to auteur theory is strongly responsible for this, allowing him to make commercially appealing films while still injecting dense subject matter and artful formal elements to retain scholastic importance.
Alfred Hitchcock is rightfully classified as an auteur and his British masterpiece, The 39 Steps serves as the best example of his authorship. The films display of his trademark narrative and formal motifs, its reflexive nature, and its commentary on subjective viewing help support this as his most auteuristic film. The film’s final scene exemplifies this argument further, encapsulating all of the aforementioned traits, as well as providing the most poetic ending in the Hitchcock catalog.
As with most art forms, the master practitioner usually has a certain appreciation and understanding of the medium’s beginnings, and Hitchcock is a perfect example of this. His undying love for the golden age of silent film, or as he refers to it “pure cinema”, plays a solid role in addressing Hitchcock’s signature formal style and authorship. This element is present throughout The 39 Steps, but especially in the film’s final scene, as the events unfold over primarily just images and music. In shot #15, Richard is finally able to begin unlocking the puzzle because of the orchestral song change. This epiphany is signaled the viewers through the image of his facial reaction and the song change itself, providing a textbook example of effective “pure cinema”. Furthermore, the film’s diegetic orchestral score helps build tension over a series of POV and close-up shots. Shots #5 through #11 are perfect examples of this.
These shots also serve to explore another key element to both Hitchcock’s signature formal style and the tension built in the film’s final scene; the editing. Hitchcock is famously known as “the master of suspense” and this title owes its accreditation primarily to his editing techniques. The final scene of The 39 Steps is riddled with examples of this, such as intercutting the events taking place within the theatre with the policemen gathering and tracking Richard outside the theatre. Furthermore, as this action is taking place, Hitchcock is also intercutting shots of Richard figuring out the relationship between the professor and Mr. Memory. By intercutting these two plotlines, the timing in the manner of discovery is synchronized to achieve the maximum climax.
Although it’s adequately expressed by the film’s formal aspects, Hitchcock’s authorship is present literally before the film even begins, as he famously changed many elements of the book while working on the screenplay with Charles Bennett. The most prominent of these changes relate directly to Hitchcock’s signature narrative style, such as his implementation of a Macguffin. In the novel, the actual 39 steps play a much larger role, but they take a backseat in Hitchcock’s film to a love story that was also interjected by the director. The romance between Pamela and Richard, prominently displayed as the films main storyline, is completely absent from the...
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