Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film

Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film


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Alfred Hitchcock is often held up as the prime example of the one-man filmmaker, conceiving and controlling all aspects of his films’ development—the archetype of genius over collaboration. An exhibition at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, however, put the lie to Hitchcock-as-auteur, presenting more than seventy-five sketches, designs, watercolors, paintings, and storyboards that, together, examine Hitchcock’s very collaborative filmmaking process. The four essays in this collection were written to accompany the exhibition and delve further into Hitchcock’s contributions to the collaborative process of art in film.

Scott Curtis considers the four functions of Hitchcock’s sketches and storyboards and how they undermine the impression of Hitchcock as a lone artist. Tom Gunning examines the visual vocabulary and cultural weight of Hitchcock’s movies. Bill Krohn focuses sharply on the film I Confess, tracking its making over a very cooperative path.

Finally, Jan Olsson draws on the television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to show the ways that collaboration contributes to the formation of his well known public persona. Anchored by editor Will Schmenner’s introduction, this book represents an important contribution to Hitchcock scholarship and a provocative glimpse at his unsung strength as a collaborative artist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810124479
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 09/28/2007
Edition description: 1
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 9.50(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Will Schmenner is the assistant film curator at the Block Museum

Corinne Granof is Associate Curator at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. She has organized numerous exhibitions of modern American and European art and has written on a broad range of topics, with a focus on early twentieth-century German art.

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Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2007

Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2447-9

Chapter One Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film: An Introduction


In 1954 the cultural critic and intellectual Robert Warshow wrote:

[T]here is art in the movies, and there is an "art" cinema. Many of the products of "art" cinema well deserve all the praise they have received. And yet, I think, one cannot long frequent the "art" cinema or read much of the criticism which upholds it without a sense of incompleteness and even of irrelevance. Really the movies are not quite that "legitimate"-they are still the bastard child of art, and if in the end they must be made legitimate, it will be a changed household of art which receives them.

Over fifty years later there is still something about movies in the fine arts museum that raises eyebrows. It is a problem of exhibition: movies aren't meant for clean, bright museum walls. It is a problem of technology and medium: a movie is not a unique object and cannot be appreciated without the technology to project it. And it is a problem of authorship: movies do not conform to our ideas of how art should be created.

It is the last of these problems that is the most nebulous and potentially rewarding. Indeed, the exhibition and this catalogue, although specifically about Alfred Hitchcock, focus more generally on the issue of how movies are created. At the heart of the problem is a paradox: movies are made by scores, even hundreds of people, and movies are the creation of the director. How can this be?

To pose the question another way, we talk about movies as if they belonged to a director, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). To a certain extent The Birds is Alfred Hitchcock's. But is it Alfred Hitchcock's in the same way that Ulysses is James Joyce's? In the same way Mona Lisa is Leonardo da Vinci's? Perhaps unlike most of literature and many types of painting, feature film production has always been a collaborative venture. The very nature of feature film production requires it to be. Yet much of the politics of the Hollywood studio system, the vagaries of marketing, the organization of film programming in museums and cinematheques, and even film criticism itself have often opted to ignore film's collaborative nature in an effort to legitimize film as art. When the collective creativity within movies is pushed aside, one can argue that movies are art because directors are artists. However, such a statement is only part of the truth. The goal of this exhibition and catalogue is to demonstrate that collaboration and artistic legitimacy are not mutually exclusive. The relatively new medium of film (compared with the other arts, film is still just a toddler) demands a rethinking of authorship.

The myths surrounding Alfred Hitchcock and his own ambiguous position in regards to authorship, coupled with the production designs, sketches, storyboards, and other collaborative documents from his productions, make him and his work an ideal focus for an exhibition concerned with authorship and how movies are created. After briefly examining the idea of authorship in film, this essay will turn its attention to Hitchcock's own words and drawings from his productions, as well as introduce the other essays and the plate section.

Motion pictures first prominently entered the fine arts museum in 1935 when the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr., hired Iris Barry to start the museum's Film Library. Barry needed a group of quality films that would implicitly strengthen the claim that film belonged in the fine arts museum; in other words, she needed a canon. In fact, at the time there was no video, no television, and few repertory cinemas, and only the most recent films were available for viewing. More than anyone's, Barry's programming and preservation efforts helped create a film canon. Interestingly, her evolving film canon was authorless. Barry and others were still primarily arguing for the categorical uniqueness of movies. For motion pictures to be considered an art form, they had to be their own new and separate art. As intellectuals like Vachel Lindsay and Hugo Münsterberg had argued since the 1910s, movies were art because they were not theater, music, painting, or photography. Within this context part of what made movies unique was that they did not have authors in the typical sense of the word. Indeed, resolving the sticky question of authorship in film was not seen as a priority.

Eighty-five years ago, movies had yet to make their foray into the fine arts museum. Iris Barry would soon be a founding member of the London Film Society. And producer Michael Balcon first met Hitchcock at Islington Studios. Balcon, as much as Barry, wished to improve film's reputation-it was generally seen as rather classless, cheap entertainment. Balcon intrinsically understood the motion picture business needed directors who could raise people's expectations of what movies could be. His money was on Hitchcock, who had the potential to impress with both his carefully controlled image and his precisely constructed movies. Working for Gaumont-British and later Ealing Films, Balcon not only gave Hitchcock his first credited job as a director, he also helped cultivate Hitchcock's reputation as the master of suspense. The exhibition includes two pages of notes from Michael Balcon. There he reviews the projects he is working on and asks himself if the script for The 39 Steps (1935) "is any good for a director other than A.J.H." Balcon was a man intimately acquainted with the collaborative work it took to make a movie. Yet he also understood that The 39 Steps was likely to be a movie that Hitchcock could make better than anyone else. As his notes reveal, he realized, perhaps around the same time as Hitchcock, that there could be such a thing as a Hitchcock picture, and, indeed, he nurtured its development.

Contrary to our usual notions of film authorship, the development of the Hitchcock film does not mean Hitchcock controlled all the aspects of production or dominated his early films. An early contract from The Skin Game (1931), a motion picture Hitchcock made for John Maxwell of British International Pictures, bound Hitchcock to the written scenario, prohibiting him from changing it during filming. Although in the case of The Skin Game Hitchcock may have had an advantage over other directors similarly obliged-The Skin Game was written by Alma Reville, a well-known scenario writer and film editor and also Hitchcock's wife-he still was in a position where carefully planning his production and collaborating with his writer would afford him the best chance to make a quality movie. Hitchcock planned, perhaps because he was compelled by artistic inspiration, but also out of necessity. Because he was contractually obliged to film the scenario, the only means he had for controlling the quality of the film was meticulous preparation. And it is here at the intersection of creating and planning that Hitchcock's greatness is too often unexamined-it is that greatness that Balcon may very well have seen in 4 Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film: An Introduction Hitchcock 85 years ago. It may be unexamined in part because it is still problematic. The process raises many questions and goes to the core of what it means to direct a film.

The writers from Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s approached the problem of authorship from a different perspective. From their position as critics and writers, the director was both the person most responsible for a film and the only person among the various department heads whose contributions to the film were unidentified. The actors have their performances. The screenwriter has his or her script. The cinematographer has the film itself. But what is the director's? Cahiers writers wished to establish a categorical way of judging directorial efforts, and they wanted to bring motion pictures into the pantheon of arts.

Although the precise articulation of la politique des auteurs depended upon which critic was writing, it was typically an argument that positioned the director as a movie's creator and artist. Part of la politique des auteurs was an effort to uncover the signature of the director within the abundance of information a film provides. The writers at Cahiers du cinéma maintained that "mise-en-scène" was where one would primarily find the director's voice. Mise-en-scène means, more or less, that which is placed in the scene, and it can include such facets of directing as blocking, aspects of set design, camera techniques, and color motifs. They kept the category deliberately vague, perhaps because directors, depending on their power and abilities, had control over varying aspects of a production. La politique des auteurs was, at its heart, a way of seeing a film-one that allowed someone with no prior knowledge of how a particular film was made to understand a director's contribution to a given film. In a sense, it was a way of understanding movies, which encouraged dissecting how they were made. This approach opened up a new world of film analysis.

Hitchcock became a perennial illustration of the Cahiers argument with his tendency to make movies that were variations on a given theme (for instance, the innocent man wrongly accused), his well-known collaborations with his writers, and his own arguments for the importance of the director. If only for a moment, la politique des auteurs was primarily about finding the director's voice in a movie. For example, although director Nicholas Ray did not write or produce many of his own films, his movies had his touch. Through mise-enscène he made a vital aspect of the movie his own. However, la politique des auteurs quickly, if not immediately, expanded from an advocacy for the director's essential shaping and leading influence upon a film into an argument for the director as author and sole artist. Iris Barry had begun the creation of the canon, and Cahiers proceeded to enumerate the authors. Perhaps Cahiers' list of authors was an inevitable step in the efforts to legitimize movies. However, it placed these two arguments for film as art at odds with one another. Barry and others had argued motion pictures were a unique art form, while the more zealous writers at Cahiers had argued for directors as auteurs, where an auteur was interchangeable with an author or an artist.

Hitchcock's own self-promotion foreshadowed his later auteur status. Long before Cahiers published its first article on la politique des auteurs, Hitchcock discussed his desire to make one-man pictures. On November 16, 1927, an article by Hitchcock appeared in the London Evening News titled "Films We Could Make." In it he claimed, "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." It was a bold claim that some of his later writing would contradict.

It may be nearly impossible to determine precisely when the director became the artist behind the film. But after a certain moment, it was no longer revolutionary to argue for a way of seeing movies that emphasized the director's contributions. Indeed, even Hitchcock's strident argument for one-man pictures no longer seemed overly simplistic. Today, for example, we are more likely to understand la politique des auteurs as an argument for one-man pictures than as an insight into how movies are made. Hitchcock's mythology, however manufactured, has become the textbook example of an auteur, despite the evidence of how he actually worked. In fact, the word auteur is used not to suggest how movies are an art form but as an expression of a director's power, influence, and almost fervent independence (coupled with a hunger for credit) regardless of the quality of the work. For example, it is employed to describe someone who writes, produces, and directs his movies, not in collaboration but by himself.

Although Hitchcock eventually produced his own movies and often oversaw the writing of his films, it would be a mistake to see Hitchcock in this light. To understand how Hitchcock worked we must separate the self-promoter from the filmmaker. Hitchcock was attuned to the public's need for a direct relationship between artist and art object, providing that connection from his early argument for one-man pictures to his later claim that he envisioned his movies entirely in his mind before they went into production. Inasmuch as his greatness seemed apparent (both in his movies and in his persona), and inasmuch as the public perceived a satisfyingly direct relationship between artist and art object, many accepted what on the face of it was a rather ridiculous claim: that Hitchcock made his movies essentially by himself. For many the claim is imbued with a mythic quality-as if Hitchcock's movies sprung from his head fully formed, like Athena from Zeus. Hitchcock even reinforced that interpretation with the occasional claim to be more of a motion picture shaman than a director. Hitchcock knew that public personas do not need to be consistent in order to be effective. A certain amount of contradiction creates mystery and, ironically, a more convincing illusion of reality. Hitchcock reveled from time to time in inflammatory comments, and about not just his ability to visualize, but, for instance, dealing with actors-"they should be treated like cattle." He did, however, occasionally speak with honesty about his working methods.

Much of his writing from the late 1930s reads like a personal philosophy on filmmaking. In the article "Life Among the Stars," he began by enumerating all of the crew and comparing them to an army: "disciplined, departmentalized, and efficient." Later on in that same series of articles he wrote about how he makes his films: "We want to find a story. We meet and talk. We read reviews-we have no time to read the whole books. We pore over notices of plays." The "we" that Hitchcock invoked likely included his key collaborators. Hitchcock's desire for meaningful collaboration had not abated over 20 years later when Hitchcock was working on The Birds with screenwriter Evan Hunter. After receiving an early draft of the script from Hunter, he shared it with his collaborators and synthesized their comments with his in the response to Hunter:

The script has also been read by a number of other people, mostly the technicians who are working on the picture, such as art director, production personnel, etc. probably not more than 8 or 9 people in all.

With the comments I have, I'm also going to include their observations. Naturally, of course, where someone might have made some comment which I didn't agree with I am, as Sam Goldwyn would say, "including them out."

The first general impression is that the script is way too long. This, of course, I know you are already aware of. However the consensus seems to indicate that it is the front part of the script that needs some drastic pruning. I will suggest some ideas to you later on in this letter.

Now the next prevalent comment I have heard is that both the girl and the young man seem insufficiently characterized. In endeavoring to analyze this criticism I have gathered the impression "there doesn't seem to be any particular feature about the young man himself to warrant the girl going to all the trouble she does in delivering a couple of love birds."

Hitchcock is more interested in the consensus than in identifying his thoughts or those of any individual collaborator. In the letter to Hunter he goes on to expand upon the critique with a specific story explaining the danger of "'no-scene' scenes." Although he claims the story as his, he has no desire to reveal where his opinions end and where the thoughts of his department heads begin. There is every reason to believe that when Hitchcock wrote that the "most valuable thing in creating a film is criticism at the time," he meant it, both for himself and for his collaborators. Indeed, he created an environment that fostered constructive criticism.

The boundaries of that critical yet collaborative environment was the general idea of the Alfred Hitchcock film. The Alfred Hitchcock film was specific enough that it was Hitchcock's, yet broad enough that other people could contribute to it. And people certainly did contribute-recommending books, stories, and plays that had that certain Hitchcock feel.


Excerpted from CASTING A SHADOW Copyright © 2007 by Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface. Casting Alfred Hitchcock: An Art Historical Perspective
David Alan Robertson

1. Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film: An Introduction
Will Schmenner

2. The Last Word: Images in Hitchcock's Working Method
Scott Curtis

3. In and Out of the Frame: Paintings in Hitchcock
Tom Gunning

4. I Confess and Nos deux consciences
Bill Krohn

5. Hitchcock á la Carte: Menus, Marketing, and the Macabre
Jan Olsson

Introduction to Plates

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