The Auteur Paradigm, part 1

(In this entry, I’m playing around with a few concepts and terms – such as “authorship by ownership” or “the idea of ownership.” I welcome thoughts about these concepts, suggestions for alternate terminology, or references to other texts and writers that do a better job of explaining them.)

Much of the research that I do in film studies (and other screen studies as well) centers on my contention that the auteur concept is so dominant and so pervasive within contemporary film scholarship and culture as to constitute a paradigm. To be sure, there are a number of ways to think about, study, or teach film that are not traditionally auteurist – or at least seem not to be. But I would argue that even most of us who are suspicious of auteurism, or insist on its illegitimacy, dwell within the paradigm despite our best intentions. Others, of course, happily reside there and make no bones about the paradigm’s efficacy for understanding films and film history.*

Over the next two entries I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing the auteur paradigm, particularly some general thoughts about how it came into existence and also why it’s so relevant to my project on women in 1970s Hollywood. Much of what I’ll write, especially in this first entry, is well known to film scholars and most film buffs, too: the concept of the auteur and its many iterations over the past several decades have been endlessly outlined, discussed, and dissected. This won’t be a timeline of the auteur, another retelling of the concept’s evolution, or a debate about the strengths and weaknesses of particular strains of auteurism (there will be a bit of that, but if you’re unfamiliar with the concept and its history, this is a decent starting point). Rather it will be more like a riff on the concept, bouncing through history and theory with a smattering of law to consider just how the auteur paradigm came to dominate our understanding of film so thoroughly.

First, a bit of the obvious. “Auteur,” which is a term generally applied to film directors, is the French word for “author.” Why the director of a film (rather than its writer) is deemed its author is a long story with a history rooted largely in cultural history, copyright law, and romantic conceptions of the artist as a singular visionary. But it’s worth pointing out that even before the term came into being and over the course of its history, the term has developed at least two functions. The first conveys the originality of creation, just as it usually does for the author of a book. This is the more common usage, linked as it is to our understanding of art and the individual artist. But the second is also important, and that’s the use of the term “author” to mean “owner,” which originally stems from the relationship between an author and a work’s copyright. An author’s ownership of the copyright to a work has been the subject of legal protection since the early days of the printing press. Copyright is often granted based, in some part, on a work’s originality. Thus, the concepts of author as “creator” and author as “owner” reinforce each other. This probably seems self-evident. But when it comes to determining film authorship, the oversimplification of the relationship between creator and owner has been fundamental to allowing the director to take up both functions.

When the subject of auteur history comes up, the story usually finds its origins in post-War France, particularly with the critics writing in Cahiers du Cinema, and especially with François Truffaut’s groundbreaking 1954 essay “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (“A certain tendency in French cinema”). In this article, Truffaut articulated the concept of the director as auteur, an idea that had been circulating in French cinema discourse since the 1940s (particularly in work by Alexandre Astruc, André Bazin, and Roger Leenhardt). The gist of Truffaut’s argument was that the personality of certain directors was so strong that it would assert itself in their films despite other limitations that might be placed upon them by, for example, the script (expanded by later to auteurists to include the budget or producer demands). For Truffaut auteurs were artists and, as such, their films were necessarily better than films by non-auteur directors. This hierarchy of creativity and quality would be forcefully developed by auteurists throughout the next two-plus decades. But it’s important to note that, with rare exceptions, the film artists in question were always directors.

Truffaut and other Cahiers writers developed and popularized the “director as author” construction, but questions surrounding a film’s ownership (and thus, among other things, the claim to its creative origin) had been swirling around since cinema’s earliest days. During the early silent era, it was relatively common practice for film distributors to take film prints – from other countries or other production facilities – alter them slightly, and then redistribute them as their own property (violating, at the very least, the spirit of copyright). Thomas Edison was producing some of America’s earliest films at studios in New Jersey and New York. To resist this pirating of his studio’s output, he took the novel approach of having his best-known in-house director, Edwin Porter, place Edison’s name so prominently in “Life of an American Fireman” (1903) that nobody could doubt the film’s origin. In so doing, Edison could assert his ownership of the film, but also claim association with the innovative cinematic work that Porter was doing:

Just what your bedroom's missing! The picture to the right of the window reads "Thomas A. Edison" ("Life of an American Firman" 1903).

Just what your bedroom’s missing! The picture to the right of the window reads “Thomas A. Edison” (“Life of an American Firman” 1903).

In fact, in the early days of cinema, it was generally producers and distributors like Edison who asserted ownership of a film property. Here’s an intertitle card from D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking “A Corner in Wheat” (1909) that includes the monogram of production company American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (soon renamed as simply the Biograph Company):

Intertitle from "A Corner in Wheat" (1909).

Griffith would later contest the notion that Biograph’s ownership of the films he directed equated with their creative origin. In 1913, soon after leaving Biograph, Griffith took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Dramatic Mirror in which he claimed credit for “all great Biograph successes,” acknowledged himself as having single-handedly developed cinema as an art, and, just to be clear, listed the titles of over 100 films that he was responsible for:

Trade ad from

Trade ad from The New York Dramatic Mirror, December 1913.

I find this advertisement fascinating for a number of reasons, but two are especially worth mentioning. First, it recognizes the tension between authorship as creation and authorship as ownership. To be clear, describing filmmakers as auteurs or authors was still 40 years away, but the concept’s inchoate roots lie in these early legal and popular struggles over whose right it was to be associated with a film: who owned the film, yes, but also who actually deserved credit for making it. In the ad, Griffith acknowledges that the films belong to Biograph, but in asserting that their creative origin lies with him, he’s actually (and perhaps unintentionally) highlighting a conceptual gap between the two functions of authorship: the owner may be the legal author, but the creator is the practical author (it’s telling that the ad is actually ascribed to Griffith’s lawyer). In the early days of cinema, producers and studios who owned the films often took credit for their artistic accomplishments. Fifty years after Griffith’s ad, the converse would be true.

Second (and I’ll touch on this more in Part Two), the ad makes no mention of Billy Bitzer, who had been Griffith’s cinematographer since 1908. These days film historians tend to give Bitzer as much if not more credit than Griffith for several of the film innovations that Griffith claims as his own. In stating his case, then, Griffith is also making an early argument for single-authorship, one of the key components of Cahiers auteurism, auteur theory, and the auteur paradigm as it continues to exist: the director alone is the film’s true artist.

As the Hollywood studio system developed and flourished from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, issues of creative origin and ownership continued to percolate. With the advent of sound, such questions also started to include the writer in addition to the director and producer. Most of the time, though, producers or studio heads took top credit for the films they produced. For example, here’s the opening image of Gone with the Wind (1939):


And here’s the second shot:


The third shot credits novelist Margaret Mitchell (not, tellingly, the film’s acknowledged screenwriter Sidney Howard):


After Mitchell’s come credits for the above-the-line cast, then, just in case anybody might have missed it:


While three credits in the space of a minute or so might be extreme, Selznick’s “ownership by credit” here is pretty typical of the studio era, in which studio heads and big name producers tended to be regarded as the creative overseers of films, the artists (one of the reasons the Academy Award for Best Picture goes to the producer). Plus Gone with the Wind had a famously troubled production, at least in terms of its directors, and Selznick worked very hard on the film throughout all stages of production, so crediting him as the film’s primary author seems not only typical, but legitimate.

However, throughout this era, high-profile directors were also asserting “ownership” of their films. To take one example, let’s have a quick look at how a few of Alfred Hitchcock’s early American films were presented in relation to his potential artistic “ownership” of them. Here are the opening credits to Hitchcock’s first US film, Rebecca (1940):


Hitchcock’s “Directed by” credit comes at the very end of the opening credits. As a newcomer to Hollywood, it might be expected that he wouldn’t be given top billing, especially when considering he was working with Selznick. But was Rebecca a Selznick film or a Hitchcock film or both? Hitchcock’s fourth American film, Suspicion (1941), saw the producer’s pre-title credit dropped, but the movie’s stars still got top billing, and with Saboteur (1942), Hitchcock gets his first possessive ‘s’ credit (following the producer and stars’ top billing):


For his next several films, Hitchcock’s credit would vary, depending somewhat on the studio or producer he was working with. Lifeboat (1944) saw “Alfred Hitchcock’s Production of . . .” while Spellbound (1945) saw him reunite with Selznick and that producer’s standard two card pre-title credit. It was only with 1953’s I Confess that Hitchcock received a possessive ‘s’ credit that was also top billing:


The history of Hollywood film credits is long, fascinating, and full of dispute between individuals, professional guilds, and studios.** But whatever the legal definition of film ownership might be at any given time, the credits themselves convey an idea of ownership. Differences between “A Film by Alfred Hitchcock,” “An Alfred Hitchcock Film,” and “Alfred Hitchcock’s . . .” might be slight and subtle, but they all imply that the film in question is his, is the director’s. Directors had received these credits on occasion since the earliest days of cinema; however, it wasn’t really until the late studio era that prestigious directors started to claim them regularly, often with top billing. This change went hand-in-hand with directors slowly but surely supplanting producers as both the creative origin and the “owner” of the completed film, at least in the film-going imagination.

Yeah, but, what have top-billing, possessive credits on big Hollywood films got to do with “a certain tendency in French cinema”? A lot, as it turns out. The focus of Truffaut’s article was, indeed, French cinema. It was an attack on what he called the “tradition of quality” in French films that had led to their being dominated by what he and his colleagues deemed stuffy, page-bound films. However, the Cahiers writers turned their auteurist focus very quickly towards Hollywood cinema. In doing so, they took up the debate about creative authorship and sided clearly with the directors. They would spend the next fifteen years championing the work of such old Hollywood hands as Hitchcock, John Ford, and Howard Hawkes, and newcomers like Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller (all, by the way, men). And they did so while continually returning to several key formulations in Truffaut’s article:

  • On some films the director, not the writer, is the film’s auteur;
  • Some directors, though, are not auteurs but metteurs en scene (in other words, they simply do what the script tells them with no individual flair);
  • Auteurs, through a spirit of fierce individuality, stamp their personality on their films, despite potentially numerous constraints;
  • This personality (later, “genius”) can be detected by close analysis of mise-en-scène and other formal aspects of a film;
  • Films by auteurs are better than films by non-auteurs.

Thus, at the precise time when American movie directors were increasingly accorded “ownership by credit” of the films they directed, French critics were arguing that even when those directors were hampered by the interference of a producer or studio system, the director’s spirit of artistic genius could be detected. In other words, no matter how many times Selznick placed his name at the beginning of Rebecca, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s film.

British and American critics were quick to take up and promote the French line of film analysis. By the early ‘60s Andrew Sarris in the US was already talking about “auteur theory,” and UK critic Ian Cameron was claiming in the pages of Movie magazine: “the director is the author of the film, the person who gives it any distinctive quality it may have.”

By the late 1960s, then, after decades of professional and theoretical wrangling over credit and acclaim, the director had ascended to the position of preeminent film artist.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss how this ascendency paved the way for both the director-as-genius and the director-as-sole-artist models that played dramatic roles in 1970s Hollywood and cemented the auteur paradigm.

*See for example Edward Buscombe’s matter-of-fact discussion of his 2012 Sight and Sound ballot: “We are all auteurists now, even those who tried to fight against it. So picking ten film titles is for me only a way of picking ten directors.”

**If any reader can point me to a detailed study of film credits and attribution through the ages (especially in Hollywood), I would be immensely grateful!

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