Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010): A Pioneer in Hitchcock Criticism

Earlier this past week I was writing about the recently released Blu-ray edition of North by Northwest and the new documentary by Gary Leva contained therein when I learned of the passing of the French director, writer, actor, novelist, and critic Eric Rohmer.

The obits were full of laudatory quotes about Rohmer’s impressive list of credits, his impact on the French New Wave of the 1960s, his deep understanding of the female characters in his films, his standing among his contemporaries—Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol—but mentioned only briefly was his writing/editing for Cahiers du Cinéma and the subsequent impact he and his colleagues had on cinema studies over the past fifty years.

It was of course the Cahiers du Cinéma critics that first called serious attention to Alfred Hitchcock and canonized him as an auteur. Of those critics, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol were the first to compile a book-length study on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Published in French in 1957, their groundbreaking work was later translated into English and published under the title Hitchcock: The First Forty-four Films. Taking Hitchcock’s films chronologically, from The Pleasure Garden through The Wrong Man, Rohmer and Chabrol searched for themes, motifs, and oft used devices which defined Hitchcock's signature style and more importantly, which elevated him to the status of auteur and artist—not merely an entertainer.

As Albert LaValley put it in his introduction to Focus on Hitchcock, the structural key to Hitchcock's films "discovered" by Rohmer and Chabrol was "a transfer of guilt in which an innocent weak figure yields to a stronger evil figure and thereby shares the evil desires of the latter." In its simplicity, the key fits, thus Rohmer and Chabrol opened the door for scholars like Robin Wood and Donald Spoto, whose book-length appreciations of the director remain key works in Hitchcock studies some thirty and forty years afterward. Later came writers like Stephen Rebello, Leonard Leff, and Dan Auiler who chronicled the production history of key films and collaborations of Hitchcock’s. Combined with Truffaut’s interview book Hitchcock and the scores of books and mini-documentaries (not to mention the countless websites and blogs), and its quite a dialogue this Englishman with a talent for telling stories has brought on.

There is no question that if he isn’t considered so already, within a hundred years’ time, Alfred Hitchcock will be to the cinema what William Shakespeare is to theater.

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