The cameo: appearing in your own film
“I have wormed my way into my own pictures as a spy. A director should see how the other half lives.” -Hitchcock
Borgus.com - Spielberg puts a signature shooting-star in nearly all of his films, Tarantino includes brands of fictitious products in his, but it’s the Hitchcock cameo that is the most culturally entrenched trademark of all directors. Alfred Hitchcock was among the first to popularize the notion that directors could put signatures on a work.
Hitchcock started appearing in his own films quite early in his directing career, initially because extras were needed to fill crowd scenes. As time went on, his distinctly shaped profile found clever ways to appear in nearly all of his subsequent works. His cameos are more than just self-portraits or an exercise in vanity. They are very closely tied to his unique style of manipulating the artifice of cinema, they are the branding scheme of an intense publicity effort, and they are used as a storytelling device, creating a special bond between filmmaker and viewer. Through his cameos, Hitchcock becomes an ambassador between you and the world he has created.
1. A Crowd of Storylines
Crowd scenes were the best opportunity for Hitchcock to appear, and in the absence of crowds he would find a clever alternative like appearing in the newspaper ad in Lifeboat (1944).
There is an element of Where’s Waldo? in the crowd scenes of every Hitchcock film, as the apt viewer searches for the hidden director. But just like Waldo, crowds in the Hitchcock world are much more than just a sea of random people, they are filled with intricately detailed caricatures – each with their own separately intriguing story. If the camera stayed on one of these side stories, an entirely new movie could play out equally as interesting as the one being watched.
“At first it was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag.”
Hitchcock’s cameo, then, allows us to feel a serendipitous moment in which our story brushes past all the others, rising out of the masses to get our full attention. The main plot surreptitiously mingles with these wild and distracting characters, with Hitchcock signaling that he has chosen one for us to follow.
2. Cameo as a Transition
Hitchcock scholar Michael Walker's survey of his works reveals that most of Hitchcock’s cameos appear at the beginnings of films during scene transitions. They have been timed to appear either as characters move between locations or just before an important event ocurrs. The Hitchcock cameo is an omen, warning us that something significant will happen to our protagonist soon. The cameo marks a narrative threshold which once crossed by the character, cannot be undone (Walker 2006).
Examples include Guy (Farley Granger) stepping off the train in the introduction of Strangers on a Train (1951), Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) on the train to Santa Rosa in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and the shift to New York in Topaz (1969) – to name a few (Walker 2006).
3. Cameo as a Publicity Device
Modern filmmakers could learn a thing or two from Hitchcock’s strategy of self-promotion, which was quite effective in shaping his own image as the Master of Suspense. He began early in his career crafting his directorial image, even founding a publicity company to get his name in the papers.
As early as 1927, he had already drawn up the famous silhouette – the now recognizable pouting lips, big cheeks, and pulled back hair – which appeared in the opening credits of his early films, as well as in the later TV series. His cameos were a direct extension of this branding symbol that helped to perpetuate his persona in the mind of the public.
It is also said that he intentionally added the cameos to get critics talking (Kapsis 1992). It’s a wink and nod to the critics who would in-turn begin writing about this star director, often getting more attention than the actors. By 1938 he was the most recognizable director in the industry (Van der Poll 2005).
The branding image he painted was of a jovial master innocently sneaking around behind the scenes, slyly creating practical jokes for the viewer to enjoy. Film scholar Thomas Leitch (2008) described him as an “impresario, naïf, fat Cockney, and funhouse architect.”
His on-camera introductions of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1950’s further helped shape his public perception as a director and craftsman. Each episode of his TV show begins as if we’ve caught a mad-scientist in his lab, creating gags and jokes he may try out in the next episode. During his movie cameos, he feigns innocence as if he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t. His facial expression knowingly pretends to carry on with some everyday task, fully conscious of being watched. But, of course, this is all part of the gag – as a wink and a nod to his loyal audience.
4. Bond Between Viewer and Hitchcock
The one person on the film set solely responsible for thinking about what the viewer is feeling and thinking at any given moment is the director. The director is the ambassador between viewer and story. Hitchcock’s cameos facilitate this viewer connection by evoking sympathy, often as the butt of self-depreciating gag. In Blackmail (1929) he’s being harassed by a child on the train, in Torn Curtain (1966) his leg has been peed on by a baby, in North By Northwest (1959) he misses the bus, and in Strangers on a Train (1951) he has trouble lifting a large double bass onto a train.
These self-effacing gags elicit a likeable giggle in the viewer. He’s our buddy. He’s on our side. He’s up there on the screen to get a front row seat of the action – to watch the movie right along with us. But of course the audience knows full well that behind this innocence is a prankster preparing the next tease.
“My purpose is purely sinister. I find that the easiest way to worry people is to turn the tables on them.”
The ultimate effect of the Hitchcock cameo is awakening the awareness that there is a storyteller at work, arranging things on the screen for you. More than that, according to Leitch, Hitchcock sets up a game between the storyteller and the viewer (2008). He’ll throw the ball and you’ll try to catch it. But of course, you can’t catch the ball – it’s just a flat movie screen and you’ve been delightfully fooled into believing it was real.
The Hitchcock hand is in full force, shaping, manipulating, and ultimately giving you a pleasurable fun-house ride. You’ll be tricked, shocked, on the edge of your seat, and you’ll come back begging for more. It’s this audience consciousness of the director which has been quite unique to Hitchcock, never purely matched by any other director.
Written: March 2012
Continue to other articles:
How to Turn Your Boring Movie into a Hitchcock Thriller
Humor: Hitchcock's Secret Weapon
Message in a booth: Arbogast's last words
The Definitive List of Hitchcock MacGuffins
Creating a Hitchcockian Opening
Sound: Hitchcock's Third Dimension
The Cameo: Appearing in Your Own Film
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Written by Jeffrey Michael Bays, an award-winning radio producer most widely known for 'Not From Space' on XM Satellite Radio. He is also filmmaker and film scholar with a Master of Arts in Cinema from La Trobe University. Jeffrey has written for Peter Marshall's Director's Chair, and is currently writing a book for Micheal Wiese Publishing. As an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Jeffrey directed the Australian suspense film Offing David and is currently in development of two new films.
Gottlieb, Sidney 1995. Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, California UP, USA.
Kapsis, Robert 1992. Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation,University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Lietch, Thomas 1991. Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games, Univeristy of Georgia Press, Athens.
Truffaut, Francois 1984. Hitchcock by Truffaut: The Definitive Study, Grafton Books, London.
Van der Poll 2005. Kaapse Bibl, Sept/Okt 2005, p. 37.
Walker, Michael 2006. Hitchcock Motifs, Amsterdam University Press.
Blackmail 1929, British International Pictures.
Lifeboat 1944, 20th Century-Fox.
North By Northwest 1959, MGM.
Shadow of a Doubt 1943, Universal.
Strangers on a Train 1951, Warner Bros.
Topaz 1969, Universal
Torn Curtain 1966, Universal.