Three Philosophical Filmmakers

Film can be, among other things, a diverting entertainment, a profit-making commodity, and an exercise in reflexive, even abstract formalism. But in the hands of imaginative and deeply thoughtful visionaries and visualizers like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Jean Renoir, film can also be a profound examination of the human condition, the defining mark of philosophy for author Irving Singer.

Of these three filmmakers, Hitchcock is the closest to being a formalist, and his penchant for manipulating audience response and steering them into the darker recesses of experience at first glance makes him a surprising choice as an example of cinematic humanism. But Singer wisely concedes that humanism need not always be cheery, and demonstrates the value of Hitchcock’s relentless, often painful, and more than occasionally comic insight into human frailty, vulnerability, and desire. Hitchcock was well aware that philosophy is a dangerous activity—he twice made a film with the monitory title The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, 1956)—but Singer rightly appreciates Hitchcock as one of the great cinematic searchers and truth-tellers.

Welles too could be called a formalist, and his exaggerated special effects and stylized acting, camera work, and editing are as much a part of his aesthetic as is his “realism.” But Singer emphasizes that Welles’s aesthetic is almost always in the service of a deep engagement in human history. His films revolve around the “myth of the past”: the continuity of human experience, our immersion in time, and, to coin a phrase, time’s immersion in us, themes that link Welles with such important philosophical writers as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and especially William Shakespeare.

Singer strains not to voice a preference among his three chosen filmmakers, but his particular attraction to Renoir is hard to miss. Both Hitchcock and Welles erect barriers between themselves and their audience, but Renoir more successfully establishes an ongoing and genial conversation with his spectators. He was, no less than Hitchcock and Welles, deeply concerned with the integrity and artfulness of his films, but blended this with an improvisatory shooting style, collaborative working method, and openness to experience that infuse his works with compassion and wisdom that charms, educates, and humanizes his audience. For Singer, these qualities mark the maturity and continuing vitality of what is still the quintessential art form of the modern era.