Auteur theory (author theory) is a theory of film which not only ascribes the director with an authorial-like control over the final look of the film but also dismisses as worthless those films in which no such unity of vision is discernible. Following this model, any film by Alfred Hitchcock, even the half-baked late ones like Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), will always be more highly regarded than any film by Michael Bay, including his blockbusters like Bad Boys (1995) and Armageddon (1998), even though Bay’s thrillers are more thrilling than Hitchcock’s to the majority of today’s viewers.
Auteur theory is generally associated with the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, which was launched in 1951, particularly the 1954 article ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma’ by critic and director François Truffaut which became a kind of manifesto for the French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague.
The actual phrase ‘auteur theory’ originates with American film critic Andrew Sarris, who transformed the debate in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma referred to as the politique des auteurs into a distinctive methodological programme. This debate began when, impressed by the Hollywood films imported into France following the end of the Second World War after several years absence, the Cahiers du cinéma authors re-evaluated their view of American film, which they had previously dismissed as commercial schlock. They noted that while American directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford had little control over the production of their films because of the way the studio and star systems worked, they nonetheless managed to exercise considerable control over the style of the movie. The authors of Cahiers du cinéma conceived of a new way of thinking about authorship, focusing on the finished style of a film rather than its actual process of production. In this respect, auteur theory is paradoxical at its core because while it acknowledges that films are not created by individuals, but in fact require a veritable army of creative people-ranging from cost accountants to scriptwriters and camera operators—to realize them, it nevertheless upholds the idea that the final look of a film can be attributed to a single individual. In the end, this position proved untenable and film theory has since taken a much more ‘multiple’ approach to film.