I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Blink and You’ll Miss Him: Alfred Hitchcock’s Cameos

by Tom Winkelspecht
June 8, 2013

There is perhaps no director more closely linked to cameos than Alfred Hitchock. His appearances, often funny but invariably fleeting, are paramount to a Hitchcock production. Glimpsing his familiar rotund frame is a game for the audience, just as the spotting hidden bunnies are to a Playboy cover. His cameos (nearly 40) span 50 years of filmmaking. “At first,” Hitchcock told Truffaut in his interviews, “ it was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag” (1).

The cameos of course also serve, perhaps most importantly, as an extremely effective exercise in brand management and psychology from the master of the thriller. His appearance is a veritable stamp of approval, the sight of Hitchcock lurking in the background is a signal delivered right to the audience to begin their anticipation of what thrills might lay in store.

These appearances are also part of the “stylistic consistencies,“ as well as “stamp of individuality” described by Francois Truffaut in his auteur theory, which used Hitchcock as an prime example of directorial control on filmmaking (3). Hitchcock’s cameos even reflect the recurring themes that mark the auteur in miniature; in addition to his predilection for being just another face in the crowd, many of Hitchcock’s cameos are marked by either public transportation (the director can often be spotted around trains, which were a common theme in his work) or musical instruments.

Despite appearing in nearly every film he made, Hitchcock’s cameo involvement does not extend to his television show, he appears only once (not counting the opening/closing sequences) out of the 361 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the belief that the show simply did not affect him as deeply as filmmaking did (4). If nothing else, the lack of television cameos might suggest that their film counterpoints seem to mean more, as if Hitchcock is showing his artistic approval for his movie by becoming a part of them.

But they aren’t born of vanity. Despite his (deserved) reputation for downplaying the of importance of his screenwriters, editors, and actors contributions to the movies, Hitchcock’s cameos never seem like he is trying to garner more of the audience‘s attention. Hitchcock’s slipping in and out of the background of his pictures spans a remarkable career, yet the cameos never grow relative to reputation, never become as self-aggrandizing as the generations to come (I’m looking at you, Shyamalan).

If it was vanity, surely his repertoire would expand beyond man struggling with instrument case. Yet Hitchcock is content to remain in the background, and only then for a few seconds. On occasion, but not as a rule, Hitchcock’s cameos offer some hint at the plot or introduce that particular movie‘s MacGuffin, like 1946‘s Notorious, in which Hitchcock‘s draining a champagne flute prompts the discovery of the plot device. But more commonly, the director may simply walk by a main character without even showing his face.

His cameos often showcase the director’s fondness for jokes. In one of his more jocular spots (1969‘s Topaz), Hitchcock is pushed in a wheelchair through a busy airport, only to get up to shake a hand and walk off with his companion. He lugs around an upright bass, gets pissed on by a baby. He turns up in crowds, he misses buses, models in newspaper ads for anti-obesity products. They were also hugely popular, so much so that after a time Hitchcock could only appear in the beginnings of his pictures rather than risk distracting the audience from the plot (2).

Whatever his motivation, Hitchcock’s cameos cannot be written off as mere quirk of a director who needs to be in control of every aspect of a film. Rather his appearances are as much an artistic signature as, say, the brushwork is to a Monet painting. They are essential, expected, and as important a part to a true Hitchcock as the aloof blonde or the wrongly accused. A Hitchcock film without a cameo cannot be watched without the distinct impression that something is missing.

The success of Hitchcock’s cameos was proof that a director could put a personal trademark to his film, an idea as innovative as his camera work. As with many other aspects of his work, Hitchcock’s cameos are in a class their own. Stylistically, they are distinctly Hitchockian as any technical aspect of his movies. His cameos have been parodied and out-right copied -- both the Pyscho sequel and remake include his image, and like many of his techniques, have been adopted and explored by following generations of filmmakers: Quentin Tarantino’s fictitious brand names and Steven Spielberg’s shooting stars are two of the best examples of his cameos’ spiritual descendants.

Like the thriller genre, cameos were not a Hitchcock invention. But as with the murder mysteries, there are few who do them better.

1. Truffaut, Francois 1984. Hitchcock by Truffaut: The Definitive Study, Grafton Books, London.

2. Truffaut, Francois 1968. Hitchcock, Secker and Warbug

3. http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/screen/auteur%20theory.htm

4. http://www.labyrinth.net.au/~muffin/ahp_humour_c.html

Tom Winkelspecht lives in New Jersey. He is currently in a creative writing graduate program.  The rest of his time is spent between watching movies, plotting his return to Chicago, and writing. He can be found in the usual places: Tumblr and Twitter.