However, although French cinema and American cinema were very different in some respects, in others they were not. The more personal and individual French cinema that Truffaut and the others admired—Jean Renoir (1894–1979), Robert Bresson (1901–1999), Jacques Tati (1909–1982), Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), Max Ophuls (1902–1957), Jacques Becker (1906–1960)—drew its strength and individuality from an essentially nonliterary originality and audacity of realization, or mise-en-scène —qualities that they also admired in American cinema. This French cinema they contrasted to the tired cinéma de papa (daddy's cinema)—the unadventurous literary cinema of Jean Delannoy (b. 1908) or Claude Autant-Lara (1901–2000), or the academic technical competence of directors like René Clément (1913–1996) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907–1977), who, they claimed, merely put solid, worthy scripts into sounds and images.
As this implies, one of the crucial effects of this identification of auteurs was to shift to the center of film analysis the notion of mise-en-scène as the means through which the auteur expressed his (or her—but American or European, the figures discussed were all male) personality and individuality. Writing in Cahiers in August 1960, Fereydoun Hoveyda argued that:
the originality of the auteur lies not in the subject matter he chooses, but in the technique he employs, i.e., the mise-en-scène , through which everything on the screen is expressed.… As Sartre said: "One isn't a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way." Why should it be any different for cinema? … The thought of a cineaste appears through his mise-en-scène
(Hillier, 1986, p. 142).
Although the Hollywood director might have little control over choice of subject and cast, or over the script, it was on the set, attentive to décor, performance, and camera positioning and movement—controlling what would appear on the screen—that the director expressed his individuality. Of course, many of the directors that the Cahiers critics championed as auteurs —Hitchcock and Hawks, certainly—were often their own producers and chose their projects and worked on their scripts, officially or not, and so had more control than the general model implied. Additionally, in the post-Divorcement Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s, the growth of independent production meant that many other directors began to have more say in their projects.
Given the essential emphasis on mise-en-scène , it is somewhat confusing that Cahiers critics distinguished between those directors whom they regarded as auteurs and those they regarded as (mere) metteurs en scène , directors whose work lacked the individual personal expression of the auteur but who could be competent and even skilled interpreters of others' ideas. Clément and Clouzot might have been classified thus; regarding American cinema, arguments raged around particular directors—Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986), for example—as to whether they were auteurs or metteurs en scène .
What appeared in Cahiers was not any kind of concerted "theory"; furthermore, there were disagreements in Cahiers itself. Chief among those who did not
Ordinarily, such polemics and debates in a French film magazine barely read outside of France would not have caused many ripples in American and British film criticism. However, by 1959 many of the Cahiers critics involved in those polemics had gained acclaim as new filmmakers. This was particularly true of two of the most controversial Cahiers critics, Truffaut, whose first feature, Les quatre cent coups ( The 400 Blows , 1959), triumphed at the 1959 Cannes festival, and Godard, whose first feature, À bout de souffle ( Breathless , 1960), also premiered in 1959. Chabrol had already had success with Le Beau Serge ( Handsome Serge , 1958) and Les cousins ( The Cousins , 1959). The international success of these nouvelle vague films drew attention to their directors' critical pasts, helping ideas about authorship, and new ways of thinking about popular cinema, become matters of debate in Britain and the United States at more or less the same moment.