|

A Master and a Masterpiece: Hitchcock/Truffaut

Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock

By Robert K. Lightning.

The historic 1962 interview of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut (ironically tape recorded and photographed, but apparently unfilmed) that led to the publication of Truffaut’s landmark Hitchcock in 1966, is examined in Kent Jones’s fine new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. That the interview was a singular moment in the history of cinema and cinema studies is amply accounted for by the bevy of future filmmakers (a group regrettably lacking women filmmakers) interviewed by Jones to offer testimony to the book’s impact on their artistic sensibilities. That the book’s publication marked a pivotal moment in the critical trend to assess Hitchcock as a major artist can hardly be doubted. The movement to reevaluate Hitchcock, the master of “light entertainment”, had already begun in postwar France in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema (spearheaded by, among others, Truffaut) and would continue with the publication of Hitchcock by Truffaut’s colleagues Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in 1957, followed by the most extensive critical study of Hitchcock to that date, 1965’s Hitchcock’s Films by Robin Wood (expanded to Hitchcock’s Film Revisited in 1989; revised in 2002). What Truffaut’s book added to this cultural shift was the director’s firsthand account of his entire oeuvre, provided in the form of the most extensive interview of his entire career (amounting to fifty hours of raw material), edited into a book copiously illustrated with stills.

Hitch Truffaut 02Not that the interview form was new to Hitchcock: he among all the classical Hollywood directors celebrated by Cahiers was probably the least reluctant to expound in the media upon both his own career as well as the cinema in general. In a world seemingly saturated with Hitchcock documents, one of the values of Jones’s film is that it captures (given the privacy afforded the interview’s participants) the director at unguarded moments. Thus, while it would have been difficult to imagine the media-friendly self-promoter dictatorially stopping a filmed or televised interview midway (as a touchy John Ford did, when interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich in the latter’s 1971 documentary Directed by John Ford), Hitchcock quite audibly does so in the film, not once but twice (once when the discussion veers toward religion, once when expounding frankly on the sexual subtext of a moment in Vertigo). Conversely, an unexpected sentimentality (“your letter brought tears to my eyes”) is revealed in excerpts from personal correspondences between the two directors over the years.

Following introductory testimonies by the director-interviewees, the body of Jones’s film is comprised of excerpts from and reflections upon the actual interview, framed in turn by overviews of the sometimes similar, sometimes inverse biographies of the two directors. Of the similarities between the two, the most obvious was a lifelong, primary commitment not only to filmmaking but to the cinema itself, a commitment seemingly superseding all others. Each also had an encounter with the law in childhood: in an oft-told anecdote, Hitchcock attributed a lifelong fear of the police to being temporarily jailed as punishment for naughtiness; more severely, Truffaut spent actual time as a ward of the state. In a further parallel, the paterfamilias was instrumental in the incarceration in each case, Hitchcock’s father sending the compliant child to the local jail (with a note of instructions to the jailer) while Truffaut’s stepfather turned him over to authorities.

Hitch Truffaut 03As to their differences, the documentary proposes a very fundamental one between the two in terms of artistic philosophies. Put simply, it amounts to an opposition between freedom (Truffaut) and control (Hitchcock) and, as a theme, the opposition threads throughout the entire film. Jones intelligently substantiates this opposition by inserting a scene from Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959), specifically the surprise encounter on the street between the film’s young hero and his unfaithful mother, each bearing witness to the other in an act of transgression. (He is playing hooky, she is with her lover.) As the two directors exchange views on the filming of the scene, one can easily imagine the sequence as a Hitchcock set-piece, edited impeccably, every minute detail of direction building suspense until the moment of the fateful encounter. As shot by Truffaut and utilized in Hitchcock/Truffaut, the sequence functions as an illustration of how not to shoot à la Hitchcock, Truffaut in almost every detail violating the conventions of Hitchcockian suspense technique. With the unstructured editing and use of space, location shooting and absence of obvious stylization, the scene could instead be read as a paean to Truffaut’s other great cinephile father, Andre Bazin. (An interesting extension of the subject of their opposing styles might have focused upon Truffaut as the central figure in a philosophical and artistic opposition between Bazin and Hitchcock, the towering proponents of, respectively, screen “realism” and “pure cinema”. For a complete excerpt of Hitchcock’s instructions to Truffaut on how he would have filmed this scene, see Hitchcock on Hitchcock, vol. 2, edited by Sidney Gottlieb).

The testimonies of the contemporary directors provide invaluable insights on several fronts. On the one hand, they demonstrate the cultural influence not only of Truffaut’s Hitchcock or even Hitchcock studies in general but of film studies in the academy. For example, when David Fincher elaborates on the filmmaking process, distilling it to the manipulation of time and space, he is literally echoing Hitchcock’s own words heard on the soundtrack. But (articulate, analytical and well-informed as Fincher and his fellows reveal themselves to be) the director is more than capable of conceptualizing the filmmaking process quite apart from Hitchcock’s influence, and he proceeds to do so on more than one occasion. If the topics discussed (religion, the “transfer of guilt”, Vertigo) are timeworn and well-known to anyone familiar with Hitchcock studies, this seems a deliberate strategy to underline both how far Hitchcock studies have advanced and how informed contemporary filmmakers are. The salient fact that today’s directors are just as likely to have engaged with film theory before engaging in the actual craft of filmmaking could not be clearer.

While the opposition between Hitchcock and Truffaut works well as a theme (their discussion on working with actors is very revealing), as a structuring device it is less successful and Jones’s insistence on the inverse progression of their careers seems forced: That Truffaut made only three films before the interview and Hitchcock only three after the book’s publication seems an arbitrary point. Moreover, despite the parallelism implied in the documentary’s title, the film only occasionally engages with Truffaut as a filmmaker and never as an artist. We are told that in his preparation for the 1962 interview, Truffaut regarded the project as “every bit as important as one of his own films” and that an updated version of the book was his last completed project before his untimely death. The viewer is perhaps meant to infer from these facts that Hitchcock was in fact Truffaut’s masterpiece.

Robert K. Lightning is a New York City based film and media critic. He is a regular contributor to CineAction magazine. He can be reached at robertlightning@yahoo.com.

Read also Elias Savada’s “‘I Gotta Be Me’: Thoughts on Hitchcock/Truffaut.”

2 Comments for “A Master and a Masterpiece: Hitchcock/Truffaut

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    Robert,
    A very fine (and accurate, to my mind) consideration of this film and those essential books.

  2. A very concise review but you are right to raise the question as to why there are no women. Has Laura Mulvey been that influential? After all, to her credit, she did revise her “Visual Pleasure” thesis. Didn’t Kent try hard enough? Last the majority of students in my Peckinpah class were female (including one Saudi Arabian graduate) and they all loved STRAW DOGS, especially a German female invited by her friend as a guest for her last night in Carbondale. This gender division needs addressing.

Leave a Reply