By Elias Savada.
I still remember buying the paperback book Hitchcock/Truffaut. I found the English version, originally published in 1967 by Simon & Schuster, a few years after college, probably in the stacks at the Strand Book Store in New York City. It was an easy, enjoyable read with lots of photos, many providing the seminal detail that showed the man as an artist. It was fully down to earth. Noted film critic Charles Champlin suggested, “It’s one book that would absolutely make a heck of a movie.” Fifty years on, it’s still one of the most important books any cinephile should own. And, it is, finally, a heck of a movie.
The 1962 week-long interview at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, between French New Wave director François Truffaut and the British auteur de dread Alfred Hitchcock, is the bare guts of the new documentary from Kent Jones (2007’s Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows). Snippets of the audio recordings of those conversations allow us to listen in on the past, as Hitch (in English) talks up his craft to François (in French, with English subtitles, with Truffaut associate and translator Helen G. Scott providing a running translation). Sadly, all three died during the 1980s.
The film gathers together numerous examples of the master of suspense’s work. They’re supplemented with behind-the-scenes material, some trailers, brief home movies, wedding photos (between Hitchcock and his eternal collaborator, Alma Reville), and talking head commentary provided by ten contemporary filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Wes Anderson, James Gray, Olivier Assayas, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich, and Paul Schrader). They all provide their insightful commentaries of how Hitch did this or that in a particular film. And how he grew to be such an important part of cinema.
At the moment the talk was captured, Hitchcock had just finished his 40th feature, The Birds. Truffaut, with just three features (including 1959’s The 400 Blows, his Citizen Kane) under his belt, had also gained worldwide renown.
Jones, who directed and co-wrote the script with Serge Toubiana, has a passion, too. His camera glides over the book’s pages, highlighting passages, bouncing among the photos and cutting to selected film clips. Some of the 10 directors chirp in with how they first encountered the volume and how it affected them. Jones also found the original letters sent by Truffaut, asking if Hitchcock was willing to chat about his entire oeuvre and allow the public to realize he was “the world’s greatest director.”
Examining Truffaut, the film touches upon the socially-minded Nouvelle Vague film movement pioneered by Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. Among it’s early projects was making sure that Hitchcock, considered a commercial filmmaker, should also be classified as an auteur. Thus the interview that led to the book.
While the book/documentary points out the importance of what the French had in mind, it more specifically pays most of its homage to Hitchcock. His use of Time. Space. Visuals. Editing. Camera placement. Lighting (in the milk). Tension. Surprise. Paranoia. Anxiety.
And, of course, that “all actors are cattle” when bowing to the director’s vision.
Storytelling hasn’t been the same since. The master of misdirection reminds us, thankfully, that “I’m never satisfied with the ordinary.” None of his works would ever be classified as ordinary.
Fincher, Scorsese, Gray, Bogdanovich, and Anderson provide excellent running commentary on the unexpectedness of Psycho (1960), breaking down the framing, the driving shots, the calm before the storm. I suspect all Hitchcock fans aching for a such a storm of dreadful proportions would run straight for it. Which is exactly what you should do when Hitchcock/Truffaut plays at a theater near you.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.
Read also Robert K. Lightning’s “A Master and a Masterpiece: Hitchcock/Truffaut.”