Film Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

A new generation of filmmakers reflects on the influence of both Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut’s landmark book of interviews with the master. Catnip for movie buffs.
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Many budding movie buffs of a certain era (and of later decades, too) share an early obsession with one film book that fueled their passion for the art and craft of cinema. That book is Hitchcock/Truffaut, the landmark 1966 volume in which the young French director François Truffaut conducted a comprehensive, week-long series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock encompassing every film he directed up to Torn Curtain. Beautifully designed and illustrated with copious screen captures, it not only made a strong case for Hitchcock as much more than a mere entertainer, it was also a master class in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, taught by two maestros from different generations.

Now, Kent Jones—director of Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, co-director of A Letter to Elia, and head of the New York Film Festival—pays tribute to that seminal book with a documentary of the same name, recounting the meeting of those two cinema giants and the influence their collaboration had on a new generation of filmmakers. At 80 minutes, it’s more a highly selective companion piece to the book and nowhere near as comprehensive; in fact, it overlooks a number of essential Hitchcock classics in favor of a closer examination of arguably his two most celebrated works, Vertigo and Psycho. A truly deep dive into Hitchcock/Truffaut the book would have taken hours upon hours.

But, to quote from a movie by Hitch’s contemporary George Cukor, what’s there is choice. Jones, a longtime contributor to Film Comment, delves into recurring themes and stylistic choices rather than hitting all the high points of Hitchcock’s career, abetted by incisive comments from admirers including David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Olivier Assayas, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader and Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Assayas notes the “hyper-perception of objects” in Hitchcock’s cinema. Like in a dream, he says, “minor details take a pre-eminent place.” Fincher kicks off the ten-minute section devoted to Vertigo (“It’s so perverted,” he giggles) by declaring, “If you think you can hide your prurient interests…in your work as a filmmaker, you’re nuts.” Hitchcock, by contrast, decided “I gotta be me,” with his best work “a more direct umbilicus to his subconscious.”

Anderson and Kurosawa both cite the celebrated long take of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman embracing and kissing in close-up as they walk in Notorious, which Hitchcock likens to a ménage a trois between the two stars and the audience. “The actors felt dreadfully uncomfortable in the manner in which they had to cling to each other,” Hitch recalls. “And I said: I don’t care how you feel, I only know what it’s going to look like onscreen.” (And yes, you do hear Hitchcock on the Truffaut tapes spouting that infamous line, “All actors are cattle.”)

Twice, Hitchcock asks for the tape recorder to be switched off: once when asked if he is a Catholic artist, the second time as he’s about to tell a dirty joke. At one point, he quizzes Truffaut about his loose collaboration with his actors, creating dialogue for the next morning’s shoot—something Hitchcock could never countenance. Yet, several times the Master of Suspense questions his own rigorous methods and whether his work might have benefited from a less constricted approach. But, he wonders, would audiences accept a Mondrian trying to paint a Cezanne?

The audience was something Hitchcock could never ignore (as seen many times in highlighted passages from the book); in fact, his goal was to design a film “for two thousand seats, not one seat.” But Assayas marvels that the director was able to communicate “delicate and dark obsessions in an acceptable way to wide audiences.”

And sometimes, Hitchcock was even ahead of his audience: In the ten minutes devoted to that electroshock device called Psycho, Bogdanovich salutes it as “the first time going to the movies was dangerous.” Linklater declares, “The world was ready for a film like that… It represented something much larger on the horizon.” And Hitchcock himself takes pride that “the film did something to an audience…it achieved a mass emotion.”

Hitchcock/Truffaut the book endures because it is a rare, mutually respectful, revealing dialogue between two great filmmakers of different generations. Gratifyingly, Hitchcock/Truffaut the film continues that dialogue for a new generation.

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