On July 2, 1962, Francois Truffaut wrote to Alfred Hitchcock, proposing a series of in-depth interviews. Truffaut had directed three movies, including The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. He revered Hitchcock as a great artist and said so.
The older man was touched. Hitchcock was 63, at the height of his popularity after Psycho but without the critical acclaim to go with it. Being known as The Master of Suspense is not the same as The Master. Hitchcock, sensitive and proud, invited Truffaut to meet with him on the Universal Studios lot.
Truffaut prepared assiduously and arrived at Universal on Aug. 12 with a translator, Helen Scott. Hitchcock showed him a rough cut of The Birds the following morning and they began a series of conversations that changed film history. Truffaut’s book about Hitchcock, published in English in 1967, was a revelation: One director sat down with another and discussed, in detail, sometimes shot for shot, how he made his movies. Truffaut, a journalist and critic as well as a director, was an eager and informed interviewer; Hitchcock, flattered at the younger man’s knowledge and attention, willingly gave up his secrets.
The book lifted Hitchcock’s reputation from that of a genre craftsman to the pantheon of filmmakers. He became the leading example of the auteur theory, developed by Truffaut and others in the French New Wave, which posits that the director is the primary creative force, the author of the film, ahead of producers, writers and actors.
More importantly, Truffaut’s book became a bible for filmmakers. David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Olivier Assayas, Richard Linklater and Peter Bogdanovich swear by it and sing its praises in Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary by Kent Jones. Wes Anderson describes his copy as “not even a book anymore. It’s just a stack of papers with a rubber band around it.”
The documentary is really just an extension of the book, with clips from the movies and commentary by the directors. That’s more than enough, although I would have liked a little more on Truffaut’s life and career. There are excerpts from the 26 hours of interviews (many available online) and a few stills from the sessions. One of the best moments was when Truffaut brings up a scene from The 400 Blows.
“Describe it to me,” Hitchcock says, direct as ever.
Truffaut does as the scene is shown onscreen. A boy (Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel) skips school with a friend and sees his mother on the street with a man who’s not his stepfather. Mother and son catch each other in a transgression and are safe from punishment.
Hitchcock listens and offers his opinion: I would have shot it without dialogue.
It’s a fascinating exchange that illustrates two distinct approaches. Hitchcock started his career in silent movies and was a visual storyteller, maybe the best ever at using the camera and controlling everything in the frame. Truffaut was a talker who put a premium on dialogue. One favored pictures over words; the other felt the opposite. (Although that’s simplistic: Hitchcock’s movies are full of wonderful dialogue, and Truffaut knew how to compose and shoot.)
The bulk of Hitchcock/Truffaut is an explication of Hitchcock’s masterpieces from the 1950s and ’60s: The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds. The guys, all the directors interviewed are men, pick over how Hitchcock’s obsessions informed particular shots. It’s duck soup for cinephiles — listen to the excitement in James Gray’s voice when he describes Kim Novak coming out of the bathroom in Vertigo as the single greatest moment in the history of the movies. Scorsese prefers Psycho and sees it as the dividing line when modern cinema became dangerous.
Truffaut and Hitchcock died within four years of each other; Hitchcock at 80 and Truffaut at 52 of cancer. They became friends during those few days in 1962 — Hitchcock took Truffaut to dinner at his favorite restaurant, Perino’s — and remained so for the rest of their lives.
With: David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, James Gray, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese.
Director: Kent Jones.
Screenwriters: Serge Koubiana and Kent Jones.
A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 79 minutes. Brief violent images, suggestive material. In Miami-Dade: Miami Beach Cinematheque; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.