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For contemporary film buffs, the 1962 weeklong summit between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock was a holy moment. Their discussion—a film-by-film, often shot-by-shot breakdown of Hitchcock’s career—turned into a book that became sacred to cinephiles of that generation. Now, it’s a film, and a very watchable one, although it ultimately may only matter to those devoted to the moving image. At times, Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut seems undecided on whether it’s a documentary about the making of that book or an adaption of it. Either way, there’s enough trivia about the two masters and insightful analysis of their work to make it worth a watch.
To paint a portrait of the book’s enduring influence on cinema, Jones blends archival recordings of the interview itself with interviews of today’s prestigious talking heads extolling its importance. David Fincher and Wes Anderson are devotees; the latter describes his paperback copy as having been reduced to a “stack of papers… with a rubber band around it.” Olivier Assayas, James Gray, Peter Bogdanovich, and even Martin Scorsese pop up later, serving two vital purposes: Their reverence for the book assures the audience that this is not just one filmmaker’s obsession. More importantly, they end up providing some of the best analysis available of Hitchcock’s work.
In fact, the blurred line between film critic and filmmaker is at the very heart of this story, as it was Truffaut, a former critic himself, who changed the public’s perception of Hitchcock with his book. At the time of the interview, the two filmmakers’ careers were at very different stages. Truffaut had just completed his third feature but was already a worldwide critical sensation; Hitchcock was nearing the end of a hugely successful four-decade run but was seen as a mere entertainer, perhaps because of his extensive television work. Truffaut seeked to recast him as an auteur, and his invitation to the old master to participate in the interview—he wrote to him, suggesting that he hoped that “everyone would recognize that Alfred Hitchcock is one of the world’s greatest directors”—was clearly impossible for the fading legend to resist.
That legend is reinforced throughout the film, which portrays with depth and precision the mathematical, playful director we have come to know. Much is made of his early career as an engineer and how it influenced his directorial style; he refers to actors as “cattle” at one point and a straight line as non-existent, just a product of “light and shade.” Another anecdote captures his naughty side. At one point, Hitchcock suggests that a character played by Jimmy Stewart “has an erection” beneath the bottom of the frame; he then turns off the microphone to tell a lurid story.
But as the film goes on, Jones wisely cedes his biographical instincts and lets the film become an elegant and prestigious video essay. Long sections linger on the dream logic of Vertigo and the revolutionary narrative choices of Psycho. Film buffs will already know much of this, but hearing today’s masters expound on their significance draws a clear, vivid line from the past to the present. In Hitchcock, we see Fincher’s scientific approach to suspense, Scorsese’s obsession with violence and guilt, and Anderson’s determined stylism. Hitchcock/Truffaut seeks to impress upon today’s moviegoers that to appreciate these filmmakers is to appreciate their unknowing mentor. It’s a goal that the film easily and joyfully achieves.
Hitchcock/Truffaut opens Friday at E Street Cinema.