Hitchcock/Truffaut: From film to book to film

B+ Documentary

Directed by Kent Jones

We start with narrative, fiction film–not one film, but the body of work from one of cinema’s great masters. Then a brilliant young filmmaker, influenced by the master, turns that body of work into a book–a study of filmmaking. It becomes a classic. Decades later, long after both filmmakers have died, another filmmaker turns that book into another film.

It all comes full circle.

I enjoyed Kent Jones’ documentary very much, but I came in with a bias. I’m a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan (despite my dislike of Vertigo), and I’m a considerable admirer of François Truffaut. Keep that in mind as I praise this movie.

Jones rightly focuses on cinematic technique, but also provides some important and interesting historical background. When they sat down for the interviews, Hitchcock and Truffaut seemed as different as respected directors could be. Hitchcock had been directing for more than 35 years. He planned his films meticulously and expected actors to do what they were told. He was a highly successful commercial entertainer but not a respected artist.

Truffaut , on the other hand, was a young genius with only three features to his name. He was leading a vanguard of rebellious filmmakers who were changing cinema. He was a darling of the intelligentsia. People were surprised when he named Hitchcock as his favorite director.

Jones brings up an interesting biographical connection between the two. Hitchcock often talked about a frightening childhood incident that probably never happened. He claimed that his father punished him for some infraction by sending him to the local police station and having him locked into a cell for a few minutes. But something very much like that really happened to Truffaut when he was a juvenile delinquent.

Once these details are out of the way, Hitchcock/Truffaut becomes a film about filmmaking–specifically Hitchcock’s approach to keeping his audience alert and frightened. Several top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese talk about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art to create his desired effect. Scorsese in particular describes some brilliant touches in The Wrong Man¸ noting how camera placement adds to the tension when Henry Fonda is first placed in a jail cell, and the dissolve when the faces of the guilty and the innocent seem to merge.

Faces play an important part in these discussions. Is the camera line above the eye? Below it? All an important part of the Hitchcock style.

Jones illustrates the discussions with film clips covering Hitchcock’s long career. Clips from Truffaut’s work–mostly The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim–turn up as well.

The original interviews were recorded, and Jones provides choice excerpts. And yes, Hitchcock actually says “all actors are cattle.” (So much for his tongue-in-cheek denial: “I never said actors are cattle. I said they should be treated like cattle.”)

At one point, Truffaut asks Hitchcock if he sees himself as a Catholic director. Hitchcock asks that his answer be off the record, and we never hear what it was.

Since neither director was sufficiently fluent in the other’s native tongue, a translator sat through all of the interviews. The soundtrack often has Hitchcock and the translator talking at the same time, which I found distracting and annoying. Truffaut’s talk is accompanied by subtitles, and it’s sometimes interesting to compare them to the off-the-cuff spoken translations.

The book Hitchcock/Truffaut turned Hitchcock’s reputation into that of a great artist, and helped many young directors learn their craft. I doubt this film will do the same. But it provides an enjoyable look at one great filmmaker and his work, indirectly through the eyes of another.

And it may encourage another generation of filmmakers to read the original book.