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Saturday Night Cinema: Hitchcock Truffaut

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is the documentary Hitchcock Truffaut. Essential viewing for cineastes while still offering rich rewards for neophytes, Hitchcock/Truffaut offers an affectionate — and well-crafted — tribute to a legend.

In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock and a 30-year-old François Truffaut sequestered themselves in a windowless Hollywood office for a weeklong conversation. The result: the seminal book “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” published a half century ago, dissecting every film Hitchcock had made until then, illuminating his masterful techniques, making the case for the popular director as an artist, and influencing generations of filmmakers. Kent Jones brings “the Bible of Cinema” to invigorating life. He interviews filmmakers whose work has been profoundly influenced by Hitchcock-Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Olivier Assayas, and many others.

 

‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ Review: The Man Who Knew So Much

Contemporary directors discuss the master of suspense in a documentary about Hitchcock’s legendary conversations with François Truffaut

By Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

\For many of today’s best filmmakers, an indispensable, almost sacred textbook in their libraries isn’t a textbook at all, but “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” the book-length text, with elaborate illustrations, of a week-long conversation that took place in 1962. On one side of the table was the peerless master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. On the other was François Truffaut, a young, newly prominent French director who revered Hitchcock’s films, and who had persuaded the great man to discuss his work in extraordinary detail. Now, 50 years after the book was published, we have “Hitchcock/Truffaut” the documentary feature. This superb film, by Kent Jones, adds three more layers to the book’s alluvial wisdom: stunning clips from Hitchcock features, audio clips from the original conversations and fascinating comments by contemporary directors. In doing so, the documentary becomes another indispensable text for understanding the unique—and beleaguered—power of theatrical films.

What is it that generations of filmmakers have prized in Hitchcock’s features? Truffaut called them “rigorous,” an academic term for which he can be forgiven because he was a rigorous film critic before making his astonishing debut feature “The 400 Blows.” Wes Anderson, one of the contemporary filmmakers in Mr. Jones’s documentary, says it’s Hitchcock’s imagery he thinks about most—“the visuals are so graphic and precise.” (Exactly the hallmark of Mr. Anderson’s style.) David Fincher, another prominent director in the film, finds Hitchcock’s rigor in “his exploration of the underlying psychology,” though there’s an anomaly if not an irony here. Hitchcock did most of his exploring through images he planned meticulously, shot with few deviations from plan and then manipulated in the editing—not through emotional revelations by performers he had hired to play the roles. Paraphrasing his attitude toward actors for Truffaut, he says: “I don’t care how you feel. I already know what it’s going to look like on screen.”

That may seem like an old-fashioned approach in our star-centric era, but it remains the essence of modernism for students of Hitchcock’s prodigious technique. Martin Scorsese recalls the wonderment he felt as a young man in the 1950s and 1960s, seeing Hitchcock’s intricately crafted films as they came out. He also notes that “Vertigo,” which hadn’t done well at the box office, was all but lost in the 1970s, before the heyday of home video. Now, of course, it’s considered a classic by filmmakers and film scholars, though scholarship isn’t what impels Mr. Fincher to say “What I love about ‘Vertigo’ is it’s so perverted. It’s just so perverted!’” The director James Gray goes further: “Kim Novak coming out of the bathroom is the single greatest moment in the history of cinema.”

Perhaps not quite, but the greatest part of “Hitchcock/Truffaut” may well be the passion these filmmakers bring to their discussions of a cinema master. Surely they did homework for their on-camera appearances, but you still have a sense that scene after Hitchcock scene, even shot after shot, remains engraved in their visual—and emotional—memory. Truffaut’s devotion to his subject was manifest from the start. He prepared for the conversations, which he framed as interviews, as if he were in pre-production for a major film. Half a century later, we see Richard Linklater speaking of Hitchcock as a master sculptor—of time, which Hitch’s films would expand or compress quite magically—and Mr. Scorsese calling “Psycho” “a film that changed everything” by setting up certain expectations of how a thriller should play out, then turning them upside down.

French film director François Truffaut, left, and British film director Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. Photo: Philippe Halsman/Cohen Media Group

I have my own recollections of Truffaut at that time. I knew him somewhat, and I remember a day when he called me from his hotel room at the Algonquin to say he couldn’t make lunch because he’d just discovered that “Johnny Guitar” was playing on TV and he’d never seen it. (Again, that was before so many landmarks of cinema history became available on home video.) And I treasure my copies of “Hitchcock/Truffaut” the book: a French-language edition inscribed to me by Truffaut, and the English edition that Hitchock inscribed to me—with a ritual self-caricature—after an interview over lunch at Universal Studios in a private dining room, where, I remember, he carefully dissected a steak slightly larger than a postage stamp.

In “Hitchcock/Truffaut” the film, we hear Hitch telling Truffaut that the size of the image on screen is very important: “You need space,” he says, for emotional impact. Later he speaks of designing films to be aimed not at one seat, but at two thousand seats. In that regard he is indeed old-fashioned, since screens are shrinking along with attention spans, while seats are increasingly positioned in front of flat-panel monitors when audiences of one aren’t watching movies or video on laptops or smartphone screens that would be dwarfed by Hitchcock’s steak. Yet wonderful movies are still being made by filmmakers who not only remember Hitchcock, and Truffaut, but continue to draw inspiration from them. Use this documentary as an introduction to the book, then use the book, like a Christmas catalog, to order up viewings, or re-viewings, of Hitchcock’s deliciously, diabolically deathless films.

I saw Hitchcock’s most famous film on opening day at the dearly departed Olympia Theater on Broadway and 107th Street in Manhattan. Opening day for “Psycho” meant no one in the theater knew what was in store. When Janet Leigh got it in the shower, the screams and shouts that emanated from the audience, including me, were not just blood-curdling but blood-curdled, as if all metabolic processes had briefly been halted.

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