Here’s one that I happened to miss when it popped up in the ADIFF schedule earlier this year, but was still very much interested in seeing. Neither Hitchcock nor Truffaut have ever really been my forte, but I was recently entranced by Attaboy Clarence’s series of biographical podcasts on the British director, enough that this offering, on one of the most famous conversations about film to take place since the medium began, intrigued me. In combination with Netflix’s recent uploading of two of Hitchcock’s most famous films – Vertigo and Rear Window -, iTunes was able to oblige me in my hunt for more on the master of tension and suspense. But was the documentary worth seeing?
Over the course of eight days in 1962, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut sat down with an interpreter, and conducted an extensive and deep-ranging interview with Alfred Hitchcock, discussing his filmography, his style, and his thoughts on all things film. The resulting book has become a veritable Bible for succeeding generations of filmmakers, who Kent Jones brings together with the aim of examining the far reaching influence of that Hitchcock/Truffaut exchange.
The film I would probably compare this to the most would be last year’s excellent Best Of Enemies. Both are about the media, and about two personalities who came together famously in a discussion involving that media for a famous few days. But where Best Of Enemies really swept you up in the narrative it was trying to convey, aided greatly by the sheer animosity between the two men it was discussing, Hitchcock/Truffaut sort of struggles, largely because there isn’t really much of a narrative to be found here.
Hitchcock/Truffaut is less of a story, and more of a lecture: not in a patronising way, but in the style of an academic classroom. Watching Hitchcock/Truffaut, one feels as if they are in a university being educated on the finer aspects of Hitchcock’s past work and style. It isn’t truly investigative, or exploratory, or recordation in its style. Instead, it is more of a visual essay on Hitchcock similar to the likes of Every Frame A Painting, and to Truffaut, to a much lesser extent
This is the Hitchcock story. The interviews themselves were largely about him of course, and not Truffaut, but I still was surprised by how slanted the documentary became in favour of the British director, with Truffaut’s life, films and opinions relegated to an occasional snippet of interjection, from both the man himself and from the narration. Hitchcock’s life is fascinating enough, but it’s well-known, at least relative to Truffaut, the kind of director far less familiar to English-speaking audiences. If this was supposed to be the story of Hitchcock/Truffaut, I felt like he would have been more interesting to develop a greater parity in the presentation of the two men, perhaps with more on how Truffaut was influenced by Hitchcock.
I suspect there may have been some rights issues with Truffaut’s films, with only one of them being showcased in anything resembling detail, which may have been a factor in the lop-sided focus. Moreover, there is little attempt to really define the relationship between the two men, despite some interesting beginnings, as Hitchcock responds so emotionally to Truffaut’s original letter of praise and intent. Beyond that, Truffaut just happens to be present.
But if you are the kind of cinephile that revels in a bombastic personality like Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut will be manna from heaven. Here, we get to see both the old master expound, at length, on his work, visual tricks and method of crafting a film, interjected frequently with modern directors praising the same. But thankfully it isn’t just a non-stop train of vacuous compliments: the likes of Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher instead get the opportunity to really talk about what Hitchcock and his vast career meant for them, which is a nice touch.
The titbits are fascinating here. We get to see Hitchcock as the ingenious cinematographer, like when he came up with a glass floor to maximise the impression of people on the lower floor imagining what someone above them was doing in The Lodger, the amazing use of colour in Vertigo or his many well-placed high-angle shots, whenever he wanted to give that impression of an almighty looking down over a scene.
We see him as the sometimes aloof and borderline disrespectful man manager, who remarks that “All actors are cattle” for films he has long since thought out to the smallest detail in pre-production, and whose relationship with some of his female stars was woefully inappropriate. We see him as the man more obsessed with his own personal vision than someone who wants to truly engage with characters and narrative, the person who would become the poster boy for the “auteur” school of thought, rightly or wrongly.
And we get to see Hitchcock the genius, primarily in two lengthier segments discussing Psycho and Vertigo. Psycho, I suppose Hitchcock’s most well-known film in the popular consciousness, was one that broke the most steadfast and self-explanatory screenwriting rule in the business, in killing off its main character in such famous circumstances half-way through the film. And so it became one of the most effective horror thrillers in film history, a film that is a true genre-defining experience.
But if it was Hitchcock’s biggest moment in terms of popularity, it was also the film, more than any other perhaps, that propagated a view that he was not a serious artistic director, but someone who instead crafted opiates for the masses, the dreaded tag of “light-entertainment” all too easily latched onto his films, a curse that followed Hitchcock around all throughout his career, but perhaps no time more so than the period of these interviews, as Hitchcock finished up production on his last great film, The Birds.
It was this perceived injustice that drove Truffaut to undertake his project, so that the director he so admired could be given the opportunity be seen as the genius that he is widely acknowledged as being nowadays. And nothing shows the reality more than Vertigo, with Jones delighted to give us the opportunity to see both modern interviewees opinions of it, and Hitchcock’s own thoughts.
I never even liked Vertigo all that much – I find it an overly-patient slow-boil experience, that only breaks out of average mystery territory in its final half-hour – but its impact on the film-making community, with its psychological examinations, use of colour and demented third act, is undeniable. It is a perverted story, as more than one commenter notes, but an utterly fascinating one all the same, where a murder mystery plot metamorphosis into a tense mental drama involving themes of illusion, insanity and necrophilia. The likes of James Gray offer some pertinent examinations of key scenes, like the first visit to the painting of Carlotta Valdez and how its framing showcases Hitchcock’s mastermind understanding of what to show and what not to show onscreen.
These visual essay segments are interesting enough in their own right, and keep you engaged all the way to the end of the easily digestible 80-minute production, but one can’t help but feel that, split into separate sections, what we get in Hitchcock/Truffaut would be a half-decent documentary TV series, as opposed to a slightly aimless documentary film. I say aimless because it just isn’t clear enough what the overall point is to this film, beyond simple presenting the subject matter without much incisive exploration from the director.
Hitchcock/Truffaut is framed just fine, with strong, refrained narration, good inter-splicing of film clips and archive footage, and the proper use of the audio recording Truffaut made of the interviews themselves. One could probably listen to Hitchcock talk for hours – Truffaut did it for days – and you do, in the course of Hitchcock/Truffaut, get a certain sense of Hitchcock the man: the dry humour, the slightly haughty attitude, the desire to be praised and to hold forth on his own opinions at length. He isn’t too prissy or infallible: one of the most memorable exchanges is Hitchcock’s acknowledging what he doesn’t like about Vertigo (the “hole in the story” as he puts it, regarding the murderer’s certainty that Scotty won’t be able to make it up the tower). Hitchcock/Truffaut isn’t a biography of Hitchcock really, aside from some brief moments on his earlier career and marriage to key collaborator Alma Reville, but it is still at pains to give us the kind of portrait it unfortunately fails to give us of Truffaut, who largely comes off as a bit of a one-note sycophant.
Hitchcock/Truffaut then is a brief enjoyable experience, just about worth the price of admission if you want to see a few decent visual essays on Hitchcock’s’ most famous creations. But ultimately I did feel just a little bit let down by it all: I think I got more fulfilment out of watching Rear Window, that I still feel is Hitchcock’s very best creation ever, than watching this, which is a shame. The central thesis, if the film has one, is simply that Hitchcock is one of the most influential film-makers in history, right down to the present day, which is not exactly front-page news.
Instead of hearing about it, or watching others talk about it, it might be better to break out copies of The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps, The Birds, North By Northwest, Strangers On A Train, Notorious, Rebecca or The Man Who Knew Too Much and experience it for yourself. An interesting, but a bit unsatisfying, effort, Hitchcock/Truffaut can only get a partial recommendation from me.
(All images are copyright of the Cohen Media Group).