Once upon a time, a guy named Tony L. headed up the film department at Chicago’s Columbia College, an institution of higher learning where I would spend 11 years of my life teaching. I thought of Tony L. while watching Kent Jones’s documentary adaptation Hitchcock/Truffaut, based on a work the director terms, “One of the few indispensable books on movies.”
Fresh outta high school and new to the halls of ivy, I cheerfully accepted a classmate’s suggestion that I sit in on one of Tony L.’s lectures, in which Herr Professor proceeded to show a clip from North by Northwest — something involving a crop duster — as an example of “bad filmmaking” — how not to manipulate an audience.
Needless to say, it was the first and last time I audited one of his classes.
Published in 1966, Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut was the first book to take a title-by-title approach to exploring a director’s career. In the film, writer-director Paul Schrader recalls, “There was starting to be these kind of erudite conversations about the art form. Truffaut’s was the first one where you really felt they were talking about the craft of it.”
Hitchcock not only set the bar for suspense pictures, he developed an often-imitated, never-duplicated visual lexicography of storytelling. With the exception of Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a suspenser made after Hitchcock died that owes nothing to the Master. Hitchcock remains one of cinema’s few steadfast “names above the title,” a man whose talents extended far beyond a craftily calculated offscreen persona. Sure, he was inventive, but what’s amazing is that he managed to strike a responsive chord in cinephiles and average moviegoers alike. As a result, his films are engagingly assembled entertainments that also survive innumerable viewings. Hitchcock has never made a bad film. Some are better than others, but there’s not a stinker in the bunch. And don’t you dare mention Topaz!
But he wasn’t always held in such high regard. For years, a strain of anti-Hitchcock commercialism tainted the public’s perception of his genius. Critics branded him a showman, unable to top himself. Year after year, the only thing that changed about their scornful reviews were the titles. Hitchcock struck a critical reef in the ’60s: Psycho was considered by some to be exploitative trash, nowhere near as good as the film that came before it, North by Northwest. Then came The Birds, which wasn’t a patch on it’s predecessor, Psycho. It was followed by Marnie, which, of course, paled in comparison to The Birds, and so on.
Hitchcock was 63 years old and had just wrapped his 40th feature, The Birds, when a letter from 31-year-old Truffaut — whose first three films had already brought him international acclaim — planted the seed for a weeklong series of in-depth discussions that would encompass his entire filmography. Hitchcock opened his response with, “Dear Mr. Truffaut, your letter brought tears to my eyes. How grateful I am to receive such a tribute from you.” The pair couldn’t have been more diverse, but Hitch, instantly sensing a fellow brother in cinematic arms, quickly consented.
The book was a revelation, covering everything from minutiae — it was the first to document all of Hitch’s cameos and precisely where to spot him — to detailed discussion of his approach to “pure cinema,” the enemy of what he liked to call “pictures of people talking.”
Truffaut put as much time into preparing for the interview as he would creating a movie, each question meticulously researched and phrased. When in Hollywood, the starry-eyed director visited Universal Studios, where the interviews took place, and he and interpreter Helen Scott were treated to rooms at the swank Beverly Hills Hotel.
For years, Hitchcock had chartered a series of set responses with which to regale reporters and perhaps keep them at bay. Two of his favorite discussions were about the time Pa Hitchcock had his mischievous son locked in a jail cell, instructing the constable to tell young child, “This is what we do to bad little boys,” and his regret over detonating the “bomb in the bus” in Sabotage. Though both stories are covered in detail, Hitchcock returned Truffaut’s compliment by breaking with custom and giving him an all-access pass into his artistry.
Kent Jones (Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, A Letter to Elia, and former archivist for Cappa Productions) is joined by Scorsese, Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and several other heavyweight auteurs, all of whom share vivid recollections of how the book impacted their individual careers.
Not even Hitchcock could have found a way to make listening to audio tapes visually interesting, and Jones wisely avoids endless conversations set to still photographs. (Less than a third of the film features audio of the interviews.) He centers instead on teaching by example, showing the director’s words put to practical application. Hopefully the Blu-ray release will come equipped with a supplementary CD copy of the interview.
By the time it was over, I, too, had tears in my eyes. I was 13 when I picked up what would be the first of three copies of Hitchcock. (Due to continuous consultation, not even spinal surgery could restore the mucilaginous muscle needed to hold the first two editions together.) I probably took more from this book and Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema than all others combined. The return to a time when I was first finding my way around a cinema that Hitchcock/Truffaut afforded was a moving reminder of what made me fall in love with film in the first place. You won’t have a merrier time at the movies this holiday season.