Editor’s Note: Hitchcock/Truffaut opened in limited theatrical release December 2, 2015.
It’s not uncommon to see a documentary made about a legendary filmmaker or author or major historical figure. It is, however, uncommon to see a documentary made about a book. Granted this book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, was written by legendary filmmaker François Truffaut and was the culmination of the single most in-depth conversation with even more legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock/Truffaut is almost as legendary as its author and its subject within the film community. Still though, a movie about a book?
Director (and film critic/essayist) Kent Jones utilizes the original interview recordings, working them in over pictures that were taken during the conversations and over text from the book…
Hitchcock/Truffaut wasn’t (isn’t) just any book. What appears to be an interview book on the surface really proves to be more as you begin to turn the pages. First, the interview subject is none other than Alfred Hitchcock, a man who was an incredibly popular filmmaker at his height but had never been taken seriously as an artist. Some proof of this lack of respect in the industry is the fact he was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Director five different times over the course of his career but never awarded the trophy. Audiences loved him but critics always dismissed him as a director of simple entertainment, until a group of upstart French film critics (most of whom went on to be film directors themselves, ushering in the French New Wave) started to hail him as the greatest film director of all time. One of those critics and future filmmakers was François Truffaut, who took it upon himself to write to Hitchcock and ask if he could spend some time interviewing him about all of his films. That is the second part of what makes this book so unique: it shows an incredible filmmaker at the beginning of his career interviewing a master filmmaker near the end of his.
The film does more than explain how such a book came into being and even more than just detailing the book. Director (and film critic/essayist) Kent Jones utilizes the original interview recordings, working them in over pictures that were taken during the conversations and over text from the book (some of these recordings are available on the Criterion disks of Hitchcock’s films in the collection). Even that just scratches the surface of what this film sets out to accomplish.
Given the history and the legendary status of the book, Jones collected interviews from filmmakers Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, David Fincher, Peter Bogdanovich, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese. Each and every one of these filmmakers detail how Hitchcock influenced them and how this book informed their careers, all of them noting that the book was integral to their early film education and in some cases responsible for their learning how to put together a film.
There is also a side to the film where the film directors turn critic, analyzing Hitchcock’s work and going into great detail on several films and explaining how they were influenced by them. The crown jewel of these analyses is Scorsese’s evaluation of Vertigo. He goes into the film as only he can, explaining that he doesn’t buy the story at all but that doesn’t make the film any less great.
Jones seamlessly weaves between these three basic themes to craft the ultimate thesis that Truffaut was right, and Hitchcock is one of the greatest film directors who has ever worked. This argument is more than bolstered by the above filmmakers, many of them considered great in their own rights, touting the virtues of everything Hitchcock.
Jones seamlessly weaves between these three basic themes to craft the ultimate thesis that Truffaut was right, and Hitchcock is one of the greatest film directors who has ever worked.
It seems almost unnecessary now, nearly 50 years after the original publication of the book, to make this contention. Hitchcock eventually got his due and has been considered one of the greatest filmmakers for decades now. Still, the argument needs to be made for Hitchcock the artist above Hitchcock the Master of Suspense and crafter of fine entertainment. Amazingly enough, he is still not considered the artist he should be. This film and these directors discussing the artistry of Hitchcock, and the novelty of hearing Hitch himself discuss his artistic decisions in his films, goes a long way to helping further the cause of considering Hitchcock in the light he deserves to be seen under.
There is an unfortunate trend in criticism that has been the norm since people started critiquing other people’s art: that if a work is entertaining and is popular with the public, it shouldn’t be considered artistic. The ultimate expression of this narrow-minded perspective is the alienation of Hitchcock from the artistic filmmaking community. This has extended to contemporary filmmakers, specifically Steven Spielberg, who has been constantly disregarded in terms of his artistry because he made popular films like Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The same thing has persisted for Hitchcock, now 35 years after his death.
One of the primary topics of discussion by the filmmakers interviewed is Hitchcock’s obsessions and fetishes that he explored in his films. Each director discusses things like the sublimated necrophilia in Vertigo or the bondage equipment in Rope and the voyeurism in Rear Window. The discussion serves to point to the fact that Hitchcock’s films are about a lot more than just entertainment, and that they explore themes and concepts that many other films of the era would never have even considered, simply because Hitchcock wanted to understand more about them and his contemplation of them.
Jones goes a long way to reinforce Truffaut’s reason for writing the profiled book by extending the concept to other filmmakers evaluating the artistic qualities of Hitchcock’s films. If Hitch were still alive, I’m sure Jones would have tried to have each of these filmmakers interview him on film about different films in the ultimate movie version of the book.
There should be no question when it comes to Hitchcock being an artist, but if there is any division between entertainer and artist in your mind, seek out both the book and the film Hitchcock/Truffaut and consider that there doesn’t need to be a delineation between art and entertainment, and that to be truly successful, art should be entertaining and entertainment should be artistic, just like the best of Hitchcock’s films.
Hitchcock/Truffaut takes plenty of photos and audio clips from the legendary interview and combines them with interviews and analyses by some of our greatest living directors, creating a fine companion to both the book and Alfred Hitchcock's entire oeuvre.