In 1962, filmmaker Francois Truffaut, accompanied by his translator and collaborator Helen Scott and photographer Philippe Halsman, conducted a week-long series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. The French New Wave filmmakers, formerly critics for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, were the first to propose that the works of “mainstream” filmmakers such as Hitchcock and Howard Hawks weren’t just products for mass consumption but works of art driven by personal, authorial visions of their directors. The interview was published in 1966 in the form of the book Hitchcock/Truffaut. A bible for filmmakers and anyone seriously interested in how movies work alike, Truffaut considered it to be as integral to his oeuvre as his own films.
What gives the book its venerable status is that much like Hitchcock’s cinema, it discusses ideas that would otherwise seem esoteric with effortless informality and humour. The same could also be said about Hitchcock/Truffaut, a 2015 documentary by film critic and programmer Kent Jones. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Oliver Assayas, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Richard Linklater dive deep into the ideas discussed in the book and Hitchcock’s films.
Jones mostly goes for the talking-heads format, but it helps that all his subjects are articulate and aren’t short of fresh insights to offer on Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s key attributes, such as his obsessive precision of framing and staging or his belief that actors should be herded like cattle, are discussed by similarly precise filmmakers like Fincher and Anderson or more adaptable ones like Linklater. The film also gives non-canonical Hitchcock films their due, be it Blackmail (1929), which was supposed to be a silent film but was forced to accommodate the newly introduced sound technology, or The Lodger (1927), which according to Hitchcock was his first exercise in style.
Jones makes interesting choices for archival material. When Hitchcock’s famous definition of suspense does appear, it’s in a clip from Easy Virtue in which he busts the common connection between suspense and fear. “There’s no such thing as a face. It’s non-existent until the light hits it,” Hitchcock pronounces.
Elsewhere, when Truffaut asks him about the influence of religion in his films, Hitchcock commandingly asks him to go off record. This camaraderie between the two auteurs, belonging to different generations, cultures and systems, forms an absorbing narrative running in parallel with the discussions on filmmaking. Hitchcock was nearing the end of his career (he made only three films after the book was published,) Truffaut was only three feature films old but was already an international icon thanks to his breakout feature The 400 Blows (1959).
Truffaut considered Hitchcock his idol, but Hitchcock too owed to Truffaut the fact that his films came to be taken seriously as an art form. In a delicious little irony, the auteur theory makes a case for the director’s personal vision, whereas Hitchcock’s musings clearly indicate that mass acceptance meant a great deal to him. Near the beginning of the film, Hitchcock says he doesn’t quite know why his films always seem so fresh. This was because, as Hitchcock/Truffaut clearly illustrates, the fact that Hitchcock knew how to refract his personal obsessions and whims through the lens of mass entertainment.
Many have criticised the documentary for not featuring a single female interviewee, and rightly so. Director James Gray offers up a fascinating reading of why we’re never shown Kim Novak’s perspective in the scenes in which Jimmy Stewart stalks her character in Vertigo.
As a counterpoint, filmmaker Jenni Olson’s excellent personal essay documentary, The Royal Road (2015), reappropriates both Vertigo and its setting, the San Francisco Bay area, to narrate both the colonial history of the place and musings on her own unrequited love affair that tied her to the place. Olson shoots languid shots at iconic Vertigo locations – the San Francisco Bridge, the lake in which Madeleine pretends to attempt suicide –subverting what these locations signify in the context of cinematic history and coming to terms with her gender dysphoria.