Francois Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Alfred Hitchcock form the basis of a new examination by some of cinema’s greats, writes Philippa Hawker
What can a 50-year-old book of interviews tell us about the nature of cinema? The answer comes in a tantalising, exhilarating form in a film that brings the context and content of the book into sharp relief. Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary directed and co-written by Kent Jones, explores a collection of conversations between two directors, worlds apart, that left a potent legacy for generations of filmmakers to come.
The documentary opens around Australia this month and next, accompanied in selected cinemas by an extensive retrospective of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Jones takes us back to 1962, when young French filmmaker Francois Truffaut sought out Hollywood-based veteran Hitchcock and asked him to agree to a week of interviews. Hitchcock, then 63, was finalising his edit of The Birds; critic turned director Truffaut, half his age, had completed his third film after taking Cannes by storm three years earlier with his debut feature, the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows.
The interview project was intended by the younger man to be a kind of a rescue mission. Truffaut, a fervent admirer, saw himself as redeeming Hitchcock from those who dismissed him as a crowd-pleaser. His aim, through the book, was to highlight Hitchcock the artist.
Hitchcock certainly seemed to have everything as he would have wanted it. He was an extremely successful commercial filmmaker and he had a public profile like no other director before or since. His television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which began in 1955, had made him a household name when he was also making some of his most compelling features.
There were some difficulties. Truffaut, scrupulously prepared for the task, spoke no English, although Hitchcock understood some French; the pair communicated via an interpreter, Helen Scott, a friend and colleague of Truffaut. They tackled the task in a businesslike fashion, meeting at Universal Studios and talking from 9am to 6pm during the course of a week. The conversations were taped and portrait photographer Philippe Halsman documented the encounter. Truffaut took several years to organise the book, which was published in 1966.
Tackling Hitchcock/Truffaut, Jones decided he wanted to embrace the nature of the encounter, “to extend the conversation, with more filmmakers talking about filmmaking; filmmakers who know the book and who weren’t going to sit there and give me canned answers but would be excited by the prospect of doing it”.
Jones — critic, filmmaker, director of the New York Film Festival and regular collaborator with Martin Scorsese — found plenty of people to turn to. He assembled 10 directors: seven American, two French, one Japanese. They include Scorsese, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Wes Anderson, James Gray and Richard Linklater.
Jones had a sense of the kind of film he wanted to make. “It’s so common to see films made with interviews, clips, documents, et cetera, that are perfectly good audiovisual historical aids but that don’t really even aspire to work as movies. I wanted it to be concise. I wanted it to all interlock and I wanted it to have an energy. That’s who I am as a filmmaker, that’s what I always try to do.”
There are many layers to the documentary. There are clips of Hitchcock’s films, archival footage and audio of the two men in conver- sation. There are documents, transcripts, photographs. And there’s the enthusiasm of the interview subjects about the films and their specific, singular qualities.
Two films emerge as the most discussed, for very different reasons: Vertigo (1958), considered a failure in its day, now sitting atop the Sight & Sound worldwide critics’ poll, having displaced long-time favourite Citizen Kane — a tale of dreams, obsession, image and desire; and Psycho (1960), Hitchcock’s biggest hit, a rulebreaking tale of horror that redefined the genre.
Truffaut’s questions and observations aren’t simply technical, although they are often detailed investigations into what happens on screen and why, including frame-by-frame examinations of scenes.
They are also personal. They might be about dreams; about guilt; about religion. Hitchcock has answers for many but not all of Truffaut’s questions. He can talk about audiences and their expectations, the difference between suspense and surprise, about the technique he used to draw attention to a particular visual element in a scene.
Hitchcock came to cinema in the silent era. He was born in 1899, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. He trained as an engineer, studied art and worked in an advertising department before getting a job designing film title cards. Art direction led to scriptwriting and production duties, before he directed his first film. His wife-to-be, Alma Reville, his closest collab-
Francois Truffaut, left, and Alfred Hitchcock, two directors worlds apart; director Martin Scorsese, below