DI­REC­TORS’ CUTS

Fran­cois Truf­faut’s 1962 in­ter­views with Al­fred Hitch­cock form the ba­sis of a new ex­am­i­na­tion by some of cin­ema’s greats, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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