Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Two great filmmakers, one monumental book

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When I was young and wild during the 1990s, I began to be more serious about movies, and it was fortunate for me to have two wonderful things to boost my growing interest on movies around that time. First, a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock films became more accessible to cinephile wannabes like me thanks to a special VHS release, and Hitchcock soon became quite a familiar figure to me like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. Second, François Truffaut’s monumental interview book “Hitchcock/Truffaut” was translated and published in South Korea in 1994, and I did not hesitate at all when I came across the book during one afternoon in 1996. I devoured every page of that book, and I am still keeping it along with many other books from my adolescent years.

Looking into what was exchanged between Hitchcock and Truffaut during their long interview sessions at the Universal Studio in 1962, Kent Jones’s documentary film “Hitchcock/Truffaut” is more entertaining than I expected. While some of its contents may be not that new to anyone who has ever read Truffaut’s book, the documentary is an insightful and respectful tribute to Hitchcock’s invaluable achievements in the movie history, and this is surely something you cannot miss if you are an admirer of Hitchcock’s films.

When he was approached by Truffaut and then accepted his proposal for the interview, Hitchcock was entering the late period of his long, illustrious career while remained overlooked by American critics. He was certainly a star Hollywood director thanks to the financial success of many of his classic movies as well as TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, but, believe or not, he was mostly regarded as a commercial filmmaker who was just more successful than others in the Hollywood studio system.

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But Truffaut and his critic gangs in Cahiers du cinéma, who eventually tried filmmaking for themselves and then brought a groundbreaking change into the field as the front runners of the French New Wave during the 1950-60s, were the passionate champions of Hitchcock’s works. As learning new things from knowing old ones through Hitchcock, they recognized his indelible cinematic style to be appreciated and analyzed, and Hitchcock became a prime example of Truffaut’s auteur theory, which defined Hitchcock not as a mere hired hand but as an individual artist who imbued personal ideas and visions into his movies.

Right from their first meeting, Truffaut was ready to hear anything from a man whom he had admired for years, and Hitchcock was willing to talk anything about his techniques and experiences. With Truffaut’s friend Helen Scott as their translator, Truffaut and Hitchcock went through Hitchcock’s films one by one, and a number of audio and photo excerpts from their interview sessions clearly show that both of them had a fun, pleasant time together. As pointed out in the documentary, they were so different from each other in many ways, but they clicked well with each other despite their language barrier, and their interview became the beginning of their beautiful friendship.

As we listen to them talking about some of Hitchcock’s films, the documentary often juxtaposes their conversations with footage clips deftly presented for facilitating our understanding of Hitchcock’s sheer mastery of filmmaking techniques, and we are also served with informative bits of commentaries from various contemporary filmmakers including Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, David Fincher, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. I must confess that it sometimes feels like being lectured about what I already know, but, what the heck, you cannot possibly complain in front of such an impressive array of filmmakers who do have a lot to talk about a great director they all admire with unadulterated enthusiasm (You may notice the curious absence of Brian De Palma, who understandably declined Jones’s request because he already had his own place for talking about Hitchcock in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s upcoming documentary “De Palma” (2015)).

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Among Hitchcock’s 53 feature films, “The Wrong Man” (1956), “Vertigo” (1958), and “Psycho” (1960) come to take the spotlight of the documentary as his most personal works. As an exceptionally earnest drama in his career, “The Wrong Man” is literally about the innocent man wrongfully accused, Hitchcock’s recurring theme originated from his childhood fear of the police. “Vertigo” is the haunting manifestation of his longtime personal obsessions, and Hitchcock virtually revealed his dark sides through mesmerizing artistic sublimation in that masterpiece. Although it is less shocking at present, “Psycho” is still a powerfully disturbing work even after more than 55 years, and we hear about how shocking it was to the audiences during that time. They did expect something terrible because they came to see a Hitchcock film, but then they were at a loss after that infamous scene, while completely gripped by the master of suspense who could play them like an organ.

After Truffaut’s book was published in 1966, Hitchcock found himself admired and respected for his body of work far more than before, though his career began to decline with the failures of “Torn Curtain” (1966) and “Topaz” (1969). While his next film “Frenzy” (1972) was a welcoming return to form, his final film “Family Plot” (1976) was a mild footnote in comparison. He died in 1980, and, sadly, Truffaut died four years later, not long after he finished working on the revised version of his book.

I think you will enjoy “Truffaut/Hitchcock” more if you are familiar with Truffaut’s book, but the documentary also works as an enjoyable supplementary guide for newcomers. Rather than mired in myriad details to bore us, it vividly presents the entertaining interactions between two great filmmakers who are still influencing many film directors around the world, and it will definitely ignite your interest toward the book. As a matter of fact, I am considering reading it again, and I may revisit this documentary once I finish re-reading it.

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