50 Years Ago This Week – Hitchcock/Truffaut
October 1966 welcomed the publication of Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut, a long-form interview of the Master by one of his most devoted enthusiasts, who, both as a young critic and subsequently as a great filmmaker in his own right, counted Hitchcock among his idols. (It is easy to point to The Bride Wore Black as the Truffaut film that most obviously reflects this influence—too easy, I would argue. To see the cinema of Hitchcock in a Truffaut film, I recommend The Soft Skin, a film produced, not coincidentally, around the time these interviews took place.
Hitchcock/Truffaut was a treasured companion-piece for people of a certain age, whose first appreciation of film as an art form was forged by the voracious, even obsessive consumption of the fifty-odd movies directed by the man dubbed “The Master of Suspense”—catching the classics in revival theaters, finding the lesser-knowns on late-night TV, and tracking down obscurities on VHS tapes of often questionable provenance. (One of my ancient professional publications bears the indelible stamp of those devoted years.)
The son of an English grocer (many still insist his greatest films were the early ones he made back home in Britain), Hitchcock would enjoy world-fame as a Hollywood icon (and TV personality), with a double edged reputation as a crowd-pleaser—a mass entertainer (which is to say, that, and nothing more). But Hitchcock was more than that. Much, much more. He was, in fact, one of the great formal stylists in the history of film, with an astonishing command of the medium and an unsurpassed, surgical precision in his capacity for cinematic expression.
The French saw this first. As Truffaut explained, he tired of American journalists constantly asking him “Why do the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma take Hitchcock so seriously? He’s rich and successful, but his movies have no substance.” More pointedly, Truffaut recalled this broadside: “You love Rear Window . . . because you know nothing about Greenwich Village.” To which he replied: “Rear Window is not about Greenwich Village, it is a film about cinema, and I do know cinema.” Check and mate, as Stephen Colbert would say. But Truffaut was not quite satisfied, thus his proposal to Hitchcock that they sit down for a week and talk, full time, about his movies—conversations that would become Hitchcock/Truffaut.
In the spirit of its anniversary (an occasion also marked by this amiable documentary featuring a party of favorites), your faithful correspondent pulled off the shelf his worn-to-the-point-of-falling-apart hardcover copy of the book (currently available in paperback for a song). It remains a pleasure, and an easy read; and those discussions by two great directors that sit alongside the book’s generous illustrations and frame enlargements are a master class in film appreciation. Above all, what becomes clear along the way is the extent to which Hitchcock and Truffaut share a passion for cinema as cinema—that is, as a unique and distinct art form. In an especially interesting exchange, both express mixed feelings about the arrival of sound. For Hitchcock, “the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema” and he expresses regret that the ability to lean on dialogue for storytelling made it too easy “to abandon the technique of the pure motion picture.” Truffaut concurs, stating that “the final era of the silent movies . . . had reached something near perfection.” The large majority of Hitchcock’s films, of course, were talkies—but he learned his craft in the silent era, and his subsequent achievements reflect those origins.
Re-reading the book after so many years, it is more apparent that although Hitchcock was a delightful and informative raconteur, despite Truffaut’s efforts to explore more daring and personal themes, the cautious, demure Englishman was not inclined to be led down such pathways. Which, ultimately, is true to form. Undisputedly one of the all-time-greats, Hitchcock’s uncanny precision also suggested its own limits. His was not an actor’s cinema, and, I would acknowledge, his films are characterized by a certain emotional detachment. (I can without effort think of fifty Hitchcock scenes that fill me with awe and delight—but I struggle to recall one that might move me to tears.) But he left us – easily – with a dozen masterpieces. And you can read all about them in Hitchcock/Truffaut.