Film fans continue to bow down to an important event in cinematic criticism, when master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock sat down with French auteur/critic François Truffaut to answer a few questions. Their discussions took place in Hitchcock’s Universal offices over eight days in 1962, just a day longer than it took Hitchcock to shoot the shower scene in Psycho.
By 1966 Truffaut had copyrighted the transcripts and the book was released the following year as Hitchcock / Truffaut (Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock). It was an immediate sensation, a boon to cinéphiles and fans and a glorious peek behind the scenes at one of the most controversial and revered filmmakers ever.
Hitchcock was and is best known for his frightening, disturbing films and anthology TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His films are as fresh and vital today as they were decades ago, and as powerful and gripping and psychologically authentic. Their staying power is based in part on his understanding of human behaviour, his desire to take risks, his cinematic precision and ability to engage.
The book was also a reflection of Truffaut’s full-on fandom. He wanted to elevate Hitchcock’s reputation as a spine-tingler to an artist, an appellation he deserved and earned over decades of creative refinement and risk taking.
Hitchcock agreed to be interviewed by a filmmaker he apparently liked and respected, in order to lift the curtain on the Hitchcock magic by providing insights into the extraordinary and a few ordinary films he made between 1922 and 1976. It was generous.
But I don’t believe he was prepared for Truffaut’s onslaught, his obsessive interest in the most minute details of Hitchcock’s films. He seemed at times cornered and often replied to Truffaut’s long-winded questions in clipped, brief rebuttals or in some cases, total shut down. Truffaut seemed impervious and kept talking till he had a book.
I read it in 1974. It was one of the most extraordinary books I’d ever read on the subject of film, so emotionally loaded on Truffaut’s part and almost defensive, yet informational and chatty on Hitchcock’s. Reading that book may account for my interest in making film study my avocation and vocation. It was unforgettably rich.
Hitchcock consented to being filmed during the interviews; he was used to appearing on camera in his film, cameos and as host of his weekly TV anthology series. This year, film critic Kent Jones assembled the interview footage and made a documentary of the same name as the book which now on at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
In my opinion, no documentary can replace or better the book, because Hitchcock’s snark is best captured when read, without that polite British passive aggressive coating. Vocal nuance may be misleading in this case because Hitch had something to gain. He liked to be liked. Who hasn’t spent the first few minutes of a Hitchcock film looking for his cameo?
Hitchcock’s reply to one of Truffaut’s characteristically long questions, in one case almost 100 words, was “I doubt whether the identification was that close”. Period. Truffaut sometimes identifies things that Hitchcock outright rejects. But Hitchcock shares stories about making each film that are unendingly interesting and whet the appetite to see the films again and again.
Thankfully Truffaut’s worship of Hitchcock’s work resulted in this book, a document that brings fresh insights along with supporting films stills. His ardour was clear in Truffaut’s film The Bride Wore Black a revenge drama saturated in Hitchcockian touches, a tribute to the Master, made six years after the interviews.
Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s signature composer wrote the music for the film based on Cornell Woolrich script. One of Woolrich’ novels Hitchcock adapted into Rear Window. Truffaut made good use of Hitchcock tropes, creating a sense of prolonged anxiety, strong elements of voyeurism and sex, filtered through Hitchcock’s unique camerawork and editing.
Truffaut’s films are his own. His style is nothing like Hitchcock’s, except for a couple of films which are homages. They are separate and unique artists and have earned their place in the pantheon of the best storytellers and filmmakers and observers and interpreters of the human condition.
TIFF Cinematheque celebrates both artists with Hitchcock/Truffaut: Magnificent Obsessions running from now until Sept 4. It is a “double retrospective devoted to the Master of Suspense and his worshipful French New Wave acolyte”.
The stunning lineup includes the best of Truffaut and Hitchcock including a film I consider one of the best ever made North By Northwest, and my favourite Truffaut film the dark comedy Day for Night about what happens on a teetering film shoot.