BFI London Film Festival 2015: ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ essential viewing for true cinephiles

Written by Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana
Directed by Kent Jones
France/USA, 2015

In 1962, Francois Truffaut, one of the glittering leading lights of the French nouvelle vague sat down for a fortnight of intricate and comprehensive interviews with master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock at his offices in sun-blessed Hollywood. Contrary to his current position as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, in this period Hitch was critically considered as merely an adept showman, a fine purveyor of whimsical thrillers, and a household name due to his popular TV crime and mystery serials. Since then, his work has been autopsied and analysed at a level arguably unmatched by any other auteur, and he is now considered one of the great psychological and semiotic cartographers of cinematic space and culture, with his 1958 picture Vertigo recently promoted to the pedestal of greatest film of all time. Flattered by the praise and attention that the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd had lavished on him and other side-lined directors such as Nicholas Ray, Vincette Minelli, and Raoul Walsh, Hitchcock was happy to talk exhaustively through his entire career, film by film, over the exhaustive yet instructive sessions. Moving from his early career at Gainsborough studios as a title card typographer, through the twilight of the silent era and the UK’s transition to sound, then finally his subsequent decant to the Californian dream factory the book forms a topographic survey of the entire Hitchcock oeuvre, with subsequent editions of updated to cover the final handful of films which bookended his majestic career. Many directorial retrospectives had been published before and since, but the Hitchcock/Truffaut tome achieved essential status as the focus was not on mere anecdotal or industrial concerns; instead, the debate was framed around film art and technique, of how these stories were told cinematically, using the full arsenal of visual language at a filmmaker’s beck and call, and (crucially for Hitchcock) how an audience can be manipulated to gasp and groan through the fulcrum of his romantic, globe-trotting thrillers and mysteries.

Director Kent Jones follows up on two previous efforts to synthesize the impact and importance of other directors, namely those that Elia Kazan and Val Lewton had on film culture at large, with this terrific and entertaining appraisal of these now legendary sessions which still form the spine of any film or cinema studies academic course. Utilizing a montage of photos over voiceover, and with audio excerpts from the interviews, he weaves a dexterous journey through the Hitchcock labyrinth, and provides a rich context of the wider academic instructions of serious cinema analysis as a artistic, social and technological force. It’s almost heartwarming to see the genuine affection and respect that grew between the two artists as their collaboration gained momentum, with a continued friendship and regular correspondence that lasted until Hitchcock’s death in 1980.

The majority of the analysis focuses on two of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Vertigo and Psycho, with a close disassembly of what drew the master of suspense to the material on a formal and thematic level, as well as the explosive change that the latter wreaked on the subsequent evolution of horror and thriller films. Vertigo’s poor initial response is also given the time and space it deserves, and it is in these portions that the documentary becomes unmissable for anyone remotely infected with the cinephile bug, with the likes of Paul Schrader pontificating on the Freudian symbols that populate the unconscious desires and designs of the work, of David Fincher elaborating on how the storyboards in the book educate observers on assembly, pacing and the importance of structure, with James Gray in particular being energetically insightful with his views on Madeline’s soaring Vertigo transformation from death to un-life. They are accompanied by a rogues gallery of jodhpur-sporting tyrants such as Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, Oliver Assayas and a particularly eloquent Martin Scorsese, all of them breathlessly praising Hitchcock’s work, and pontificating on how he has irrevocably altered the general landscape of film art and appreciation over the past half-century. Perhaps more time could have been spent on Truffaut’s position and his contribution to the form, and at an all too brief 80 minute run time I, like many others, could have happily sat through more detailed consideration of other masterpieces such as Rear Window or North By Northwest, alongside less recognizable but crucial additions to the canon such as Notorious, Strangers On A Train and Shadow Of A Doubt, Hitchcock’s personal favourite of his 58 pictures. Still, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a fantastic and instructive piece of work, essential viewing and a strong contender for cinema documentary of the year.

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