In April 1962, Francois Truffaut, with the help of an interpreter, Helen Scott, wrote to Alfred Hitchcock, whom he revered as a true master of film, proposing to conduct “a tape-recorded interview which would take about eight days and would add up to about thirty hours of recording. The point of this would be…an entire book which would be published simultaneously in New York and Paris.”
Greatly honored, Hitchcock agreed and beginning on August 13, 1962, his 63rd birthday–Truffaut was 30 and had made just three films–the two directors met at Hitchcock’s office at Universal Studios. With an instantaneous and deep rapport, the two men, who lived for and through cinema, talked and talked (even through lunch) each day for a week from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.
“Hitchcock/Truffaut,” published in 1966, accomplished Truffaut’s goal of profoundly changing the perception of Hitchcock’s work, freeing him from his reputation as a light Hollywood entertainer. Truffaut’s livrefilm which delved into the great director’s body of work as a whole and all of his features individually, “unmasked an artist’s secrets, revealing his conception of cinema and the world.” What Truffaut called the “Hitchbook” also changed how cinema and its artists were viewed.
For his new film (a lovely and entertaining homage to the indispensable homage), “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” director and co-writer Kent Jones transcribed the 26 hours of recordings, listening for “energy areas.”
Featuring fascinating clips from the tapes (it’s thrilling to hear the directors talking and laughing) and showing text and images from the book, Jones opens up the conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, to include commentary on Hitchcock’s art and dazzling technical prowess from Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich and four other influential directors. They touch on his incomparable use of time, understanding of space, purity of imagery, hyperperception of objects, dream logic/”spirit of realism,” melancholy and loss, connection to the subconscious and his way of working with actors (whom he did, in fact, call cattle, and once, dismissing their concerns, explained to Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, “I don’t care how you feel, I only know how it will look on screen”).
Hitchcock told Truffaut, “My main satisfaction is that film did something to an audience, (“Psycho”) caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional.” Scorsese adds that the viewers “expectations were turned upside down” and a nattily dressed Peter Bogdanovich recalls that it was the “first time going to the movies was dangerous.”
Jones further expands the world of the book, drawing from a wealth of material: famous and less well-known clips from Hitchock’s films; Truffaut clips; bits of perfect Bernard Herrmann scores; narration read by Bob Balaban; storyboards; shots of scripts; film stills; posters (the design of which Jones echoes in the film’s gorgeous titles); portraits and other photos of Hitchcock (working, and with his family); photos of Truffaut; the original gang at Cahiers du Cinema; stills and portraits shot during the directors’ conversation, by the great Philippe Halsman and extra exciting to view, some of his contact sheets.
Hitchcock expressed concern on the tapes that he might have been “a prisoner of my own form.” He wondered, “Should I have experimented more with character and narrative?” After the premiere screening of his film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in October, Jones said that he “found it touching” that the great director was concerned with not being taken seriously enough by the critics. “Vertigo” (notoriously) was not accepted in its time. David Fincher says, “The first three months of the response to a film is not what matters.”
A true friendship between the two directors grew out of the interview and at the American Film Institute’s tribute to Hitchcock in 1979 (a year before his death at 80), Truffaut spoke, “In America, you respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder; we respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love.”
“Hitchcock/Truffaut” will open on Wednesday, December 2 at Film Forum for a two-week run. Jones will be in person at the 8:00 pm show on both opening day and Friday, December 4 and at the 4:15 pm show on Saturday, December 5.