HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT – Review
I was 12 years old in 1968. One of my favorite places was the library, in those days the closest library to us was the Tesson Ferry Branch in South St. Louis County. My most prized possession was my library card.
My Mother used to drop me off there on a Saturday or a summer weekday and I would spend the whole day reading. One of those days I pulled a book off the shelf called Hitchcock/Truffaut and sat down to read it. I knew who Alfred Hitchcock was from his television show, and from his monthly Mystery Magazine as well as anthologies that I was reading avidly, Tales That Frightened Even Me, More Tales for the Nervous and, my favorite, Stories to be Read After Dark.
I was aware that Alfred Hitchcock was most renowned for directing movies. I had seen a few on television, Saboteur was a mainstay on KPLR TV, channel 11 in those days. I got to see The Man Who Knew Too Much on television as well, but few others.
So it was Hitchcock’s name that drew me to that title, I had never heard of Truffaut but I liked the idea of the book. A film maker, a young one, got to sit down with Hitchcock and discuss every one of his movies. I started to read, I was hooked. I read that book cover to cover that day, sitting in the library.
Then I read it again. When my Mother came to pick me up I checked the book out and took it home and read it again. When I first got my library card I was constantly being told by the library staff I could not check out books above my reading level. I had no interest in kid’s books, it took my Mother coming in and giving the library a letter from her authorizing me to check out and read whatever I wanted.
I was depressed over the death of my Father in 1966, the year the book was published. I was one of those kids, picked on and bullied in school, very few friends, left to my own devices I took to reading, movies, music, comic books, anything, anything at all to take me out of the world I was living in. The book Hitchcock/Truffaut was a revelation to me.
I had never heard of most of the movies discussed by the two film makers. I had never heard of Vertigo much less gotten a chance to see it. I had heard of Psycho, Marnie, North by Northwest, had never seen one minute of them. Had never heard of Shadow of a Doubt, or Blackmail, or the 39 Steps, or Young and Innocent or The Lodger. The more I read the more I wanted to see them all, repeatedly. And I never thought I would ever get that opportunity.
I can still recall the thrill I had when the “lost 5” films were restored and released to theaters in the 1980s, when I was going to school at Webster University and shortly after. Rear Window, Vertigo, Man Who Kew Too Much, Trouble With Harry and Rope. I saw them all, at either the Hi Pointe or the Tivoli Theaters. About the same time period Dial M for Murder was restored and released in 3D, I saw that, three times at the old Varsity theater. I saw Vertigo five times on a big screen.
Around that same time period I had bought a good used 16mm projector and checked out complete prints from the St. Louis City and County libraries. Among many other features and short subjects, the original Man Who Knew Too Much, Young and Innocent, Sabotage, The Secret Agent, the Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps. Just FYI those prints were supposed to be screened only in St. Louis City or County, everything I checked out was screened in Jefferson County. Don’t tell anybody, I wouldn’t want to get into any trouble!
I say all of this as an introduction to one of the finest documentaries about a film maker I have ever seen, and I do not say that lightly. Next to watching moves, reading about movies, writing about movies, and watching collections of trailers for movies, I love documentaries about the people who make the movies, directors, actors, writers, cinematographers, editors.
In Hitchcock/Truffaut we get to hear some of the audio tapes of the long series of interviews that Truffaut had with Hitchcock and see photos taken during those interviews. Truffaut’s credentials as a film buff and film maker were already coming along nicely. You may have heard that he wrote for Cahiers Du Cinema and was part of the French New Wave in film making that came about during the 1950s and 60s. Hitchcock had been dismissed for years as a “popular” film maker, the “serious” movie critics thought he was making “popcorn” movies and were not worthy of serious discussion. They said so in print, many times. Francois Truffaut had other ideas and so did film buffs and film makers, then and now, a great service by getting Hitchcock to discuss every one of his films, how he came to be a film maker and even what he thought of other film maker’s work.
Of course we get to see many clips from Hitchcock’s films but what makes this such a special documentary for Movie Geeks like me, and you probably, we get to hear several working directors discuss the book and Hitchcock’s films. It’s always good to hear from Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader but I have never seen Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater on film before. These are professional film makers discussing one of the most important directors of film who ever lived and the effect that Truffaut’s book had on their hopes and dreams of making movies. Most of these people grew up in the same time period I did and took Hitchcock’s game ball and ran with it.
Paul Schrader makes the important point that all of Hitchcock’s films are about the dream state, they are full of dream images, repeatedly Hitchcock focuses on keys, hand bags, luggage, trains, oceans, beautiful blonde women, hand guns and most tellingly, falls from a great height.
I can still recall when I was attending Junior College at Hillsboro, Missouri’s Community College the first film course I took was Film Appreciation with Professor John White, an excellent teacher. We watched North by Northwest the day after Sir Alfred Hitchcock died April 29, 1980. Professor White made the comment that in film making, timing is everything! He also commented that Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which I still hadn’t seen yet, was unique in its examination of the dream state. A wiser writer than me pointed out, just a few years ago, when Inception was released and caused a flurry of internet comments as to what was “real” and what was a “dream” in Nolan’s film, that ALL movies are a dream. Every film that has ever been made or ever will be made is an artificial construct to make “reality” (whatever that is) into something better. That includes documentaries by the way, including this one.
For this is a dream of a documentary, it needs to be seen by everyone who loves film, who treasures the work of not only Hitchcock but any really good director of film. In fact this is the type of documentary that I can, and have, watched repeatedly. In fact I wish it were longer. There are dozens of extras with additional comments from all the directors who participated. Bogdanovich in particular is always good to listen to, all of the directors have excellent things to say about Hitchcock’s work. These are professional film makers, not critics, not Movie Geeks, real pros discussing the minute details of film making, the nuts and bolts of it, and how Hitchcock used every means at his disposal and even, within the parameters of Hollywood rules, managed to make experimental, avant garde works of film art. Some of his more famous experiments, Lifeboat, with a cast confined to one small area, Rope, a movie which appeared to be made in one continuous take, in “real” time, and Dial M For Murder, a 3-D movie with almost no 3-D effects.
That is the only fault I can find with this excellent documentary, only a select few of Hitchcock’s films are discussed at length, all are touched on, sometimes too briefly. I would love to see this expanded into a series, a sort of high road version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where a screening room full of directors, or maybe only 3 or 4 at a time, discuss a Hitchcock film as they watch it. Several directors I would love to hear from are notable by their absence. I would sincerely be interested to hear comments from JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Walter Hill, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Robert Zemeckis and any number of other directors on the choices Hitchcock made for every one, well almost every one, of his films. Mel Brook’s input would also be welcome but his comments are many and varied and on the record in his own career spanning documentary, Make A Noise. Brooks got very chummy with Hitchcock and had his blessing to make his brilliant parody High Anxiety.
One genuinely touching part of the whole story, Hitchcock was very encouraging and actually a mentor to Truffaut. He gave him feedback on every one of the films he made while he still lived and was openly admiring of other directors work. Hitchcock did not work in a vacuum, he thought very highly of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Huston and many others. One story I treasure, Orson Welles was astonished when Hitchcock told him at a Hollywood function that he thought Lady From Shanghai was a masterpiece, a film Welles just wanted to forget. For the record I agree with Hitchcock on that.
And Sir Alfred Hitchcock was also sincerely honest about his own limitations as a director. He admitted he’d be useless on a western, war film or a musical comedy. But as Mel Brooks pointed out Hitchcock became a genre onto himself. To this day any suspenseful set piece is usually described as “worthy of Hitchcock.” He is part of the vocabulary of film, and this documentary is worthy of being on the same shelf with Orson Welles: Magician, George Stevens: Film Maker, Stanley Kubrick:, A Life in Film, David Lynch: Pretty as a Picture, Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, or any other film maker documentary you can name. Great stuff! Five stars! Now, I have not watched Strangers on a Train in some time, excuse me will you?