'Hitchcock/Truffaut' looks at great directors' careers

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic
'Hitchcock/Truffaut,' premiering at Cannes Film Festival, a smart look at two great directors

It is, film people agree, one of the few indispensable books on the movies.

It's the printed record of an unprecedented conversation, a tape-recorded colloquy between two exceptional directors, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, talking candidly about the philosophy as well as the mechanics of their craft.

Yet even though "Hitchcock/Truffaut," first published in 1967, is a memorable reading experience, turning it into a documentary film would seem a daunting task. But Kent Jones had a different opinion. "I didn't see any problems," he says. "I was really into the challenges."

FULL COVERAGE: Cannes 2015

In fact, when Jones, who's found the time to do documentaries on Val Lewton and Elia Kazan as well as writing criticism and currently serving as director of the New York Film Festival, was approached to direct the film, "I jumped at the chance" in part because "I don't think there is such a thing as a bad Hitchcock movie.

"Hitchcock's deeply invested in every single one of his films. For someone who's got that big a body of work, Hitchcock and Jean Renoir are alone."

The resulting documentary, also called "Hitchcock/Truffaut" and having its premiere at the Festival de Cannes before being distributed theatrically by Cohen Media Group, handsomely rewards Jones' passion.

Smart, thoughtful and elegantly done, "Hitchcock/Truffaut" is more than an authoritative look at the careers and interpersonal dynamics of these two unlikely soul mates. It's also, as Jones intended, a love letter to film itself, to the value and lure of the cinematic experience.

Though he is best known to U.S. audiences as the director of French New Wave classics like "The 400 Blows," "Shoot the Piano Player" and "Jules and Jim," Truffaut first worked as a critic for the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema. He came to view Hitchcock as not only his favorite filmmaker but the best in the world as well.

Truffaut wrote Hitchcock a letter that the British director said brought tears to his eyes, suggesting the book-length interview. It took place over a week in 1962 and lasted 27 hours, with Helen Scott doing the translating since the men did not share a common language. One of the pleasures of the "Hitchcock/Truffaut" film is that it makes extensive use of those taped conversations, allowing us in effect to eavesdrop on history and get a sense of the spontaneous passion and conviction both men brought to the table.

That passion is not something usually associated with Hitchcock, who was often portrayed in the media, partly with his own cooperation, as something of a disinterested technocrat. Nothing, Jones and his film emphasize, could be further from the truth.

"He's so animated, so deeply in the moment," Jones explains of the tapes, referring for instance to Hitchcock's talking about the emotional scene in "Vertigo" where James Stewart's character is waiting anxiously for Kim Novak's to come out of a hotel bathroom.

"This is not a guy who made movies on paper; that was something he sold. The same is true when he talked about 'Psycho,' when he says it was pure film that caused the audience to react the way it did. Not a big star, not a celebrated novel. It was pure film."

It was to impact the public view of Hitchcock, Jones said, that Truffaut thought of the book project in the first place.

"He wanted to correct the American image of Hitchcock as a light entertainer, but he also wanted to correct overly abstract French formulations that removed Hitchcock from the circumstances in which the films were made. Truffaut felt Hitchcock didn't need help, he didn't need to be compared to Racine, he just needed to be described accurately."

Because he took this task so seriously, Truffaut put a lot of time and effort into preparation for the interviews. As French director Olivier Assayas says in the film, this book was an essential part of Truffaut's life's work, fully as important to him as one of his films.

Assayas is one of 10 directors, including France's Arnaud Desplechin, Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and America's Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and David Fincher, whose on-screen interviews add informed analysis and enthusiasm to the final project.

"I just wanted filmmakers, I wanted it to be very pure, I didn't want to get into the register of actors talking about their experience working with Hitchcock," Jones explains. "I've been talking to Marty and Arnaud about him for years, and with the others I wanted people who were going to be surprising, who would rise to the occasion and speak extemporaneously with passion and interest."

When it came to illustrating the conversations between Hitchcock and Truffaut, Jones made expert use of clips from moments in Hitchcock films both familiar (the shower scene in "Psycho," the kiss in "Notorious") and not. They all serve to illustrate Fincher's intriguing on-camera comment to the effect that cinema is editing behavior over time, making short events long and long events short.

Even people familiar with both directors will find elements of "Hitchcock/Truffaut" surprising, especially a moment where Hitchcock seems haunted by the question of whether he might have been looser behind the camera.

"Should I have experimented more with character and narrative?" he wonders to Truffaut. "Did I become a prisoner of my own form?" One of the many questions this very special film will leave you pondering.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
88°