A documentary film about a book of interviews with two film directors? At first I thought it was a joke, even though the directors are Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock and the book is Hitchcock/Truffaut. Even when I knew all that, I still had doubts. I mean, yes, they were two of the greatest moviemakers ever. And that book is, for my money, the single best book—certainly the one with the highest enjoyment-to-education ratio imaginable—about the movies that I know about. Still, a film documentary about a book?
OK, now I’ve seen Kent Jones’s documentary, which is also called Hitchcock/Truffaut and while released in theaters in 2015, makes its debut on HBO tonight, where it will finally reach the audience it deserves. Because this is the best film documentary about two great directors (and the book they made together) that you will ever see.
Once you get past the weirdness, and that takes about, oh, 30 seconds, you never want it to end.
I realize how strange this all must sound to anyone unfamiliar with the book in question. So, some background: In 1962, Truffaut wrote what can only be described as a mash note to Hitchcock, and in this letter, after praising his artistry to the skies, suggested that they sit down for a series of interviews about Hitchcock’s work.
To understand why Hitchcock, not the most forthcoming man, said yes almost immediately, you have to understand that even in the early ’60s, he was still regarded as nothing more than a supremely talented entertainer. If you had told movie critics in the ’50s that Vertigo, which flopped with reviewers and the public when it debuted, would today be routinely ranked as the greatest movie of all time, even the politest would have laughed in your face.
Surely Hitchcock himself knew how great he was, but it must have grated on him to watch as year after year other films deemed more important—shit with a message—garnered all the accolades and awards while he was left with the box office for consolation (he was nominated for best director five times at the Academy awards but never won). True, his success gave him what any serious moviemaker wants—financing and the freedom of being left alone—but when Truffaut’s letter arrived, he admitted it left him in tears.
Hitchcock/Truffaut, the book they made together (if you glance at the title page, the actual title is Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut, but almost no one calls it that), is a series of interviews with Truffaut as the interviewer, in which they go through Hitchcock’s movies one by one, scene by scene, and often shot by shot. This was possible because while Hitchcock was 63 at the time and some of the movies they discussed were made as early as the ’20s, Hitchcock had carefully planned those films down to the very last camera angle. He was probably the most methodical director who ever lived, and the only thing that keeps his work from looking mechanical was genius: the whole truly was greater than the parts. But the parts were interesting, too, and as the book demonstrates on nearly every page, well worth discussing.
Certainly a lot of filmmakers thought so, and here is why that book of interviews warrants its own documentary. On camera, directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and David Fincher all testify to the book’s influence on their creative lives. Wes Anderson even admits that his copy has been read and reread so many times that it’s held together with a rubber band. (My original copy—I’m on my second—is just a bunch of loose pages between hardcovers, the binding having given way years ago.)
This adulation from younger directors seems only inevitable. For while Hitchcock did not invent the grammar of film, he certainly practiced it and perfected it as no one else has. Trained in the silent era, he understood that it’s what we, the audience, sees on screen that matters most. The talking, not so much. If you want to learn about editing as an end to producing an emotional effect, or how camera placement affects the way an audience thinks of a person—if, in short, you want to learn how to tell a story with a movie camera—there is no better master class than the wisdom that Truffaut elicited from Hitchcock. No wonder the directors in the documentary speak with such joy and gratitude when recalling how they discovered it.
My favorite part of the documentary is where they take up the question of why Hitchcock’s movies, almost uniquely, don’t ever look or sound dated, aside from the period settings. The ’30s look different in the films made in that decade, for example, but the people behave the way we do. They have the same fears and anxieties, even the same humor, which is a real trick.
The consensus among the talking heads is that the films always seem in the present tense because they are so personal, that once you get beyond the superficial suspense of the plot, the things that nagged Hitchcock are the things that nag us all—irrational guilt, the morbid fear of being falsely accused or confined. Sometimes this isn’t even the main thrust of the plot, but just something that Hitchcock uses incidentally to unnerve us. In Psycho, for example, Marian Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her boss’s office. But when she’s on the run and a cop peers into her car where she’s spent the night, we all jump, because who doesn’t feel a little on the wrong side of things when facing the law, even when we’re innocent.
I don’t think that “Hitchcock’s neuroses” entirely explains the timelessness of his movies, but it’s as good an answer as any I’ve ever come up with. And hey, the movie kicks off with Hitchcock on the soundtrack admitting that he himself doesn’t know the answer to that question. And if he doesn’t, who does?
Any Hitchcock fan, even any fan of the book, will love this film. Because part of being a fan is wondering how Hitchcock did it—not to find him out but to appreciate the skill with which he practiced. There have been few moviemakers who could involve you so emotionally in a story—a story that was just that, a story, with no deeper meaning—and at the same time thrill you with his virtuosity. It was like watching a really good magician, only better. Listening to these directors tip their hats to that ability is like hearing the best shop talk imaginable.