In 1966, François Truffaut published a book about the work of his fellow director, Alfred Hitchcock. Simply entitled “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” it went on to become one of the most famous of all film tomes, one considered indispensable by many cinéastes (though to my eternal shame, I’ve yet to read it myself).
Fifty years later, the book has its very own documentary, unsurprisingly entitled Hitchcock/Truffaut. Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 11, it’s a somewhat unfocused and slightly stodgy tribute that is unlikely to win either director any new fans – though it may inspire some, including myself, to finally pick up a copy of “Hitchcock/Truffaut” (the book).
The biggest problem with Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) is that its subject is so profoundly un-cinematic. Quite simply, its many close-ups — consisting largely of shots of pages of film-stills and interview transcriptions — don’t help us appreciate or understand the book’s importance.
There’s also a rather uninspiring array of talking heads to enlighten us, ranging from the overly familiar (Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich) to the less so (Paul Schrader, sadly only seen briefly, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa), to the utterly uninspiring (Wes Anderson, David Fincher, and Richard Linklater). At least we can be grateful that neither Quentin Tarantino nor Bono, that ubiquitous expert about everything, were asked to offer their thoughts.
The back story, at least, is interesting if perfunctory. French director Truffaut, who’d already been writing for nouvelle vague journal Cahiers du Cinéma, approached Hitchcock with a proposal for a weeklong conversation that would be turned into a book about the great man’s career. Hitchcock quickly accepted, and the rest is history.
In addition to its aforementioned close-ups and talking heads, Hitchcock/Truffaut features photographs and recordings of this memorable summit meeting. Unfortunately, these recordings are also ill-suited for a motion picture: Truffaut poses a question in French; Hitchcock answers him in English; and a third participant translates Hitchcock’s response back into French. It’s awkward at best.
Of course, there are also plenty of excerpts from Hitchcock films, and these are intelligently selected and frequently enlightening. Though later films, such as Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds, are well-represented, director Kent Jones wisely doesn’t limit himself to Hitch’s best known features, and includes clips going all the way back to the director’s earliest extant efforts.
Indeed, silent-era Hitchcock is surprisingly well represented with clips from The Lodger (1927) and The Manxman (1928), two rarely seen early features that deserve wider exposure. These are potent reminders that the Master of Suspense was a tremendous talent from the very beginning — and that he managed to stay at the top of his game for almost half a century.
Hitch’s recorded statement that “logic is dull” helps explain why many of his films were poorly received by contemporary critics, but adored by audiences less inclined to worry about plausibility and more than willing to suspend their disbelief in the name of entertainment. The publication of ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ marked the turning point where the critics began to catch up with them, and it’s just a shame this film isn’t a bit better than it is.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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