Director: Kent Jones
Running Time: 79 minutes
Release Date: March 4th
In 1980, Jean Luc Godard appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, expressing, much to the hosts surprise a strong admiration for Jerry Lewis. Praising the comedic actor and director, best known for The Nutty Professor, Godard stated without a trace of irony, “He’s more a painter than a director… He’s working with space. He’s not tracking like all those so called modern movie makers… He’s very interested in framing. He’s a very good framer, like most painters [and] has a lot of sense with geometry.”
This nod would indeed throw many people aback, given Godard’s reputation as perhaps the most challenging and provocative pioneers of the French Nouvelle Vague. Yet there we have it. A man dismissed at home as mere light-entertainment, proving highly influential, from a technical point of view, to a filmmaker whose densely philosophical work has him on the complete opposite end of the cinematic spectrum. Only a few minutes before this, though, Godard made another major statement, labelling Alfred Hitchcock a marvellous novelist, nearly “as great as Dostoyevsky”.
Now, by the 1980’s, Hitchcock’s legacy as a director had certainly come around in his favour, when compared to his reputation during the 1950’s and 60’s. Still, it would be almost unheard of in either the US, or Britain to give him a tribute on that scale. But in France, a different view was held entirely, going as far back as 1954, when a film publication known as Cahiers du Cinema printed a piece entitled, ‘Une certain tendance du cinema fracais’, which discussed a concept known as the auteur theory. Written by Francois Truffaut, the article stated that a director who imposes his own distinct characteristics, and style into a work of film, is an “auteur”, and comparable to a novelist.
While initially, the chief focal point was on directors such as Jean Renoir and Max Becker, the concept was soon applied to American directors, like Howard Hawks and Hitchcock. In the case of the latter, Cahiers du Cinema did in essence worship the ground at his feet. No mean feat for Hitchcock, what with the fawning critics being visionaries such as Truffaut, Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette.
This analysis of Hitchcock during the 1960’s was as startling to many as was Godard, in the 80’s discussing Jerry Lewis in a sincere and po-faced manner. It upset American critics, who were dismissive of the Master of Suspense, given that they saw him, again as nothing above an entertainer, whose body of work was an array of well-made pot-boilers. As a result, when Truffaut went to New York in 1962, to promote the release of Jules and Jim, he was confronted by journalists, who would all ask, “Why do the critics of Cahiers du Cinema take Hitchcock so seriously? He’s rich and successful, but his movies have no substance.”
In response, Truffaut defended himself, exclaiming his love for Rear Window. However, those whom he was being interviewed by remained cynical. In fact, one man in attendance went as far as to say, “You love Rear Window because, as a stranger to New York, you know nothing about Greenwich Village”. To this, Truffaut replied simply, “Rear Window is not about Greenwich Village, it is a film about cinema, and I do know cinema.”
This statement, a filmmaker who makes films about film, could be applied to many directors today; Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, Vince Gilligan, Robert Rodriguez, Joss Whedon, the list is endless. Yet, it is Hitchcock who, one could argue was the first. His work may not have had the overt political or philosophical messages of his admirers in the Nouvelle Vague, but his distinct vision certainly played an influence in their development as artists. Concerning Hitchcock/Truffaut, directed by Kent Jones, which assesses the legacies of Hitchcock, and the book-length interview, ‘Hitchcock by Truffaut’, here is where the film takes off, as it notes how the Nouvelle Vague was the first instance of a cinematic genre conscious of itself.
Discussed by filmmakers who have treated this book as the bible of cinema, namely Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hitchcock/Truffaut picks up where ‘Hitchcock by Truffaut’ climaxes. Based around the countless hours of tape recordings, the viewer is explained the cultural importance of the book, not merely as an accompaniment to Hitchcock’s tremendous body of work, but as an integral part of his canon. With the camera flitting between pages of the text, and reprinted frame-by-frame stills from a variety of his most iconic scenes, the experience is enhanced by hearing the pair nattering excitedly, analysing the psychological subtext of Vertigo, or the major bait and switch shower scene in Psycho.
As the documentary progresses, it remains loyal to the original book, in its drawing the focus away from Truffaut, and towards Hitchcock almost exclusively. By the end, each participating filmmaker has forgotten the Frenchman, and is lovingly offering their own scope on how his films were trailblazers in a myriad of ways. When Fincher heralds Vertigo as a magnificently perverted film, this provides an opportunity to reveal Hitchcock’s twisted imagination, as he goes as far as to state that when Cary Grant’s character Scottie demands Judy dress up as Madeleine, he is experiencing an erection out of shot. An idea, which would have never made it past the censors, were it even hinted at back in 1958, such small notes are indicative of his work as a whole, which takes on a different meaning as time passes.
In effect, Hitchcock/Truffaut starts where the Anthony Hopkins biopic Hitchcock ends: The production of The Birds. While Hitchcock was in the process of editing the follow-up to Psycho, this was when he and Truffaut sat down to discuss his body of work, at what one could argue was a major crossroads for the veteran. Hitchcock piqued interests as it gave us an insight into the intense process of adapting, filming and editing Psycho, but Hitchcock/Truffaut goes further by doing this for a plethora of works, making you fall in love with the mainstream auteur, while also learning of his insecurities, and fears about being too reliant on a singular formula.
Thought-provoking and utterly intriguing, this is an important document, which gives one a newfound appreciation of Hitchcock. His plot twists, and suspense may have lost the desired effect, since his style, and devices have been referenced thousands of times by other writers, directors and artists. However, today, he can be commended as a true technical visionary, and this documentary, a proper film for filmmakers, insures that a larger audience will understand him as such.