A documentary about Alfred Hitchcock would surely be interesting, but it feels like something we've all seen before. Director Kent Jones, something of a legendary film historian/programmer/critic, decided to try a different tactic. For hardcore cinephiles, there are few books as beloved as the large collection of images and interview transcripts known simply as Hitchcock/Truffaut. Using this essential discussion of film theory as an entry point, Jones' has crafted a truly unique film. We're reflecting back on a book that reflected back on an essential body of work, and, as such, getting a double-history lesson. Mixing new interview footage, archival tapes from the original discussion and a mountain of film clips, Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut is like an entire semester of film school dumped in your lap. And it is absolutely terrific.
In 1962 Alfred Hitchcock was a household name for sinister, suspenseful entertainment. His movies like The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and Psycho had been delighting (and sometimes scaring the pants off people) for decades, and his Twilight Zone-esque television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which featured a pun-heavy intro from the man with the thick British accent himself, was a tremendous success.
There was only one thing Hitchcock lacked: the approval of most establishment critics. Luckily, a group of rabble-rousers from France (always from France!) whose work was published in Cahiers du Cinéma, were chomping at the bit to champion Alfred Hitchcock as the great artist of motion pictures. François Truffaut, one of the leaders of what was soon termed the French New Wave, declared Hitchcock his favorite director when he first came to America promoting his early masterpiece The 400 Blows. Many in the press chuckled, but he wasn't joking. Deciding to right this wrong, Truffaut initiated a week-long series of interviews in which the two filmmakers would talk about Hitchcock's enormous resumé film-by-film.
The interviews (conducted with an interpreter) are striking in their lack of pretense. Hitchcock quickly gets down to brass tacks, explaining his technique and inspiration for many of the cinematic tricks that he, essentially, invented. The book discussed the difference between suspense and surprise, and the difficulty had with a more modern type of actor who felt the need to understand the motivation behind every bit of blocking. (Famously, Hitchcock and method actor Montgomery Clift didn't quite see eye-to-eye during the shooting of I Confess in 1953.)
This new documentary is notable for the way modern directors like David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore) James Gray (The Immigrant) and Martin Scorsese weigh in on the same subjects. (They also discuss their relationship to the original book, which, in Anderson's case, was read so many times it is now just a stack of loose paper.)
The film isn't too rich in juicy gossip or unknown facts, but prefers instead to dig in and explore both the meaning and technique of Hitchcock's most famous scenes. Obviously, this means a lot of attention on the shower sequence in Psycho, the 1960 film that destroyed every screenwriting “rule” that existed up until that point. Assuming there is no way to spoil a movie that is 55 years old, the main character, played by Janet Leigh, is killed 45 minutes into the movie, an act so daring it left audiences completely untethered and confused, ramping up the terror of the movie. (Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich's description of the first screening's vocal reaction is, pun intended, a scream.)
Armchair psychologists will also get a kick out of the discussion of Vertigo, a movie so rich with sexual frustration and Freudian imagery that some film critics recently voted it the greatest movie of all time. Unfortunately, there's only so much time, so we don't get into North By Northwest's Mount Rushmore chase, Raymond Burr's glance at the camera in Rear Window or the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence in Spellbound. Luckily, this movie leaves you itching to see the great original films and kicks off some discussions of your own.