Hitchcock/Truffaut Traces the Long Shadow of the Round Silhouette

Photo by Philippe Halsman. Courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Hitchcock/Truffaut
Directed by Kent Jones
Opens December 2

In 1962, François Truffaut, fresh off Jules and Jim, sat down with Alfred Hitchcock, preparing to unleash The Birds upon the public, for a weeklong interview, a film-by-film close-up on the elder director’s long career. They might have spoken more than half a century ago, but the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, directed by Kent Jones and co-written by Jones and Serge Toubiana, aims to show the ways in which that conversation continues to resonate. The film takes the title of the influential 1966 volume that resulted from the Universal Studios sit-down—“one of the few indispensable books on movies,” as Bob Balaban puts it in his narration, giving Hollywood’s Master of Suspense his full due as an artist. Not merely a movie about a book about movies, Jones’s feature is an appealing quick-sketch study of Hitchcock’s outsize influence as it stands today. No one, not even Dressed to Kill–phase Brian De Palma, has come close to filling his shadow; all a director can do, then, is pay lapidary homage.

This 80-minute film is in part a no-nonsense history lesson for the casual cinephile, managing not to get bogged down in minutiae while nonetheless feeling admirably thorough.

Jones smartly excerpts the (widely available online) audio recordings of the interview, during which interpreter Helen Scott’s lucid French-to-English-and-back interpreting impresses nearly as much as the directorial insights themselves; plenty of primary documents, including letters, scripts, and review clippings, appear on-screen as well. The majority of Hitchcock/Truffaut, however, consists of interviews conducted by Jones himself: Well-kempt contemporary filmmakers, David Fincher to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, pay homage to their predecessor. It’s not a very diverse selection of talking heads (there is, for starters, not a woman among them), but at least these guys are articulate. They gush about the Truffaut text (Wes Anderson says a rubber band now binds his well-worn copy), before venturing their own readings of individual scenes in the Hitchcock oeuvre. Jones cues up all the relevant sequences, which strung together comprise an enjoyably idiosyncratic picture of the legendary director’s career. Here, there’s more of early silent Easy Virtue than Rear Window, more of Topaz than Strangers on a Train.

A critic turned filmmaker, Jones has already collaborated with two of his interviewees on the subject of Hitchcock, co-directing 2010 Emmy nominee A Letter to Elia with Martin Scorsese, and co-writing Arnaud Desplechin’s underrated 2013 film Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. In this latest directorial outing, Jones shows filmmakers as they cut in the other direction, riffing themselves along toward concrete critical observations on theme and technique. Paul Schrader identifies keys, ropes, and handcuffs as recurring objects imbued with a “Freudian weight”; Scorsese considers the question of point of view in the jail-cell inserts of The Wrong Man and the driving scenes of Psycho; Immigrant director James Gray, like Hitchcock long beloved of the French, gestures emphatically as he holds forth on Jimmy Stewart gazing at Kim Novak gazing at the portrait of Carlotta Valdez in Vertigo.

It is certainly not breaking news that Hitchcock has been massively influential to several generations of auteurs, but the micro-analyses scattered throughout Hitchcock/Truffaut wind up constituting more than mere appreciation. At its best, the documentary offers a marvelously simple model of engaged spectatorship: When you’re watching the work of a great filmmaker, you really can’t watch closely enough.

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