“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: They are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking,’” Alfred Hitchcock told his awestruck French interlocutor, critic-cum-helmer Francois Truffaut, in the indispensable monograph whose 50th anniversary inspired film historian Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” The master of suspense referred to his own style, which tried to dispense with dialogue in favor of conveying a story through a sequence of shots, as “pure cinema,” and even though Jones’ documentary relies heavily on talking heads, recycled clips and traditional narration, there’s no question that it embodies pure cinema of a different sort — namely, a complete and total immersion in the medium, by way of a career-spanning appreciation of Hitchcock’s work, designed to echo and extend the impact of Truffaut’s seminal book. Accessible yet intelligent, the 80-minute docu should reward institutional retrospectives and homevideo viewing alike.
Truffaut was only 30 years old when he queried Hitchcock about doing an in-depth, career-spanning interview that, he promised, would change the way cineastes saw the British-born director, who’d worked his way up from designing art titles (the painted cards featured in silent films) to helming some of Hollywood’s most successful genre pictures. But as Michael Bay could tell you today, popularity doesn’t necessarily connote respect, and Hitchcock wasn’t taken all that seriously by American critics as he wrapped 1963’s avian-attack thriller “The Birds” — simultaneously one of his schlockiest and most sophisticated features to date.
Touched by Truffaut’s flattery, Hitchcock granted his young admirer an eight-day interview, conducted on the Universal lot in the presence of translator Helen Scott and photographer Philippe Halsman. In reconstructing the historic tete-a-tete, Jones makes use of the original tape to give a flavor of the dynamic between the man who made “The 39 Steps” and the man who made “The 400 Blows”: One can hear Truffaut, eager and savant-like, leading his witness, who holds court with generous insights and anecdotes. Long before VCRs came along to facilitate careful repeat viewing, the two parties demonstrate an uncanny grasp of individual shots and sequences (as when Hitch explains how he got the glass of milk to glow in “Suspicion”: by hiding a lightbulb inside).
But Jones doesn’t set out simply to rehash Hitchcock and Truffaut’s conversation, which was published in 1965. He omits Hitch’s useful concept of the MacGuffin (the otherwise irrelevant device that sets a film’s plot in motion), as well as his famous distinction between surprise and suspense (the “bomb theory,” which hinges on whether the public is informed about an imminent explosion) — but that’s perfectly reasonable, since the book remains in print, and the recordings can be heard online, formatted for a French radio broadcast. Nor does Jones intend for the film to serve as a strict history lesson on the famous encounter; for that, cinephiles can turn to the half-hour “Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock,” included on the Criterion edition of “The Soft Skin.”
Rather, “Hitchcock/Truffaut” aims to achieve a comparable goal to that of the original book: to restore and cement Hitchcock’s reputation, giving audiences reasons to revisit and appreciate his work. Half a century after the the interview’s initial publication, although Hitchcock’s reputation remains high (for the first time in 2012, “Vertigo” unseated “Citizen Kane” at the top of Sight & Sound magazine’s all-time-greatest-films poll), scandalously few young film buffs have seen even one of his movies.
Featuring footage that spans Hitchcock’s entire career, with in-depth analysis of everything from the glass-ceiling effect in his early silent “The Lodger” to the anxious psychological realism of “Marnie,” “Hitchcock/Truffaut” serves as a compelling entry point for new converts — even if it demands some sleuthing for neophytes to identify which films supply the various unlabeled clips. To help make his case, Jones calls on 10 of the medium’s most respected practitioners, from his old friend Martin Scorsese to Truffaut successor Arnaud Desplechin (whose “Jimmy P.” Jones co-wrote). Younger audiences will appreciate the giddiness with which their new god, Wes Anderson, refers to the book’s impact, while David Fincher offers a virtual master class in how Hitchcock has shaped his aesthetic.
Whereas Hitchcock often focused on the nuts and bolts of film directing, asking to go off the record whenever things got too close to home (as with a question about his Catholicism), the insights offered by such eloquent admirers as James Gray (“The Yards”) and Olivier Assayas (“Carlos”) reiterate how the director’s best films work on multiple levels: as white-knuckle entertainment; as marvels of composition, light and space; as insights into his own personal preoccupations; and as poetic expressions of certain universal human anxieties.
Today, the notion of the “auteur” director has shifted from the populism of Hitchcock (which still allowed ample room for recurring themes and obsessions) to the solipsism of more narrowly focused filmmakers, which made Cannes — where Jones’ film premiered, amid so many dauntingly inaccessible art films — a perfect place to be reminded of Hitchcock’s philosophy. As the master put it, “One’s film should be designed for 2,000 seats, not one seat,” and while the interview-driven documentary may not adhere to Hitchcock’s cinematic ideal, it welcomes one and all into the medium’s embrace.