Saturday 18 November 2017

Cinema... Odd couple: when Hitch met Truffaut

Meeting of minds: François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock
Meeting of minds: François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock
The Birds

In 1962, a strange and tiny conference took place on the back-lots of Universal Studios. Rising star François Truffaut had come to Hollywood to meet his idol Alfred Hitchcock, and find out what made him tick. For eight days, the men talked constantly about cinema, Hitchcock's films and the mechanics of movie-making: Hitch was flattered by the attention, but understood that Truffaut was a serious talent. And for Truffaut this was not some idol fancy: he wanted to overturn the popular perception of Hitchcock as a frivolous entertainer, and affirm him as a major force in cinematic history.

The result of those interviews was a remarkable 1966 illustrated book called Hitchcock/Truffaut that would help rescue Hitch's reputation and become a kind of film-making bible to a whole new generation of auteurs. The book has now inspired a very enjoyable documentary, which plays this afternoon in Dublin's Light House as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, and will be released at the IFI on March 4.

Directed by Kent Jones, Hitchcock/Truffaut uses archive footage and learned contributions from the likes of Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Paul Schrader to assess the making of the book and its impact. It's a must for film-lovers, and sheds new light on the meeting of two very different creative minds.

In 1962, Hitchcock was 63, and had become a household name in America thanks to his television work, and a virtual franchise unto himself. He had terrified move-goers with his daring horror film Psycho, and had just completed his 40th feature film, The Birds. But beneath this veneer of consistent success, the cracks were beginning to show.

Psycho had been given a very mixed reception by critics, who moaned about its B-movie nastiness. Though it's difficult for us to imagine at this remove, Hitchcock was viewed as a studio hack by most commentators, especially in Britain and America, where he was dismissed as a jobbing director who made venal crime films with no artistic merit whatsoever. His career was about to enter a slow decline, and the idea of his being given retrospectives and lauded as a cinematic genius would have seemed absurd.

Not to Truffaut, however, who had been in awe of Hitchcock from the start. Half Hitchcock's age, Truffaut had only made three films in 1962, but was already a leading light of the revolutionary nouvelle vague. Cinema had been his escape from an unhappy childhood, and he'd made his name as a merciless film critic in André Bazin's Cahiers du cinema.

There, he and Bazin had developed the persuasive and hugely influential auteur theory, which re-cast some (though not all) directors as the primary authors of film, visual novelists, if you like. Kurosawa, Kubrick and Renoir were cited as examples but for Truffaut, Hitchcock was the perfect case in point, a director whose personal themes and obsessions were front and centre in everything he did.

When Truffaut first went to America to promote his début feature Les 400 Coups, he was asked to name his favourite directors and immediately cited Hitchcock. "There was always this astonished reaction," he later recalled, and Truffaut quickly realised that in America, admiring Hitchcock was not respectable. He was outraged by this dismissive attitude, and decided to do something about it.

In 1962, Truffaut wrote Hitchcock a letter professing his admiration and proposing a series of in-depth discussions of Hitchcock's work. Hitch was deeply moved, wrote back that Truffaut's letter had "brought tears to my eyes", and agreed to do the interviews. For Truffaut, these interviews were every bit as important as one of his own films, and required just as much time and preparation. His aim was to change America and the world's perception of Hitchcock, but he also planned to rescue him from the clutches of some of his more pretentious French colleagues.

In their enthusiasm to redraw the rules of cinema, the Cahiers du cinema mob had rained praise on Hollywood directors like Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, and equated them with the greats of French painting and literature. Truffaut was always more level-headed, as Hitchcock/Truffaut's director Kent Jones explained at Cannes: "He wanted to correct the American image of Hitchcock as a light entertainer, but he also wanted to correct overly abstract French formulations that removed Hitchcock from the circumstances in which the films were made. Truffaut felt Hitchcock didn't need help, he didn't need to be compared to Racine, he just needed to be described accurately." And as Truffaut's book would prove, he was just the man for the job.

"I went to Hollywood with my interpreter and collaborator Helen Scott," Truffaut later recalled, "we stayed in the Beverly Hills hotel and every day we went to Universal Studios and talked about cinema together all day, even during lunch." From the very start, the two men seemed to understand each other implicitly, in spite of the language barrier - Truffaut had little or no English, Hitchcock didn't speak French. And perhaps that's because both men, though very different, lived for and through the cinema.

Their conversations focused on Hitchcock's films from the 1920s through to the 1960s, how he'd made them and why, and the finished book would include stills accompanied by detailed explanations of the director's intentions. What fascinated Truffaut was Hitchcock's ability to move his story along and communicate fluently with his audience without recourse to words. In fact as Richard Linklater points out in Hitchcock/Truffaut, "so many of his films would work silently, you can watch any Hitchcock film without any dialogue or music and I think you'd still get a really high percentage of it."

Hitchcock thought in images, and woe betide the actor who came between him and his perfectly composed and meticulously storyboarded schemas. At one point he complained to Truffaut about Montgomery Clift's uncooperative attitude during the filming of I Confess, and concluded that "all actors are cattle".

This was Hitchcock playing to his audience, and he liked to come across as a wry and aloof Englishman. But François Truffaut was a very intelligent man, and his probing interviews would reveal Hitch as an engaged and passionate artist who felt deeply connected to his work.

Truffaut's central thesis cast Hitchcock as a cinematic artist who either consciously or unconsciously sought out stories and subjects that explored his innermost obsessions and worries. Perceptively, the Frenchman focused on Hitchcock's Catholic upbringing as the key to his obsession with guilt, sin and wrongful accusation. He spent a great deal of time discussing Vertigo, a much-maligned movie at the time that Truffaut correctly identifies as Hitchcock's "most poetic film", and his masterpiece.

Hitchcock's genius, Truffaut felt, had been obscured by his mainstream popularity, and his deep connection with his audience. During their interviews Hitchcock noted that "there is sometimes a tendency among film-makers to forget the audience. I personally am interested in the audience. I mean that one's film should be designed for 2000 seats, not one seat."

When discussing Psycho, Hitch talked about how he'd "tried for a long time to play the audience", and that in Psycho "let's say we were playing them like an organ". But as usual, he was talking himself down, and his film was doing an awful lot more than telling a lurid crime story. The psychological undercurrents in all his great movies were intoxicatingly rich, and formed a body of work as substantial as any great European auteur's.

Published in 1966, Hitchcock/Truffaut would change the way the world thought about his films, which seemed like genre movies but in fact were so much more.

What Truffaut's book proved was this: that Hitchcock was among the most innately cine-literate directors there've been, a man who expanded the language of popular cinema in order to express his deepest emotions and desires through the unlikely vehicle of genre crime films.

He was a one-off, a maverick original, and though many have imitated him, none have equalled his flair for dark psychological insight, unbearable tension, and seamless visual storytelling.

After the interviews

Not long after his talks with Truffaut, Hitchcock released his dark thriller The Birds (below) to near-universal acclaim. It was a big box-office hit, too, but is now seen as the last of his great films. Marnie (1964), a psychological thriller starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren, was less warmly received, and after the commercial failure of Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), Hitch briefly left Hollywood and returned to London to make Frenzy (1972). It was heavily criticised for its seediness and violence, but has since been reassessed. Hitch was back in Hollywood and still planning future films when he died of renal failure in the spring of 1980. A Jesuit heard his last confession.

The Birds

The 1960s and 1970s were fruitful decades for François Truffaut. In 1966, he released his only English language film, Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian thriller based on Ray Bradbury's story. His 1968 film Stolen Kisses was compared by the New York Times to a Balzac novel, and his playful 1973 drama about a troubled film shoot, Day for Night, won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Truffaut had always planned to make 30 films and then retire to write books, but he'd only finished 25 when he died from a brain tumour, in 1984. He was 52.

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