In our current age of unfettered veneration, it’s hard to imagine a time when Alfred Hitchcock was not considered one of the undisputed masters of cinema. Harder still to think he’d need anyone’s help in establishing himself as such. Yet in the sixties, Hitchcock’s commercial success, publicity stunts and condescending attitude to the press led critics to belittle his work as purely commercial and crowd-pleasing.
He found unlikely champions, however, in the critics and filmmakers associated with influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Not least amongst them, François Truffaut. Frustrated by the total lack of understanding of Hitchcock’s astonishing technical ability and pure cinematic vision, Truffaut persuaded Hitchcock to talk. And of course Hitch knew a good publicity opportunity when he saw one.
Over eight days in August 1962, with the help of writer and translator Helen G. Scott, Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in his office at Universal Studios. They discussed his life, his films in chronological order, and through these things his extraordinary vision and talent.
The resulting text, Hitchcock/Truffaut, is a masterclass, a must-read for all film lovers and aspiring filmmakers. As Kent Jones’ film about this extraordinary meeting of minds begins it focuses, quite literally, on the book. We see photos, cutting sequences, storyboards from its pages; even words illuminated in the text. Interspersed with this, current luminaries of cinema wax lyrical about the book’s importance in their lives.
Disappointingly not a single female director was deemed worthy of talking about the great man, but Jones has assembled an impressive line-up of current auteurs to satisfy. David Fincher recalls how inspired he was by seeing the cutting pattern of the murder sequence in Sabotage (1936) and how Hitchcock taught him that time, and how you use it, is critical – in film some things happen much faster than real life, other things much slower, like a dream. Wes Anderson steps up to say that his copy has been read so many times, it’s now just a pile of pages. Oliver Assayas tells us the book is an essential part of Hitchcock’s body of work. Scorsese that the book made it feel as if a great weight had been lifted from the shoulders of young. The access to Hitchcock’s mind, his wit and daring, was startling to a whole generation of young up-and-coming talent.
There’s some fantastic footage of Hitch with his family, a screen test with Anny Ondra for the silent film Blackmail, and it’s great to hear his voice on the 1962 interview tapes, especially when he asks for them to be turned off so he can tell a dirty joke. The directors discuss Hitchcock’s interest in controlling, entertaining and moving an audience, his understanding of our fascination with violence, and that fear and suspense are related but distinct.
But it's not until the end that the film offers any reason why curling up with the book itself wouldn’t be a far better way to spend your time, as it turns to discussion of Vertigo, a film that was something of a flop for Hitchcock and into which he poured his most personal vision and darkest shadows. In a discussion of the famous scene where Kim Novak comes out of the bathroom when she has adjusted her hair just how Scottie wants it, Hitchcock is quite clear that Scottie has an erection at that moment. As Scorsese says: “Yes, it’s a fantasy, but the fantasy’s real to him.”
Hitchcock’s films, like all the greatest ones, are fantasy, dreamscapes that push past the rational and the logical to explore the darkest channels of human desire. As Hitchcock famously remarked during these legendary interviews: ‘Logic is dull.’