From The Hours to The NeverEnding Story to Adaptation, cinema has helped us peer into the secret world of authors and their creative process. Now, imagine that a book about moviemaking (which went on to influence some of film's greatest legends) has its own amazing backstory told in a riveting documentary. That documentary exists, and it’s called Hitchcock/Truffaut.
Alfred Hitchcock is an obvious giant of American cinema. From our lofty view of the present, Hitchcock is well regarded as the kindly, if not macabre, grandfather of the rather spooky Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Even the most casual of movie lovers have likely seen either Psycho, Rear Window, or Vertigo. But, if it hadn’t been for the book-turned-documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock’s genius could very well have gone unknown.
Prior to Hitchcock’s critical acclaim, he was known for being a “schlock” director. “The consequence in [Hitchcock’s] denouement falls quite flat for us,” sneered the New York Times in its review of Psycho. The critics aren’t always right; thanks to a young man named Francois Truffaut, the world’s view of Hitchcock has been forever changed.
The Making of a Cinematic Master
The story of how that young man came to know and appreciate the master of suspense and then proceed to interview him is the subject of the HBO documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. It’s also a fun look into the minds of modern directors like Wes Anderson, David Fincher, and Martin Scorsese.
Rewind back to 1962, two years after the breakaway success of Psycho. A 30-year old Francois Truffaut, as well as his contemporaries in the French avant-garde cinema (also known as New Wave), determined that Hitchcock was a genius, during a time when “Hitch” was widely thought to be a “popular” filmmaker, not an artist. Truffaut says in the introduction to Hitchcock/Truffaut (the book version):
Truffaut and the French New Wave of directors thought Hitchcock was a genius because his methods were an uncanny match for their own psyches, perceptions, and even insecurities. But the New Wave’s position on Hitchcock was not obvious and not without serious dissent in film circles at the time, as these two brilliant articles from The New Yorker’s James Brody and Nathan Heller explain.
Francois Truffaut, already world famous for just two films, but most importantly for 400 Blows, reaches out to the 63-year old Alfred Hitchcock, who is at the height of his powers, and asks him to be interviewed about his techniques and approach.
Truffaut and his translator traveled to Hitchcock’s Universal Studios office for over a week of recorded interviews (which are chosen for the film to illustrate the book’s examination of Hitchcock’s methods, including shot-by-shot breakdowns of very famous scenes), some interviews lasting many hours and going well into the night. Truffaut retreated into writing the book. When the writing took longer than expected, Truffaut did more interviews to bring the book up to date and include Marnie and Torn Curtain until it was published in 1966 (France) and 1967 (United States).
The story of how the interviews were conducted, the content of the interviews themselves, as well as the writing of the book, and the book’s impact on modern cinema is well explored, but not heavy-handed.
In just 80 minutes of running time, you’ll get a deeper look at Hitchcock and the films you love, and how his experience as a draftsman and ad agency graphic designer helped him create some of those most famous scenes in film history: Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.
But don’t take it from us. Add Hitchcock/Truffaut to your queue, and let the modern masters tell you about how a book written by a 30-year-old man over 50 years ago is still a guiding reference point for cinema legends today.