Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Men Who Knew So Much

  • When Alfred met François: from 1962, the iconic directors joined forces for a series of renowned interviews
  • Their far-ranging conversations spawned a multimedia franchise enduring to the present day
  • Influencing generations of fans, filmmakers and scholars alike, here are the most significant spin-offs

By the late 1950s, Hitchcock had conquered Britain, America and the rest of the world. Any magazine, book, film or television project with his name attached was an almost guaranteed moneymaker. Studios and the public adored him, yet the one thing he didn’t enjoy was widespread critical acclaim. Some determined young critics and filmmakers, and one in particular, set out to change all that…

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Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in 1962

Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in 1962


Contents


The talk

Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) is the undisputed doyen of modern filmmaking. Every aspect of his long life and career are constantly analysed, dissected and fêted by fans, critics and academics alike. When it comes to being both analysed and adored, no one else in film history – with the sole exception of Charlie Chaplin – even comes close. Hitchcock’s renown and status are unassailable, yet his current position and public image only started to coalesce from the 1950s onwards, over 30 years after he entered the industry. His full critical reappraisal took even longer, but began in earnest when French critic, filmmaker and Hitchcock acolyte François Truffaut (1932–1984), hot off the back of directing instant New Wave classics The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Pianist (1960) and Jules and Jim (1962), precipitated a series of career-spanning, in-depth interviews in August 1962. The sessions were held in Hitchcock’s office at Universal Studios over the course of a week, during post-production for The Birds (1963). As Truffaut wasn’t very fluent in English, their conversations were conducted via his regular interpreter, Helen Scott of the French Film Office in New York, while photographs were taken by Philippe Halsman.

François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock and interpreter Helen Scott, 1962

Truffaut, Hitchcock and interpreter Helen Scott, 1962

“If, overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and become once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.” – François Truffaut: Correspondence 1945–1984 by Claude de Givray (1988)

The director as auteur theory had been championed for some time by Truffaut and his contemporaries, and Hitchcock was his idol. This made him the ideal person to help reveal what lay behind the magic curtain of the Master’s art. Up until this time Hitchcock was merely thought of as an effective director of entertaining films, whereas the French considered him an auteur par excellence. Throughout the interviews Hitchcock demonstrates incredible powers of recall about the tiniest details of his productions. He repeatedly explains how almost every aspect of each film was meticulously worked out in pre-production, often with little deviation from the plan once actual filming commenced. Time and again it’s shown how each set-up, shot, prop, foley effect and edit – of both sound and image – was carefully constructed to be part of a cohesive whole, and all in service of telling the story.

François Truffaut interviewing Alfred Hitchcock, 1962

Dat profile

The interviews as a whole are pretty much unsurpassed in the annals of filmmaking and really only lacking in two areas. One is that Hitchcock, while happy to go into the minutest detail about films he’s proud of, is often completely dismissive of many works from the early part of his career. This especially applies to the earliest films he had a lesser role in while learning his craft, and those he was contractually obliged to make when his UK box office appeal was waning – albeit only temporarily. Exacerbating this is Truffaut’s clear bias towards the US-made films, leading him to push Hitchcock into making his famous declaration on The Man Who Knew Too Much. In fairness, the British films were far less accessible back then, if at all, and it would have been virtually impossible for Truffaut and his like-minded contemporaries, for instance Robin Wood, to have seen many of them. The net effect of this is that Hitchcock’s cultural rehabilitation, deserving as it was, came to be largely predicated upon his American movies. Even to this day his pre-Hollywood career is often dismissed as not amounting to much more than a collection of ‘student’ films or rehearsals for the greatness to come. All too often any praise for, say, The 39 Steps (1935) is quickly followed by the declaration that its themes and ideas only realised their full potential in North by Northwest (1959). And so on. It’s reminiscent of the annoying habit of those Pavlov’s dogs who, on the merest mention of Chaplin, have to quickly parrot the line that they prefer Keaton, as he’s so post-modern/ironic/unsentimental… (delete as appropriate). What rot – and for the record I love both actors.

The tide is slowly turning though: a few decades of more objective study and criticism have proven that Hitchcock’s British films, especially the ones he fully directed, have much to recommend them and are worthy of being considered an equally important part of the Master’s canon. Allied to this is the increasing availability of high quality releases, rather than the multitude of rubbishy bootlegs that too many are still basing their opinions on. The Truffaut interviews’ other hugely significant omission is in not including Alma Reville. Hitchcock’s wife was his personal partner and professional collaborator throughout his career. We’re getting little more than half the story and one can only wonder at the insights she would have revealed about their joint filmmaking process.


The book

Hitchcock/Truffaut book (1967)
The interview sessions were recorded on reel-to-reel tape and edited extracts subsequently formed the basis of Le Cinéma selon [according toAlfred Hitchcock, first published in France in 1966. By 1967, Truffaut had met with Hitchcock on several more occasions, each time asking him further questions about his career to date. Now taking account of Marnie (1964) and Torn Curtain (1966), the book was updated and published worldwide and known simply as Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967). At least 26 hours of interviews were recorded and almost half of them can be listened to for free, herehere and here. It’s well worth doing so, as they include a lot of anecdotes and asides that didn’t make it into the book. Even of those that did, hearing them in their original form casts many in a whole new light. Even with constant interruption for translation on the fly, hearing the tone and rhythm of both mens’ voices is often doubly revealing.

Remaining friends with his mentor to the end of his days, Truffaut famously declared at the 1979 AFI Salute to Hitchcock “In America, you call this man ‘Hitch’. In France, we call him ‘Monsieur Hitchcock’. You respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love!”

After Hitchcock died in 1980, Truffaut updated the book a third and last time with a new preface and final chapter on his later films. Sadly this proved to be shortly before Truffaut’s own premature death, following a stroke and the diagnosis of a brain tumor. Universally acknowledged as an all-time classic film text, Hitchcock/Truffaut has never been out of print and continues to elicit accolades from all quarters, as well as inspire many related works. It stands as a fantastic tribute to both giants of cinema.

Filmmaker Brais Romero edited this expertly compiled analysis of Hitchcock’s influence on Truffaut’s films:


The film

In 2015, US critic and filmmaker Kent Jones helmed an eponymous documentary based on the tapes and fittingly a US/French co-production. It draws on judicious audio extracts, interleaved with film clips and interviews with such latterday directorial luminaries as Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. Like the parent book, it too was widely acclaimed, with the only recurring criticism being that at 80 minutes it was too short.

More trailers: Italian and Spanish #1 | #2

However, though it’s very well done overall, it’s guilty of one egregious sin that’s impossible to overlook: female voices are almost entirely absent. Even when they are present, it’s only via archive snippets. 11 current top directors were interviewed for their thoughts on the Master’s techniques and four more (Brialy, Chabrol, Godard and Rohmer) appear in archive interviews, all in addition to our titular leads, of course. That they couldn’t find a single noteworthy female director – I seriously doubt any were even approached – is shocking and ultimately provides a meta commentary on the entire project: that in Hollywood, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is, after all, a documentary about a still-controversial filmmaker whose treatment of women both onscreen and off has been the subject of endless discussion, perhaps so more than any other aspect of his career. It’s easy to imagine that a female voice (or two, or three…) would have helped bring a more nuanced and balanced perspective in the face of all the unequivocally gushing cinematic testosterone on dispalay.

This particular Hitchcock/Truffaut has been released on BD in the US (region 0; English, French and Spanish subtitles), Spain (region B, Spanish and Catalan subs) and Mexico, as well as various other countries on DVD. All releases feature an extra 46 minutes of additional interviews and featurettes, but still no women directors.


The play

Hitch: Quand Truffaut affronte Hitchcock (Hitch: When Truffaut Confronted Hitchcock), a successful 2012 French play by Alain Riou and Stéphane Boulan, was also based on the interviews. It was a highly effective, minimalistic three-hander also featuring the character of Hitchcock’s wife and lifelong professional collaborator, Alma Reville. Appropriately enough, it weaves a fictionalised, ahem, meatier narrative around the 1962 sessions. It was later filmed and released on home video in France, and was one of the final projects of director Sébastien Grall (1954–2013). Essential viewing for serious fans of all three directors.

5 minute extract

Most of the dialogue is French, with a little English, and there are optional English subtitles. It’s been issued in two configurations: BD/DVD and 2-DVD sets. Both discs are region 0 and the DVDs are in the PAL format.


The rest

Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 1 (1995) book edited by Sidney Gottlieb

Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 1 (1995) edited by Sidney Gottlieb

While Truffaut’s is the definitive collection of the Master’s own words, there are some others well worthy of consideration. Chief among them are three books edited by Sidney Gottlieb, co-editor of the Hitchcock Annual. Another must-have is a CD compilation of 1955–1980 interviews culled from the BBC archives. We’re incredibly spoilt for choice with the vast number of Hitchcock audio and video interviews available nowadays. Many of them are previously unreleased while others appear as extras with the official releases of his films. All in all, more than enough to keep even the most ardent fan or aspiring filmmaker sated for years.


The fun

Perhaps the most famous and recognisable director in history, Hitchcock and his works continue to inspire fans and filmmakers everywhere. Parodies, homages and adaptations abound in every media imaginable, very often executed in the style of the Master himself. Here are a few of my favourite animated shorts:

Truffaut again: “I asked Monsieur Hitchcock to give me an interview of 50 hours and to reveal all his secrets. The result was a book… actually, it was like a cookbook [he always referred to it as the “Hitchbook”], full of recipes for making films.” Here’s The Ultimate Hitch Cookbook (2011) by We Think Things aka Pascal Monaco and Felix Meyer:

Almost as compulsive viewing as the 1954 film itself, Rear Window Timelapse (2012), “remixed” by Jeff Desom, ought to have been licensed by Universal for a BD and DVD extra:

A short but artfully beautiful interpretation: The Birds (1963) Movie Title Redesign by Cody Courmier (2014):

Both funny and macabre, I think the Master would approve of the Hitchcock Animated Medley (2013) by Tim Luecke:

Blockbuster director slamdown as Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick and Michael Bay face-off in Epic Rap Battles of History (2014) – yes, really!

We’ll leave the last words to the Master himself. Firstly, Hitchcock explains A Macguffin (2009) by Isaac Niemand and JealousGUY animation:

Alfred Hitchcock on Dead Bodies (2017) is a creepily animated 1957 interview from Blank on Blank:

For more animations see the Collectors’ Guide entry for Vertigo.


The posts

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I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see this site’s About page.

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