The outline of a killer behind a shower curtain. A prop plane, swooping toward a man running through a field. A woman plummeting from a tower. These ominous images seem mild compared to the mayhem of today’s movie thrillers, but they’re iconic to film buffs. So is the man who directed them: Alfred Hitchcock.
That wasn’t always the case. In the early 1960s, Hitchcock was generally considered a skilled commercial filmmaker, but not a great artist. Then the French New Wave arrived, remaking cinema. One of its projects was to upgrade Hitchcock’s reputation. In 1962, the young French director François Truffaut headed to Hollywood for a week of interviews with Hitchcock. The result was “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” the 1966 book that inspired Kent Jones’s illuminating new documentary of the same name.
Hitchcock and Truffaut died within four years of each other in the 1980s. Jones, a film historian and programmer, uses archival photographs and original audio recordings of the filmmakers’ conversations, supplementing this material with interviews with 10 directors, including Olivier Assayas, David Fincher and Jones’s friend and collaborator Martin Scorsese, each of whom speaks about the influential book.
The documentary analyzes a few scenes from Hitchcock’s films, shot-by-shot, paying special attention to “Vertigo” and “Psycho.” (The latter, according to Peter Bogdanovich, was the first time going to the movies was “dangerous.”) It also deconstructs a moment from Truffaut’s 1959 debut, “The 400 Blows.” It’s the only time Hitchcock seems to rebuke the French director. The sequence would have worked better, the American master suggests, without words.
That’s one of the movie’s themes: Hitchcock’s grounding in silent cinema, and his preference for visual storytelling. In interviews, he barely mentions dialogue, says nothing about screenwriters and dismisses actors as “cattle.” Images and editing are the keys, and the goal is to play the audience, he says, “like an organ.”
If the documentary concentrates on the mechanical aspects of filmmaking, that’s clearly because it was Hitchcock’s preference. Of the 10 directors, all of whom are men, several discuss the erotic aspects of Hitchcock’s guilt-laden movies. When Truffaut is heard to ask about the effects of his Catholic upbringing, Hitchcock asks that the tape recorder be turned off.
“Hitchcock/Truffaut” would be a stronger film had it spent more time with its title figures and less with the contemporary directors. The movie would also benefit from adding some background on such commentators as Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who, like Hitchcock, graduated from genre work to more personal projects.
There’s less insight in some of the directors’ remarks than there is in such seemingly offhand moments as the one in which we hear Hitchcock and Truffaut talking while posing for photographs together. Hitchcock immediately suggests a striking pose. Even in front of the camera, the master couldn’t stop directing.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains adult themes and implied violence. In English, French and Japanese with subtitles. 80 minutes.