A Master’s Voice

François Truffaut was a enthusiastic student of film, and he created a fascinating record of this enthusiasm in his films, in his movie reviews in the magazine Cahiers du cinéma, and in books like The Films in My Life (1975).

He also shared his enthusiasm in the 1967 book Hitchcock, about a week-long series of interviews that he conducted in 1962 with one of his inspirations and role models, Alfred Hitchcock. This book is the subject of a new documentary titled Hitchcock/Truffaut which I saw at the Detroit Film Theatre on January 9, 2016.

This documentary by Kent Jones uses the tape recordings of those interviews to not only bring us closer to the personalities involved, but also to give current movie directors the chance to talk about how Hitchcock influenced them.

In Truffaut’s interviews of Hitchcock, two different identities of Truffaut merged:

  • The journalist who had chronicled much of 1950s cinema in Cahiers du cinéma, and who now was researching the filmmaking techniques of Alfred Hitchcock by consulting the primary source.
  • The film director who had made only three feature films and was now talking with a much more experienced director about the filmmaking business.

Hitchcock/Truffaut was almost two parallel films, with Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock and Kent Jones interviewing current directors about Hitchcock. The result was a wealth of observations that showed the importance of enthusiasm and imagination in filmmaking.

Director David Fincher talked about how Hitchcock excelled in the three basic tasks of a film director:

  • Editing behavior over time
  • Stretching out a particular moment
  • Compressing a particular moment

The movie Vertigo was discussed the most by the different directors, because of its heavy reliance on cinematic techniques, psychological overtones, and sexual tension.

Hitchcock/Truffaut also showed how directors find out who they are by asking themselves why they are not something else. Several current directors talked about their admiration of Hitchcock and then talked about how they just weren’t capable of emulating his style or technique.

The documentary also showed how Hitchcock wondered late in his career why he wasn’t more spontaneous or experimental in his work. The answer was in Hitchcock’s need for control and to plan every shot of the film before the actual filming started. At the DFT, much ironic laughter greeted a recording of Hitchcock calling actors “cattle.”

Hitchcock/Truffaut included many film excerpts from Hitchcock’s career, which spanned from the black and white films of the silent era to the wide screen color movies of the 1960s and 1970s. It greatly helped the audience see the amazing breadth of Hitchcock’s accomplishments.

There was also behind-the-scenes footage of several of his movies, including publicity of Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren for The Birds. As I watched that, I thought about Hedren’s recent live appearances at the Redford Theatre and Michigan Theater when she talked about how Hitchcock both helped and hurt her career.

During the 1962 meeting between Hitchcock and Truffaut, Hitchcock also had the chance to do some interviewing, asking Truffaut about how he handled a certain scene in Truffaut’s debut film The 400 Blows. Hitchcock/Truffaut also talked about the friendship that grew between the two men until Hitchcock’s death in 1980.

By a very opportune coincidence, I saw Truffaut in his most famous acting role the day before I saw Hitchcock/Truffaut. He appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I saw at the Redford Theatre on January 8, 2016.

In Close Encounters, the roles were reversed from 15 years before, with Spielberg now paying homage to Truffaut by making use of Truffaut’s special talents to create something unique.

I’m sure that Spielberg and Truffaut had many interesting discussions about filmmaking while they worked together. It wouldn’t surprise me if Truffaut made some uncredited directing contributions to this very large scale movie that had many logistical challenges and ran way over the original budget.

Richard Dreyfuss is the top-billed star in Close Encounters, but my appreciation has grown through the years for Truffaut’s contributions. The emotionally stirring meeting between Truffaut and the alien at the end of Close Encounters is the heart of that film.

I saw Hitchcock/Truffaut as the second half of a Hitchcock double bill at the DFT. Earlier, the Saturday afternoon DFT 101 series presented the 1939 movie Jamaica Inn, which played an interesting role in Hitchcock’s career.

Jamaica Inn was made after the end of Hitchcock’s contract with the Gaumont British studio, which produced such 1930s masterpieces as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Jamaica Inn also was Hitchcock’s last British film before he went to Hollywood to work for David O. Selznick on movies like Rebecca (1940).

Jamaica Inn is not one of Hitchcock’s most highly regarded movies, and it took awhile for it to become something more than a historical costume drama.

But it did have a fair share of Hitchcock moments, when action moves rapidly with much suspense, in carefully edited scenes, with actors and actresses reacting quickly to events that have surprised them.

Like all Hitchcock movies, it was entertaining, and I’m glad that I had the chance to see it for the first time on the big screen of the DFT.

Jamaica Inn was also the first starring role of Maureen O’Hara, who recently passed away at the age of 95. Once again, film helped restore someone’s younger days, and helped us remember them more fondly.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2016 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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