One of America’s greatest film scholars takes on the most influential film book ever written—and in the process celebrates two of the greatest directors who ever lived—in Hitchcock/Truffaut, a lively, spectacularly entertaining documentary by filmmaker, archivist and historian Kent Jones. Here’s the background: In 1962, French film critic and director Francois Truffaut wrote to one of his idols, American auteur Alfred Hitchcock. At the time, Truffaut was a critical darling thanks to a trio of early masterpieces: The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules and Jim. Hitchcock was one of the most successful and well-known directors in the world, yet few people outside of Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers du Cinema thought of “Hitch” as an artist. That was to change after Hitchcock accepted Truffaut’s written proposal: for Truffaut to spend a week interviewing Hitchcock in America for a book-length study of the director’s work.
The resulting publication, Hitchcock/Truffaut, not only sparked the beginning of a critical reevaluation of the master’s work but influenced generations of young directors around the globe. In an age of DVD commentaries and readily accessible interviews with filmmakers across the Internet, it’s probably hard for today’s film students and aspiring directors to comprehend the impact Truffaut’s book had, but at the time of its release—and for a good 20 years or so afterward—it was the only resource of its kind. No filmmaker had ever spoken in such detail, or with such clarity and sense of purpose, about their work, and thus Truffaut’s volume affected not only the world’s understanding of Hitchcock but of the art of cinema in general. It’s fair to say that, without it, we wouldn’t have many of the classics of the modern cinema—Taxi Driver, Se7en, Rushmore, etc.—or at least wouldn’t have them in the same way, since their creators were all deeply affected by Truffaut’s tome at an early age.
Those creators—Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Wes Anderson—are among the interview subjects in Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut, which, like the book from which it takes its name, aims to use Hitchcock as a gateway drug for all the intoxicating pleasures the movies have to offer. And boy, does it succeed—viewers already familiar with Hitchcock’s work (as well as Truffaut’s) will be scrambling to revisit their old favorites and see them in a new light, while the uninitiated will leave the theater desperately scribbling down dozens of titles to hunt down for home viewing. Jones expertly combines a historical overview of the circumstances that led to Hitchcock and Truffaut’s friendship with generous portions of the original audio interviews, which are then illustrated by clips from the films under discussion and commented upon by directors who have been influenced by them. Scorsese, Fincher and Anderson are joined by James Gray, Olivier Assayas, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader and others, all of whom offer personal but incisive reflections on both Hitchcock’s films and Truffaut’s book.
Jones’ instincts about which clips to show and which directors to interview, and how to juxtapose them, are unerring; in his own way he exhibits both Hitchcock’s razor-sharp precision and Truffaut’s depth of feeling. He’s a master director himself, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his documentaries on Val Lewton and Elia Kazan, the latter of which was co-directed with Scorsese. He’s also one of our finest critics, as those of us who have been reading his work in Film Comment and other publications for decades have long known, and his documentary work has the same strengths as his film criticism: an ability to distill ideas down to their most straightforward form of expression, a strong point of view that leaves itself open to challenge, and passion tempered by profound intellect (or is it intellect made accessible by passion?).
Jones is so good at what he does that the worst thing one can say about Hitchcock/Truffaut is that there isn’t enough of it—at 80 minutes, it left me wanting much, much more. That’s a problem few movies can claim, and of course, there’s a simple way of quenching the thirst when Hitchcock/Truffaut is over: Pick up the book itself, or screen one of the films under discussion. Ultimately, the film is a nearly perfect treasure, a love letter from one director to another, about that director’s love letter to his favorite director. I was left not only with a deeper appreciation of Hitchcock and Truffaut, but of Jones, who in his own way has become Truffaut’s American counterpart. Somebody ought to make a documentary about him.
Director: Kent Jones
Writers: Kent Jones, Serge Toubiana
Starring: Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Schrader, Richard Linklater
Release Date: December 2, 2015
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.