When adoring young French director Francois Truffaut conducted a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962 that resulted in a 1966 book (from the 1967 English translation of which this documentary takes its title), Hitch was treated by most American critics as a light entertainer, famous for splendidly-executed but rather glib thrillers that offered little beyond surface pleasures. But the director’s European admirers, especially among the helmers of the French New Wave, saw much more to them than superb technique; for them, Hitchcock’s films were profound works of art, and Kent Jones’s respectful documentary argues persuasively that Truffaut’s volume led many across the Atlantic to revise their judgment of him as well. The fact that Hitch is now widely regarded as one of the master artists of twentieth-century cinema, and such films as “Vertigo” considered among the greatest ever made, is due, “Hitchcock/Truffaut” suggests, in great measure to the book that resulted from those 1962 interviews.
This premise, to be honest, is a mite simplistic. As Jane E. Sloan showed in her annotated bibliography of writings by and about Hitchcock included in her 1993 book “Alfred Hitchcock: The Definitive Filmography,” there had been serious bio-critical studies of the director prior to 1966-67, not merely the 1957 book by Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, but Robin Wood’s “Hitchcock’s Films” (1965). It’s certainly true, though, that neither got as much recognition as the Truffaut volume.
Assessment of the relative significance of various volumes to the enhancement of Hitchcock’s reputation, in any event, is less important than the fact that Jones provides an engaging treatment of how Truffaut’s project came about and the impact his book has had on filmmakers ever since. Only thirty at the time, and with only three films on his resume (though his written work was considerable), Truffaut approached the sixty-three-year old director with the interview request, and Hitchcock graciously allowed a week-long series of sessions in which the two discussed all of Hitchcock’s films in roughly chronological sequence, though most earlier than “The Lodger” received only cursory treatment. Jones uses archival material—stills, letters, brief footage taken of the interview sessions at Universal Studios, bits of the audio recordings, biographical data on both Hitchcock and Truffaut—to set the stage for excerpts from the interview material itself. All is skillfully assembled by editor Rachel Reichman.
These elements, however, are supplemented by quite extensive observations from a panel of contemporary directors discussing Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematic language and the enormous influence his films have had on their own work. Many also remark on the impact Truffaut’s book had on them. Americans—David Fincher, Wes Anderson, James Gray, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater—predominate, but a few others—Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin from France and Kiyoshi Kurosawa from Japan—offer their observations as well.
The result is a tribute to both Hitchcock and Truffaut, though the interviewee understandably gets the lion’s share of encomia. Though “Hitchcock/Truffaut” won’t tell confirmed Hitchcock buffs much that they don’t already know, it gives them the opportunity to hear major directors testifying to their admiration for (and debt to) him, often offering quite specific examples from his films to explain their enthusiasm. Those who aren’t already initiates will find the documentary an excellent introduction to Hitchcock’s work, one that nicely encourages further investigation of his films. (One can imagine it serving quite usefully in a cinema appreciation course.)
And it provides proof that filmmmaking represented one of the great art forms of the twentieth century, with Hitchcock one of its major practitioners.