One could date the start of the American independent film movement with the release in France in 1959 of a picture that heralded the beginning of the French New Wave: François Truffaut’s first feature–made when he was 27–and one of the classics of humanist cinema, THE 400 BLOWS (available on DVD). The original French title is Les Quatre Cents Coups, which literally translated means “the 400 dirty tricks,” but is understood idiomatically as “raising hell,” which is quite a different thought than the English understanding of it as being “the 400 blows one endures in life.” Either meaning can represent the film, since the leading character both plays dirty tricks and receives 400 blows.
Entirely autobiographical, the movie poignantly tells about 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud’s beautifully played debut) and his sad travail as a neglected, misunderstood and troubled boy who runs wild, commits petty crimes, is sent to reform school, finds temporary solace only in movie theatres (one night stealing poster and stills of Citizen Kane). After the kid’s escape from the reformatory, the picture ends with his running on a beach into a closeup which becomes an ambiguous freeze-frame–original then–but probably the most imitated conclusion in modern filmmaking.
The international success of The 400 Blows opened the floodgates to the Nouvelle Vague–the young critics and writer-directors who wrestled French films away from the old-fashioned “cinema de papa” with a movement that reverberated around the world. The picture also set up Truffaut for an illustrious, productive career that flourished right up to his tragic death from a brain tumor only 25 years later, in 1984, at the age of 52. His writings as a young critic, which preceded his directing, and continued afterward, had an overwhelming influence on movies everywhere, essentially fathering the then controversial politique des auteurs, mistranslated here as “the auteur theory,” which would finally dominate most film criticism.
For Francois, and his cohorts at the Cahiers du Cinema magazine—Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, etc.—this was no “theory,” it was a political statement: The best films were those on which the director had a personal vision which connected, because of this and his inherent personality, through all the pictures he made, no matter who the writers, actors, or photographers were; he was the true author of the picture. The well-made, objective, professional works were dead, the personal films remained alive.
Truffaut also was to make four other works chronicling the further adventures of Antoine Doinel, his alter ego, always played by Léaud: the “France” episode of the omnibus film, Love at Twenty (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). All of these, like The 400 Blows, were deeply influenced by Truffaut’s spiritual father, the great poet-picturemaker Jean Renoir, whom he adored and who loved him, as Renoir would tell me, “like a son.”
The passionate young filmmaker’s stepfather, so to speak, in terms of influence and admiration, was Alfred Hitchcock, whose technique and style had a noticeable impact on Truffaut’s other kind of movies, like The Bride Wore Black (1968), or Mississippi Mermaid (1969). His Hitchcock interview book (Hitchcock/Truffaut in the U.S., but the better, downright Biblical original French title in translation was The Cinema According to Hitchcock) became a standard text and ironically helped to give the Master of Suspense at the end of his career a respectability in the U.S. he had never enjoyed previously.
I knew François a little. He was shy, modest yet vital, and especially charming with women. At some big foreign festival dinner in the 1970’s, my partner was Cybill Shepherd, and Francois flirted with her openly all through the meal. (Of course, Cybill used to be a reflexive flirt.) Another time he invited me to lunch at his attractive Paris apartment, prepared a delicious salade Nicoise (my first of that lovely traditional recipe from Nice), proudly showed off his vast collection of Eiffel Towers–not that you could miss it–he had them all over the place in every conceivable size. Because my French was even worse than his English, our conversations were necessarily somewhat limited, but I could always see that his passion for film as both liberation and tonic was total and totally real, as real as his love of Renoir and Hitchcock, who died just a year apart, in 1979 and 1980.
Strangely, François only outlived their loss by four years. When he went, an incandescent light that showed the way of movies for so many was extinguished, and is now more sorely missed than ever. Despite his vast success, Truffaut could not avoid life’s “400 blows” and his first film eloquently conveys how cruel and traumatic these can be for a child. Yet his own life became an inspiration for overcoming them.