Representing an event horizon of cinephiliac homage, Kent Jones‘ “Hitchcock/Truffaut” is a documentary celebrating a celebrated book written by a celebrated director about a celebrated director, and so is surely cause for celebration. Narrated by Bob Balaban, and featuring interviews with a somewhat arbitrary selection of famous directors including David Fincher, Paul Schrader, James Gray, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Arnaud Desplechin, Richard Linklater and Martin Scorsese (with whom Jones directed 2010’s “Letter to Elia“), the film is a fond, well-researched companion piece to a volume as close as any to a cineaste’s bible. But while Jones uses snippets from the original recordings of that epochal 8-day interview between the two men, so we get Hitch’s real voice saying “Actors are cattle” or “Logic is dull” or worrying that trying to be more experimental might be like “Mondrian painting a Cezanne,” there is perhaps not quite enough here about the impact of the book itself. Instead, as is the natural tendency when Hitchcock is even the partial subject, his legacy begins to eclipse everything else as the assembled directors go off on (highly enjoyable) tangents about this scene from “Psycho” or that moment in “Vertigo.” It morphs from being a portrait of an influential book, to more of a curated chat with some very articulate and respectful commentators on the book’s subject. Which is actually just fine by me.
Jones does start in a more balanced fashion, segueing back and forth between the story of Truffaut at that point in time (the interview took place in 1962, the book came out four years later), just three films into his directorial career, and where Hitchcock was too–just five films before the end of his. Here Fincher talks about the revelation of the book, which was one of the earliest he remembered reading about film, and Wes Anderson charmingly recalls that his copy was a paperback so well-thumbed it had to be held together with a rubber band (whether or not we believe Anderson to be humanly capable of such haphazardness is another matter). Jones takes care to expand on the book’s unusual format and the shot-by-shot stills that demonstrate more eloquently than Hitch’s words just how he assembled some of his most memorable scenes. More than once the point is made that this was such a labor of love for Truffaut that he approached it much like a feature film, and this sense of his holy reverence for Hitchcock is touchingly established. Using a thumbnail portrait of Truffaut’s early life and his Cahiers du Cinema period, Jones suggests that just as Andre Bazin was his father figure in terms of film criticism, Jean Renoir was so in the world of French film, and in the world of Hollywood film that Truffaut so admired, that man was Hitchcock. He decided to write the book, Jones maintains, as an act of reciprocation: trying to confer artistic status on a man the word at the time deemed a light entertainer, in return for Hitchcock having provided his own career with such inspiration.
Photographer Philippe Halsmann‘s pictures of the event are used to strong effect, as are the offcuts from the interviews–hearing the real voices of these two men as they shuffle around in slightly nervous anticipation and awe of each other brought a small lump to this devotee’s throat. And the clips from the films, voiceover commentary and slivers of celebrity interviews are ordered in fluid, efficient style, flowing one into the other and never overstaying their welcome. But the film does become more one-sided as it wears on, and does not deliver quite the reciprocal analysis that the opening promised: we get lovely, passionate descriptions from some of the filmmakers of their favorite Hitchcock moments (having witnessed it in person I was very happy to see Gray getting so animated and enthused talking about the “Vertigo” transformation scene), but nothing further on Truffaut, and not even, perhaps most disappointingly, any analysis on the exact ways in which we can read Hitchcock’s influence into Truffaut’s films.
Hitchcock, in great, great part due to the book that Truffaut so lovingly wrote on him (that established a lifetime friendship), is a monolith today, for all there was a time, as Schrader relates, when prints of “Vertigo” were so scarce as to be nearly holy relics. And no matter how much we enjoy hearing people talk about him (and it’s maybe my second favorite pastime after eating), there are many, many documentaries, and now even fictional representations, about the Master of Suspense. The unique aspect of this documentary is that it has the license to have each man cast a new light on the other, but if that ever was Jones’ avowed aim, it is only partially successful. Not to be churlish, because these are wonderful first-person anecdotes from filmmakers I love about a filmmaker I adore, but it does feel comfy rather than hugely illuminating to hear Scorsese talk about Hitch’s high angles in terms of his Catholicism or to have Fincher wax lyrical about the glass floor in “Sabotage.”
Perhaps for anyone who has never read the book, this is a good primer, though it does seem unlikely there’ll be a massive number who would be keen enough to seek out a documentary, but can’t be bothered with the volume it is dedicated to. And for those of us who own our own dog-eared copies, the film provides a reason to revisit, rather than reassess. Hitchcock is essential; Truffaut is essential; the book is essential; Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut” is not quite so, but it’s a very enjoyable appendix. [B]