Hitchcock/Truffaut, the 1966 book that inspired this documentary, was a landmark in film writing, a big deal for auteur theory, and an inspiration to hundreds of filmmakers. The idea behind it, documenting a conversation between filmmakers about their craft, was a groundbreaking one, carried out perfectly by François Truffaut. Along with contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, Truffaut was a critic-turned-filmmaker who not only kicked off the French New Wave but also made waves in film criticism. Auteur theory, the idea that directors' works should be viewed as their personal, creative vision, was largely created by Truffaut. By the time he undertook this project, Truffaut had already made several films (including The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules and Jim), making his return to film writing with Hitchcock/Truffaut all the more impactful.
Director: Kent Jones
Producers: Charles S. Cohen, Olivier Mille
Writers: Kent Jones, Serge Toubiana
Cinematographers: Nick Bentgen, Daniel Cowen, Eric Gautier, Mihai Malaimare Jr., Lisa Rinzler, Genta Tamaki
Editor: Rachel Reichman
Music: Jeremaiah Bornfield
Cast: Bob Balaban, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Martin Scorcese
Premiere: May 19, 2015 – Cannes
US Theatrical Release: December 4, 2015
US Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Truffaut's goal with this book was to bring Alfred Hitchcock's work out of the realm of "light entertainment" and into serious artwork. Looking back it's hard to imagine this prevailing perspective on Hitchcock. (For instance, Sight and Sound’s worldwide poll of critics and filmmakers recently named Vertigo as the best film of all time.) In the contemporary view, Hitchcock looms one of the largest figures in film history along with the likes of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Sergei Eisenstein. Part of that sea change is the result of Truffaut's remarkable book. Who knows what contemporary film scholars would think of Hitchcock's films if this book had never been published, or what our perspective on the French New Wave, New Hollywood, or any of the other Hitchcock-inspired movements would be.
That much significance is a lot to live up to, and sadly Kent Jones's documentary doesn't do justice to the landmark book that inspired it. This is a painfully conventional documentary, and feels more like an introduction to Hitchcock than a tribute to the stunning collaboration that became Hitchcock/Truffaut. Jones's introduction overuses voice-over and that ubiquitous Ken Burns effect, giving it a strange PBS vibe, as if this film were produced for American Masters. At the same time, it feels oddly amateur, especially as it overwhelms the viewer with unnecessary text and noise—French audio with English subtitles are often paired with posters and playbills covered in their own words, making the subtitles unnecessarily confusing. While Jones's PBS-style introduction may make this film more accessible to a wider audience, cutting down on the prior knowledge necessary to understand the story, it limits the level of analysis that the film can reach and eats up precious minutes of the film's 79-minute runtime.
As Jones digs into the meat of the film, he relies more heavily on interviews with filmmakers, but that strategy tends to backfire as well. Hitchcock/Truffaut, the book, has an unassuming, fly-on-the-wall nature to it, as if we happen to be present during a candid conversation between two great filmmakers. But in this adaptation, most of the interviews with directors feel agonizingly formal, as the directors chosen are all anxious to paint Hitchcock in the most positive light. Instead of giving the film the feel of an honest conversation, it feels instead like a group of men (all ten directors are men) trying hard not to offend someone they admire.
The selection of directors is also curious. Some certainly make sense—David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) and Gone Girl (2014) might be the most Hitchcockian films of the last decade—but others don't seem to fit at all. Olivier Assayas is undoubtedly a great filmmaker, but his connection to the films of either Hitchock or Truffaut is dubious. (His connection to Kent Jones is better documented—the two are good friends and Jones even interviewed Assayas when he came to the Walker Art Center in 2010.) Wes Anderson seems like an equally strange choice, especially as he explains that what he loves most about Hitchcock is his careful camera movements and symmetrical framings—a superficial aspect of a complex filmmaking canon. Martin Scorsese too has a stronger connection to Kent Jones than he does to either of the subjects, as his former employer and a producer on Jones's three previous film efforts. The selection process for these interviewees seems painfully personal on the part of Jones and subtracts from the extraordinary subject matter. Where is Brian De Palma, Hitchcock's most diligent imitator?
Where the film does well is with its treatment of archival materials. Jones has access to the audio recordings of Hitchcock and Truffaut's actual conversation and he carefully dramatizes them using still photos taken at the time. His cuts, and use of still images to create a filmic space, are reminiscent of Chris Marker's La Jetée. By far the strongest element of this documentary, these scenes make you imagine the film that could have been made—an experimental piece that matched the full audio of their exchange, unabridged, with still images or film clips. The unadulterated voices of these two great directors are engrossing, and they are what give the book its lasting impact. The audio recordings treat us to a never-before-heard experience of the making of this book, and they make the rest of the film feel dull and expository.
The directors' discussions of notable scenes are also interesting, as Jones does a good job pairing pertinent shots with the discussion. For instance, Hitchcock's penchant for a serene, godlike point-of-view is well illustrated by Detective Arbogast gliding backward down a stairwell in Psycho. The directors discuss Hitchcock's surreal insertions while Cary Grant carries a luminescent glass of milk in Suspicion and Hitch himself explains that he put a light inside the glass to give it that eerie glow. This film is much more interesting when it delves into these specifics than when it tries to make generalizations about Hitchcock's career and influence, and Kent Jones demonstrates a remarkable talent for putting those ideas together. Unfortunately, these moments are too few to make this film worthwhile, and on the whole it pales in comparison to the remarkable book (and audiotapes) that spawned it.