You can catch Hitchcock/Truffaut as it plays on extended run at the BFI until March 16 . You are also recommended to grab a copy from the BFI shop of the superb and concise official BFI Hitchcock book: 39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock. And don't forget a copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut: the book itself.
If, like this writer, you have at some point tackled a degree in film, chances are a copy of Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film book Hitchcock/Truffaut came into your orbit. For the uninitiated, that book is now acclaimed as a highly influential piece of film criticism that successfully put director Alfred Hitchcock on the pedestal he currently occupies today. It came about as a result of a series of in-depth conversations between Truffaut - then a hot young director coming off The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim - and a Hitchcock who was well-regarded but still pidgeonholed, or at least Truffaut thought so, as a director of populist suspense thrillers. Having begged his idol to meet him in an exchange of letters, Truffaut locked himself away in Hollywood for a week with the older filmmaker, so as to excavate the secrets behind Hitchcock’s films and put it all into print. Kent Jones’s engaging and spritely documentary is both an intriguing document of that document, and a pleasant reminder (although we don't really need one) of the impact Hitchcock continues to have on cinema.
At just about 80 minutes long and based on an already-existing study, Jones’s documentary arguably won’t tell any Hitchcock buff worth their salt anything they don’t already know. After all, Truffaut’s book succeeded pretty well in ensuring Hitchcock’s work would be pored over exhaustively since, with this film being part of that undying wave of interest. But although it doesn’t get heavily into the details of the wider development of film theory, as it is more interested in Hitchcock, Jone’s film does illuminate how Truffaut’s book not only got the term “auteur” attached to his idol permanently, but helped promote the idea of the director as a true artist. This was a development of the theories coming out of the magazine Truffaut was writing for when he started his love affair with film: the esteemedCahier du Cinemas. Thus Jones’s film does double duty as both a study of how Hitchcock’s reputation was secured by this book, and also how Truffaut’s efforts, at least in part, ensured that director's reputations everywhere would be burnished: they would from now on be positioned in film criticism and journalism as the main figure primarily responsible for a film’s success or failure. Read any piece of film criticism today (or try writing one), and you will see this. We all know what a “Tarantino film” is like, or a “Scorsese film”, but why do we think that way?
It is curious to think that Hitchcock was once not regarded as the auteur he is today. As Jones’s film explores, Truffaut started this whole project because he was actually afraid Hitchcock was being forgotten about: to be relegated in popular culture to the status of a conjurer of cheap scares and tricks. Not all his films had enjoyed box office and critical success, even Vertigo, now ironically sitting on top of the Sight and Sound best films poll from this decade, had had a shaky run. It is also odd to think that the notoriously cantankerous and sly Hitchcock would open up to someone like Truffaut, a filmmaker who seemed to have little in common with the older man. Yet, as the original recordings of this meeting show—and Jones’s film is laced with plenty of unmistakeable, darkly funny and insightful “Hitchcockisms” that Truffaut’s recorder picked up - the two seemed to get on like a house on fire, the result of a mutual respect between filmmakers.
In keeping with the notion that those within an industry remain best placed to recognise fellow talent and draw out their inner thoughts, Jones’s film relies on the testimony of other filmmakers - and not critics or academics - to explore how Hitchcock, as interviewee Martin Scorsese puts it, “liberated” other directors to use the tools of cinema. Camera movement, editing, the infiltration of subtexts (think lots of guilt) into his plots, the many ways he found of generating of suspense: you essentially get a neat mini-lesson in Hitchcockian film analysis through these talking heads in less than two hours.
Along with testimony from the likes of David Fincher, Wes Anderson, and Richard Linklater as well as Scorsese, there are plenty of clips from Hitchcock’s greatest works to savour here (including that scene in Vertigo, which one director simply refers to as “cinema itself”). So, even if you never intend to ever buy a work of film criticism, you get the treat of watching the creator of Psycho, The Birds and Vertigo at his peak.