By the early ’60s the work of director Alfred Hitchcock was revered by filmmakers in the French New Wave. Directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut sung his praises and wrote about his films in the well regarded magazine of film criticism, Cahiers du cinéma. Meanwhile American critics weren’t catching on in the same way. Sure, Hitchcock was popular, but they weren’t writing serious praise of his works. By 1962 Truffaut took the next logical step in his fandom and sent a letter to the “master of suspense” requesting they meet for an interview to be published. Hitchcock expressed equal interest in meeting with Truffaut, who by that point had directed three films, with the 400 Blows among them.
The resulting book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, ultimately changed the perception of the director for many American critics and has become a necessary resource for filmmakers. Filmmaker and critic Kent Jones explores the legendary interaction in his HBO doc Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which he also speaks with directors (Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson to name a few) about the impact the book has had on their work as well as their perspective on Hitchcock’s films.
We spoke with Jones about the legend of Hitchcock and how Truffaut’s book continues to influence future generations of filmmakers.
What’s your personal experience with Truffaut’s book Hitchcock?
I was 12 and I think I went to a bookstore and bought it — I was just getting interested in film. My experience with the book was David Fincher’s experience with the book. As he tells it in the movie, that could have been me talking. I just poured over it and looked at those photo montages over and over again and the patterns. There are a lot of books about film and a lot of them are very good but this is one of the few indispensable film books, which is something Bob Balaban says in the narration. It’s not just a piece of rhetoric, it’s true. Indispensable to me, indispensable to a lot of people.
And what drove you to want to explore the book more and talk to other directors about the impact it had on them?
Somebody asked me if I was interested in making the movie based on the pitch and I just jumped at it. I make films when I feel like there is something to make a film about. I made a film about Val Lewton [Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows] — it’s not just because I love Val Lewton’s films, it’s that the story of Val Lewton is very immutable and it’s sad, because he died very young. When Marty Scorsese and I made a film together about [Elia] Kazan [A Letter to Elia] it took years to make. It’s a very simple movie but it took that time to find the story. With this, I knew those pieces already and I knew that the relationship between Hitchcock and Truffaut already was very interesting. So it is a question of me loving Hitchcock’s films, and loving many of Truffaut’s films as well, and knowing the history and loving that and wanting to show that. But then also there are a lot of great filmmakers and a lot of great interviews with filmmakers out there but none of them necessarily add up to a great movie. Right away I knew there was something between them in those exchanges that’s very touching and emotional.
For many filmmakers this book is like their bible. But for the casual film fan, do you find that they have the same knowledge that this interaction occurred? Or will this documentary be really enlightening for them?
That’s why I made the movie the way I did, with a certain amount of historical grounding, because I can’t assume that everybody is going to know the history and how Truffaut came out of that. And people aren’t necessarily going to know the book, so there’s basic historical grounding that’s in the movie. I felt that was very important. I didn’t want to make a movie that was just for people that know. I want people who are going to get excited who don’t know and for people who know to get excited in a different way. I think the historical grounding that’s in there is a minimal part of the movie in one sense but in another sense it’s very entertaining and interesting.