How Director Kent Jones Turned ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ Into This Year’s Must-See Movie Documentary

The interview volume Hitchcock/Truffaut, the result of Francois Truffaut’s week of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock in the early 1960s, is one of the essential texts of cinema — an in-depth, film-by-film (sometimes shot-by-shot) analysis of the work of a filmmaker who, at that time, was seen much more as a director of escapist fluff than as anything resembling a serious artist. As a writer for Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut had already led the charge of reappraisal; with these interviews, he “wanted to free Hitchcock from his reputation as a light entertainer,” according to the new documentary by Kent Jones (which screened last weekend at the Tallgrass Film Festival) that shares the book’s title. How he managed to do that is one of the many stories told in what is both a documentary about that book and, unexpectedly, a film adaptation of it.

Jones — film historian, documentarian, and New York Film Festival guru — makes that shift smoothly, almost imperceptibly. “I located areas that I gravitated to, where there was a spark,” he told me, via email. “And it all had to do with the question of engagement with cinema, with moviemaking — what you’re drawn to, how deep you go, how you get there, and so on.” He begins by detailing the reputation of the book, setting up the stakes of the interview, and walking through the careers (to that point) of its participants, “two people from very different worlds who were both doing the same job,” as interviewee David Fincher puts it. Hitchcock had come up in the British silent cinema, moved to Hollywood in the 1940s, and reached a point by the following decade where his films were being sold as much on the strength of his name as on that of marquee stars like Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, and Grace Kelly. Late in that decade, Truffaut and his Cahiers countrymen had championed his work and craftsmanship, making him a key example of the auteur theory (which Jones elegantly and succinctly breaks down).

Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut.

When Hitchcock/Truffaut came out, it became something of a totemic object for film buffs, a volume to be studied, savored, and memorized. “I know it backwards and forwards, and for me it’s like reading a novel,” Jones says. “It’s so beautifully constructed.” In the film, Wes Anderson says his paperback has long since lost its binding, and is now merely “a stack of papers,” held together with rubber bands. In the initial years following its publication, its Biblical importance among film fans was also tied to limited availability; you couldn’t just dial these movies up at the click of a button, but would have to wait for television screenings or revival engagements. (And those could be few and far between; Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader recall Vertigo screenings being so scarce in the 1970s, it was like a lost film.) So filmmakers and film students studied those key sequences via the frame-by-frame blow-ups in the book, with Hitchcock’s explanations serving as an early ancestor to the DVD audio commentary.

In the film, the clips from Hitchcock’s work serve the same purpose: to illustrate and contextualize, yes, but also to teach. One gets the sense, in the original interviews, that Truffaut saw the project as a chance to not just geek out with his hero, but to learn from him; as Olivier Assayas points out in the film, Hitchcock was “a theoretician of space” but Truffaut was “not a stylist,” his interests lying more in dialogue and character (which were secondary concerns for Hitch). He was paying tribute, but also picking up tricks and tips, which he later used in Hitchcockian pictures like The Bride Wore Black and Confidentially Yours.

But he wasn’t the only one learning. “I realized as I worked that I had no desire to interview friends, family members, artistic collaborators or experts. Hitchcock/Truffaut is a book about filmmaking,” Jones says. “So, I wanted to make a film with nothing but filmmakers. And I didn’t want just ‘filmmakers’ in the abstract, with everybody chiming in about how great and important Hitchcock was… I wanted people with a personal connection to the work, people I knew and whose films I admired, people with a connection to the book.” The interview subjects who studied and loved Hitchcock/Truffaut — Scorsese, Fincher, Anderson, Assayas, Schrader, Richard Linklater, James Gray, Peter Bogdanovich, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Arnaud Desplechin — learned how to make movies from it, and in perhaps the neatest twist, end up taking over Hitchcock’s role here.

Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut.

Scorsese walks us through the inserts in The Wrong Man, the high angles in Topaz and Psycho, the misdirection of Psycho, the plot holes in Vertigo (“I can’t really tell where things start and end — I don’t care”). Bogdanovich explains what it was to be in those first audiences of Psycho, with no idea where it was going (“It was the first time that going to the movies was dangerous”). Fincher gets down to the fact of the matter about Vertigo: “It’s just so perverted.”

And those are the most valuable moments, in both the book and this tremendous picture. “I wanted to draw out the emotional dynamics between Hitchcock and Truffaut,” Jones says, “and I wanted to extend the conversation about filmmaking into the present, which Fincher and Scorsese and Linklater and James Gray, all in their own different ways, do when they’re discussing Vertigo and Psycho.” As the narration (written by Jones and Serge Toubiana, and voiced by Bob Balaban — a nice touch, as Balaban acted opposite Truffaut in Close Encounters) so deftly puts it, “His films are made in a dialogue with the audience.” And in that audience were these filmmakers, who continue that dialogue today — as his audience, as directors talking to their own audience, and as interpreters breaking down his work. Cinema is a discussion, a process of learning from one filmmaker and teaching to the next, and in that wonderful way, Hitchcock/Truffaut isn’t just about that book. It is that book.

Hitchcock/Truffaut screened last weekend at the Tallgrass Film Festival. It opens December 2nd in limited release.