Sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to see clearly what has always been right in front of you. The filmmakers of the French New Wave — who revolutionized world cinema in the late 1950s and '60s — saw Alfred Hitchcock as one of very few great artists working inside the Hollywood studio system of the time. (Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller also made the grade but don't appear to have been held in the same high regard as Hitchcock.) But in the U.S., Hitchcock was widely seen as a purveyor of light entertainment in the form of commercially successful suspense movies. French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut corrected that mistake permanently by publishing the book Hitchcock/Truffaut in 1966.
The book was based on a week's worth of daylong conversations between the two filmmakers in which they explored the creative process behind each of Hitchcock's many films. It became an essential handbook for aspiring filmmakers while elevating Hitchcock to his rightful place in film history. The book also enhanced the world's understanding of film as art, shifted power from studios to individual filmmakers and paved the way for a modern era of film that continues to this day.
Forty-nine years later, filmmaker Kent Jones' documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut places those epic conversations where they have always belonged — on the silver screen. No actual footage of the conversations exists, but the entire encounter was recorded by a sound engineer and professionally photographed. Extensive interviews with today's top filmmakers — from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson — illuminate Hitchcock's artistry and the art of filmmaking. But the film generates its true magic by combining audio of Hitchcock and Truffaut with generous clips from the specific movies under discussion. Hitchcock/Truffaut is an unabashed love letter to film and a rare treat for anyone who shares that passion.
Unlike most books and documentaries about film, Hitchcock/Truffaut feels unburdened by the need to argue for the value and significance of its subject — Truffaut took care of that in 1966. But the unpretentious and reflective tone of Truffaut's book carries over to the film as it delivers fresh insights on Hitchcock's films gained only through the passage of time. Vertigo and Psycho receive the most screen time to allow new assessments of their enduring influence on generations of filmmakers. The emotional appreciations articulated by many of those directors for Hitchcock/Truffaut are hard to resist, making the film accessible to casual viewers.
Seeing many of Hitchcock's most potent and groundbreaking scenes compiled in an 80-minute documentary also has a cumulative effect that transcends the written word, even as presented in Truffaut's book. Hitchcock repeatedly focused on ordinary people confronted with extraordinary and (in the view of the director's critics) sometimes implausible circumstances. But Hitchcock showed us how a well-timed glance or unexpected turn of events can make the merely gritty or realistic seem mundane by comparison. As seen in Jones' film, you can feel Hitchcock's finest moments in the pit of your stomach. That's the kind of insight that makes a film-about-a-book-about-film like Hitchcock/Truffaut worthwhile.