Middleburg Film Festival Review: ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’

'Hitchcock/Truffaut' Screenshot

Photo by Philippe Halsman. Courtesy of Cohen Media Group and the Middleburg Film Festival

Set for release next month, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a delightful, 80-minute documentary directed by Kent Jones. It draws on insights from celebrated filmmakers looking back at a series of meetings that occurred between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in 1962. Truffaut, a founder of New Wave cinema, requested the interview so that he might “free Hitchcock from his reputation as a light entertainer.” In 1966, he published those conversations in a book.

The running commentary by Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and others is illuminating about their reverence for these two great cinematic giants. However, the center stage remains with Hitchcock and Truffaut in the old photographs and their film footage. The book itself, as one sees in the close-up shots, includes frame-by-frame analysis from many of Hitchcock’s films. But their dialogue has its full impact now by being layered directly over the clips, the way you might expect a film lecture to go.

The background information on both directors is a great addition. Footage of a young Alfred Hitchcock romping about in the yard with family is very striking compared to what you might be used to seeing on him. That isn’t to say that the “Master of Suspense” wasn’t playful, as evidenced by the banter about who is directing whom. Truffaut seemed to defer to the 63-year-old director on this point with a look of admiration that is likely to mirror the one on your face by the end credits, if not within the first few minutes.

Hitchcock/Truffaut highlights major differences between the two directors in their styles. Truffaut, for instance, allowed his actors to improvise in scenes, whereas Hitchcock did not. Inflexibility may serve as a partial explanation as to why Hitchcock only made a handful of films after the interview, as directors experimented more. In contrast, Truffaut’s career continued to move forward. The two directors kept up with their letter exchange for years, with Hitchcock even offering advice on Truffaut’s projects.

It’s not a complete look at Hitchcock’s work until you analyze iconic films such as Psycho and Vertigo. The heart of his work is about disrupting audience expectations. If you believe you’re sure what’s coming next on a screen, he constantly challenges us by saying, “Do you?”

Psycho encompasses that sense through the shower scene by killing off the protagonist. Our fascination (and horror) with the classic sequence resonates today, as recently demonstrated by Jamie Lee Curtis’s version on Scream Queens. For Vertigo, Hitchcock revealed that he “indulged in a form of necrophilia” to portray Scottie’s (James Stewart) obsession with Madeleine (Kim Novak). It’s distressing in a way to hear him tell Truffaut to “go off the record” and turn off the tape recorder on other topics. Today’s directors attempt to fill in the blanks, but we’ll never know for sure.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is a documentary that will entertain everyone, not just film buffs, from start to finish. The accompanying music composed by Jeremiah Bornfield is brilliant here, especially as string instruments alternate between soft, light tones and more “frenzied” movements with the bow. Helen Scott of the French Film Office served as translator during the interview; she appears in many of the archived photographs. It’s nice to hear both directors speaking in their respective languages and it’s amusing to hear them chiming in on Scott’s translations. Truffaut’s legendary encounter with Hitchcock was truly a rare opportunity, one from which we still benefit greatly whether we’re filmmakers or filmgoers.

This article was first published on Blogcritics.org, under the same title.

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