Hitchcock by François Truffaut review: the joy of creativity
Hilarious stories apart, this book has been called a bible for film directors
François Truffaut during an interview for his book on Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. Photograph: Georges Hernad/INA via Getty Images
Faber & Faber
This book contains transcripts of eight days of interviews conducted in 1962 between the French film director François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. As a film critic with the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut had become seduced by Hitchcock’s work and as he began to direct his own films came to see him as one of the greatest of film directors.
Truffaut seeks to place Hitchcock in his rightful place as a master, if not the master, of cinema direction. While, at the time, Hitchcock would have been recognised by the cinema cognoscenti for his technical mastery, Truffaut believes he doesn’t get his due because of the populist nature of Hitchcock’s cinema and specifically his working in what is seen as the minor mode of suspense. Truffaut then expounds a defence of suspense – seeking to place it it outside mere melodrama and defining it as “simply the dramatisation of a film’s narrative material . . . the most intense presentation possible of dramatic situations”
Whereas other filmmakers create films with suspense highlights, Hitchcock seeks to imbue every scene with suspense – attempts to leave no gaps and so produce a continuous heightened cinematic experience.
For Truffaut, the art of creating suspense is the art of involving the audience. They become participants. Recurrent throughout the book is Hitchcock’s concern for the audience and his comments on how and why an audience will be affected by a particular element of a film.
In the discussion about Psycho, Truffaut, who obviously considers the film an experimental film, puts that to Hitchcock who replies: “Possibly. My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound-track and all the technical ingredients that made the audiences scream . . . They were aroused by pure film.”
Truffaut quotes his Cahiers du Cinéma cohorts and fellow filmmakers Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer: “. . . he is one of the greatest inventors of form in the history of cinema. Here form does not merely embellish content, but actually creates it.”
Truffaut almost heroworships Hitchcock. Yet this is no sycophantic interview. Given Truffaut’s erudition and his experience as a film director, it becomes a fascinating, albeit slightly one-sided, conversation.
The book is ordered chronologically, beginning with Hitchcock’s childhood, which includes the remarkable story of how his father once sent him to the police station with a note and the policeman put him in a cell saying “This is what we do to naughty boys”. Hitchcock is at a loss to remember any wrongdoing on his part. It is hard not to see this affecting his subsequent life and output, particularly as the theme of an innocent man, punished for the sins of another, is such a major theme of his work.
Hitchcock was raised a Catholic and talks of the Jesuits and their caning ritual that was like “the execution of a sentence”. Thus Hitchcock claims during his schooling to have developed both a strong moral fear and a strong physical fear. As Truffaut states: “The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person.” There is the sense that Hitchcock plugs into childhood fears, unconscious fears from the darkest recesses of the mind.
Yet Hitchcock developed a calm, detached exterior presentation and the attitude of a voyeur – producing wonderful works of art with the maelstrom of dark human feelings at their centres. That there is a dark male desire running through it is of no surprise and the damaging relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedron, documented elsewhere, casts shadows over his story. There is an unsettling still from the film Frenzy which can be read as a dark illustration.
“The dead body of a woman lies face-down in water, washed half ashore and naked except for the murder weapon – a man’s tie – worn around her neck.” Up above on a promenade sits Hitchcock, looking down on the scene, from his director’s chair, like he’s in the front row seat of his own private cinema.
On his preference for restrained actresses like Grace Kelly, Hitchcock says: “Sex on screen should be suspenseful . . .” Truffaut adds: “ . . . what intrigues you is the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface”.
Hitchcock’s own studied detachment leads to a type of irony – an irony he says he employed in the shooting of Psycho and one that he should have used in the shooting of the film I Confess, which he considers unsuccessful (Hitchcock is brutally honest in his assessments of his own artistic failures and these are often as instructive as the examinations of his successes).
Humour is of vital importance and the book is full of hilarious stories – jokes, biographical stories, scenarios, gag ideas – revealing Hitchcock as an extremely funny man and a storyteller to his buried bones.
There is much detail as regards practical production, script and shooting problems and solutions that explains why this book has been called a bible for film directors. Combined with the stills, and stills sequences, from many of his films, it is like a mini film course. All his films (spoiler alert: storylines included) are discussed, but the overriding feeling after reading this book is one of giddy exhilaration at the joy of creativity.
Kevin Gildea is a comedian and a critic