If you are a film buff, a film major or a filmmaker, the work of Hitchcock should be running on a 24 hour loop inside your head. If you are any of the above and haven’t seen the man’s work, a self-respecting film buff would cry, “What the MacGuffin is wrong with you?” and prescribe you a steady diet of Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho and others. I’m afraid I am not one of said film buffs who would do such a thing. Yes, I am a PMA major and aspiring filmmaker, but I have never been overtly enamored with the classic films of the great director. Personally, I’m more partial to his earlier work — The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps — and I even wrote a paper in Global I about the perceived lapse in quality — apparently noticed only by myself and Pauline Kael — as Hitch entered Hollywood.
And yet, in spite of not being a devout Hitchcock apostle, I found Hitchcock/Truffaut to be a fascinating and wonderful documentary. For even if you know little about the world of filmmaking, you most likely have heard the renowned director’s name, and perhaps that of the equally renowned Cahiers du Cinema critic and later French New Wave director Francois Truffaut. Hitchcock/Truffaut, directed by film historian Kent Jones — who is no stranger to fans of the Criterion Collection — is mostly about the love of cinema, the creative process and the extensive possibilities of the art form itself. It includes corroborative stories from many other practitioners of the medium whose films you might recognize: David Fincher (Gone Girl), James Gray (The Immigrant), Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street).
It is a story about the singular influence of one filmmaker’s vision and the generation of newcomers he inspired, thanks in part to a series of influenced conducted with a young upstart and humble cinephile who was a great admirer of the man’s work. Francois Truffaut debunked the theory that Alfred Hitchcock was a so-called “light entertainer” and forever cemented his reputation as one of the great innovators of the movies, not merely a Master of Suspense or a television personality, but a master of staging, composition, storytelling and drama.
In this regard, even I would have to agree. For Hitchcock was one of cinema’s great formalists — determined to coax the medium to its fullest potential and do things no filmmaker before him had tried before. He was tired of seeing films that looked like stage plays; movies that looked like they ought to be played beneath a proscenium arch. Movies that were full of photographs of people talking, which bore no resemblance in his opinion, to the art of the cinema. Hitch reinvented the medium and utilized it to tell stories in a way that was exclusive to it. When you see a Hitch film, it’s true that the characters and story might come second to the visual pyrotechnics, but you will indeed see a story that is only possible through the combination of imagery and sound. Hitchcock was a die-hard purist.
Some of the work dissected — fascinatingly — throughout the film includes the aforementioned classics Vertigo and Psycho. To hear Peter Bogdanovitch, who directed Paper Moon and is one of the great American film historians, discuss the impact that Psycho first made when it hit theaters is nothing but a thrill. When the shower scene came up, according to Mr. Bogdanovitch, Hitch had the audience so firmly in the palm of his hand that there was a firm, sustained shriek that echoed throughout the theater for a full minute. To demonstrate, Mr.
Bogdanovitch shrieks for about ten seconds on camera. Martin Scorsese talks about the subtle framing and nearly-trite camera angles Hitchcock selects all the way up to the shower scene, during the picture’s first 45 minutes. If you are a Scorsese admirer (I am) you will be enthralled, but even if you are unfamiliar with him, the passion and the verve that he and the other Hitch disciples bring to the table ignites a flame in your chest.
David Fincher comments, “If you think you can hide your seedy preoccupations in life and choose a profession like a film director… you’re nuts!” And indeed, Hitchcock openly embraced his seedier, more unseemly obsessions with murder, voyeurism and icy blondes by putting them front and center in his movies. James Gray makes an impassioned case as to why you must be able to understand the inner-workings of Vertigo even if you know nothing about the art form.
Hitchcock/Truffaut is that rare film you may leave with a full-hearted desire inside you to become a film critic, a cinephile or even a filmmaker. It is that special, infectiously enthusiastic art documentary which inspires just as much love for the art form it studies as it lavishes upon it.
Hitchcock/Truffaut plays at Cornell Cinema Wednesday, March 16 at 7 pm. Editor Rachel Reichman will be present, along with director Kent Jones via Skype to discuss the film.
Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.