Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hitchcock by Truffaut


Hitchcock
by François Truffaut
Simon & Schuster
Revised edition 1985
ISBN 9780671604295 - 368 pages
Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

Alfred Hitchcock is considered to be one of the best directors of all time but that wasn't always the case. At the height of his career, many critics saw Hitchcock as a commercial director whose films thrilled audiences with their suspense but weren’t meant to be taken seriously. All that changed when French director François Truffaut drastically altered the narrative of how we discussed Hitchcock’s work and he did so with this book: Hitchcock by Truffaut.

“Hitchcock had been victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers and his deliberate practice of deriding their questions.” – Truffaut

Recorded over one week in August 1962, François Truffaut sat with Alfred Hitchcock and interviewed him about his body of work. Because Truffaut and Hitchcock had a language barrier, Helen G. Scott of the French Film office of New York was on hand to help translate. Every single Hitchcock film from his early work in British silent films up until The Birds was dissected, analyzed and debated. Truffaut had intimate knowledge of all of Hitchcock’s films and this shows in how they discuss each one in detail. The reader ultimately benefits from having Truffaut, a celebrated director himself, ask the questions because they come not only from a deep understanding of the film-making process. It took Truffaut four years to transcribe their conversation into 500+ questions and answers that make up this book. His dedication to champion Alfred Hitchcock significantly changed how we view his body of work today.

On Hitchcock... “the most complete film-maker of all. He is not merely an expert at some specific aspect of cinema, but an all-around specialist...” – Truffaut

I had heard about this book before but it wasn't until I watched the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), which tells the story behind legendary interviews, that I sought out the book in earnest. It had been out-of-print for some time and the documentary's release prompted the publisher to reissue the revised 1985 edition, which includes more content on Hitchcock's films after The Birds.

Still from The Trouble with Harry and chapter opener - Hitchcock by Truffaut

Screen cap sequence from Saboteur with Norman Lloyd and Robert Cummings

The structure of this book makes it pleasantly readable. Each chapter begins with a list of topics discussed within and Truffaut and Hitchcock's conversations are broken up in a simple Q&A format. There are a generous amount of black-and-white photos used expertly to illustrate what's being discussed in the text. These photos include 1/4, 1/2, full page and two-page spreads of behind-the-scenes photos, film sequences, stills and I love that each chapter starts with a photo of the two directors in discussion. Their conversation flowed in a chronological order from Hitchcock's early days in cinema to the present day. Footnote description of movie plots are provided for those unfamiliar with the film. It helps if you know Hitchcock's films well because there are some spoilers. The backmatter includes a full filmography for reference. The revised edition extends the narrative with further conversations between Truffaut and Hitchcock about Hitchcock’s last films and Truffaut’s remembrances of the director in his final years.

“Under the invariably self-possessed and often cynical surface is a deeply vulnerable, sensitive and emotional man who feels with particular intensity the sensations he communicates.” - Truffaut

So what did Truffaut and Hitchcock talk about? Pretty much everything. But they kept it strictly to the movies, personal matters were avoided for the most part. Topics included: circumstances of the film, the preparation, the structure, any directorial problems, Hitchcock’s thoughts on commercial/artist success or failure of said film and more. Hitchcock’s work was his life. Truffaut offers many observations on how the director worked and the influence on film.

 “His assessment of the achievements and the failures was genuinely self-critical, and his account of his doubts, frustrations, and hopes was completely sincere.” – Truffaut

Hitchcock by Truffaut is film school in book form. Never have I read a book so full of enlightening information about the film-making process. I learned so much from both directors on how to build suspense, expert use of the camera as storyteller and how stories are adapted. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

 “Suspense is simply the dramatization of a film’s narrative, or if you will, the most intense presentation possible of dramatic situations.” Truffaut

“A good book does not necessarily make a good film.” – Hitchcock

“The main objective is to arouse the audience’s emotion, and that emotion arises from the way in which the story unfolds, from the way in which sequences are juxtaposed.’ – Hitchcock

“... total plausibility and authenticity merely add up to a documentary.” - Hitchcock  

The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience, so that the viewer is actually a participant in the film.” – Truffaut

“There’s no relation whatever between real time and filmic time.” – Alfred Hitchcock

On the MacGuffin - "The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.” – Alfred Hitchcock

The camera should never anticipate what’s about to follow.” – Truffaut

“I’m very concerned about the authenticity of settings and furnishings. When we can’t shoot in the actual settings, I’m for taking research photographs of everything.” – Hitchcock

This book is chock-full of these kinds of insights. And for Hitchcock fans, myself included, there are lots of behind-the-scenes trivia bits that will delight and inform. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Hitchcock avoided whodunits because all the excitement is at the end. Murder! (1930) is a rare example.
  • Selznick invited Hitchcock to US to make a film about the Titanic but they ended up working on Rebecca (1940)  instead.
  • Best Picture Oscar for Rebecca (1940) went to Selznick not Hitchcock.
  •  Foreign Correspondent (1940) was made as a B picture because thrillers and adventures stories were not taken seriously by Hollywood.
  • In Dial M for Murder (1954), Grace Kelly’s clothing go from very bright colors to more somber ones to match the mood of the film. 
  • The house in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was a real home chosen for authenticity. The gentleman who owned it was so excited to have his home featured in the film he had it freshly painted. They had to paint it dirty then paint it back.
  • Some plots points in Hitchcock films were inspired by real life criminal cases.
  • Hitchcock hated royal blue skies. This drove him crazy on the set of To Catch a Thief (1955).
  • The United Nations lobby was recreated for North by Northwest (1959) down to the last detail. They were not allowed to shoot in the actual building.
  • Hitchcock filmed Psycho (1960) in black and white because he didn’t want to show red blood on Janet Leigh.

After 1968, people took Hitchcock more seriously and we have director François Truffaut. Hitchcock by Truffaut is an essential book for any film lover's collection and a manual for any future film maker.


This is my fourth review for the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.


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