One of the more consistently underlined truisms in Hitchcock/Truffaut, a work of cinephilic devotion that takes the titular 1966 book as its starting point, is the notion of the master of suspense as a director with full control over every effect in his films. That this quality is invoked as a virtue by some of the most meticulous craftsmen currently working in movies (Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, James Gray, and Wes Anderson) comes as little surprise. Less expected, however, is hearing the same sentiment coming from the mouths of Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, and Richard Linklater, directors who, despite possessing their own unique commands of film grammar, all exercise a looser grip on cast and crew to the point of embracing instances when production realities intervene on premeditated intentions.
The implicit precedent for such artists would be Truffaut himself, who was famously moved and inspired by Hitchcock’s mathematical precision despite making films that were quite fundamentally dissimilar on the surface. Spiritually falling in the same category is the film’s director, Kent Jones, who’s proven in his primary vocations of programming and criticism to be a model of open-mindedness rather than bullish insistence, with insights that encourage a flexible engagement with both film history and one’s own tastes.
Someone of Jones’s erudition wouldn’t be one to elect interview subjects merely on the basis of their clout or their immediately recognizable artistic kinships to Hitchcock (note the absence of such conspicuously “Hitchcockian” stylists as Pedro Almodóvar or Brian De Palma). Nor is he concerned with rehashing established critical narratives or biographical information about the director, explaining the welcome absence of historians brought on to redundantly address, say, the randy Brit’s fixation with buxom blondes.
The mission of Hitchcock/Truffaut, then, isn’t to elucidate all the nooks and crannies of Hitchcock’s artistry (though it often does this with great gusto), but rather to locate in his films the tendencies that resonate on elemental levels and stir disparate filmmakers to their own artistic soul-searching. The film is structured so as to resemble a streamlined experience of reading the book. Snippets of the lengthy tape recording between Truffaut, Hitchcock, and translator Helen Scott from which the book was transcribed introduce the major topics of discussion before the baton is passed to the various big-name commentators, with occasional expository interjection from narrator Mathieu Amalric. Discussions of Hitchcock’s working methods—his meticulous storyboarding, his understanding of the role of his “cattle” (actors), his micromanagement of narrative arc—give way to more cryptic auteurist concerns such as Truffaut’s curiosity regarding the Catholicism of Hitch’s oeuvre, and then ultimately, like the book, these broader talking points funnel into detailed interrogations of individual films.
At first blush, Jones, who’s often a formally adventurous prose stylist, seems content with a frustratingly conventional assemblage of handsome talking heads, archival footage, and rudimentary photo scans. (There’s also a graphic flourish indebted to Saul Bass, but it feels like an afterthought intended to spice up a dry presentation.) Quirks in editorial timing and emphasis, however, gradually become evident. Sometimes Jones lets sequences from Hitchcock’s films run untouched before introducing accompanying verbiage, an approach that reconnects viewers to the spell of Hitchcock’s filmmaking prior to the baggage of interpretation. Other times, the various sources of dialogue cascade in and out, even vying for attention in the same loaded moment—most fruitfully when we hear Hitchcock hesitantly addressing one of Truffaut’s inquiries while a simultaneous commentary infers the gaps left by the director’s half-answers. In each scenario, Jones implicitly nods to the inexhaustibility of these films: Exegesis is possible and rewarding, even as the material force of the films themselves resists getting pinned down by words.
That said, the film’s inevitable compression of its source guarantees representational deficiencies. As in the book, Truffaut’s own work is merely a sporadic counterpoint, with clips that verge on functioning as case studies of the Frenchman’s directorial inferiority. It’s also hard not to wish that Jones the discerning aesthete would have spent more time looking beyond canonical classics like The Birds, Vertigo, and Psycho (smaller films like The 39 Steps and Topaz get passing mention, while true outliers like The Trouble with Harry and Under Capricorn go unremarked on), though the relative enthusiasms of his subjects must surely have dictated this focus. On the upside, meanwhile, one would be hard pressed to find another film in recent memory with such tantalizing glimpses of Hitchcock at work on set or of Cahiers du Cinéma icons commingling in offices. In the end, it’s a buoyant tribute, even if the pedigree of the project implies something more paradigm-shifting.