Book review: Hitchcock

An encounter between French filmmaker Francois Trauffaut and Alfred Hitchcock in 1955 helped persuade the English speaking world of his genius. Gerry McCarthy savours a reissue of the book that followed.

Francois Truffaut

Faber & Faber, €23

THE unlikely friendship between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut began in the winter of 1955, when Truffaut literally broke the ice. 

Hitchcock was the world’s most celebrated filmmaker, known for his exquisitely crafted and hugely successful thrillers: he was practically the only director whose name was known to the cinema-going public.

Truffaut, who went on to direct such ground-breaking Nouvelle Vague films as Jules et Jim and The 400 Blows, had not yet embarked on his directorial career: he was a film critic and writer, working for the influential French magazine Cahiers du Cinema. He was also a dedicated Hitchcock admirer.

Thus Hitchcock came to France, to shoot To Catch a Thief on the Cote d’Azur with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. With his footage in the can, he moved to Paris for post-production work. 

Truffaut and Claude Chabrol — another critic who later became a celebrated director — turned up to interview the great man.

It was a dark, freezing day. In their eagerness and excitement at the prospect of meeting their hero, the two young men, crossing a courtyard, failed to notice that they had strayed onto the frozen-over surface of an ornamental pond. 

The ice shattered and they were plunged into a sub-zero bath. Which is how Truffaut came to break the ice with Hitchcock.

It’s a nice story, almost too good to be true: the frozen setting, ever so slightly redolent of Hitchcock’s liking for ‘ice blondes’, and the cute meeting between the men. 

Such dramatic incidents, however — though they may seem calamitous at the time — acquire mythic properties in hindsight. They can also serve to forge a connection between an interviewer and interviewee.

I have had the experience myself, albeit not quite at the Truffaut level. For instance, hurrying to meet Peter Greenaway in the 1980s — he had just made Drowning by Numbers — I somehow misread the address and got lost looking for the house where the interview was to take place. 

I scurried desperately around, drowning in numbers — a notion that greatly amused Greenaway when I finally located him.

Truffaut’s ice-breaking exploit similarly amused Hitchcock, who had a sort of ironic detachment that could sometimes manifest as mild sadism. He courteously rescheduled the interview to give the two young men a chance to warm up. 

At a later meeting with Truffaut, he pointed to the ice cubes in his drink and observed that he thought of Chabrol and Truffaut every time he had a whiskey on the rocks.

This book, originally published in 1966, grew out of that encounter. In 1962 Truffaut — by this point also a filmmaker — interviewed Hitchcock in great detail over a space of eight days. 

The text that resulted put Hitchcock’s work under a microscope: something that had never been attempted before, despite his great fame.

In fact, even this late in his remarkable career — his latest films included Psycho and The Birds — critics in the UK and America tended to look down on Hitchcock as a sort of money-grubbing populist. Nor was this only the critics: at one point Hitchcock tells Truffaut, with marked petulance, that he has never won an Oscar. 

The sole occasion when the Academy voted for one of his pictures, he adds, was for Rebecca — and it was David Selznick, as producer, who collected the statuette.

In France, of course, everything was different. In Paris, he was lionised by intellectuals and seen as a filmmaker of genius. 

Truffaut and his fellow Cahiers writers had pioneered the auteur theory of cinema, according to which the director is the author of the cinematic work. 

Hitchcock, with his technical proficiency, self-awareness and use of recurring motifs, made an ideal subject for an auteurist treatment.

It is probably because the Cahiers crowd were filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers

that their writings on Hitchcock worked so well. They understood him at a deep level of technique — unlike the more literary film critics in the Anglo-Saxon world, who had little grasp of Hitch’s technical mastery.

This is brought out vividly at several points in the book. In that era before computer effects, a creative director might have recourse to an astonishing battery of technical devices — miniatures, models, tracking shots, zooms, jump cuts and any combination thereof.

Occasionally, Hitchcock could let his love of formal trickery become obsessional — as in the case of Rope, carefully shot and edited to give the impression of a single seamless shot. 

Even there, however, he could always justify his effects by pointing to a psychological reason for a given device.

In Rope, the story of two psychopathic young men attempting to conceal a murder from their college professor, the lack of edits gives the film a jittery, claustrophobic feel, quite in accord with the mental state of the protagonists.

Truffaut and Hitchcock clearly relished these conversations. Hitchcock’s pride in his technique is palpable when, for example he describes a shot of a plane crashing in the sea, where we can see over the pilot’s head a view of the ocean looming through the cockpit window — then, without a visible break, the plane hits and the water rushes in. 

This sequence in Foreign Correspondent was achieved with a transparent screen and a water tank. As Hitchcock says, he had a lot of fun devising such mechanisms.

Truffaut, also fascinated by the linkage between technique and psychology, had a precocious grasp of cinematic methods — and the good fortune to live in Paris, one of the world’s great cinema cities.

In this age when any film can be streamed or seen on DVD, it is easy to forget that in the 1960s the only way to watch a film was to see it projected on a cinema screen. Even allowing for the many specialist cinemas in Paris, Truffaut’s detailed knowledge of Hitchcock’s work is incredible.

This beautiful book is now reprinted with a wealth of photos and film stills. It helped to persuade the English-speaking world that Hitchcock was an artist of real stature, not just a gimmicky maker of commercial thrillers. A superb new edition of a classic.


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