In 1962, François Truffaut, one of the pioneers and breakout directors of the French New Wave, sat down for a week with Alfred Hitchcock to talk about all things movies- specifically Hitchcock’s films. The resulting transcript and book of their conversations published in 1966, simply titled Hitchcock, is revered as a religious text among film fans. The book inspired a 2015 documentary titled Hitchcock/Truffaut, proving itself a constant source of fascination for movie lovers.
Bookended by a foreword and postscript from Truffaut, the extensive interviews cover the span from Hitchcock’s early life and first films to 1966’s Torn Curtain, with Truffaut covering his remaining films and the end of his life in an afterword from 1983. Except for Truffaut’s commentary at the beginning and end, the entirety of the book is transcripts from their interviews, written as a dialogue between the two. The chapters are divided generally by eras throughout Hitchcock’s life, progressing through his filmography chronologically in their discussions.
In his introduction, Truffaut discusses how, in his native France, there was a pervasive view of Hitchcock as a commercial director, not one with any artistic merit worthy of discussion, especially among his film critic contemporaries and those involved in the French New Wave. Truffaut expresses how disturbed he was by this sentiment and explains his main purpose in conducting the interviews and writing the book as “I still felt the imperative need to convince… In examining his films, it was obvious that he had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues” (p. 11-12). He managed to secure a week of interviews with the Master of Suspense, with a translator in between the two translating into French and English as they talked. What emerges is the definitive study of one of the most influential, celebrated directors of all time, orchestrated and written by a former critic so invested in film that he himself turned to directing and pioneered one of the most influential movements in film history. It is truly a match made in heaven.
The discussion between the two directors is relentlessly fascinating, sometimes funny, and occasionally poignant. One of my favorite moments was the exchange between Hitchcock and Truffaut about the meaning and purpose of a MacGuffin, one of Hitchcock’s signature plot devices. He describes the concept to Truffaut, whose awe in these interviews is matched only by his tenacity in understanding and challenging Hitchcock on principles of film, always in pursuit of deeper universal truths about the medium. For a director as monolithic as Hitchcock, it is fascinating to see him so plainly describe a MacGuffin, a device he employed so masterfully time and time again, in saying that “the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others” (p. 139).
Due to its esteemed place in the film community, it is difficult to say much about Hitchcock that someone else has not already said. While Truffaut, who himself would go on to embody the term, would coin the phrase auteur in 1955 articles for Cahiers du cinéma, Hitchcock embodied an auteur long before it had a name. His films all have a distinct quality and feel, and as these interviews show, even his less remembered and revered films are full of careful thought, deliberate decisions, and thorough artistry. Only a filmmaker and lover as devoted as Truffaut could truly capture that and know how to speak with Hitchcock in such a way as to pull that out and lay the incredible director’s mind out so clearly for the reader. What is even more remarkable about this is how it captures two such incredibly influential directors at opposite ends of their careers. Thirty-year-old Truffaut, with only three years of directing under his belt, fosters an incredibly intellectual and enlightening conversation with one of the most respected directors to ever work in the medium, who at the time was nearly forty years into his career with several classics to boot. It really is a triumph and a must-read for film fans. As Truffaut concludes in his afterword, “Hitchcock not only intensified life; he intensified cinema” (p. 348).
One cannot say Hitchcock was an underrated or misunderstood artist, since he was a public moviemaker and a popular one at that. At the risk of sounding paradoxical, I would add to Hitchcock’s merits that of having been a complete artist… This complicity between certain creators and their audience has resulted in successful careers. In my opinion, Hitchcock does not belong to this category, since he was a singular man, not only by virtue of his physique, but also by virtue of his spirit, his morality, and his obsessions. Unlike Chaplin, Ford, Rosselini, or Hawks, he was neurotic, and it could not have been easy for him to impose his neurosis upon the whole world.
François Truffaut, Hitchcock, p. 346
This book review is part of Raquel Stecher’s Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see more reviews!