With Hitchcock/Truffaut, Kent Jones, one of our greatest living film critics and programmers, has once again forayed into documentary filmmaking. Hitchcock/Truffaut is adapted from a 1967 book of the same name written by François Truffaut—a book that has long been considered one of the classics of film criticism. In 1962, Truffaut traveled to Los Angeles with his translator, Helen Scott, to conduct a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. At the time, the point of the book was rather radical: to legitimize Hitchcock as a bona fide artist and not just an especially successful supplier of entertainment.
The film is primarily guided by the chronological structure of the book—in which Hitchcock and Truffaut went through each film successively—and Jones peppers it with audio recordings from those original sessions conducted between the two filmmakers, as well as a host of interviews with a variety of contemporary filmmakers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, James Gray, and David Fincher. And, of course, there’s Martin Scorsese—for what would a documentary on cinema be without his thick-browed, eye-glassed, endlessly enthusiastic presence?
While most of the interviews are rehashes or thin elaborations on the text of the book, there are a few illuminating moments regarding both Hitchcock and his interviewee here and there. My favorite is the one in which Gray, speaking with an intensity I had hitherto never heard in his voice, breaks down the editing in Vertigo in the sequence where Kim Novak goes to the Legion of Honor to look at the painting of Carlotta. Gray points out that, rather counter-intuitively, Hitchcock does not give us a close-up of Novak’s face—we cannot see her gaze at all. And this is because her gaze does not matter as the connection that she has with the painting is non-existent; what matters is James Stewart’s gaze as he looks at the curl in Novak’s hair and registers how it’s the same hairstyle as Carlotta’s in the painting. “I’m sure he didn’t shoot coverage from the front,” Gray says. “Someone like me, I would do that. We’re not that good. We don’t understand the power of the image the way that he did.”
Mostly, though, the conversations surrounding Hitchcock’s films in Hitchcock/Truffaut are little more than serviceable primers to the director’s work. That raises the question of who the ideal viewer of this film actually is. A discussion about the theme of the transference of guilt in The Wrong Man, for instance, will only really be revelatory to someone who knows next to nothing about Hitchcock’s films. Jones’s documentary, then, will appeal more to neophytes than hardcore cinephiles. But unless it’s not already available as a bonus feature on a home-video edition of a Hitchcock film, will people who don’t already have a solid interest in getting to know The Master of Suspense’s work actually take it upon themselves to seek out this documentary in the first place?