The week Mons. Hitchcock talked shop with Mons. Truffaut

December 22, 2016 | By

For those preferring to jump straight to the review of Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut (2016) documentary released this week by Universal, go ahead, but if you’ve patience, keep reading on how the horror of Psycho helped ignite one person’s imagination and zeal for film.

AlfredHitchcockWhen Alfred Hitchcock was given the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award on March 12, 1979, I was 9 years old. The live show featured clips and salutes by actors and admirers who addressed the silent, slightly moping Buddha figure in the audience, but when the shower murder from Psycho was shown, two things happened: 1) I never forgot that horrifying kill; and 2) I locked the bathroom for at least TEN YEARS whenever I showered.

I broke my mistrust of the world only once in that decade, and on that day, I peered through the fuzzy curtain and froze in horror as a figure entered the bathroom. When I found the courage to pull back the curtain, I saw my would-be killer carrying freshly laundered towels and shouted “Mom!” She had no idea what was wrong, and when I explained why she scared the crap out of me, all I got was “STOP WATCHING SO MANY HORROR MOVIES.”

Marnie_UK_QuadA few years later I’d seen Psycho proper on TV, and read Robert Bloch’s novel, found a used copy of Richard J. Anobile’s literal shot-for shot book of the script (which further broke apart the components of the shower scene), and grabbed a reproduction of the poster that hung on my wall until it was replaced with a giant British poster of Marnie.

The second soundtrack LP I ever bought was the Christopher Palmer re-recording of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho that was reissued by RCA Italy and sold for $10.99 at the long-gone Cheapies Records & Tapes close to Wellesley on Yonge. The clerk thought it was nuts that a 14 year old was buying not a Led Zeppelin platter (I  got that separately) but a soundtrack album.

MusicToBeMurderedByWhat clinched the obsession with all things Hitchcock was buying the original novels that were spun into films (movie editions preferred), short story collections, a record called Music to be Murdered By featuring intros by Hitch, music from North by Northwest from a Kerry O’Quinn Starlog Records-Varese Sarabande coproduction, and most important of all, the 1966 English translation of Hitchcock/Truffaut, the remarkable and enduring career examination that still resonates with many film fans and filmmakers.

HitchcockTruffaut_revisedMy copy never got dog-eared or had loose pages – the book was too holy to be ruined – but like many of the interviewed directors in Kent Jones’ 2015 doc on the creation of that tome, I re-read many sections before and after seeing the films over and over again.

It was for me the eureka moment that said ‘Those images that flutter in your head are cinematic, not crap, or aspects of psychosis,’ and pretty much inspired a desire to write and make films.

I eventually dumped the idea of becoming an accountant (failing Functions & Relations, Calculus, and Accounting also made the choice easy as pie), and took a pair of film courses at my high school, and in university majored in Film Production.

In high school, attempting the precision of Hitchcock’s penchant for using storyboards (a practice he credited to peer & mentor George Fitzmaurice), I mapped out and shot the celluloid massacre of a best friend in a bullshit Twilight Zonish short (with music tracked with Jerry Goldsmith scores), and in a second film, another friend was knifed as she wore bright yellow shoes and a de rigeur sweater + belt 1980s outfit (set to music from Herrmann’s last score, Taxi Driver).

Even in university, the fun and hunger to create montages – thinking about how to tackle a scene as a silent movie and use images in place of dialogue – stemmed from the way the book articulated how and why specific moments in a Hitchcock film were so arresting. That mania turned a 3-5 min. max class assignment into a bullshit Hitchcockian riff that ran 26 mins. (featuring tracked music by Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, and others). My teacher was not impressed with the length, but didn’t hate the final product.

Although Focus Press was known for starkly practical books on the intricacies of specific filmmaking components – editing, directing, etc. – for myself, Hitchcock/Truffaut was the real inspiration that contextualized films, provided links to explore aspects of film history, and denoted the periods through which an artist – commercial and art-farty – progressed and sometimes withered.

In Hitchcock’s case, there was the Silent Period, the British Sound Period, the Selznick Years, the Colour One-Take Experiments during his fleeting indie period under the Transatlantic banner, and then his peak years during the 1950s that began at Universal, moved on to Paramount and Warner Bros., MGM, and back to Universal which marked his final years trying to make his template and fetishistic fixations work in projects that just weren’t interesting.

If Psycho and The Birds were the highpoints of his return to Universal, Marnie (which I’ll defend) signaled a fumble, and the subsequent Torn Curtain and Topaz demonstrated what happens when a filmmaker gets lazy, stays on the studio lot, and assembles movies that feel like they’re on autopilot, except when someone dies (hence the famous killing of Gromek in Torn Curtain involving a knife, a frying pan, and an oven meted out by a hausfrau ‘cookie’).

Frenzy_stillPerhaps sensing he was getting stale, Hitchcock did the unthinkable for him: he returned to England and shot largely on location Frenzy, a sick, twisted serial killer / black comedy that was in many ways faithful to Arthur La Bern’s gripping, vulgar novel. Guillermo del Toro did a master class on the film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox because he too recognized it was one fucked up little gem, hence the film screening being bracketed that night by 2 hours of Del Toro lecturing. Amazing stuff.

Hitchcock’s last film was Family Plot, which I remember seeing on a plane flight to Germany around 1978. This preceded the AFI Psycho broadcast, so all I recalled from that flight was an old bat kicking over a tombstone, Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris fighting for control of a runaway car, and the final shot. The film isn’t Hitchcock’s best; the swearing seems out of place (which is odd, given violence is fine), and the screenplay by North by Northwest’s Ernest Lehman felt like a pastiche of best moments culled from better movies.

DavidFreeman_ShortNightHitchcock had planned to make one more film, The Short Night, but that project was ultimately cancelled when the director realized he was too ill to tackle another work, but that script and the history of its genesis, writing, and shelving was packaged in a book by its screenwriter, then newcomer David Freeman, who later penned the semi-autobiographical (and very underrated) thriller Streetsmart (1987).

It’s an interesting script because like The Wrong Man, it’s based on a real-life incident that was reformatted and fitted into a Hitchcockian thriller: if I recall correctly, a man breaks out of jail to prove his innocence, and the globe-trotting tale ends with an elaborate train montage evoking a bit of his British 1930s classics.

I still think it would be fascinating to film that script as an exercise in seeing if it could work, but as easy as it is to say ‘just film it like Hitchcock with montages and track shots and his eye for precision framing and movement,’ Hitchcock was an innovator within the shell of a Hollywood pro. No one can deduce how he’d tackle any scene, because as he recalls in an audio excerpt in Robert Fischer’s 1999 short doc Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock, the reason the avian attack on the schoolchildren in The Birds is so striking (and still works today) is due to Hitchcock holding on certain shots and denying information to audiences to build waves of suspense which, in terms of technique, ran contrary to conventional cross-cutting montage.

As he tells Truffaut in an audio excerpt, he knew when and where classicism became banal and predictable; when he was at his best, Hitchcock would opt for a different methodology that tickled his desire to manipulate and misdirect and shock audiences by being unconventional.

I don’t know if Hitchcock has slumped down a few notches in the consciousness of older and younger film fans today, but what’s most prominent in Jones’ doc aren’t the events that resulted in the creation of the book, but the contemporary and legendary filmmakers who bubble with emotion because Hitchcock/Truffaut was an unofficial manual that opened the door to the mechanics and artistry of narrative film; it didn’t codify technique and tell readers ‘This is what you must do,’ but like a great teacher in the classroom (of which my math teachers absolutely cannot be included), Hitchcock and Truffaut spotlighted key tools, but it was up to you to select what to use in your own endeavours.

Truffaut recognized the importance in both celebrating the artfulness of technique and using information to inspire future filmmakers and film historians. He may have wanted to primarily legitimize Hitchcock as an artist so Hollywood would follow suit, but I’d argue the critic, the journalist, the film historian, and the fan boy in Truffaut wanted filmmakers to discover the same tools that motivated him to put down the pen and pick up a camera, which in Truffaut’s case, furthered France’s impact on world cinema.

For myself, that’s the enduring legacy of Hitchcock/Truffaut: whichever translation you read, it just inspires one to explore.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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