Decoding the Master

Directors talking directing in ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’

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Philippe Halsman/Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

By its very nature, cinema is a collaborative art. As Orson Welles said, “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.” To whom then does a movie belong? In his 1954 essay, “A certain tendency in French cinema,” the young critic, François Truffaut, coined the phrase, “la politique des Auteurs,” and gave credence to the notion that the director — not the writer, producer or stars — was the true author of a movie.

While the auteur theory is not without its detractors or controversies, it makes for a compelling case when one considers the directors that Truffaut singled out as auteurs, one being the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

By 1962, Truffaut had graduated from critic to world-renowned director with The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim. Hitchcock was between two monumental works, Psycho and The Birds, but most knew him as the rotund host of his weekly TV show. In hopes of establishing Hitchcock as a director par excellence, Truffaut proposed a book-legnth interview with the master, discussing his career and body of work and solidifying him, once and for all, as a true auteur.  The interview took place over five days and from it, Truffaut penned one of the most important critical studies, a staple of every film student’s upbringing, Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Why this book was so monumental and endearing is the subject of Kent Jones’ latest documentary of the same name. In it, Jones assembles the audio recordings from the interview along with his own interviews of contemporary directors — 10 in all — in an attempt to understand what attracted Truffaut to Hitchcock and why that attraction continues to stand decades later.

While each of the interviews Jones’ conducts pulls out different themes, a consensus is reached: all of these films feel directed. Where actors stand, where they look, what they see, how their feelings are conveyed, the use of color, of sound, of light and shadow, every choice works together symbiotically to create the reality of illusion, even if the end result runs in direct opposition to reality. Because, as Hitchcock often said, “Logic is dull.”

For one of the interviewees, Martin Scorsese, these choices form the intersection of his obsession and admiration for Hitchcock. Scorsese points out the camera placement on Janet Leigh during the driving scenes in Psycho wondering, why is the camera placed here? Why not a little higher or a little lower? Hitchcock’s ultimate decision where to place that camera is everything for Scorsese.

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out,” Scorsese has said. In Jones’ doc, what’s in the frame are the acolytes of Hitchcock waxing poetically about the craft and the master who taught them and helped refine their style. What’s out are any of Hitchcock’s detractors and, most notably, any perspectives from female filmmakers.

Otherwise, it’s an engaging and loving look at the nuts and bolts of Hitchcock’s work. As was Truffaut’s book, one that ended up taking four years to complete. Truffaut was in the prime of his career, hot off three back-to-back-to-back hits, and yet, he stepped aside to pay his cinematic father figure his due. Fifty years later, directors far and wide are doing the same.

ON THE BILL: Hitchcock/Truffaut. Opens Dec. 11, Landmark Theatres Chez Artiste, 2800 S. colorado Blvd., Denver, 303-352-1992. Tickets start at $8.50, landmarktheatres.com.