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American Film (1979) - Hitchcock





In August, Alfred Hitchcock will be eighty, a time, according to Malcolm Cowley, "for thinking about the future, not the past." Hitchcock is doing exactly that — he's making a new film. Meanwhile, the American Film Institute this month marks his past with its Life Achievement Award. On the following pages we pay our own tribute: an essay by François Truffaut and a bouquet of Hitchcock moments.


"Francois Truffaut Translated by Annette Insdorf"

In the early sixties, during my first trip to America, where I was to present my films, I was shocked by the condescension of American film critics toward Alfred Hitchcock's work, which we had been revering in France for a decade. In 1959 the New York Film Critics bestowed their Best Motion Picture award upon William Wyler's Ben-Hur, whereas it would have seemed to me more just to give it to North by Northwest. In 1963 the Academy Award for best special effects went to Cleopatra for two or three vague superimpositions of Caesar's murder on Elizabeth Taylor's face, yet this was the year of The Birds. During this period an American critic said to me, "You like Rear Window because you don't know Greenwich Village well." I answered him, "Rear Window is not a film about the Village but quite simply a film about cinema, and I know cinema."

But in time American critics became more attentive to Hitchcock's work (today a film like Psycho is considered a classic by them), and the young cinephiles adopted Hitchcock the filmmaker without castigating him for being not only one of the most successful producers in Hollywood but also a television star for ten years.

One day I asked Hitchcock which actors of today could replace Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, or James Stewart. He answered a bit sadly that these stars are irreplaceable: "The stars have disappeared. Today the star is the film... when the film is good." He remained hostile to the teaching of cinema "unless the students learn to make silent films, as there is no better exercise. Sound film has often succeeded only in ushering the theater into the cinema. Too many young people imagine that you can be a director without knowing how to design a set or direct the editing yourself."

In May 1972 I met Hitchcock before the Cannes Film Festival where he was to introduce Frenzy. He seemed tired and quite nervous, as he has always been very tense on the eve of presenting a new film — like a youth who must pass an exam. When French television asked me to assume the role of interrogator for this occasion, I asked Hitchcock the following questions:

Truffaut: A few years ago, daily life was banal, and the extraordinary was to be found in films. Today the extraordinary is in life: political kidnappings, hijackings, scandals, assassinations of chiefs of state. How can a director of suspense and espionage films rival life in 1972?

Hitchcock: The report of a news item in a newspaper will never have as much impact as a film. Catastrophes happen only to others, to people we don't know. A screen forces you immediately to know the murderer, with his victim, for whom you will tremble because this has become someone in your eyes. There are thousands of car accidents daily. If your brother is the victim, this begins to interest you. A hero in cinema must become your friend or your enemy if the film has succeeded.

Truffaut: Frenzy is your first European film in twenty years. What are the differences for you between working in Hollywood and in England?

Hitchcock: When I enter the studios, whether it be Hollywood or London, and the heavy doors close behind me, it makes no difference. A coal mine is always a coal mine.

Two weeks later, when I saw Hitchcock upon his return from Cannes, he seemed fifteen years younger. Frenzy had been magnificently received at the festival, and a radiant Hitchcock confessed that he had been very scared. He now knew that this "little film," whose total budget was a bit below $2 million, would make a profit and cancel out the poor artistic and financial results of Topaz, that film he had made without conviction.

Hitchcock has often said, "Certain directors film slices of life, I film slices of cake," and Frenzy appeared precisely like a cake, made "at home" by a septuagenarian gastronome who had become once again the "young boy director" of his London origins.

When I visited Hitchcock during Christmas 1976, I asked him a question about Psycho that had been bothering me for fifteen years. At the moment of Janet Leigh's murder in the shower, I always wondered who enters the bathroom holding the knife: Anthony Perkins in a wig? A woman? A stand-in? A dancer? If one recalls that this murderer is filmed against the light, appearing to us like a figure of shadow theater, one can accept that all these contingencies were possible.

Hitchcock answered that it was a young woman wearing a wig but that he was obliged to film the scene more than once: Even though the only source of light was set up behind her, one could distinguish her face too clearly in the first takes because the reverberation of the white bathroom was so overwhelming. It was also necessary to darken the face of this double the second time to finally obtain the effect of a dark — and not easily recognizable — silhouette on the screen.

Then Hitchcock announced to me with real satisfaction that he had chosen the subject of his fifty-fourth film. He was going to reactivate a former project, The Short Night, from a novel by Ronald Kirkbride, based on the true story of the British spy George Blake. Unlike other films by Hitchcock — or the idea that we rightly or wrongly attribute to his work — the characters of The Short Night will have priority over the dramatic situation. Instead of being a suspense film with a love story, The Short Night will be a love film with suspense — but is this not the same definition that we can apply to Notorious, which remains through the years one of Hitchcock's greatest black-and-white films?

I experienced the most stimulating Hitchcockian evening when the Film Society of Lincoln Center once dedicated its annual gala to the work of our illustrious friend. We were able to see in a single evening dozens of clips from his films, with all the bravura moments grouped under different categories: the screen cameos (Hitchcock's appearances in his films), the chases, the bad guys, the murders, the love scenes, and two great scenes in their entirety: the plane attacking Cary Grant in North by Northwest and the cymbals clashing in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Each series of clips was preceded by a little speech from the most beautiful Hitchcockian actresses: Grace Kelly, Joan Fontaine, Teresa Wright, Janet Leigh. I had the honor of being chosen honorary chairman of the gala and therefore delivered — and with what stage fright! — my first speech in English.

What struck me most that evening in reseeing all these bits of films, known by heart but for one evening isolated from their context, was the simultaneous sincerity and violence of the Hitchcock oeuvre. I realized that all the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes and all the murder scenes like love scenes. I thought I knew these films quite well, yet I was flabbergasted by what I saw. On the screen, it was all splatterings, fireworks, ejaculations, sighs, death rattles, loss of blood, tears, clenched fists, and it seemed to me that in Hitchcock's cine ma to make love and to die are one.

At the end of the evening, when the applause died down, Hitchcock was supposed to say a few words on stage. To everyone's surprise, the lights dimmed, and Hitchcock appeared — but on the screen. He had filmed his final speech a few days before, in front of a Universal Studios curtain. Once again, Hitchcock had given in to the penchant that marked his entire career and life: to control the situation.

The lights went up, and a spotlight was directed toward the loge where Hitchcock remained at the side of his wife, Alma. He was pressed to say something and consented to a few words: "As you have seen on the screen, scissors are the best way." It was one of those double-edged declarations that Hitchcock adores: On the one hand, it meant that the murder scene in Dial M for Murder (Grace Kelly plunging a pair of scissors between the shoulder blades of the hired killer) was the best; on the other hand, it was probably a tribute to the work of editing, which is done in the cutting room with scissors.

Today Hitchcock's work has generated many students — which is understandable, since we are dealing with a master — but as always, one imitates only that which is imitable: the choice of material, eventually the treatment of that material, but not the spirit that gives it life. Many people see in Hitchcock only the science and the cleverness, but neglect what impresses me most with the passage of time: his profound emotional tension. This man whom fear has led to tell the most terrifying stories, this man who was a virgin when he married and for fifty years has never known a woman other than his own, yes, only this man has been able to show murder and adultery with horror. Only he knows how to do it, and I would add that only he has the right to do it. Because of this, his imitators have to resign themselves to being mere copiers.

At the time that I conceived my Hitchcock book, I was fresh from being a critic, animated by the will to convince. Today I find myself in a different frame of mind, even if I await The Short Night with the same impatience as I awaited Psycho twenty years ago; when it comes to Hitchcock, there is no one left to convince. Like Fellini, like Bergman, like Bunuel, he has become an institution. Time has worked in his favor, and with respect to nitpicking judges, he has the last laugh. Hitchcock has triumphed through endurance.

A longer version of this essay will appear as the preface to a new English edition of Francois Truffaut's book Hitchcock. Annette Insdorf wrote Francois Truffaut and teaches at Yale.