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Boston Globe (25/Jul/1999) - All right, quiet on the set - lights, camera ... read!



All right, quiet on the set - lights, camera ... read!

The Sound Era in film began on Oct. 6, 1927, when "The Jazz Singer" opened. The Sound Era in film books began on Aug. 13, 1962, when François Truffaut and Helen Scott began the six days of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock that resulted in Truffaut's "Hitchcock" (Touchstone, $20). Something there is in moviegoers that likes talk -- between covers as well as on screen. A smattering of examples gives an idea of how extensive the genre is. There are the three "Backstory" volumes of interviews with screenwriters that Patrick McGilligan has edited for the University of California Press. The University Press of Mississippi has its "Conversations with Filmmakers" series. John Kobal's delightful "People Will Talk" is out of print, but Peter Bogdanovich has turned the film-interview genre into a cottage industry, with "Who the Devil Made It," "John Ford," and "This Is Orson Welles."

Dominating the genre is Truffaut on Hitchcock. Film books are necessarily labors of love. How else explain an author undertaking the awkward task of translation required to put images into words? Perhaps no other book about the movies has been quite so lovestruck as Truffaut's, a work suffused with love of movies, love of Hitchcock, and most of all, of course, love of Hitchcock movies. And who better to interview a great director than another? Truffaut was well aware his greatness was of a lesser magnitude, and one of his book's many charms is the deference, unto worshipfulness, author displays toward subject. This can make for a certain loopy imbalance in the dialogue. The relationship is less acolyte and priest than acolyte and pope.

Still, this very reverence on Truffaut's part surely accounts for why Hitchcock (a notoriously unforthcoming man) is so expansive. Talking about technique, let alone talking about technique with an admiring peer, he relaxes and reveals as nowhere else. One can almost feel his glee as he describes how he got that serving of milk to look so sinister in "Suspicion" ("I put a light right inside the glass") or how the cropdusting sequence in "North by Northwest" came to be (the classic movie scene of someone about to be murdered is always dark and claustral, so Hitchcock decided to put Cary Grant in a horizonless field at midday). Best of all is the moment when they're discussing the success of "Psycho" at the box office, and Hitchock declares with equal parts pride and avuncularity, "And that's what I'd like you to do -- a picture that would gross millions of dollars throughout the world!"

Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana's "Truffaut: A Biography" (Knopf, $30) gives a behind-the-scenes look at this summit meeting of cinema. During his days as a critic, Truffaut had interviewed Hitchcock several times in Paris. "Whenever I see ice cubes in a glass of whiskey I think of you," Hitchcock had told him once, a remark Truffaut cherished. He wrote a long letter proposing the book to Hitchcock, noting, "If, overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and become once again a silent art . . . everyone would realize at last that {you are} the greatest film director in the world." Is it any wonder Hitchcock instantly cabled his assent? Some 40 hours of interviews were taped at Hitchcock's office-bungalow at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, with Scott translating Truffaut's questions into English and Hitchcock's replies into French. That unwieldiness carried over into the publishing process, and it would be another four years before the "Hitchbook," as Truffaut called it, appeared in print. A genre was born.

My own favorite among film-interview books is Joseph McBride's "Hawks on Hawks" (University of California Press, $15.95). Hollywood has known no finer storyteller onscreen than Howard Hawks; and on the evidence here, he didn't do too badly in person, either. There is, for a particularly splendid example, this account of a car trip in the company of Clark Gable and William Faulkner. "We were coming through Palm Springs, and the talk was about writing. Gable asked Faulkner who the good writers were. And Faulkner said, `Thomas Mann, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and myself.' Gable looked at him and said, `Oh, do you write, Mr. Faulkner?' And Faulkner said, `Yeah. What do you do, Mr. Gable?' I don't think Gable ever read a book, and I don't think Faulkner ever went to see a movie. So they might have been on the level." The exchange is priceless -- whether embellished or not -- but what's so Hawksian is that "on the level" coda and the way it's simultaneously casual, knowing, and unexpected. Not that Hawks himself was much for being on the level. One reason his stories read so well is that the man was an inveterate liar, as Todd McCarthy makes all too plain in "Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood" (Grove/Atlantic, $35). True, playing fast and loose is an occupational hazard of storytellers -- and filmmakers, who get to tell their stories with movie stars and millions of dollars, are unusually prone to this failing. But in dissembling, as in directing, Hawks would seem in a class of his own.

The latest addition to the genre, Jeff Young's "Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films. Interviews with Elia Kazan" (Newmarket Press, $32.95), operates under a unique disadvantage. Young, himself a budding film director, approached his idol, Kazan, in 1971 to see if he'd be willing to discuss craft. Somewhat to Young's surprise, Kazan agreed. They talked off and on for the next 18 months, and Young got some first-rate stuff. "If you're going to talk to me about life, talk to me about life," Kazan announces. "Don't talk to me about technique." It's a statement that describes everything that's good, and much of what's bad, in his films. Even better, he manages to define his practice of filmmaking in all of six words: "Directing is turning psychology into behavior." From Brando and Vivien Leigh having at it in "Streetcar" to Brando and Rod Steiger in the backseat of that famous taxi in "On the Waterfront" to James Dean atop a freight train curled up in a fetal position in "East of Eden," it's all there in that sentence.

Kazan talked on one condition: that Young do nothing with the interviews until the publication of Kazan's autobiography. Bad enough (for Young) that that turned out to be 15 years down the road, in 1988. But Kazan's book itself was such a coup de theatre that Young had to wait another decade so his book wouldn't seem totally upstaged. That is to say -- and there is no nuanced or indirect way of putting this; only flat-footed assertion will do -- "Elia Kazan: A Life" (Da Capo, $19.95) is one of the most amazing books I, for one, have ever read. Utterly gripping, blazingly alive, astoundingly acute, even more astoundingly obtuse, it is as remarkable and strenuous an exercise in American autobiography as has been written since (dare I type the name?) Henry Adams's. Art, politics, sex, death, guilt, absolution, betrayal, not to mention Brando, Dean, Marilyn Monroe, House Un-American Activities Committee -- you name it -- they're all here, at great, and engrossingly excessive, length. This is, if you will, the ultimate film-interview book, with Kazan playing the roles of both interlocutor and respondent. Neither has ever been performed more memorably.