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The Times (02/Nov/1968) - Hail Hitchcock!



Hail Hitchcock!

In the great days of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, when Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and others were writing for it under the inspiration of André Bazin, it undoubtedly represented the most important single force in film criticism and thinking about film. Bazin died, his spiritual children became more involved in making films than in writing about them, and Cahiers developed more and more into an eccentric coterie magazine. But from its heyday there is at least one thing which has become an unquestioned part of orthodox film criticism: the determination of its writers to judge cinema on its achievements without reference to its pretensions, to root out art wherever it might be lurking rather than looking for it merely among those films which loudly claimed to be art.

The latest impressive product of this attitude is Francois Truffaut's book Hitchcock, which has just appeared in English (Seeker and Warburg, 5 gns). But then Hitchcock is perhaps the filmmaker above all others who has benefited in critical estimation from the Cahiers approach. Not, of course, that he bad no critical standing before Cahiers took him up. But the attitude tended to be slightly patronizing — a superlative entertainer, of course, but... and, in this country at least, somewhat inclined to the view that he had gone pretty steadily downhill since he left Britain, in any case, Hitchcock did not pretend to be an artist; he was a craftsman, a happy and successful commercial film-maker, and if that was all he thought himself to be, why should critics bother to disagree?

Cahiers du Cinéma put a stop to that. No doubt there were elements of exaggeration in their reaction, but at the same time their readiness to look at Hitchcock's films as a complete oeuvre, to find thematic and stylistic links between his films and see them as essentially the coherent product of one man's mind, did throw a lot of new light on the films themselves and on exactly how through them Hitchcock managed to direct audiences. They also righted the balance between our estimation of Hitchcock's British and American periods — indeed, overbalanced it the other way, so that now Hitchcock's early masterpieces are unduly neglected. And after an authoritative statement of the new view in Chabrol's and Rohmer's book on Hitchcock, now, through the efforts of Truffaut. Hitchcock is allowed to speak at some length for himself.

It is an index of the change which has come over our thinking that the most immediate criticism of the book is not that it exists at all (we now automatically accept that Hitchcock is one of the greats, to be listened to with respect), but that in many ways it does not go deep enough. The many hours of taped interview have been selected and arranged in chronological order, film by film, with no feeling of progression, that what Hitchcock has to say about one film has suggested a line of thought which can usefully be pursued in discussion of others. There is surely more to be winkled out of him about his youth than the few anecdotes everybody knows (the night in a police station, the Jesuit education), and much more to be said about the British films. Also, it is a little curious that the English text, apart from having a few details removed in deference, presumably, to British libel laws, follows the French text so closely that it is even unmistakably and sometimes rather stiltedly translated from it instead of going back to Hitchcock's own original English.

Still, that said, it must also be said that the book is one that anyone seriously interested in the cinema will want to own, and that many not so seriously interested will find highly entertaining. Hitchcock is a great raconteur, and nearly all the best Hitchcock stories are given here in definitive versions, as well as many unfamiliar. If the man himself remains as impishly elusive as ever, that is part of his endless fascination. And meanwhile the book directs us, as it very properly should, back to the films themselves. By a happy inspiration the National Film Theatre will be staging over the next few months a comprehensive Hitchcock introspective. Between book and theatre devotees of Hitchcock should be in for a high old time.