When the Student is Ready, the Teacher APPEARS

In 1962, 63-year-old Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment, because of his vast number of film hits over the years and the weekly TV show which ended that same year after seven years of prime-time success. François Truffaut was half Hitchcock’s age and had made only three feature films by that time — The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim. Still, the young Frenchman was already being touted as an international artist, a recognition that had thus far eluded Hitchcock who was considered more of an entertainer — a great one, no doubt, but not really to be taken seriously.

That changed fundamentally and forever in 1966 with the publication of the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, the subject of the 2015 documentary of the same name, just made available — and an essential viewing delight for any fan of either Hitchcock or Truffaut. Directed and co-written by Kent Jones, the film explores the genesis of the book and its effects (as well as Hitchcock’s influence) on many contemporary filmmakers, including David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater and Olivier Assayas.

As a film itself, Hitchcock/Truffaut is punctuated by observations and commentary by Hitchcock’s successors, but it never succumbs to the dreaded curse of the “talking heads” syndrome. Clips from films, mostly by Hitchcock, but some by Truffaut, are the meat and potatoes of the feature, interspersed with photos and sound recordings from the actual discussions between the Old Master and his Adoring Fan.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) documents their mutual respect and affection. Truffaut remarked how amazed American films critics were when, in the early ’60s, he told them that Hitchcock was his favorite director. He followed up this pronouncement with a letter to his idol, proposing a “series of in-depth discussions” about all of Hitchcock’s works. “Everyone would recognize,” Truffaut raved, “that Alfred Hitchcock is the world’s greatest director.”

Hitchcock’s response? “Dear Mr. Truffaut, your letter brought tears to my eyes. How grateful I am to receive such a tribute from you.”

The result was a six-day series of interviews at Universal Studios, where Hitchcock and Truffaut communicated with the aid of translator Helen Scott. First published in 1966, Hitchcock/Truffaut was a groundbreaker in terms of analyzing and defining the role of the film director in general, a fact attested to by many of the future filmmakers in Kent Jones’s film. The book itself (nearly 50 years later) remains, according to Nathan Heller in a 2016 New York Times article, “one of the sharpest, most enthralling studies of creative thought — any creative thought — that’s still in print.”

Through a photo montage — many from the lavishly illustrated book itself — as well as several audio clips extracted from actual interviews, Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) captures the sense of creative energy and mutual enjoyment that suffused the process. In addition, Jones includes a broad sampling of famous scenes from Hitchcock’s movies as well as a few from Truffaut’s, highlighting points from the book as well as from the commentaries by various contemporary directors.

The three Hitchcock films which grab the most attention are Notorious, Vertigo and Psycho, each of which (coincidentally) were included in an extensive 2015 poll undertaken by the BBC to ascertain the 100 Greatest American Films — Vertigo at No. 3, Psycho at No. 8 and Notorious at No. 68. In all, eight Hitchcock films made the list. Not bad for a man who never won a Best Directing Oscar.

Near the end of his film, Kent Jones shows Truffaut’s heartfelt introduction to Hitchcock at the 1979 AFI Lifetime Achievement Awards. “In America,” Truffaut says, “you call this man ‘Hitch.’ In France, we call him “Monsieur Hitchcock.’” While Hitchcock sat stolid-faced, cracking only the faintest hint of a smile, the audience responded with a standing ovation.

“Two weeks after the American Film Institute tribute,” Truffaut later wrote, “resigned to the fact that he would never shoot another film, Hitchcock closed his office, dismissed his staff and went home.” He died a little more than a year later, at the age of 80.

Four years on, the 52-year-old Truffaut died of a brain tumor. The film notes that his last project, completed just a few months before his death, was an updated version of the book on Hitchcock, “in which he gave us Alfred Hitchcock — not the television star, not the Master of Suspense, but Alfred Hitchcock the artist, who wrote with the camera.”

Monsieur Hitchcock would have liked that.