My scheme to write weekly on my reading was almost thwarted. Nipped in the bud. You see, I didn’t read much this week but instead watched a ton of movies. I’ve been wanting to revisit a lot of Hitchcock, as Michael Wood’s amazing new book on him is out. And, well, one thing led to another, and I got to using all my spare time not looking at words but looking at the screen.
I’m not one to really impose a distinction between seeing and reading, and was thinking about writing on the films themselves here. But then I began looking at a related book, and so the issue became moot. And really, how couldn’t I have picked up, at some point, Francois Truffaut’s legendary 1966 book on Hitchcock, built up out of his 1962 interviews of the director?
The book has actually become the subject of a movie in its own right by Kent Jones coming out soon. As that will probably show — in its numerous interviews with famous directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, et. al. — the book has attained the status of a bible of filmmaking and become a repository of wisdom that, rightly understood, initiates one into the secrets of the great filmmaker and about film in general.
But, it should be said, this is not just because it contains the lengthiest reflections of most amazing director in film history on his own films. The book is so important because of the thoroughness of Truffaut’s attempt to make himself understand, to make the reader understand, and even to make Hitchcock himself understand — Hitchcock.
This effort extends from the introduction — which presents Hitchcock as the best example of the auteur filmmaker — to the innumerable stills throughout the book which isolate techniques and take apart entire scenes and sequences. Because Truffaut is so thorough, we get nearly all the major theories behind Hitchcock’s work, or as Hitchcock calls them, “generalizations:” the theory of the MacGuffin, understanding surprise vs. suspense, etc.
Along the way, too, we get happenstance profundities like this:
“To me one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.’ Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”
That’s utterly brilliant, and brilliant in a way that Hitchcock is consistently throughout the book. It starts out with a pat consideration of the necessaries of a person’s job in a particular film. It’s perspectivised, in the way that Hitchcock always perspectivised things: Hitchcock naturally talks of the cardinal sins “for a script-writer,” and not one of the sins “of script-writing,” as he might well have done. The implication is that the fault is a fault for a person, and that as such, it is not only wrong in general, but it keeps him from his goal. It’s not a broad statement about what every script should be like: it doesn’t deal in absolutes that imply scripts can be dialogue-free.
And yet it then proceeds to something more general: dialogue should be just a sound. But even here Hitchcock is strangely concrete. The generalization carries its point not just because it is general, but because it is perverse: dialogue just happens to come out of the mouths of people, and it should be that way. There is a comprehension of the way things should be which, rather than critiquing the way all scripts are written, aims to get you to understand the way things could be nearly the opposite of the way you naturally look at them. It’s like when Hitchcock says that James Stewart in Vertigo is essentially a necrophiliac. You see immediately what he means, and how it appeared nearly the opposite of what we thought was normal. Hitchcock is confident about his own tastes even when they smack of perversity precisely because he knows they can show things are otherwise than they seem.
But getting Hitchcock to dispense such brilliance isn’t just due to Truffaut’s genius for interviewing. It is in many ways the result of the circumstance, which, like a true filmmaker, Truffaut works hard to exploit. There is, first, the fact that everything has to be translated from French to English, English to French, for the interview to even begin. This imposes a concreteness on everyone’s language: “generalizations” of any sort be only so general and have to take liberties that allow them to make sense in another language. At the same time, Hitchcock’s responses have to be direct, but can also become detailed in ways he couldn’t be elsewhere: he’s addressing a fellow-filmmaker, interested in the techniques, the money, things like that, just as much as any broad thematic questions, and the temptation for Hitchcock with someone like this across the table is to make the most of this.
And then just the nature of the interview format itself. Take this instance: in talking about the underwhelming Under Capricorn (1949), Hitchcock states how “infantile,” “juvenile,” and “stupid” he was for getting Ingrid Bergman for the thing (more for the reason that he wanted to run around arm and arm with her at premiers, rubbing the fact that he got the most popular actress in America in the noses of all the rest of the directors), and for not getting the right writer.
Hitchcock says that all this was some reason for the failures of the film:
For the director there should be no question on this one matter: whenever you feel yourself entering an area of doubt or vagueness, whether it be in respect to the writer, the subject matter, or whatever it is, you’ve got to run for cover. When you feel you’re at a loss, you must go for the tried and true!
But then Truffaut does not let it stand at that. He comes right back with: “What do you mean ‘to run for cover’ under ‘the tried and true?’”
And this pushback allows Hitchcock to get more specific, more creative, more direct, to say more of what he means, to expand: if you’re lost in a forest, he continues, you don’t just light out in the fastest direction, nor do you rely on blind intuition to help you out of the bind. You go right back to where you know you were, the path you got lost from, and find your way out:
I mean literally, that whenever there is confusion or doubt in your mind, the first thing to do is recover your bearings. Any guide or explorer will tell you that.
As much as filmmaking is about making something out of uncertainty, certainties — about what people like, about popular taste, about human nature and what it wants to see, about what you’ve done in the past that works — have their use too.
This may well be an instance of a Frenchman’s tedious need for logic and intellectual precision here. But, even more than that, it it issues simply from the fact of dialogue: the fact that any of Hitchcock’s statements is not the pronouncement of one person but issues from a need for another person to understand. The pushback it meets allows greater play with the concepts involved, to see even Hitchcock’s concrete words not as the final word on anything but as just another step in describing a long process.
All this makes the book more than just a key to Hitchcock or a sort of confession of all the professional tricks he employs: it becomes, the more you read it, a way to understand filmmaking as a process in dialogue with itself, as exploratory conversation. It makes you realize that even Hitchcock does what he does in order to try and be able to think with it and through it, add to what he is doing. That it is more than just a kind of formal invention or new artistic method applied to material, but a genuine mode of inquiry into things. That in doing what it does, it’s already asking questions, about art and also about life.
Hitchcock’s remark about how total plausibility just leads to documentary — something he comes back to continually while asserting that the essence of his films is suspense and not mere surprise — reflects this, and shows the other side of that point about what to do when you’re lost. Though you need certainties, you only really need them when you’re out breaking new ground. Otherwise you’re not really going anywhere.