Saturday, 24 June 2017

Book review: "Hitchcock"

In 1962, François Truffaut commenced a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, via an interpreter. These interviews occurred intermittently over the next five years. The end result was published in 1967, as a book called Hitchcock, though you will sometimes see it referred to as Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Prior to reading this, I didn't know much about François Truffaut, other than Julia Phillips' comments about him in You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (which is one of the great reads about Hollywood in the 1970s.)

Steven Spielberg had cast François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a film Julia Phillips produced. Truffaut and Phillips did not hit it off.

He was an arrogant, famous French film director and I couldn't help but feel that he was fucking with us all the time.
   I was convinced that the well-known-deaf-in-the-left-ear legend (with a hearing aid as a prop, if you please) was a ploy, like not speaking English, to keep the world at bay and for his own private amusement.
   Still I addressed myself to making him feel comfortable, revered, safe. That was my specialty. Also my job. But deep down I knew he was a prick and it was making me defiant. Fuck him. I wanted my own private amusement.
That private amusement took the form of a bet with Spielberg that Truffaut wasn't deaf. She would find out over dinner, where she would be sitting next to him, on his 'deaf' side.
"At some point during dinner I'll whisper his name and we'll see if he turns toward me. If he does he ain't deaf and I win. If he doesn't he is deaf and you win."
Spielberg accepted the bet.
Halfway through dinner I whispered "François" and he turned minutely in my direction. Of course, Steven argued that it was an inconclusive gesture, and he welched on the bet. I know I won because it earned me François's eternal enmity.
Enmity indeed. Truffaut sniped at Phillips throughout the lengthy filming exercise, including telling the Sunday New York Times that she was "incompetent" and "unprofessional."

It has long amused me that François became Julia's true foe. But I'm like that.

The Truffaut who comes through in this book is a serious cinephile, and so well researched that he knew things about Hitchcock's films that Hitchcock didn't know or had forgotten. I came away from the book with a deep respect for his film knowledge and insights.

I was interested to notice that many of the famous Hitchcock quotes that I've read over the years can be found in this book. Whether they are the original source, I cannot say. Here are some quotes from the book.

From François Truffaut:
  • The only two British film-makers whose works have survived the test of time—and space, for that matter—are Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person.
  • The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience.
  • Clarity is the most important quality in the making of a film.
  • Cardinal rule of cinema: Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer.
  • In real life the things people say to each other do not necessarily reflect what they actually think and feel. This is especially true of such mundane occasions as dinner and cocktail parties, or of any meeting between casual acquaintances.
  • If we observe any such gathering, it is clear that the words exchanged between the guests are superficial formalities and quite meaningless, whereas the essential is elsewhere; it is by studying their eyes that we can find out what is truly on their minds.
  • Each of (Hitchcock's) pictures features several scenes in which the rule of counterpoint between dialogue and image achieves a dramatic effect by purely visual means.
  • Hitchcock is almost unique in being able to film directly, that is, without resorting to explanatory dialogue, such intimate emotions as suspicion, jealousy, desire, and envy.
  • Anything connected with fear takes us back to childhood. All of children's literature is linked to sensations and particularly to fear.

From Alfred Hitchcock:
  • A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is closer to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve.
  • In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.
  • To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle.
  • I don't really approve of whodunits because they're rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder.
  • I hate to introduce a useless character in a story.
  • Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.
  • To insist that the storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately.
  • A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.
  • In North by Northwest, where the villainous James Mason is competing with Cary Grant for the affection of Eva Marie Saint, I wanted him to be smooth and distinguished. The difficulty was how we could make him seem threatening at the same time. So what we did was to split this evil character into three people: James Mason, who is attractive and suave; his sinister-looking secretary; and the third spy, who is crude and brutal.
  • In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds.
  • A mass of ideas, however good they are, is not sufficient to create a successful picture.
  • The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
  • 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 form.
  • Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or too obvious, there's no suspense.
  • You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom.
  • Without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex.
  • When you're involved in a project and you see it isn't going to work out, the wisest thing is to simply throw the whole thing away.
When asked about his habit of making personal appearances in his movies:
  • It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and a gag. But by now it's a rather troublesome gag, and I'm very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.

Hitchcock is a big book (367 pages). It consists of the recorded dialogue between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, as they discussed every film Hitchcock made, from The Lodger (1926) to Frenzy (1972). After their meetings ended, Hitchcock made one last picture, Family Plot (1976). The book is of most value to directors, though screenwriters will find some elements of interest.

First posted:25 March 2013

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