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Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut & Dial M for Murder

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The 1966 book Hitchcock/Truffaut was as intriguing and exciting a read as its title suggested. Based on Francois Truffaut’s 8-day interview with Alfred Hitchcock, it offered readers the chance to feel like a fly on the wall for the meeting of two of the most avant-garde film directors of the decade. At the time of their meeting at Hitchcock’s Universal Studios office in 1962, the British auteur had recently released his fortieth feature, the hugely successful Psycho, while the young man from across the chanel had completed his directorial debut, The 400 blows, only 3 years ago. Hitchcock was arguably more open and generous with Truffaut than he was with any of his press interviewers, which was surely a testament to the depth of their shared love and understanding of the art form they were both dedicating their lives to.

Present day filmmaker Kent Jones is evidently on this same level of cinematic appreciation. His documentary, which shares the same title as Truffaut’s book, is much more than just a companion piece. This is partly because it is one thing to read a transcript of this mysterious conversation, but it is quite another thing to hear a recording of the exchange, to absorb the nuances of the interaction that took place through a French-English interpreter. This coupled with the pictures that were taken from the meeting almost make you feel that you are in that office with them.

More importantly though, Jones has invited some of the most interesting, influential working filmmakers of the day to discuss how the “Master of Suspense” has inspired them and what they have admired most about his work. Bringing on board the likes of David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and Martin Scorsese is no small feat. It is unfortunately a very homogeneous group, an all-white, all-male ensemble cast, sometimes saying very similar things. The lack of diversity is certainly felt strongly towards the end, when the conversation turns towards Psycho and Vertigo. As interesting and insightful as these men are, there are some perspectives they simply don’t have. French director Olivier Assayas has plenty to say about the New Wave cinema of Truffaut’s time, Scorsese is the ideal person to comment on on the history of the crime genre and on the nature of a directing career that spans several decades, but no one seems very well equipped to discuss the characters played by Janet Leigh or Kim Novak. It feels very strange for there to be no thorough discussion of the director’s trademark casting of blonde actresses in roles that were much more femme fatale than ingenue. When it comes to Vertigo, the interviewees excel at describing how it harks back to the pure cinema of the silent era and how its impact extends far beyond its mediocre opening weekend, but their examination of the lead female is very a much a male perspective on Hitchcock’s male perspective on the Jimmy Stewart character’s male perspective of her character. An informed critique of the Hitchcockian blondes should really be sitting alongside this documentary’s great sections on the man’s famous fear of police and his often quoted belief that “actors are cattle.” This documentary is excellent at providing the context surrounding this statement and the background to that very recurrent theme of false criminal suspicion.

Cinema Nova will be screening Hitchcock/Truffaut from July 14, a week before the beginning of their upcoming festival featuring most of the highlights from Hitchcock’s filmography. It will be opening with the 1954 drawing room thriller Dial M For Murder, in 3D funnily enough. When this little tidbit was announced at the critics screening I attended, the fellow next to me cried “oh Fuck off!” I wonder if that was Hitchcock’s response when Warner Brothers told him to shoot it in 3D, or when he found out that they actually released it that way, or even when they asked him to make it. This wasn’t a project he chose, he was under contract, and indeed, it is difficult to imagine him choosing this one for himself, despite it having the word “murder” in the title. Hitchcock/Truffaut purported that you could watch any Hitchcock film with the sound on mute and still understand 90% of what was happening. This film might just be the exception to that rule. It’s definitely one of the most dialogue-heavy and dialogue-driven films that he made, with suitable theatrical performances from every member of the cast. It was quite obviously an adaptation of a play, in this case written by Frederick Knott. It follows the diabolical plot of a jealous husband (Ray Milland) to murder his wealthy adulterous wife (Grace Kelly) in order to get her money, a plan that of course goes terribly wrong. As tends to happen with plays, this one takes place almost entirely in one room, inside the couple’s apartment. However, rather than being restricted creatively by the setting, Hitchcock of course knew how to work with this claustrophobia rather than against it in this very different medium.

This film is also a prime example of another of his great skills that the documentary points out, his knowledge of when to draw out a moment that would normally fly by an instant, and when to contract an event we are used to seeing being played long. A devastating murder trial is one such moment, naturally because it is this film’s centrepiece of the staple false conviction theme, the perfect opportunity to fully demonise the character of Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), before it is shown that me might not actually be all that bad as far as policemen in Hitchcock films go. The conviction scene appears more like a psychedelic dream than a reality. As such it is one of the few dated parts of this now 62 year old film. As is also observed in the documentary, his films really haven’t dated at all since they’re very much human stories that aren’t focused on any particular time period. Meanwhile, the scene of the pivotal telephone call of the title is markedly extended, to the point where we even see the lines being connected in the control room. The murder scene that immediately follows is naturally of the high standard that you would expect from this director, and was clearly the scene that was most important to him. However, the rest of the film is also well-paced and absolutely engrossing, even as Knott’s writing becomes more gleefully convoluted by the second.

This detailed documentary and uproarious crime thriller are both perfect for whetting your appetite before seeing North by NorthwestStrangers on a TrainRear Window and all the others on the big screen.

Review written by Christian Tsoutsouvas

 

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