Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today and support local reporting that's fair, factual, and fearless.

'Hitchcock/Truffaut' Unspools The Artistry Of The Master Of Suspense


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


ALFRED HITCHCOCK: Good evening, I'm Alfred Hitchcock. And tonight I'm presenting the first in a series of stories of suspense and mystery called, oddly enough, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." I shall not act in these stories, but will only make appearances - something in the nature of an accessory before and after the fact - to give the title to those of you who can't read and to tidy up afterwards for those who don't understand the endings.

GROSS: Hosting his own TV series starting in 1955 helped make Alfred Hitchcock a household name and a familiar face. Many of his films are now considered classics, like "Shadow Of A Doubt," "Notorious," "North by Northwest," "The Birds," "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "Psycho." Here's Anthony Perkins in "Psycho" as Norman Bates, after he's been talking about his invalid, emotionally-abusive, controlling mother. Janet Leigh's character, not realizing how mentally unhinged Norman Bates is, suggests that he put his mother someplace.


ANTHONY PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) You mean an institution? A mad house? People always call a madhouse someplace, don't they? Put her in some place.

JANET LEIGH: (As Marion Crane) I'm sorry I didn't mean it to sound uncaring.

PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing and the tears and the cruel eyes studying you. My mother, there? But she's harmless. She's as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.

LEIGH: (As Marion Crane) I'm sorry. I only felt - it seems she's hurting you. I meant well.

PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues and shake their heads and suggest oh so very delicately. Of course, I've suggested it myself. But I hate to even think about it. She needs me. It's not as if she were a maniac - a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes - haven't you?

GROSS: Although Hitchcock is now acknowledged as one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, he wasn't seen that way during much of his career. He just was considered a great entertainer - the master of suspense. In 1962, the young French filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut, whose films "The 400 Blows" and "Jules And Jim" had already made him a leading figure of the new wave of French cinema, wanted to convince Americans of Hitchcock's genius. So he flew to Hollywood, where he spent a week interviewing Hitchcock with a translator. Truffaut adapted the interviews into the 1966 book, "Hitchcock/Truffaut." That book, which analyzed each of Hitchcock's films, often frame by frame, became a touchstone for many young directors. Now film critic Kent Jones, who directs the New York Film Festival, has directed and cowritten a new film called "Hitchcock/Truffaut." This documentary features audio excerpts of the Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews, clips from Hitchcock and Truffaut films, behind-the-scenes footage, as well as new commentary from current directors, including Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and David Fincher. Kent Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did Truffaut want to do a week-long series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock?

KENT JONES: Well, he wanted to prove to the world how important Alfred Hitchcock was. And that's because when he came to New York to do press for "Jules and Jim" in 1962, he was bombarded with questions from American journalists and critics who were asking him, what filmmakers influenced you? And he would invariably list, you know, Jean Renoir, different people like that, and then he would say Alfred Hitchcock. And they would say, you're kidding. The other issue is that he wanted to kind of look at Hitchcock within the context of Hollywood, where he was making films, rather than removing him and putting him on some kind of an abstract, Homeric plane, which is what was happening in French criticism.

GROSS: And when Truffaut wrote the letter to Hitchcock proposing this series of interviews, Hitchcock responded with a letter in which he said, your letter brought tears to my eyes. That's very moving that it was so important to him that a French director - a young French director - was going to take his movies that seriously.

JONES: There's an emotional relationship and exchange between these two men that's extremely moving. They were very different in a lot of ways - in other ways, similar. They were both very shy in certain ways - in other ways not at all. And they both had a deep and abiding love for cinema, but they came at it through different generations, extremely different circumstances. Really what it is is Hitchcock asking the question, was I good enough? Was I an artist to be taken seriously? And Truffaut answering consistently throughout the exchange, yes, not only were you good enough, you were foundational.

GROSS: So probably his most famous scene - Hitchcock's most famous scene - is the shower scene in "Psycho." And you don't need to be a film buff to know that scene. So just to set it up, Janet Leigh plays a woman - a young, you know, attractive woman who works at a real estate agency. And somebody walks in and basically says, I'm going to buy this house, and I'm giving you $40,000 in cash.

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: And her boss...

JONES: Her boss says...

GROSS: ...Deposit it in the bank. She takes the money and instead of depositing it in the bank, she's going to abscond with it. But she seems like a decent woman. And we're wondering as she's kind of driving the car, like, is she going to give the money back? Is she really going to pull this off? Is she really that kind of person? Is she going to get caught on the way? And so, like, suspense is building about, like, what's going to happen with this money? What's going to happen with her? She pulls into a motel and is taking a shower and...

JONES: Well, she meets a guy before she takes the shower who runs the hotel. And he's a very lonely guy, and he's telling her about, you know, the fact that he - people don't stop at the hotel anymore - you know, the motel anymore. And, you know, he and his mother live there and his mother's an invalid, etc., etc. So they have a long talk about that and then he wishes her good night. And then she takes the shower.

GROSS: And then what happens?

JONES: Well, as you said, you don't have to be a film buff to know what happens. What happens is that someone - a woman, apparently - walks into the bathroom and hacks her to pieces.

GROSS: Through the shower curtain.

JONES: Yeah. 35 minutes into the film. And that was - and still is, I must say - absolutely shocking. You're killing off the main character 35 minutes into the film. And it's not just a matter of her being the main character, as you said, you do get extremely involved in what's going to happen with this money. Is she going to give it back? Is she going to drive back? She's tormented. She can - you know, she's imagining what people are thinking of her. You can hear their voices in their head as she's driving. It's just, you know, needling away at her. And what's going to happen - and then suddenly, none of that matters.

GROSS: And it starts off like what appears to be a kind of conventional crime film. And then...


GROSS: ...Turns into something completely different. And so you have Hitchcock talking about the film a little bit and other people commenting on it. And one of the things that's so fascinating about it is that he shot that film - and I didn't know this before - he shot that film - that sequence, the shower sequence, in slow motion. Do you want to explain why?

JONES: Well, he shot - it took him a long time to shoot that sequence. There are many setups, meaning the camera had to be repositioned a whole lot of times. There's a lot of quick cutting in that scene. You know, you never, ever see a knife plunging into flesh and blood coming out. It just doesn't happen. You think that you have seen that, but you don't. But there is slow motion within it. It's almost undetectable, though. But the reason that there's slow motion is because she's taking a shower, which means that he had to use a nude stand-in for Janet Leigh. And that in order to time the shots perfectly so that he's not showing her breasts or, you know, revealing anything, you know, that's going to get the film banned, he had to shoot in slow motion so that he could control the visual information. So it's not that the whole scene is in slow motion, but it's just that there are particular shots in it that are in slow motion so that he can avoid those details.

GROSS: "Psycho" is a great example of what people in your film - the film makers in your film - describe as Hitchcock's masterful use of misdirection. He gets you thinking about one thing and then surprises you with something completely different. And it's the misdirection that a magician kind of uses, that he gets you to look over here but the preparation for the magic - the way he's manipulating the object he's going to magically present - is happening in another place.

JONES: That's right.

GROSS: But because you're looking at where he's misdirected you, you don't see what he's actually doing plot-wise. He's directing you to think about this crime, the money, but the real drama is that she's going to be hacked to death by the owner of the motel.

JONES: This is one of the most elaborate misdirections, though, that one could possibly imagine. And I mean, you know, let's say that he does - he does it in a lot of movies in a very small way. For instance, at the beginning of "North by Northwest," when Cary Grant is walking with his secretary. And he's on his way to the Plaza, and he's talking about how little time he has and he's got to take care of his mother, and you get very involved in that. And you think you're going to be seeing, you know, a light, comic satire of the anxieties of a Madison Avenue man, you know. And he sits down at the Plaza Hotel, and he's, you know, having some drinks. And then his name - you know, a name is mentioned. He snaps his fingers because he wants to send a message and suddenly he's mistaken for another man and boom - he's kidnapped. And so suddenly all that other stuff is forgotten. It's germane to the character, but it's another piece of misdirection just a slightly smaller one. But in "Psycho," he really did something. And he kind of shook movies up forever.

GROSS: Another thing that's discussed in your documentary, "Hitchcock/Truffaut," is the sense of guilt so many of his characters carry around.

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: And even the people who are innocent of what they're being accused of feel guilty for something else. And one of the questions that is raised in the film is, was Hitchcock a religious artist? And when Truffaut actually asks him about that and asks him about his Catholicism, Hitchcock turns the tape off and goes off the record. And, you know, it's so intriguing - like, what did he tell Truffaut of the record? How did Catholicism figure into his work?

JONES: Well, when you're watching his work, it's evident that Catholicism figures into it prominently in the sense that it would appear that it had a really powerful effect on his imagination and his formation as a human being. Because, you know, in - throughout my movie there's a discussion of the high angles in his work. You know, the camera will suddenly shift to a high angle. In "The Birds," you know, when the town is being attacked, suddenly the camera is far, far, far above the town. And you're seeing the gulls massing over it, and there's a fire that's been caused. And it happens again and again in his movies. And the power of it - the economy with which he uses it - is based on that idea that there's always this kind of omniscient point of view somewhere, you know, that is always there, looking down on us. Now, I think saying that he was a Catholic artist kind of simplifies things a little bit, which is probably why he was uncomfortable with it. I mean, this is not a guy who's making Catholic propaganda. But it is someone who's carrying the idea of guilt and the weight of guilt. You know, in his films, as you say, people are very - they carry the burden of guilt even when they're not guilty. That's what "The Wrong Man" is about. It's a movie where Henry Fonda - based on a true story, by the way - is a man who's just picked up by the police because he resembles someone who's been, you know, performing all these thefts in Queens, in the fifties. And he appears to be guilty. It's a very interesting thing. It's quite unique, actually. I don't think anybody else really did that. But it's like the French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin says in my film, it's like I didn't commit a crime, but maybe I did some time, and I don't remember it. You're assuming your own guilt. It's a very powerful idea.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is film critic Kent Jones. He's directed and cowritten a new film - a documentary called "Hitchcock/Truffaut" that's kind of an adaptation of the 1962 week-long set of interviews that the young filmmaker Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock. And a terrific book was made of those interviews. And this movie has audio of those interviews and it also has contemporary filmmakers talking about the importance of Hitchcock and the importance of those interviews. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is film critic Kent Jones, who's also the director of the New York Film Festival. And now he's the director and co-writer of a new documentary called "Hitchcock/Truffaut." That's a film adaptation of the book of interviews that Francois Truffaut recorded with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. And at the time, Francois Truffaut was a young director shaking up the world of cinema with his new wave films such as "The 400 Blows" and "Jules and Jim."

I think my favorite Hitchcock film is "Vertigo," and I love his explanation of one scene. And I'm going to ask you to describe the scene. And I'm going to ask you to describe the kind of double role that Kim Novak plays. And it's the scene where he asks her to put up her hair. So would you be willing to set up that scene for us?

JONES: The story of "Vertigo" is about a man who's drawn into an intrigue. He falls in love with a woman. He watches her die and then meets another woman who looks exactly like her, who - it's revealed to us - is the same woman, who's been part of a plot to deceive this guy in order that the plotter can murder his wife and make off with her money. And so what he does is - she doesn't have the heart to tell him. It's revealed to us, but not to him. So he goes about trying to re-create the woman that he's fallen in love with...

GROSS: And I just want to interrupt and say the woman he's fallen in love with never existed.

JONES: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: Like, the woman he's fallen in love with is, like, sophisticated, refined, tragic beauty.


GROSS: She was the creation of the guy who's trying to deceive Jimmy Stewart. This guy had taken this woman off the street and paid her to look and act refined to dupe Jimmy Stewart so that he'd fall in love with her for...


GROSS: ...This long, complicated plot.

JONES: Yeah, that's right. The man who engages James Stewart's character is married to a woman named Madeleine with blonde hair. But he tries to convince James Stewart and does convince him that his wife is actually this woman that Kim Novak plays, who's the false Madeleine, right? So she doesn't exist.

And so he goes about the business of trying to re-create Madeleine. And what he does is he dresses her and buys the shoes and, you know, has her nails done and then he has her dye her hair and everything, you know. She comes out in the new clothes and with the hair. But her hair's not pinned up. It's the last detail. And he says, but I told you to pin up your hair. And she said, no, it just didn't look right. And he says, well, please do it. And she goes into the bathroom.

So the scene, in my film, is Hitchcock describing the character played by James Stewart, Scottie, sitting and waiting for her to come out of the bathroom. The Bernard Herrmann music swells. It's, you know, inspired by the "Liebestod" by Wagner.

And Hitchcock gets very involved in his description of the scene. And he says, you know, really, the plot is about necrophilia in a way. It's a metaphor for necrophilia. And what I like most about the scene is that he's told her, you know, to put her hair up, and that means that she's stripped. But she won't take her knickers off because she hasn't put her hair up. So while he's sitting there waiting for her to put her hair up, he's getting sexually aroused. And I have a story to tell - shut the machine off. And the tape recorder went off.


GROSS: I'd love to know what that story was.

JONES: Everybody wants to know what that story was, but of course, you know, they shut the machine off.

GROSS: But - you so often want to know, when there's sexual innuendo in a movie - how much are you reading into it? And what was the director actually thinking, at a time when you couldn't show anything sexual? And - so it's great that he was actually thinking that.

But at the same time, what I love about that scene is, in a way, the opposite of what Hitchcock's saying - is that what Jimmy Stewart's character is sexually aroused by is her construct. It's not her nakedness. It's not who she really is. It's who she's constructed to be, which is a fake construct. It's not really her.

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: And to me, that's almost like a metaphor of the image of women presented by Hollywood, that...


GROSS: ...These are not women who exist in the real world. They're creations of the movies. And people fall in love with them, but real people can never become that person who's constructed by the movies.

JONES: That's right. Well, there's something that James Gray the filmmaker, who appears in my film, says that I think is 100 percent accurate. He's talking about "Vertigo." He thinks that that scene where she comes out of the bathroom is, as he puts it, the greatest scene in the history of cinema. But the reason that he likes it so much is he says - the reason it's the greatest scene is because it embodies what cinema is about because of course it's a fantasy. And we know it's a fantasy. But the fantasy is real to him, to James Stewart's character, Scottie, and that's what matters.

And that's true - that's quite true of a lot of us. We build fantasies in our mind. We create things. We project. And sometimes those projections are shot down very quickly, and sometimes they just kind of wither away over time.

GROSS: My guest is Kent Jones, director of the new documentary "Hitchcock/Truffaut." After a short break, he'll talk about working with Martin Scorsese and working in one of the important early video stores. And we'll hear from Niecy Nash who co-stars in the HBO series "Getting On" as Nurse DiDi and co-starred in Comedy Central's series "Reno 911!". I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kent Jones, the director of the new documentary, "Hitchcock/Truffaut," which is inspired by the series of interviews French film director Francois Truffaut conducted with director Alfred Hitchcock. Jones is also the director of the New York Film Festival. Let's talk a little bit about your film life. When you were 13, your mother took you to see "Mean Streets," Martin Scorsese's film. This is an important film to so many filmmakers. But you were 13 when you saw it, probably wouldn't - weren't even supposed to be in the movie theater (laughter) but - probably too young to be admitted. But what impact did that have on you? And I should say, you later went to work for Martin Scorsese.

JONES: Well, "Mean Streets" had an impact on me in many different ways. First of all, my name is Kent Jones but I'm part Italian-American. My mother's maiden name was Angelo. And you have to remember that up to, you know, the early '70s, when there was an Italian-American character in the movie, they would be portrayed by people like, you know, Kirk Douglas or Steve McQueen. I mean, I don't know if you've ever seen "Love With The Proper Stranger" with Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen playing Italians, but it's brutal.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: Hey, what's a matter you - you know, with the hand gestures and all that stuff. And so suddenly there was "The Godfather" in 1972 and then there was "Mean Streets." Very different kinds of movies, both reflecting Italian-American life in a way that seemed absolutely familiar, you know? And, you know, I had never been to Little Italy in New York. I had never been to, you know, Long Island, you know? But nonetheless, the way that the people interacted all felt very familiar to me. Let's forget that Harvey Keitel was not Italian and other people in the movie are not Italian. That's not the point. The point is that they all felt like neighborhood guys and their way of interacting was electric. But I have to say that also, you know, that movie, at the beginning, the way that that film opens with Harvey Keitel falling back on the bed to the beat of "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes...

GROSS: On his clock radio.

JONES: Yeah, that's right. And, you know, the cutting is very precise. And then suddenly you're watching home movies. I just found that astonishing. It was entrancing. And it still is. That's a remarkable vision.

GROSS: You worked at one of New York's first video stores. Was this in Greenwich Village?

JONES: Oh, yeah. Macdougal Street.

GROSS: So what years are we talking?

JONES: We're talking about 1982 to '83, probably in video.

GROSS: So as somebody who loved movies and only had access to old movies through television, like "Million Dollar Movie," which showed old movies, what was it like to suddenly work in a video store and have access to all these films? Home video was such a new thing at the time. It sounds funny now, but you didn't have access to the movie that you wanted when you wanted it before.

JONES: Yeah, my experience working in that store was astonishing. You know, the guys who ran it - New Video - Steve Savage and Michael Pollack had this kind of brilliant idea, which was let's get NYU film students to run the place. You know, people who really knew movies. And the reason that that was so good and such a good idea was because if there was a popular movie - and you would get, like, nine copies of it, like "Sophie's Choice" - invariably, all the copies would fly off the shelf immediately, right? And so if you have people who knew the history of cinema, they would say, well, "Sophie's Choice" unfortunately isn't here, but I can recommend X or Y to you.

GROSS: I never would've thought that there was, like, a retail reason (laughter).

JONES: Oh, yeah, no, I mean he was a really...

GROSS: That's brilliant.

JONES: Yeah, Steve was a really sharp businessman. And, you know, I mean a lot of people came to that place because it was the only game in town aside from 47th Street Photo, you know, David Byrne and Rauschenberg's assistant and Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel - all these people, you know, came to rent movies. Paul Schrader, I remember, walked in the door once. You know, that was very exciting. And then there was a tragic aspect to it because, you know, we had a lot of - there was a lot of porn - there was a lot of gay porn that was rented. There was an enormous, you know, gay clientele. And then, at a certain point, people started getting sick, and they weren't coming in anymore. That was really the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. There was also, you know, I remember once somebody came in and they said - you know, this woman came in, she said we're looking for that movie, you know the one. I would get a lot of people who would come in like that and give me a hint. And she said, you know, the one - the war movie where they're there in the war. And I said, yeah, there's a lot of those, you know? And, you know, it's with that actor, the one who became kind of overweight and it's Vietnam. And she said (snaps) I know the one. "Acropolis Now."

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: Close.


JONES: Almost.

GROSS: So how did you start to work with Scorsese, and what kind of work did you do for him or him?

JONES: I started with Marty as his video archivist in 1991. And when I say his video archivist, I mean Marty taped everything on TV. I don't mean every TV show, I just mean every movie. But he would tape movies and them he would catalog them. And if they were on a station that didn't have any commercials and he had a version of a movie that did have commercials, then it would be re-taped at a different speed. And it was all put on card catalogs first and then it was, you know, we built a database with FileMaker. But it was a massive, massive - and still is - a collection that he would and does consult. And that was how I started with him.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us, Kent Jones.

JONES: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Kent Jones directed the new documentary "Hitchcock/Truffaut" and is the director of the New York Film Festival. Coming up, we hear from Niecy Nash, who co-stars in the HBO series "Getting On" as Nurse Didi and co-starred on the Comedy Central series "Reno 911." That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.