On the face of it, “Hitchcock/Truffaut” is a curious fish: a documentary about a book about the movies. But to a certain cadre of cinema true believers, the 1966 tome “Hitchcock/Truffaut” is more than a book — it’s a bible. And when those true believers include directors like Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and others on the most creative edge of mainstream narrative filmmaking, well, there’s a movie in that. The book, in which New Wave director Francois Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock about each of Hitchcock’s films, knit together two generations of movie love. The documentary, directed by critic-cineaste Kent Jones, tries to weave in a third.
It’s largely successful, if by nature all over the map. Narrated rather drily by actor Bob Balaban (“Moonrise Kingdom”), “Hitchcock/Truffaut” brings on the above-named directors and others (France’s Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin, Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, James Gray of “The Immigrant”) to testify to the impact the book had on their adolescent psyches, with its frame-by-frame breakdowns of classic Hitch scenes and deep-dish directorial discussions. “It’s not even a book anymore,” says Anderson of his copy. “It’s just a stack of papers with a rubber band around it.”
Jones sketches in the basics of both Hitchcock’s and Truffaut’s careers for the first part of the 80-minute doc and then settles into the meat of the discussion between the two men, illustrated with classic Hitchcock clips that go unidentified — the movie assumes you’re a fan. By far the best part is being able to actually hear the audiotapes of the interview sessions. Truffaut was coming off “Jules et Jim” and was at the vanguard of modern film; Hitchcock was a household name considered by most a pleasantly perverse entertainer. Truffaut and the other young firebrands of the French New Wave insisted that Hitch was an artist, and his book went a long way to cement that view.
Listening to the tapes, you can hear that the older filmmaker is deeply flattered by the attention and a little gun-shy — no one had talked to him about his movies in this way. But the meeting of the two men becomes increasingly fruitful, and there’s the sense of a private genius finally allowing himself to tip his hand. He speaks of the use of space in “The Birds,” of constructing the geography of a scene (and woe betide the actor who interferes), of how “one’s film should be designed for 2,000 seats and not one seat. This to me is the power of the cinema. It is the greatest known mass medium in the world.”
There are areas from which Hitchcock shies: When Truffaut asks him whether he’s “a Catholic artist,” Hitch demands they go off the record and the audio ends with a click. And the great man is fairly tight-lipped about “Vertigo,” his oddest and most personal film and what now is acknowledged as his greatest.
No matter. Jones fills the screen with clips from the movie and with awestruck filmmakers discussing its effect on them. (Gray: “Kim Novak coming out of the bathroom is the single greatest moment in the history of the movies.”) Then it’s on to “Psycho,” which Peter Bogdanovich describes as “the first time that going to the movies was dangerous.” The documentary and its talking heads break down the scenes leading up to the infamous shower sequence — the moment that cut film history in half and separated the era of sentiment from the age of sensation in which we still live.
You want more Hitchcock here and maybe less Scorsese (maybe), but “Hitchcock/Truffaut” reaches a climax of sorts when Hitchcock tells his interviewer, “My main satisfaction is that [‘Psycho’] did something to an audience . . . a mass emotion. It wasn’t a message, it wasn’t some great performance, it wasn’t a highly appreciated novel that stirred an audience. It was pure film.” And then he goes further, joining hands in spirit with the young director across the table who would be dead by 1984, at 52, only four years after his master: “My only pride in the picture is that it belongs to filmmakers. It belongs to us — you and I.”
★ ★ ★
Directed by Kent Jones. Written by Jones and Serge Toubiana. Starring Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, David Fincher, Richard Linklater. At Kendall Square. 79 minutes. PG-13 (suggestive material and violent images).