The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #3
Part Three of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes has more going on under the surface than others.
Mostly bracketed by prosaic discussions of 1929's Blackmail and 1930's Murder!, a large and intriguing portion of this excerpt concerns a film few of those who claim to admire Hitchcock have time for, his underrated 1930 adaptation of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. Hitchcock begins by describing his efforts to render O'Casey's stage play cinematically, then speaks with more than a trace of bitterness over his failure to do so and the film's subsequent commercial success (the latter he seems to find more troublesome). This leads to a discussion of the problems inherent to adapting well-known works from other media, which would be less than compelling were it not for a fascinating point where Francois Truffaut not only laments the fact that Hitchcock never saw fit to adapt Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment to the screen, but comes close to demanding an explanation from Hitchcock as to why he failed to do so.
This is, to understate it considerably, an extraordinary posture from the man who, in Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Francaise (a legendary, poorly-written Cahiers du cinema essay of a decade earlier), inveighed against a film industry in France that routinely churned out screen adaptations of already existing works. Indeed, among the great many strident complaints he levelled throughout the 1950s against the Tradition de la qualité and directors like Jean Dellanoy was that their reliance upon the written word . . . whether it be an adaptation, a detailed screenplay written by someone such as Charles Spaak or Jean Aurenche, or both . . . utterly depersonalized cinema and cruelly diminished the role of the director in its creation. French cinema in those years, he argued, was rife with "literary ambition", and therefore needed a comprehensive change in its values (incidentally I can report firsthand that, within the realm of film writing, "literary" is still not only a greatly undesired condition, but a veritable epithet; the most withering expression of contempt a cinephile can summon). Of course he never lodged a complaint against a similar filmmaking paradigm in Hollywood (in fact, he celebrated it). But that's only contradictory if you fail to remember that his directorial ambitions in the '50s were solely focused on the French, not the American, film industry.
Alfred Hitchcock, who I'm certain never read a word of Truffaut's writing unless it was about himself (why would he, you see), gamely sidesteps the question of adapting Crime and Punishment (a notion he clearly finds idiotic) and moves forward. And in its closing moments the discussion reaches its most extraordinary moment to date:
In the middle of relating the difficulties he had shooting the German-language version of Murder!, Hitchcock takes a swift and subtle detour. "I don't want to discourage you by what I'm about to say now", he begins by warning Truffaut, and then proceeds to point out why so few French directors had ever been able to flourish in Hollywood. Some Germans made it over here; a few stray Hungarians. But Clair and Renoir and Duvivier? They might as well have stayed home for all the good it did them. What quickly becomes obvious from Hitchcock's voice . . . both low and deliberate; an extraordinarily intimate tone of voice he never permitted himself to use in public . . . is that he's not only talking about more than a mere language barrier, he's talking about how an artist survives in an industry on their own terms, as he largely had for over three decades.
It's as if Hitchcock . . . who at this very moment was beginning to undergo the gradual erosion of his creative autonomy at the hands of Universal . . . was saying to Truffaut: 'Look, I can tell from the questions you ask that you have certain ideas about this medium. You think you understand film because you've made a few of them and you have a grasp of its rudimentary aesthetic, and you admire a lot of movie directors like me for all the wrong reasons. But you understand nothing. If you had a tincture of knowledge about what you have to do, what's really required to operate for more than a season or two as an artist in cinema, up here where I am, you and your girlfriend over there would flee from this place in horror and get back to France as fast as the next plane to Paris can take you.'
Hitchcock concludes this excerpt by telling a lame joke older than the medium itself.
Truffaut, true to form, starts laughing before Hitchcock can get to the punch line.