The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #6

Second-guessing the stated intention of an artist during an interview is always a dodgy proposition, especially when the subject is one as famously deliberate and methodical as Alfred Hitchcock. Having no way to confirm or, for that matter, disprove the subject's testimony, an interrogator is left a choice that no one who's interested in good journalism would envy. He or she either accepts what they're told, no matter how outlandish or illogical, or pursues their skepitcism by nailing the subject down (a potentially suicidal course for the fortunes of the discussion). As an interviewer, François Truffaut not only held true to the non-adversarial, passive character of the former course, he seemed blissfully unaware that any other method was possible.

That being said, I'm not quite certain how anyone would react if they'd been confronted with some of what Alfred Hitchcock says in Part Six of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes. For instance, he would have Truffaut (and by extension us) believe that one of the chief intentions in his approach to Secret Agent (1936) was remaining true to its Swiss setting; that he deliberately constructed the film to better integrate the story with its soundstage Switzerland, in other words. On its face this sounds reasonable, but Hitchcock stretches the point to such absurd lengths (virtually all of which was cut when the book was put together), one can sense that even Truffaut isn't a hundred percent certain whether or not his subject is serious. Along similar lines, Hitchcock soon describes a scene he tried and (by his account) failed to work into his 1959 film, North By Northwest that would have hurled the entire piece into the realm of the surreal if he'd actually included it (in fact it directly anticipates a sequence in Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Henri Roger's 1970 film, British Sounds). Truffaut, to his credit, makes a tiny step towards questioning the logic of the thing in context. Hitchcock, perhaps sensing he'd better not push it, cuts him off and says "Let's get back to Secret Agent."

It's instructive to note, by way of an aside, that in the book generated from these interviews, Truffaut not only omits this screwball digression, he attributes the 'let's get back' admonition to himself (not the first sign that Hitchcock/Truffaut was a more carefully crafted work than anyone could have imagined, and not the last).

When the subject turns to his 1936 masterpiece Sabotage, something curious happens: Hitchcock begins to speak of a "grave error" he committed by violating the audience's expectations at a key moment in the film; thereby making them, in his words, "resentful". There is genuine regret in his recollection. Truffaut, not surprisingly, agrees (what else); adding only that by utilizing a child in the sequence, Hitchcock was engaging in an abuse of the medium's power (whereupon he recounts what he says were similar problems he confronted shooting Les Quatres cents coup; a long excursion that has to be heard to be believed). It makes for one of the more revealing moments in these recordings.

If Alfred Hitchcock had a diminishing flaw as an artist, it lay in repeatedly measuring the success or failure of a given work entirely in terms of how skillfully he was able to manipulate its audience; an incapacity to trust and surrender to the moment that resulted in the somewhat arthritic style that weighed down too much of his later work (save for the odd exhilarating moment or two). No artist in cinema, certainly none of his caliber, was ever so obsessed with the psychology of audiences; almost making of them a collaborator in his art. He did not regret this undeniably disturbing sequence in Sabotage because it subverted their expectations . . . that was something he did countless times in his 50 years as a filmmaker . . . but, by his account, because it happened unintentionally; as if that fundamental control, the ability to lead a viewer in whatever direction pleased him, was central to his own identity as an artist and the focus of deeper intentions no one would second-guess.

Then they talk about cartoons.


Dennis Cozzalio said...

Tom, how am I supposed to get any work done? :) And I still haven't finished the Critics Forum! Thanks so much for giving me even more to look forward to!

Yael said...

Dear Tom,
I'm working on Sabotage right now and listened to this remarkble interview yesterday. It's amazing on so many levels. I especially enjoyed Trauffaut's miscomrehension and moralistic stance which clashes so nicely with Hitchock's tongue in cheek mode. Brilliant.
Even the interpreter gets the jokes while Trauffaut remains blissfully ignorant and self righetous.

I wanted to listen again today, but there seems to be no link. HELP!

And thanks for this great project.