The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #8
One of the more curious passages in Hitchcock/Truffaut takes center-stage in
Part Eight of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes.
Before the exploration of his largely triumphal career in Hollywood commences, Alfred Hitchcock is asked to render a few observations on the current state of Cinema in Great Britain, as well as his own role in its history. Before the Master of Suspense can get an answer rolling, however, a somewhat less-than-restrained François Truffaut proceeds -- seeming aware of how awkward his interruption is -- to offer his own remarkably strident view:
To him, British cinema before the arrival of Hitchcock in the late 1920s had been at best a languid affair; a strain of cinematic expression overwhelmed and brought low by a frightful inanition that seemed to have telling implications about Britain's national character. Even at its best, he suggests, British filmmaking had always hopelessly pallid, particularly when compared to the extraordinary vitality of the Hollywood paradigm (which, even more tellingly, appears to be Truffaut's default standard of comparison for everything). Hitchcock, we are to assume from this, changed all that.
Admittedly, his is not a wholly indefensible proposition (what Truffaut forgets is that Britain's film industry never had anything like the resources of America's), but he takes it one wanton step further by suggesting that the creative coma British Cinema suffered through prior to Hitchcock's arrival not only resumed once he left for Hollywood, but persisted without leave up to the present hour. To hear him tell it, the words 'British' and 'Cinema' are incompatible. And the only British directors worth a good goddamn were Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin (who didn't make a film in the UK until the 1950s). Everyone else was a hack.
It's hard to discern the extent to which Truffaut did or did not believe this. For all we know it may have been another wild and rash adventure in flattering his subject. One has to remember that this is a man who shifted on a dime from being an uncritical fanboy who loved all cinema indiscriminately to a polemicist wielding a fierce, incredibly strident case against the then-prevailing currents in French Cinema. His judgements had always been informed on the deepest levels by what can best be described as strategic imperatives, and in his years as a film critic his larger ambitions had compromised him so thoroughly that, as a result, he ended up with credibility roughly equivalent to that of an overpaid quote-whore for some industry sheet. Who could tell if he really believed anything he said? While the answer to that would withstand more interrogation than decency allows, it is not difficult to know how utterly, demonstrably wrong he was on this occasion.
Think about it a second. Carol Reed, The Archers (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger for the non-cinephile contingent), Basil Dearden, David Lean, Charles Crichton, Jack Clayton, The Brothers Boulting, Anthony Asquith, Robert Hamer; lesser, but altogether benign figures such as Seth Holt, Terence Fisher, Ronald Neame and Val Guest; expatriates like Joseph Losey and Cyril Endfield; the Free Cinema/Woodfall menagerie: Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and John Schlesinger (and these are just the names that come to me offhand). Whatever misgivings one might have about this one or that one's output, whatever bright early promise ended in tatters of mediocrity, it is absurd to think that filmmaking in Britain by 1962 had ever been as moribund or devitalized as Truffaut suggests here (also, take note how little is actually said in this putative discussion of current British filmmaking about the rise of Richardson, Riesz, et al. Cynical as it sounds, I can't help but suspect that Truffaut wasn't altogether keen to spend time discussing that other, far less romanticized new wave of the late 1950s). For an industry of its relatively diminutive size and scope, in fact, what it accomplished apart from the contributions of Alfred Hitchcock was nothing short of miraculous.
But try telling François Truffaut that.
The weird Anglophobia of this excerpt doesn't stop there, however. Once Hitchcock finally gets an opportunity to speak on the subject of British Cinema, he does so with great cynicism about his home country's attitude toward the medium and, in doing so, reveals a measure of overt class resentment that had mostly been absent from his films. A goodly portion of this excerpt appeared in the final tome but, as ever, it is one thing to read, say, Hitchcock expressing his distaste for the patronization of film by the upper classes, or his dismissing europhilic dilettantes in the London Film Society, it's another thing to hear in his voice the well of contempt that informed it.
I remember a few years ago telling someone that I had gone from loving the 'Hitchcock/Truffaut' book as a teenage cinephile to the view that reading it was not unlike watching two not-terribly-attractive people engaging in sexual intercourse (a judgement I apply now to all such interview books). Not just for its generally saccharine facade of cinephilic bonhomie (which was, as these recordings definitively establish, largely manufactured in the editing), but for the nagging sense one gets that each party was using the occasion to fulfill some wholly personal agenda through the other.
If Part Eight is anything, it is the realization of this: Two filmmakers taking a conversational lull, a momentary breather before delving into an anatomy of one's triumph, in order to do some Brit bashing; each one giving voice to a private gripe he'd been independently carrying around; thereby achieving their one and only true collaboration.
The excerpt ends with a rare and marvellous sound that the public never got to hear (for he would never permit himself such liberty): Alfred Hitchcock laughing.