It helps that Jones enlisted a slate of top-notch filmmakers to help explain Hitchcock’s impact on their work. There are Hollywood titans like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Richard Linklater, but Hitchcock/Truffaut tries to honor the international feeling of that original meeting of minds by also including directors from around the world, including Olivier Assayas, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Arnaud Desplechin. Each picks out specific moments from Hitchcock’s catalog that inspired him as a young cineaste (it’s worth noting that all of the interviewees are men, reflecting the slow-moving and embedded sexism of the profession); in between, Jones cuts back to Hitchcock and Truffaut’s conversation, including the voice of the interpreter, a woman named Helen Scott, who sat with them throughout.
With all of this, Hitchcock/Truffaut is building to a larger point: that there’s a transcendent language to cinema that extends beyond English, French, or anything else. In 1962, Truffaut was a 30-year-old upstart, a former film critic who had directed just three movies (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules et Jim); Hitchcock was 63 years old, with more than 50 films to his credit, and operating at the peak of his Hollywood powers, having made Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho in the last five years alone. But, as viewers can tell from the audio Jones includes, their dialogue is that of two peers. They sound like old friends clapping each other on the back, though Truffaut’s utter awe for his subject does occasionally shine through.
Today, Hitchcock is universally regarded as a great director, but in 1962, he was seen by many critics as a master of schlock, a blockbuster filmmaker who leaned too heavily on violence and cheap suspense to be taken seriously. The 1960 New York Times review of Psycho is a perfect example of the chiding tone that often greeted even Hitchcock’s most popular films (“The consequence in his denouement falls quite flat for us. But the acting is fair”). But Truffaut, and many of his contemporaries at Cahiers du Cinema, the French film-criticism magazine that was also home to Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, realized the genius of Hitchcock’s consistency as a director. They embraced his favored themes, such as voyeurism; his use of certain camera angles; and his focus on telling stories visually, rather than through Hollywood’s classically didactic narration or expositional dialogue.
Some documentaries about filmmakers take a strictly chronological approach. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s 2016 film De Palma, which relies solely on interviews with Brian De Palma, tackles his films one-by-one, in the order of their release. Hitchcock’s filmography is far too vast to make such an attempt in only 90 minutes, so Jones instead takes some of Hitchcock’s defining visuals and lays them out in mini-montages. Viewers get a quick lesson in Hitchock’s high-angle shots, signifying judgment from above, and recognize his skill at presenting villains and slowly getting the audience to identify with their particular foibles. They learn about his love of silence, and the emphasis it placed on his cross-cutting visuals, all meticulously storyboarded in advance.