In June 1962, French screenwriter, director, producer and actor François Truffaut wrote a letter to Alfred Hitchcock asking whether he might interview him in depth about his life and career. Truffaut proposed they meet to talk for a week of all day interviews. In the letter he stated his reasons:
Paris, 2 June 1962
Dear Mr Hitchcock,
First of all, allow me to remind you who I am. A few years ago, in late 1954, when I was a film journalist, I came with my friend Claude Chabrol to interview you at the Saint-Maurice studio where you were directing the post-synchronization of To Catch a Thief. You asked us to go and wait for you in the studio bar, and it was then that, in the excitement of having watched fifteen times in succession a ‘loop’ showing Brigitte Auber and Cary Grant in a speedboat, Chabrol and I fell into the frozen tank in the studio courtyard.
You very kindly agreed to postpone the interview which was conducted that same evening at your hotel.
Subsequently, each time you visited Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting you with Odette Ferry, and for the following year you even said to me, ‘Whenever I see ice cubes in a glass of whisky I think of you.’ One year after that, you invited me to come to New York for a few days and watch the shooting of The Wrong Man, but I had to decline the invitation since, a few months after Claude Chabrol, I turned to film-making myself.
I have made three films, the first of which, The Four Hundred Blows, had, I believe, a certain success in Hollywood. The latest, Jules et Jim, is currently showing in New York.
I come now to the point of my letter. In the course of my discussions with foreign journalists and especially in New York, I have come to realize that their conception of your work is often very superficial. Moreover, the kind of propaganda that we were responsible for in Cahiers du cinéma was excellent as far as France was concerned, but inappropriate for America because it was too intellectual.
Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love for the cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself and it is that which I would like to talk to you about.
I would like you to grant me a tape-recorded interview which would take about eight days to conduct and would add up to about thirty hours of recordings. The point of this would be to distil not a series of articles but an entire book which would be published simultaneously in New York (I would consider offering it, for example, to Simon and Schuster where I have some friends) and Paris (by Gallimard or Robert Laffont), then, probably later, more or less everywhere in the world.
If the idea were to appeal to you, and you agreed to do it, here is how I think we might proceed: I could come and stay for about ten days wherever it would be most convenient for you. From New York I would bring with me Miss Helen Scott who would be the ideal interpreter; she carries out simultaneous translations at such speed that we would have the impression of speaking to one another without any intermediary and, working as she does at the French Film Office in New York, she is also completely familiar with the vocabulary of the cinema. She and I would take rooms in the hotel closest to your home or to whichever office you might arrange.
Here is the work schedule. Just a very detailed interview in chronological order. To start with, some biographical notes, then the first jobs you had before entering the film industry, then your stay in Berlin. This would be followed by:
1. the British silent films;
2. the British sound films;
3. the first American films for Selznick and the spy films;
4. the two ‘Transatlantic Pictures’
5. the Vistavision period;
6. from The Wrong Man to the The Birds.
The questions would focus more precisely on:
a) the circumstances surrounding the inception of each film;
b) the development and construction of the screenplay;
c) the stylistic problems peculiar to each film;
d) the situation of the film in relation to those preceding it;
e) your own assessment of the artistic and commercial result in relation to your intentions.
There would be questions of a more general nature on: good and bad scripts, different styles of dialogue, the direction of actors, the art of editing, the development of new techniques, special effects and colour. These would be interspaced among the different categories in order to prevent any interruption in chronology.
The body of work would be preceded by a text which I would write myself and which might be summarized as follows: if, overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and became once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.
If this project interests you, I would ask you to let me know how you would like to proceed. I imagine that you are in the process of editing The Birds, and perhaps you would prefer to wait a while?
For my part, at the end of this year I am due to make my next films, an adaptation of a novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, which is why I would prefer the interviews to take place between 15 July and 15 September 1962.
If you were to accept the proposition, I would gather together all the documents I would need to prepare the four or five hundred questions which I wish to ask you, and I would have the Brussels Cinémathèque screen for me those films of yours with which I am least familiar. That would take me about three weeks, which would mean I could be at your disposal from the beginning of July.
A few weeks after our interviews, the transcribed, edited and corrected text would be submitted to you in English so that you might make any corrections that you considered useful, and the book itself would be ready to come out by the end of this year.
Awaiting your reply, I beg you to accept, dear Mr Hitchcock, my profound admiration. I remain
Hitchcock's response was by telegram shortly after receiving the letter:
Dear Monsieur Truffaut – Your letter brought tears to my eyes and I am so grateful to receive such a tribute from you – Stop – I am shooting The Birds and this will continue until 15 July and after that I will have to begin editing which will take me several weeks – Stop – I think I will wait until we have finished shooting The Birds and then I will contact you with the idea of getting together around the end of August – Stop – Thank you again for your charming letter – Kind regards – Cordially yours – Alfred Hitchcock.
Because he spoke little English, Truffaut hired Helen Scott of the French Film Office in New York to translate. The conversations filled 50 hours of tape about 54 films. A partial set of audio files are here. At the time, Hitchcock wasn't as popular and yet he had already innovated the art of storytelling in movies.
The tapes are a record of the British director's opinions, ideas, and thoughts on both the stories he told through film and how he did it, including mistakes he felt he made and how he would 'fix' them, if he could. The interviews were published in a book in 1967. A revised edition of Hitchcock included the director's later career.
In the introduction, Truffaut says:
Nowadays, the work of Alfred Hitchcock is admired all over the world. Young people who are just discovering his art through the current rerelease of Rear Window and Vertigo, or through North by Northwest, may assume his prestige has always been recognized, but this is far from being the case.
In the fifties and sixties, Hitchcock was at the height of his creativity and popularity. He was, of course, famous due to the publicity masterminded by producer David O. Selznick during the six or seven years of their collaboration on such films as Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case.
His fame had spread further throughout the world via the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the mid-fifties. But American and European critics made him pay for his commercial success by reviewing his work with condescension, and by belittling each new film.
In examining his films, it was obvious that he had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues. It occurred to me that if he would, for the first time, agree to respond seriously to a systematic questionnaire, the resulting document might modify the American critics’ approach to Hitchcock. That is what this book is all about.
During a Hollywood press conference in 1947, Alfred Hitchcock talked about his art, which was about involving the audience and creating suspense. He said:
I aim to provide the public with beneficial shocks. Civilization has become so protective that we’re no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively. The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock. The best way to achieve that, it seems to me, is through a movie.
Suspense is the essence of cinema and Hitchcock was a master of special effects before they were a thing, using images rather than dialogue to further a story. About dialogue he says:
In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call 'photographs of people talking.' When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.
Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.
He also understood that people don't want to be educated, nor do they want to be tricked — as he discovered in Sabotage, a flop.
Hitchcock was very creative; we can draw lessons for marketers from his recurring themes. Anyone interested in the art of storytelling should pick up a copy of Hitchcock, a wonderful collection of insights Truffaut elicited by being in conversation with a master of the art.