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‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ changed the way people looked at film

My life changed forever on May 9, 1958.

That was when my 13-year-old self stood in line at the long-gone downtown Paramount Theater to catch the first showing in town of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Truth to tell, it was Saul Bass’ poster and ad logos that hooked me. I had no idea what it was going to be when I went in, only that it came from the droll, cherubic fellow whose Sunday night TV show I loved so much – “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

A new documentary coming to HBO Monday reminded me of that day and how movies were never the same for me.

The narrative of “Vertigo” is a little ridiculous. The true psychological strangeness of it – fetishism in full demonic flower – was way beyond my tender years.

All I knew then was how wonderful Barbara BelGeddes was as Midge, how obsessed, haunted and miserable Jimmy Stewart was as her boyfriend Scottie, how magnificent was Bernard Herrmann’s music and how sensational in every way Kim Novak was as the confused and tortured Madeline/Judy, the woman who unhinged Scottie. For the first time in my life, I was fully experiencing my life as a dream that I was having when I was wide awake.

I was captured by “Vertigo,” as absurd as the story was and as unrelated to all the nickel-dime promotional hoo-ha I’d heard about Hitchcock as “the master of suspense.” (There is very little suspense in “Vertigo;” instead there is much hypnotic beauty as Jimmy Stewart drives around San Francisco, bewitched by Novak’s otherworldly platinum-haired beauty.)

Everything I had thought movies were was moronic. I couldn’t have told you what cinematic “art” was but I knew it when I saw it in “Vertigo.”

I spent the next two years beginning a life of learning. I was in the opening day audience at the Paramount for Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on Sept. 8, 1960. The line for the movie stretched all the way down Main Street to McDole’s (on the corner of Main and Chippewa), around the corner and down the block. That movie too readjusted everything I knew about movies, but in an entirely different way than “Vertigo.”

My 15-year old self was gloriously confused. Neither of these movies seemed to have much to do with the TV show or the delightful short story anthology Hitchcock made of it – “Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV.”

By then, there was no question in my mind what movies as art were. I’d seen Bergman, Fellini, Resnais and Antonioni. “Art film” was no longer an oxymoron to me.

To young French critics Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, there was no question who Hitchcock was, but my confusion about Hitchcock was commonplace. It was Peter Bogdanovich’s monograph for the Museum of Modern Art that ended my confusion. For the first time, in the early ’60’s, I was reading Hitchcock in his own words answering brilliant questions from a great young film writer in his own language who would soon become a wickedly smart filmmaker.

I still prefer Bogdanovich’s inquisitorial way with Hitchcock to Truffaut’s. But Truffaut’s book-length interview with him that was translated into English in 1966 and called “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” became a treasured possession for everyone who wanted to understand movies – especially Hitchcock’s. I’d recommend it, but not half as much as I would Bogdanovich’s “Who The Devil Made It,” an 850-page beauty first published in 1997 and collecting Bogdanovich’s interviews with filmmakers from Robert Aldrich to Raoul Walsh, along with Hitchcock.

But “Hitchcock/Truffaut” changed the world. By all means, watch Kent Jones’ documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” on HBO beginning at 9 p.m. Monday to understand how much.

The best part of it of this new documentary is the commentary by a parade of filmmakers, explaining how that one book changed so much of what they would know about movies ever after. Wes Anderson wittily says his copy isn’t even a book anymore. It’s been read so much that it’s just loose pages piled up. David Fincher talks about his relationship to the book – as do Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, James Gray, Richard Linklater and, yes, Bogdanovich (who never mentions his own Hitchcock interview).

Scorsese and Fincher, predictably, have the most trenchant things to say about the Hitchcock/Truffaut relationship. To Scorsese, Novak’s emergence from the bathroom to fully live up to Stewart’s vision of her is “the single greatest moment in the history of the movies.”

If you love Hitchcock movies – and movies in general – you shouldn’t miss “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”

But the book you really need to own is Bogdanovich’s “Who The Devil Made It?”

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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