What I’ve Been Watching: Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hugo, and The 39 Steps

Film: Hitchcock/Truffaut
Director: Kent Jones
Writers: Kent Jones, Serge Toubiana
Primary Cast: Mathieu Amalric (narrator), Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peter Bogdanovich, Oliver Assayas, Wes Anderson, Arnaud Desplechin, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader
US Release Date: 4 December 2015

Before beginning my first semester of graduate school, I elected to spend an evening watching various television shows on the internet. Then, after several episodes of The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I decided to watch Hitchcock/Truffaut on HBO GO.

At only an hour and twenty minutes, Hitchcock/Truffaut provides a brief, broad picture of its subject matter, but it remains worth watching all the same. Film-lovers of various kinds should be able to find something worthwhile, enjoyable, or illuminating in Jones’s work, even if they are not particularly familiar with Hitchcock’s filmography.

The primary feeling in the documentary is one of genuine appreciation for Hitchcock and his contribution to cinema (both through his own films and through the ways in which his methods and work have influenced others). In this way, the film is better at entertaining viewers while urging them to (re)watch Hitchcock with an eye for the auteur’s incredible skill and craftsmanship than it is at merely educating them. Despites its subject matter and various talking heads, there is nothing pretentious about the film either, and it remains engaging and accessible throughout. Viewers already well-versed in the master of suspense may occasionally be frustrated by this, but Jones’s film, like so many of Hitchcock’s, is meant to be accessible to a wide audience.

The film would be more interesting to Hitchcock fans if it close-read more of his work (with the exception of Vertigo and Psycho, it skips over most of it), but it remains a solid companion piece to Truffaut’s interview-filled book. Though Hitchcock/Truffaut might not provide audiences with any earth-shaking revelations, it does add perspective to Hitchcock’s work while giving audiences several—limited, but not unimportant—nuggets of cinematic wisdom.

Film: Hugo
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (book)
Primary Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloe Grace Moretz, Emily, Helen McCroy, Jude Law, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee
US Release Date: 23 November 2011

Though I’ve only seen a handful of them since being introduced to Raging Bull in college, I generally enjoy Scorsese’s films. Which is why I never went out of my way to watch Hugo.

As someone who has loved some of the director’s bloodier, darker, and more disturbing work, the idea of watching a PG family drama made by him never really appealed to me. So, when I found out I would be watching Hugo in a class earlier this week, I was less than thrilled. I understand how Hugo might warm the hearts of nostalgic cinephiles, and I understand why someone who loves film and film history as much as Scorsese may have wanted to make it. That said, I don’t expect to be watching it again. The film is, in a number of ways, an ode to the magic of movies. But the magic of movies can’t watch a film, and those of us already aware of its existence know that it can produce works far more affecting, thought-provoking, and important than Hugo.

Visually, the film is quite gorgeous, and it’s crystal clear why the academy chose to honor the film for its cinematography, its art direction, and its effects. The world of Hugo is incredibly detailed and is bursting with life and color, and some of the film’s images are quite captivating.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of its narrative. The film is over-crowded with characters and sub-plots that should have been cut, and its story proceeds in clumsy and uninteresting fashion. Parts of film feel forced, and much of it is overconstructed that little remains but surface. Kingsley, McCroy, and Baron Cohen each provide some memorable and lightly touching moments, but they are too scattered to elevate the film into the realm of its director’s more notable works.

As a tribute to the power and wonder of cinema, Hugo is lamentably flat. It lacks momentum, feeling, and purpose. It’s as lifeless as the automaton that Hugo works to repair, and it doesn’t do anything to push the medium forward as it’s subject, Georges Méliès, would have done. It’s also unclear who this film is meant for—perhaps those particularly fond of the color blue?

Film: The 39 Steps
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Buchan (novel), Charles Bennett (adaptation), Ian Hay (dialogue)
Primary Cast: Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll, Godfrey Tearle, Lucie Mannheim, John Laurie, Peggy Ashcroft, Wylie Watson
US Release Date: 1 August 1935

If there’s one thing I’m legitimately pleased with concerning my first semester of graduate school, it’s how much Hitchcock I’ll be watching. Though I’m not actually taking a Hitchcock course—I’m navigating the dark, hostile waters of film theory and grad student professionalization instead—I am a TA for one, and that’s almost as good. I’ll also be able to watch most of the films in 35mm, which is definitely an added bonus, especially since Vertigo is the only Hitchcock work that I’ve seen on film before.

The first film on the syllabus: 1935’s The 39 Steps.

In terms of plot alone, The 39 Steps is easily categorized as a mystery/thriller, but when it comes to its actual story, it’s more of a character-driven comedy at heart. For all the death, chase scenes, and espionage, the film has a noticeably light-hearted feel, and it moves along so quickly that viewers have little choice but to have a good time. Even those characters who appear for just a single sequence are sketched with clarity, and the entire film is brimming with life and personality as a result. Donat’s portrayal of Hannay is also rather enjoyable, and he presents the film’s protagonist with more emotional nuance than one might expect.

At just 86 minutes, The 39 Steps doesn’t take its time, and viewers aren’t given any more of chance to catch their breath than Hannay is. And while it’s true that aspects of the plot are a little ridiculous when examined in the cold light of day, it’s also important to remember that Hitchcock never let plausibility stop him from doing what he wanted. If the results are entertaining, and if the film works according to its own internal logic, then sheer realism shouldn’t be much of a concern.

One thing that continues to surprise me about Hitchcock is just how well his films hold up. The 39 Steps is over 81 years old, but it’s characters and story remain engaging, entertaining, and (at times) quite humorous. While watching the film, I was constantly reminded of North by Northwest (1959), and The 39 Steps can certainly be thought of a precursor to that work. Moreover, even if The 39 Steps is not as impressive as some of Hitch’s more popular movies, it’s still quite good, and those who’ve enjoyed his more prominent masterpieces would do well to go back and give this earlier film a look.

Until Next Time
Grad school has started, and my life may soon devolve into exhaustion and chaos. Which is to say that I can’t promise consistent posts right now. Then again, when have I ever? In all seriousness, I may mostly be doing posts like this one for a while—posts in which I provide a sort of overview of the films I’ve watched in a period of about a week or so. Also, while I’ll often be watching 3-4 movies a week in class, I won’t be making it out to the movie theater much at all, and that will inevitably impact the lay of the land here for a bit. The more you know.

In the meantime, why don’t you follow me on twitter and letterboxd?

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