NEW YORK (AP) — "Hitchcock/Truffaut," one of the most essential books about moviemaking and a historic tete-a-tete between two of the greatest filmmakers (one a Hollywood veteran, the other a rising star of the French New Wave), began with a letter.
"There are many directors with a love of cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself and it is that which I would like to talk to you about," Francois Truffaut wrote to Alfred Hitchcock.
What followed was a week of interviews in a windowless Hollywood office that culminated in 27 hours of recordings in which Truffaut discussed Hitchcock's artistry, film by film. The new documentary "Hitchcock/Truffaut" by critic, filmmaker and New York Film Festival head Kent Jones, is about that extraordinary meeting and its long reverberations through cinema.
"It was the birth of an idea of cinema and film culture as a world unto itself," says Jones.
It also had really cool pictures. Shot-by-shot photo montages of scenes, like the infamous shower stabbing of "Psycho," were what first captivated Jones as an already movie-crazy 12 year-old. He was far from alone. The book, published in 1966, four years after the interviews, is roundly considered a kind of bible for cinephiles and filmmakers, alike. In the film, David Fincher (who is currently remaking Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train") recalls pouring over the images as a kid. Martin Scorsese describes the book's celebration of Hitchcock as "like a weight taken off our shoulders."
"It conclusively changed people's opinions about Hitchcock," says Peter Bogdanovich in the film. "Hitchcock began to be taken much more seriously."
Though Hitchcock is now among the most revered directors ever (his "Vertigo," initially received coldly by critics, currently ranks as the top film of all time in Sight & Sound's poll), Truffaut's book was the first full appreciation of his genius. A post-war cultural exchange between Hollywood and France (the birthplace of cinema) was then stoking a new appraisal of studio films and filmmakers. Led by the Cahiers du Cinema (for which Truffaut wrote before becoming a filmmaker), French critics saw directors __ good ones, at least __ as the authors of their films, even when working within the confines of the 1940s and '50s studio system.
For Jones, "Hitchcock/Truffaut" was ultimately about the emergence of film as its own cultural realm, not in comparison to literature or anything else. In the conversation of two titans of filmmaking __ each from wildly different backgrounds, speaking through a translator but united by a common obsession __ lie many of the things that makes movies movies: how shots edited together make a scene; how space is used; how objects take on a hyper, dreamlike significance; what Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman can do together.
"It's the sensuality and the tactility and the danger and the ecstasy and the modernity all at once," says Jones. "That's cinema."
Jones' passion for the book, and the conversation it began, is easily apparent. The film, too, continues the conversation, with filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson still teasing out the craftsmanship of Hitchcock.
It's easy to see the book (Truffaut called it a "livrefilm" or his "Hitchbook") as a bridge between two eras of movies: Hitchcock's classical period, with its careful compositions and classical performances; and the coming shift of more brazenly personal filmmaking and acting, and self-consciously artistic movies.
"Hitchcock/Truffaut" connects those eras, not so much marking the distance between them than their commonality of pursuit. The book was a sizable event in the lives of its two participants, too. Initially planning to do it in a few months, Truffaut spent nearly four years on it, effectively pausing a red-hot career kicked off by "The 400 Blows," ''Shoot the Pianist" and "Jules and Jim." Hitchcock, who would go on to make a handful more films, remained friends with Truffaut. The two wrote frequently afterward, often exchanging ideas on various projects.
Hitchcock was touched by Truffaut's interest from the start. "Your letter brought tears to my eyes," he responded to Truffaut's invitation, "and I am very grateful to receive such a tribute from you."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP