By Akash Shetye
David Fincher speaks about Hitchcock’s influence on him in Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut. Image Credit to Indiewire
The least surprising moment in Kent Jones’ new documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut, is when David Fincher sings the praises of Alfred Hitchcock. Just last January, Fincher showed how big of a Hitchcock fan he is when he announced his next project, a remake of Hitchcock’s masterful 1951 film, Strangers on a Train. However, if you had been paying attention to recent film criticism, you would not have needed that announcement to realize how big of an impact Hitchcock had on Fincher. The cultural gatekeepers have noticed Fincher’s link to Hitchcock for years and, as a result, have often delivered their highest praise of Fincher through comparisons to the master of suspense. In recent years, Fincher has been called “the modern Alfred Hitchcock,” Hitchcock’s “successor,” and “Hitchcock’s true heir.”
One look at the oeuvres of both directors illustrates that such comparisons are not the simple products of critics trying to justify their love for Fincher. Hitchcock and Fincher’s movies often overlap in their genres, themes, and techniques. Both directors love using genres that appeal to the masses–such as murder mysteries and romances–to analyze dark and thorny themes. For example, in Rear Window and Gone Girl, Hitchcock and Fincher use murder mysteries to dig deep into two crumbling relationships and how those relationships barely hang together. Meanwhile, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Fincher’s The Social Network and Zodiac, plots revolving around detectives, rich inventors, and serial killers serve as a meditation into the passions and costs of obsessive personalities. The two directors also share stylistic traits–such as an ability to shift their stories’ point-of-views (most famously in Psycho and Gone Girl) or to create memorable antagonists (such as Strangers’ Bruno or Seven’s John Doe)-that produce major emotional reactions in their audiences. Ultimately, then, it’s easy to understand why most film critics link Hitchcock and Fincher: both directors use the popular stories of their day to dive into topics that other filmmakers might shy away from; they both bridge the gap between entertainment and art.
However, despite their similarities, Hitchcock and Fincher differ from each other in one significant way: the contemporary critical reception of their films. When Hitchcock was 53 (Fincher’s current age), his place in film history was uncertain, as most of his movies opened to mixed reception. This can be seen in the critical reactions to Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and Psycho—three films that today hold over a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes-but back then struggled to gain appreciation. Bosley Crowther, the most important film critic of the 1950’s, dismissed Hitchcock as an artist, accusing him of trying to “con” audiences into liking such projects with “sleekly melodramatic tricks” that masked the director’s lack of “an abundance of subtlety.” Other reviews weren’t much kinder. TIME Magazine labeled projects like Psycho “merely gruesome,” and even the softest negative reviews–such as Variety’s review of Vertigo which praised Hitchcock’s “mastery” at directing-still argued that the director was “gimmicking,” struggling, and failing to add seriousness to what is “only a psychological murder mystery.”
Despite the similarities in their work, David Fincher (left) and Alfred Hitchcock (right) did not receive the same level of acclaim at the time that their films came out. Image credit to Flavorwire.
In contrast to Hitchcock’s contemporary critical reception, Fincher’s attempts to transform pop culture into art have been met with enthusiasm and celebration. Outside of his first film, all of his works–as a director–have received over a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. His latest film, Gone Girl, was deemed “art and entertainment,” “entirely mesmerizing” and a “wickedly confident Hollywood thriller you pray to see once a decade” by three of the most influential film critics working today. And even the harshest review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, what is generally considered to be Fincher’s worst film in recent years, praised his directing as “flawless.”
Such contrasting receptions to similarly structured and themed projects compel one to wonder why Fincher does not face the same challenges that Hitchcock faced. What has changed in the last 60 or so years that allow Fincher to be loved for doing what Hitchcock was criticized for? There are many possible answers to this question, involving comparisons between these two directors and their peers, changes in the national psyche, and changes in what audiences expect in terms of story and character in cinema, but one of the best answers comes from Hitchcock/Truffaut itself.
Kent Jones’ film is a moving tribute to a book–with the same title–that documents a conversation between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut–another legendary filmmaker–about Hitchcock’s work. The film makes clear that Hitchcock/Truffaut was not only important because it featured two legendary directors speaking to one and another, but because it helped cement Hitchcock’s artistic legacy. Through his words, close readings, and praise of Hitchcock, Truffaut showed everyone that Hitchcock was not a sharp director exploiting the masses, but a film master who transcended mass entertainment’s supposed limitations and explored the minds and souls of ordinary people. The film illustrates the influence of Truffaut’s reevaluation of Hitchcock by allowing modern directors–such as Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Fincher–to follow in Truffaut’s footsteps and explain what Hitchcock means to them. What follows is a stunning series of close readings about Hitchcock’s work, readings that not only take the audience deeper into Hitchcock’s art, but lay bare the psychologies, fears, desires, and passions of these heavyweight directors themselves.
Francois Truffaut (left) interviews Hitchcock for his Hitchcock/Truffaut book. Image Credit to Screen Fish
It is these close readings, then, that help explain why Fincher can follow Hitchcock’s footsteps without necessarily meeting the same challenges. While the film critics of Hitchcock’s time often dismissed him as a mere entertainer, these close readings–from Truffaut down-prove these dismissals invalid. By explaining how much Hitchcock moves them–even when such expression can be painfully personal and unflattering-these filmmakers illustrate that Hitchcock was more than a skilled entertainer. They show that he–like all artists–had an amazing capacityto reach people from all walks of life and help them better understand themselves. Taken together, then, these readings illustrate a shift in approach to film since the 1950’s. Whereas back then, a filmmaker’s reputation as a great entertainer could hamstring him, now this reputation moves others to take his work seriously; they take their emotional reactions to the filmmaker’s work not as products of gimmickry and trickery, but as windows into their souls. It is this new approach to film that compels critics to praise Fincher’s work. While he might be exploring the same genres, ideas, and emotions as Hitchcock, now–because of the work of Truffaut and others–people recognize that those genres, ideas, and emotions mean something. It is for this reason that Fincher’s involvement in Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut is not just unsurprising, but completely appropriate and deeply moving. The man owes his career as a filmmaker to Alfred Hitchcock, but he owes his status as an artist to the conversations about Hitchcock.
Akash Shetye is a Cinema Studies Major at NYU. He has an interest in studying form, directors, and the sociopolitical context of movies (so basically just cinema). You can contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @AkashShetye