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Desperately Ambitious, Desperately Sincere : TRUFFAUT BY TRUFFAUT edited by Dominique Rabourdin, translated by Robert Erich Wolf (Abrams: $50; 240 pp., illustrated)

November 01, 1987|Charles Champlin

This lustrous coffeetable volume deliberately recalls, in the mirroring letters on the dust jacket, "Hitchcock by Truffaut," the illustrated transcript of a long interview of one master director by another. In Hitchcock's own words, that 1967 book is still the best account of his art, reflecting as well Truffaut's informed insights and his devotion to Hitch.

The present grab bag of memos, letters, script fragments, press-book statements and newspaper and magazine interviews by Truffaut, illustrated with production stills and album photographs, is about 32 square inches larger in format than the Hitchcock and at a guess weighs twice as much. It is printed on heavy coated stock to enhance the 140 color plates.

Unfortunately it suffers from the usual coffeetable book syndrome, designed to be seen but not read. The size and weight make reading dangerous anyway, threatening to interrupt circulation in the thighs. The text rises and falls like an intermittent stream (although in fairness it is single-column width when it does appear, not the useless double-column width often favored in art books).

Yet many of the photographs, black-and-white and color, fail to take advantage of the expansive format. They are run indecipherably small, floating in oceans of white space at no discernible gain in charm or impact. It is a design style that often appears to be favored by art directors and other non-readers.

In the case of "Truffaut by Truffaut," this is the more the pity because the selections Dominique Rabourdin has found and Robert Erich Wolf has translated for this American edition are rare and revealing and not to be found anywhere else in English. As in "Hitchcock by Truffaut," the emphasis is on the work and the thought, not the life. Here, as in a scrapbook, arranged chronologically film by film, are the letters of artistic intentions Truffaut sent to cast and crew before starting some of the films. There is a letter to Jean-Pierre Leaud's father, asking permission for the son to cut classes to film "The 400 Blows." There are cast lists, call sheets, production schedules, the handwritten notes Truffaut made on scripts.

Fragments of treatments and scripts are reproduced (with English translations in an appendix later on). There is a warmly amusing telegram from Hitchcock after he had seen "The Wild Child." (His wife Alma's eyes were swimming in tears, wired Hitch; "THIS FILM SHE SAYS IS THE BEST OF ALL THOSE BY TRUFFAUT. PROFOUND AFFECTION.")

In a special section (on yellow pages) the editor has brought together many of Truffaut's theories and observations on film. They were scattered through a quarter-century's worth of interviews and are worth a small, portable book all by themselves.

"The young film makers," Truffaut said in a 1958 interview, "must make up their minds not to tread in the footprints of the 'old' cinema. . . . We've got to get out of the overexpensive studios (they're nothing but noisy slums anyway, unhealthy and poorly equipped). . . . You have to be desperately ambitious and desperately sincere."

In 1980, he told three interviewers from Cahiers du Cinema: "I am certainly not an innovator, because I belong to the last squad to believe in the notions of characters, situations, progression, incidents, false leads--in a word, the whole show. . . . What did John Ford say? 'I film sympathetic characters in interesting situations.' "

He was loyal to the New Wave, he said in 1968, but he was not part of it. "Ultimately one makes the films one can love as a viewer. The cinema helped me endure life when I was an adolescent. . . . Well, as a film maker I make the films I saw when I was 13, 14 years old, that's to say, with people in the wrong, weak, all fouled up, hiding out, always keeping aloof from groups, films with which it is easy to identify and which drag you into a kind of escapism that is nonetheless quite close to real life."

He sometimes thought of himself as a circus impresario, he once said, and was careful never to show two elephant acts in succession. "After the elephant, the juggler, after the juggler, the bear. . . . I even try to arrange an entr'acte toward the sixth reel because people get tired, nervous. With the seventh reel, I take them back in hand and try to end with whatever I've got that's best. . . . Consider that people lock themselves in the dark to see my films, I never fail at the end of a film to take them out into nature, to the seashore or into the snow, to get myself pardoned.

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