Who is the author of a movie? What is an “auteur,” anyway? What was in the mind of the late François Truffaut and his friends when they thrust this idea upon the world some thirty years ago? The concept has certainly served its purpose as far as the Truffaut circle is concerned, in that it contributed effectively to establishing its members as France’s leading and most talked-about film directors. But the notion, hazily grasped at best in America, has led to something of an auteur cult, which bids fair to be with us for some time.
The French origins of the auteur concept are not lost in the mists of history. It was launched in the 1950’s by a film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, to which Truffaut himself contributed, as well as Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette—all of them now better known as directors than as critics.
As is clear from a recently published anthology drawn from the early years of the journal, the opinions of the Cahiers critics were rather bizarre. Truffaut considered Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford a “triumph.” Anyone who rejects this movie, he wrote in his impassioned style of the period, “will never recognize inspiration, poetic intuition, or . . . an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself.” He thought Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It with Jayne Mansfield was “more than a good film, more than a funny film . . . it is a kind of masterpiece of the genre.” Of Jean Seberg’s performance in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Truffaut wrote, “Everything is perfect; this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen.” And Truffaut’s Cahiers colleagues had equally curious views.
How could a gang of young Frenchmen with such peculiar tastes launch upon the world such an influential concept? That so many of them shortly became successful film-makers was no doubt the decisive factor. But there was also another factor at work.
France protects artistic achievement as perhaps no other country in the world. By the exercise of the so-called droit moral (literally “moral law”), artists of all kinds retain artistic control over the art they produce. An art dealer cannot modify a Picasso he owns in order to increase what he thinks will be its salability—this seems reasonable enough. But a French movie producer can no more alter a film he has financed than an art dealer can alter his Picasso. The producer can distribute the film, exhibit it, perhaps make a fortune from it, but he is powerless to modify it. He can starve his director for cash during the making of the movie. He can threaten never to employ him again. He can shout. He can scream. But even though he owns the film, he cannot tamper with it in any way. The director is the film’s creator, its author. The state protects his art as a thing of utmost value. This is no “theory.” This is the law.
Indeed, Truffaut and his friends never enunciated any such thing as an “auteur theory.” Misunderstandings of the French notion were due in some measure to mistranslation. What the Cahiers critics were calling for in plain French was, after all, une politique des auteurs, which means “an author policy.” As was only reasonable from their national experience, these critics felt that everyone already knew that legally the director was the author of a movie. At least this was known by all Frenchmen—and these were the people they were addressing.
Unfortunately, the Cahiers critics claimed, France was cursed with a generation of film-makers who failed to exercise their prerogative as creators of this new art, remaining subservient to the country’s literary class. The Cahiers group particularly hated both Claude Autant-Lara, who had recently done an excellent film adaptation of Raymond Radiguet’s renowned The Devil in the Flesh, and Jean Delannoy, who had directed an equally skillful version of André Gide’s Symphonie Pastorale.
But the group disliked France’s reigning quality directors even when they worked from original screenplays. Truffaut proclaimed in a famous 1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” (unfortunately not included in the present volume), that French movies were dominated by seven or eight leading screenwriters. And it was these screenwriters, he said, who were the instrument of subservience to the French literary class and its morbid values. The art of the cinema, said Truffaut and the other Cahiers critics, lay in the actual filming, not the story—as Hollywood, according to them, knew so well. Hollywood, wrote Eric Rohmer, was to the cinema what Florence was to Italian painting of the Quattrocento.
The Cahiers critics were not completely uninformed about the functioning of the classical studio system in Hollywood. They knew, roughly, that a director was handed a screenplay from his studio’s story department which he was unable to change substantially. They knew that once he had shot a scene—much of it, in the American style, all the way through from a variety of angles and distances—the whole mass of developed film was then turned over to the studio’s editing department and that, for all practical purposes, the director might never see it again.
Knowledge of film theory might have indicated that these new critics should give at least the editor as well as the director credit for the “filmic” qualities of the end product, but the Cahiers critics were single-minded. Ignoring the editor—who was a subordinate figure in France—they maintained it was the Hollywood director’s choice of “shots,” his angles, his framing, his lighting, his placing of actors and properties on the set, his ordering of movement, that constituted the essence of film. And if the director (even without the support of a droit moral) could impose on these variables his personality, and even better express a world view, he qualified as a true “author.” Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, and the other young Cahiers critics complained that most contemporary French directors thought the essence of a movie was the story. The directors were not only wrong, these critics said, they were witlessly forfeiting their opportunity to become masters of a new art.
The virulence of the Cahiers critics’ attack on the Paris movie establishment of the time can only be understood as proceeding from a deep-seated cluster of envies. First, as is now widely acknowledged in France, the Cahiers critics were all desperate to direct films themselves, and almost any argument that came to hand to discredit their seniors was welcome. Also, as movie addicts since childhood, and actually preferring film to literature, they strongly resented the traditional prestige accorded in France to letters as well as to the other older arts. They wanted film, their favorite art, to have its Tolstoy, its Mozart, its Michelangelo.
Moreover, they were in burning revolt—and this is of extreme importance—not only against the prestige of letters in France but against the prevailing values of fashionable Left Bank literature: its negativism, its pessimism. It is this aspect of Cahiers criticism and, later, of the New Wave films the Cahiers critics made when they became directors, that has effectively eluded most foreign observers. But Jim Hillier, a British scholar, notes it carefully in an excellent introduction to the Cahiers anthology. He quotes an American critic, John Hess, as saying that for the Cahiers group an auteur in the last analysis was a film director who expressed an optimistic image of human potentialities: “By reaching out emotionally and spiritually to other human beings and/or to God, one could transcend the isolation imposed on one by a corrupt world.”
In his later years Truffaut acknowledged that he and his friends had greatly overplayed the “filmic” side of movie authorship; the story counted a great deal, he admitted. The simple fact was that the Cahiers critics actually preferred the hopeful little plots of Hollywood B movies with their scorned happy endings to the noir, maudit pessimism so in vogue among French literary intellectuals. Nor was this a case of the high using the low in order to cudgel the middle. Truffaut, for one, was working-class, a high-school dropout with genuinely popular taste, fiercely resentful of the values the high culture wanted to impose on him.
Intermittently, in fact, he said as much, as in “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.” In a scathing attack on France’s two leading screenwriters of the period, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, he heatedly accuses them of introducing “anti-militarist,” “anti-bourgeois,” and “blasphemous” elements into their adaptation of Radiguet’s The Devil in the Flesh and cites no fewer than five screenplays in which they are guilty of blasphemy. He accuses another celebrated screenwriter, too, of blasphemy, and charges actor-director Marcello Pagliero—“the Sartre of the cinema”—with using dirty language. He cites with apparent low regard film examples of both homosexuality and “semi-pornography.”
Truffaut comes right out with it. Modern literature, he says in strong disapproval, is half-Bovary, half-Kafka. In consequence, “Not a film is shot in France any more in which the authors don’t think they’re redoing Madame Bovary.” The dominant characteristic of the period’s ruling school of French cinema, he asserts, is its “anti-bourgeois” bias, a bias not shared by France’s common people. In time audiences will understand, Truffaut writes in conclusion, that the abject family shown by the French cinema is their family, that the thwarted religion is their religion. They will have little reason to feel gratitude, he says, toward a French cinema which has gone to such pains to show them life “as seen from a fourth-floor apartment overlooking Saint-Germain-des-Près.” Truffaut is referring to the residence of Jean-Paul Sartre, notorious for his infatuation with the far Left.
The case could be made that Truffaut was “apolitical,” in the sense that he did not wake up every morning worrying about the state of the body politic. He lived for movies. But there are “apolitical” people alienated from their society and others who accord it their unstated but nonetheless powerful allegiance. Given the opinions expressed by Truffaut in the essay quoted above, it was not hard for General de Gaulle or his culture minister, André Malraux, to grasp that France had produced in Truffaut and the Cahiers group a school of young film-makers whose conservatism, both cultural and political, was profound. Once de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, Malraux did everything in his power to push them to the fore. Jean-Luc Godard later careered off to the radical Left for some years, but by and large the Gaullists had taken the Cahiers group’s true measure. During the eight years of France’s Algerian war, for example, a national trauma comparable in some ways to America’s war in Vietnam, Cahiers du Cinéma never published one word against it.
It was not to be expected that an aesthetic doctrine conceived under such special circumstances as the politique des auteurs could be exported intact. Yet there is some irony in the fact that Hollywood—a source of such inspiration to a group of young Frenchmen engaged some three decades ago in a populist rebellion against their country’s intellectual elite—should have received back in the “auteur theory” a highly elitist doctrine.
For if the circumstances and basic thrust of French auteurism were hardly understood at all in America, the notion that the director of a film was a person of enormous importance was grasped quite readily, perhaps a shade too readily.
It was not ever thus. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who did his time in Hollywood, considered directors “glorified cameramen,” and James Cagney, who saw them from another angle, called them “pedestrian workmen, mechanics,” some of whom “couldn’t direct you to a cheap delicatessen.”
For the general American public, meanwhile, most film directors had been simply invisible. On January 1, 1940, the New York Times reviewed a new movie of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton, without once mentioning the director’s name. The director, William Dieterle, was well known, highly paid, and had made any number of major films, including Juarez, with Bette Davis and Paul Muni, and The Life of Emile Zola and The Story of Louis Pasteur, both also with Paul Muni—this in a period when biographical pictures were among Hollywood’s most prestigious products. But Dieterle’s artistic contribution as director was not considered worth mentioning. It was not, as it were, a “Dieterle” movie, it was a Charles Laughton movie, or perhaps even a Victor Hugo movie.
Giant newspaper advertisements for films in those days rarely featured the name of the director. Well into the 1950’s, the reviewers for the New York Times often failed to mention the director or cited him in a perfunctory manner, whether he was Raoul Walsh, David Lean, or Akira Kurosawa. As late as the early 1960’s when the American director Martin Ritt arrived in France, he was dazzled at the status that being a director gave him there. “In America even a director’s mother doesn’t know what he does for a living,” exclaimed the man who was to film Hud and Norma Rae and had already directed Edge of the City. “But here!” he exclaimed. “What a country! Look! My name! Big print!”
By the time the new French idea came along, things had changed in Hollywood, of course. The studio system had broken down, and it almost seems Hollywood was positively waiting for auteurism in its American incarnation—which often consisted mainly of surrounding the director with a previously nonexistent nimbus of glory and giving him credit for great powers, some real, some not.
The “auteur theory” arrived, moreover, at a time when the American cinema was vastly increasing its prestige as an art and people wanted to personalize these new artistic achievements, if sometimes speciously, by singling out their creators. Hollywood directors, although they still rarely had the “final cut,” had indeed expanded their authority: they usually supervised their film’s editing and contributed to many aspects of the film’s production from which they had previously been excluded. And now they had this new notion, fresh from France, in accordance with which—as it now came to be said—the movies were truly “a director’s medium.”
But the new notion produced an unrealistically inflated idea of the director’s authority. When Bill Conti, composer of the scores of the Rocky series, was called in to do a fresh score for The Seduction of Joe Tynan, the first movie written by and starring Alan Alda, he thought he had best deal prudently with the film’s director and presumptive auteur, Jerry Schatzberg. What had Schatzberg disliked about the first attempt at a score? he asked. “Oh, I liked it fine,” Conti reports the director as saying. “Alan didn’t like it.” “Then what am I doing talking to you for?” the musician replied somewhat bluntly. “Let me see Alan.”
For contrary to the popular understanding of this new “auteur theory”—and it being Hollywood, not Paris—Jerry Schatzberg, the director, was not the lord of all he beheld on the set of The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Most of the key decisions were made by Alan Alda. And two years later, when it came time to film the second movie Alda had written, The Four Seasons, he significantly decided to carry the process a step further and direct it himself, which he did successfully, a practice he has continued—as in Sweet Liberty, soon to be released.
Nowadays, Clint Eastwood also directs most of his own movies. Sylvester Stallone, who recently brought forth Rocky IV, took over the direction of the Rocky series from the second film on. Two years ago Barbra Streisand directed her own hit movie, Yentl. Woody Allen has directed his films for many years, rain or shine, a real auteur. Robert Redford, although he has yet to direct a movie in which he plays the lead, maintains close control when he is simply acting. A screenwriter who wrote one of the recent pictures in which Redford was merely the leading man had little to do with the movie’s prospective director while the film was in development. “But I went to see Redford with the new pages every day,” he says. A roughly comparable story is told by a screenwriter developing a screenplay for Sean Connery.
The basic pattern is plain. In today’s Hollywood, a place of essentially independent productions, the “power player” on a movie set is the person in whose name the money has been raised. This is usually a leading actor or actress, who occasionally also directs. It is often a powerful, creative producer. And only now and then is it a glamor director. Hollywood skeptics claim, in fact, that the larger the number of people who recognize the director’s name, the greater are a film’s chances of failure. Michael Cimino went straight from The Deerhunter to Heaven’s Gate, and Francis Ford Coppola followed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now with One From the Heart and Rumble Fish.
Naturally, hundreds of important artistic decisions on a movie are made by people other than the “power player,” but many of the most conspicuous things about a film are still decided by the man who “calls the shots,” and who that man is to be is sometimes the occasion for fierce struggles. Some months ago an interesting Hollywood battle royal took place between the star Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne, the celebrated screenwriter of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, now risen to the rank of director and presumably a new auteur. Deep into preparation for the highly touted The Two Jakes, sharp differences appeared. Nicholson and Towne fought bitterly. The issues were not resolved. As things now stand, The Two Jakes not only has no auteur, but there will be no picture.
In a knock-down-drag-out battle between a director and a major star, once a film is before the cameras, it is almost always the star who wins. During the much-trumpeted bringing together of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson in Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks some years ago, Brando wanted to play a scene in “drag”—i.e., dressed as a woman. Penn hated the idea. Brando had his way, however. For directors can be dismissed in mid-production. It has happened. But with the movie half-finished, if Marlon Brando had left the film, all his scenes would have needed to be reshot. It would have cost the production millions. This is why high-prestige directors often avoid using stars of the first rank in their pictures. Even celebrated directors know, if it comes to a donnybrook, that they are likely to lose.
Indeed, directors usually lose battles with major stars even when the director is producing the movie himself. There must have been moments when Francis Ford Coppola cursed the day he ever cast the notorious Marlon Brando in what amounted to little more than a cameo role as Colonel Kurtz in his Apocalypse Now. There they sat, wet, marooned in the jungles of the Philippines, wiped out once already by a typhoon, down millions and millions of dollars, but if Brando didn’t like the way Coppola was planning to do a scene, he’d sulk in his tent. And, say what you will about Hollywood, it is hard to cut Mr. Kurtz out of even a loose adaptation of Heart of Darkness.
All of which has led much of Hollywood to feel that these days American directors—reversing their historical obscurity—are often credited with powers they simply do not possess and that all the attention paid them in the press and in film schools has given the public an exaggerated notion of their control over the finished product.
Critics of the director-as-auteur principle fall into different schools, of which screenwriters—once called by a studio wag “a necessary evil”—are probably the most vociferous. “In the beginning was the word!” they go about crying, although they also tell stories making fun of themselves, such as the joke about the new actress so ignorant in the ways of Hollywood that, wanting a role in a new movie, she slept with the writer. Film writers won a prestige victory some years ago, however, when Time magazine, at the head of each movie review, began listing first the director and then the screenwriter, almost as co-authors.
There is merit in this approach, as some of the most distinguished and harmonious films in cinema history have been made by writer-director teams. All the great Vittorio de Sica films at the height of Italy’s post-World War II neorealism were scripted by the Italian novelist Cesare Zavattini, and all the imposing run of Marcel Carné films in the late 1930’s and 1940’s (Quai des Brumes, Le Jour se Lève, Children of Paradise) were scripted by the French poet Jacques Prévert. De Sica before and after Zavattini, and Carné before and after Prévert, were simply not the same.
The writers’ case in its fully developed form holds that John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Howard Hawks’s Of Mice and Men—movies by two different directors but both based on works by John Steinbeck—have more in common than The Grapes of Wrath and some other film by John Ford, say, The Quiet Man. This position—absolute heresy for a pure auteurist—is far from absurd, and the history of sound cinema over the more than four decades since The Grapes of Wrath is strewn with persuasive examples.
The director-writer rivalry is agreeably absent, of course, in the case of such directors as Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, who either script or co-script all their own screenplays, thereby attaining an uncommon degree of artistic unity. A younger member of this privileged group is Hungary’s Istvan Szabo (Mephisto; Colonel Redl), who, a director-writer himself, astonished readers of the New York Times during the recent New York Film Festival by his blatantly pro-writer stance. There’s nothing a director needs to know about moviemaking, he said in an interview, “that couldn’t be learned by an intelligent high-school graduate in two weeks.” Really to shape a film, he felt, it was absolutely necessary for a director either to write or to co-write the screenplay himself.
Unfortunately it is not every director who, like Fellini, Bergman, or Szabo, has the talent required to write his own screenplays. One of the most pernicious effects of the misinterpreted French “auteur theory” in America has been that it has given certain highly praised directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, cited earlier—both possessors of dazzling directorial skills—the notion that, since directing was all that really counted, they could trust themselves to carry out such a subsidiary activity as writing the story. Curiously enough, both Coppola and Cimino have delivered workmanlike screenplays when writing under other people’s direction, but when they turn to writing scripts for their own films they are seized by a certain hysteria, a kind of folie des grandeurs.
They would do well to take a page from the book of one of France’s leading directors, Louis Malle, now mainly resident in the United States. Although Malle has not had the best of luck in choosing American stories, he is the first to admit that two of his greatest French films, Le Feu Follet (“The Fire Within”) and Lacombe Lucien, owe much of their excellence to the quality of the writing. Le Feu Follet is based very closely on a French novel of the same name by Drieu la Rochelle, who (although a fascist) was a quite brilliant writer. Lacombe Lucien was written expressly for Malle by a perhaps equally brilliant young French novelist named Patrick Modiano. But this “splitting of the credit” runs counter to certain Hollywood directors’ urge to increase their personal glory—to which American critics have accommodated themselves. Sydney Pollack, a highly skilled director of films as varied as Tootsie and the new Out of Africa, but who regularly subordinates himself to his “material,” is simply not as glamorous to today’s critics as Francis Ford Coppola with all his fiascos.
But writers are not the only ones cast in the shadow by the director cult. The film editor, now virtually the forgotten man of film-making, has declined greatly in public awareness since his glory days in the Soviet Union when Sergei Eisenstein declared that editing—more than story and even shooting—was the true heart of cinema. Since a movie’s editor is the artisan whose work is most difficult to distinguish from that of the director himself, “an inevitable tension infects the director-editor relationship,” writes Ralph Rosenblum, editor of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and many other major films. “Directors never give special mention to their editors when they lope up to receive their Oscar,” he writes in his excellent book on editing, “lest an over-eager critic surmise that the film has been in trouble and was saved by heavy editorial doctoring.”
Another distinguished editor, Tom Priestly (This Sporting Life; Marat/Sade; Deliverance), says: “We editors know that we cannot really judge each other’s work without knowing the original material. Many a lousy film has been brilliantly edited, and many a brilliant film has been just competently put together.”
There are nonetheless movies known in the industry to have been “made in the cutting room,” though awareness of this does not seem strong enough in the outside world to prevent most film critics, in the present flowering of the director cult, from quite routinely thinking directors responsible for everything. One of New York’s leading reviewers, at the appearance of The Night They Raided Minsky’s, wrote: “Director William Friedkin proves his sense of cinema again by remarkable intersplicing of news-reels and striking use of black and white fade-ins to color.” The intersplicing and fade-ins were done many months after Friedkin had left the picture.
Top Hollywood producers or producer teams have so much real power, and make so much money, that they are not often heard sobbing at the Bel Air Hotel about being unrecognized auteurs. But the degree of control over both story and shooting exercised by such teams as Zanuck-Brown (since Jaws) and Chartoff and Winkler (since Rocky I) is considerable.
Two other producers who illustrate the immense influence producers can have on the artistic qualities of a movie are Irwin Allen, on the popular level, and, in the younger generation, Britain’s David Puttnam. In the 1970’s American cinema was all agog at something caller the “disaster movie.” Irwin Allen, who made The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, was the acknowledged champion of the genre and, having seen him at work, I am prepared to give him full credit as his movies’ auteur. Allen drew very well—like a professional draftsman. On an artist’s sketch pad, he would draw up the plan of shot after shot. Here: the machinery. Here: the flames. Here: Paul Newman. Here: the camera. Innumerable writers came and went showing him dialogue changes for future sequences. The director—talented, to judge by his other work—was plainly reduced to chief executive officer when he worked for Irwin Allen.
David Puttnam’s artistic contribution, although crucial, is of a different order, consisting essentially of the inception of the project, its general shaping, and the dynamism to pull it all together and carry it through. Puttnam made his first big appearance on the American scene with Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, which tells of the victories of two British runners at the Olympic Games in the 1920’s. He followed this with another great success with no stars: Sydney Schanberg’s story The Killing Fields, set against the Khmer Rouge massacre in Cambodia. Puttnam entrusted this politically loaded screenplay to a young English television director named Roland Joffé, who has been called by people who don’t share his politics “a Marxist woolly head.” But those who take celebrating victories in sport as a sign of reborn cultural assertiveness might want to give the matter further thought, as both Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields were brainchildren of the same David Puttnam.
In the late 1960’s, unsurprisingly, a challenge to the auteur principle appeared from the collectivist Left. The most famous of the cinema collectives of the period was probably the so-called “Dziga Vertov Group” (after an innovative director from early Soviet cinema), the best-known member of which was France’s Jean-Luc Godard, appearing in one of his several incarnations. Having been present at the creation, as it were, Godard no doubt found it fitting to celebrate the “death” of the auteur. All members of the Dziga Vertov Group, it was claimed, were paid equally. Every shot was discussed by all. “It’s an attempt to smash the usual dictatorship of the director,” explained Godard, “to try to make no hierarchy.” If the Dziga Vertov Group produced much that was artistically valuable, it is not widely known. Before long Godard, not notorious for his stability, abandoned the endeavor, which was a violation of the French droit moral in any case. (Actually Godard is Swiss.) In his newest phase he acknowledges what he calls (in English) a “move” toward religion in his Hail, Mary, a controversial retelling of the Virgin Birth in modern dress, with the Virgin Mary working in a gas station in Switzerland.
The conclusion of the American “auteur” debate is less clear-cut than some would like. A movie is, after all, a kind of team effort, but with leadership of the pack—in the United States—varying from one film to another. The cinema obviously is a prodigious “director’s medium” compared to the theater, but not all directors exploit the full possibilities of the medium or exercise genuine directorial primacy. Control of the story line, furthermore, is much more important than people who approach films from the “visual” side often think.
There are problems of “authorship,” meanwhile, which in some cases may never be solved. Most critics think John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is a brilliantly directed movie, but one of the world’s most famous actors, who had a frustrating experience with Huston on another film, refuses to give him any credit for it at all. “Wonderful actors,” he says. “A wonderful cameraman. A wonderful story. A wonderful editor. Huston didn’t even need to come out on the set.”
By the time of his death a year ago, François Truffaut was more esteemed, and certainly more loved, than even those directors he had so envied as a young man. And the paradox is that he is not remembered at all for the “filmic” qualities of his work. He never attained the technical virtuosity of which he was in such awe. No feats of dazzling, masterly cinema artistry are attached to his name. His best films, like his first, The 400 Blows, are quite simple. “Children and women are my best subjects,” he said with some wryness late in his life, and he is admired, in contradiction to some of his most passionately held early principles, for his characteristic stories: a little naive, some of them a little sentimental, simple, hopeful.
Truffaut tried his hand at various other types of films, frequently with indifferent success. He made movies about crimes passionels, the best of which was The Soft Skin. He made movies that the French call Série Noire after a famous publisher’s collection of crime fiction (Shoot the Piano Player). He made several pictures about love and passion (The Story of Adèle H, Jules and Jim). His most spectacular failures were a Ray Bradbury film he directed in English called Fahren-heidt 451 and a movie inspired by Henry James called The Green Room, which was such a catastrophe that United Artists decided to close its French production office, which had been responsible for the picture.
Most of the above films—some acceptable but not really recognizable as the work of Truffaut—ranged from nondescript to bad to really terrible, and if he had made only them he would have left no mark on the cinema at all. But they are not what people mean by a “Truffaut movie.”
Real “Truffaut movies” are a particular series of films he made about children or young adults, most of the stories autobiographical or with strong autobiographical overtones: The 400 Blows; the “France” episode in Love at Twenty; Stolen Kisses; Bed and Board; The Wild Child; Small Change; and Day For Night, known in French by the highly evocative title (for the French) La Nuit Américaine (“American Night”), a movie about the making of a movie in which Truffaut plays a director who is hard of hearing, as he was himself. People often feel quite touched by these films. In a mysterious way they feel that they know the man who made them, and that he is telling them something about human beings like themselves.
Truffaut had a miserable childhood. His hearing was bad. In his teens he worked as a welder, and not a good one, and he prized things that many people took for granted. He never had the cushion of security that allowed him to toy with despair as with a stylish luxury. As a child he took refuge in films, but he simply could not abide a cinema that told him, in accordance with the modish ideas of the French elite culture of his early years, that the world was a rotten place, evil, doomed, that French society was unjust and repressive. If you look for this in his movies you will not find it. A world of decay and darkness would not be a world in which François Truffaut would have wanted to live, and he simply wouldn’t have it. Truffaut’s personal, characteristic movies often contain sadness, the disappointments and loneliness of youth, but, on examination, they are always about hope.
As for “auteurism” in its period sense, it is now so completely forgotten in France that at Truffaut’s death it was hardly mentioned. Only America concerns itself with such questions now. In France you cannot even get an argument going. Auteurism, for the French, is something that happened a long time ago.
Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950’s, Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, edited by Jim Hillier, Harvard University Press, 320 pp., $22.50.
When the Shooting Stops . . . the Cutting Begins, by Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen, Penguin Books (1980).