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François Truffaut’s landmark book on Alfred Hitchcock was released in 1967. By this point a revered director in his own right, Truffaut reached back into his dusty old film critic toolbox and engaged in an extended conversation with the Master of Suspense, the end result spilling out over hundreds of pages. After the tribute of this loving cinematic scholarship, Truffaut paid tribute to Hitchcock anew the following year. This time, he did so in the most fitting format possible – he made a film that cunningly acknowledged everything he’d learned from Hitchcock.

The plot of The Bride Wore Black is simplicity itself – revenge. We quickly establish the lead character’s motivation in misty flashback: Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) had just married her longtime lover when a shot rang out, leaving her new husband lying dead on the steps of the church, the celebratory cheers for the newlyweds soon fading into gasps of horror. Five men were responsible for the freak accident that led to the shooting and the new widow tracks them down one-by-one, dispatching the justice she’s sure the authorities will never deliver. The story may be fairly straightforward, but, as Hitchcock knew, it’s not the complexity of the story that makes a film into art. Instead, it’s how the story is conveyed once the camera is stirred to life.

For most other directors, crafting an homage to Hitchcock means indulging in the sort of wildly creative visuals and giddy trick shots that tend to get singled out in brisk considerations of the great filmmaker’s work. Trying to reduce a storied career to a scattering of essential bits suitable for quick montages or illustrative examples in a documentary naturally leads to the flashiest moments being culled from the miles of footage. Those have become the shared signifiers of Hitchcock’s art to the generations that followed and when someone like, say, Brian De Palma offers up his own cinematic genuflection to the man, he tends to perpetuate that reduction of Hitchcock’s craftsmanship, reveling in all the rule-bending showiness.

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Truffaut, as evidenced by Bride, is after something else. First and foremost, Hitchcock had a peerless command of the mechanics of narrative. He knew how to tell his story with shifts of the camera, with background details that initially seem insignificant, with unexpected edits. At his best, every set-up has a pay-off, every part of the film carries some meaning. More importantly, it’s all seamlessly integrated into the work, completely invisible until the director wants to bring it to the forefront. These are the exact footsteps that Truffaut wanted to follow in.

He began with a writer who had already received Hitchcock’s imprimatur, working with Jean-Louise Richard to adapt a novel by Cornell Woodrich (writing under the pseudonym William Irish), author of the source material for Rear Window. The script is methodical and focused, sketching in characters with breezy efficiency. The men who Julie hunts down have a tendency to talk and talk, narcissistically ignoring those around them in favor of monologues of personal testimony – they don’t reveal their guilt, but their callousness. It is this insidious self-regard that winds up making them even more suitable targets for the lead character’s murderous ire. It’s not merely retribution any longer, darkly becoming a beneficial purging of society’s worst elements.

Truffaut frames his shots beautifully, using the visual vocabulary of film in quietly novel ways. One scene that leads Julie to a designated victim begins with a mother picking up her son from school. The camera follows them from a distance as she walks him home. The extended shot is ultimately no different from those in any number of other movies that need to get characters from one point to another, except that the boy occasionally glimpses back over his shoulder towards the camera. With that small physical cue, Truffaut signals that this is not the impassive eye of the camera, but it’s actually a point of view shot. This is what the protagonist is seeing as she tracks the pair. It doesn’t seem like much, but this is the difference between casually shooting scenes and thoughtfully finding ways to develop the story using the syntax of film.

Truffaut knew how to do that before he sat down with Hitchcock and published a book about the director. But he also learned it, at least in part, from watching, loving and studying all those great films that came before. The Bride Wore Black demonstrates Truffaut’s skill as a filmmaker, but it also provides a demonstration of his aptitude as a pupil.

by Dan Seeger

See Also: Oeuvre: Truffaut- Fahrenheit 451

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