6. Red River (1948) Dir. Howard Hawks
After the American Civil War, successful Texas cattle rancher Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is determined to lead the first great cattle drive of the Chisholm Trail to Missouri. The stress of the journey leads to conflict between Dunson and his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) and the rest of his cowboys. As the episodic structure piles conflict upon conflict, straining the emotional control of all the characters pitched against a great undertaking, the story gathers force like a slow-moving river.
The role was a turning point in John Wayne’s career, who up until Red River had played likeable heroes. By depicting the moral failings of Dunson under the strain of an obsession, Howard Hawks showed that besides being a movie star John Wayne could also act! Without Red River, there would be no Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers.
Truffaut considered Red River to be one of the three best westerns made. All of them were Hawks’ productions but Red River was the only one made by Hawks’ own production company, where he had the most possible control to fit the auteur theory. American critics thought of Howard Hawks as a studio hack because his films are generally without flourish or grandiosity.
At Cahiers du Cinéma however, critics like Truffaut noted stylistic consists and recurring thematic elements in Hawks’ films that belied a personal touch despite the apparently standardized Hollywood studio genre films he made. In particular, the foreword to the screenplay for Truffaut’s Day for Night cites Red River’s structure as model, even though that film is mostly confined in space whereas Red River is a sprawling work.
7. Le Testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi! (1960) Dir. Jean Cocteau
Truffaut was a producer on this film. The Testament of Orpheus is perhaps the most personal of Jean Cocteau’s films and he figures as a sort of ur-artist to the ambitious Frenchman. His name is attached to so many works by younger filmmakers (and writers, artists, celebrities) that if he isn’t the godfather of many of them, he is the midwife of their successes. Truffaut was no different.
As a child, Cocteau’s books were as important to the bibliophilic Truffaut as Balzac and Proust. When The 400 Blows became the film event at the Cannes Film Festival, it was Cocteau who piloted the young Truffaut through the media chaos, ensuring he was properly decked out in a tuxedo and escorted between the various fetes in his honor.
Truffaut, normally anxious about the degree of quotation of other works that appear in his own, includes several homages to Cocteau. In Blood of a Poet, a statue becomes a woman who is also Death. In Jules et Jim, Catherine is also a woman formed from a statue, or at least, the two friends’ obsession with the statue. In The Bride Wore Black, Moreau is costumed exactly as Death was in Blood of the Poet. They are both vengeful figures, both fleshy and symbolic.
There is a counterpoint in the dry text of the narration and the wildly imaginative imagery in Cocteau’s work that finds correspondence in Two English Girls. They even have a game of playing statues, going from movement to stasis.
A word of warning: The Testament of Orpheus is not worth watching without first having seen 1949’s Orpheus, and even then it is best to be familiar with 1932’s The Blood of a Poet before watching that film. Between the three, The Testament of Orpheus is the most contrived, plot-wise, and the most overt in its introspection.
8. Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (1956) Dir. Robert Bresson
François Truffaut declared the movie known in English as A Man Escaped, “the most important film of the last 10 years” when it was first released. “Time is always on the side of an artist like Bresson, and it will ultimately show that his style of directing achieved its finest results in A Man Escaped.”
The story is based on French resistance leader Andre Dévigny’s account of his escape from a Nazi prison in Montluc, and Bresson’s own memories of being in a POW camp for 18 months. The urgency of the film is set around an order of execution—consistent with Andre Dévigny’s experience. The sparseness of the film’s authenticity and the exacting details of the preparations for escape makes it a unique entry in the prison-break film genre.
Truffaut also claimed in his review that a second viewing is essential to one’s enjoyment of the film, since during the first viewing one is too busy seeing the departures from conventional filmmaking. He argues that A Man Escaped could be considered “pure music” because until the rest of cinematic traditions and tendencies, there is not a single image wasted, not a single delay for the usual audience satisfactions of seeing, and it is free-styled within the single constraints of unified place and action.
At the end of his review, Truffaut predicts that the film’s influence on other directors, both in France and abroad, will be minimal. A Man Escaped is included in this list of influences not so much for the techniques that Truffaut might have caged from Bresson. I must confess in seeing little evidence to suppose this is so.
But rather, Bresson as a formalist of film, gave essential permission to Truffaut’s own formalist daring-dos. Among his contemporaries in the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut is the least concerned with exploding expectations of cinema and freeing it of limitations. He was mostly interested in making the same kind of movies with more authentic inspirations.
9. Le Corbeau (1943) Dir. Henri-George Clouzot
In The Films In My Life, Truffaut cops to a youthful obsession with The Raven—another entry in this list that he claimed to have memorizing by heart. Clouzot’s dark and twisted film opens in the graveyard of a provincial town and juxtaposes it with a scene detailing the aftermath of an abortion. The doctor informs the mother of the woman involved that the procedure was done to save the woman’s life and so he feels no guilt and that the son-in-law should wait 8 months before making another attempt.
Another relative says that since the last time was so much trouble they will have to get a neighbor to do it next time. The gallows-like humor of this exchange sets the tone for a film that was attacked after the Occupation ended, though it having been financed by the Nazi-operated film company Continental Films was considered more damning than the content.
Clouzot was probably not a Nazi sympathizer but he was a filmmaker influenced by the Germans. As a younger man, he spent time in Germany and became familiar with the films of Fritz Lang, whose own dark cynicism regarding modernity would inform The Raven’s depiction of rampant paranoia in the wake of a poison-pen writer’s mischief.
As a child, Truffaut liked The Raven for its hard-hitting darkness. “Since the plot of Le Corbeau revolved around an epidemic of anonymous letters denouncing abortion, adultery, and various other forms of corruption, the film seemed to me a fairly accurate picture of what I had seen around me during the war and the postwar period: collaboration, denunciation, the black market, hustling, cynicism.”
He reports having learned 150 words of new adult vocabulary from it, and was exposed to new notions of love.
The underhanded satire of society would also find micro-expression in Truffaut’s depiction of the continuing travails of Antoine Doinel in the army, in his attempts to make his way in the world, and his love affairs.
10. The Story of a Cheat (1936) Dir. Sasha Guitry
Biographically, this movie which Truffaut saw 12 times on its initial release, was a model for his own behavior as an autodidact. The lead was played by the director, who was disgraced in post-war French society for his collaboration with the Nazis. Truffaut idealized the director’s persona, whom he named “Citizen Sasha”, a figure whose moral code was essentially to evade the moral codes of others and to stand above convention, holding both the Left and the Right in contempt.
The Story of a Cheat is a witty picaresque. Guitry’s gambler reflects fondly upon his life of crime and the editing exhibits the same fondness for gaming the audience. Truffaut said, “I love Sasha Guitry because given the choice between suggestiveness and obscenity, he always chooses obscenity, because his sense of humor knows no boundaries and the infirm, the elderly, children and the dead clink their glasses like everyone else.” He married five times and was famous for his bon mots and witty observations. Clearly, Guitry’s film is carried on the power of his persona.
His legacy on Truffaut, and indeed much of the French New Wave, was in setting the standard of cleverness in film’s that are essentially dialog-heavy bedroom comedies. Shoot the Piano Player is a clear example of how a Guitry-styled film includes clowns and criminals, songs and fantasy—a gangster film that cannot take itself too seriously.
Like Jean Renoir, Sasha Guitry was a filmmaker keen to show the ironic side of life. Truffaut carried this influence like a catch-all defense against the serious and self-satisfied obstacles to his own vitality. “Every time that I feel jaded, ready to yield to discouragement, ready to hand myself over to melancholy, rancor or bitterness, when the disagreeable shadow of surrender comes to darken the work that is in progress, then, it is enough for me to scan Willy Rizzo’s photograph of Sasha Guitry and to regain my wings, find again good spirit, tenacity and all the courage in the world.”
Special Mention: Andre Bazin
One name is criminally lacking from this list, but the man who had perhaps the largest and most essential influence on Francois Truffaut never made a film. He was a film critic. Andre Bazin was the substitute father and the unwavering friend to a youth with few friends. He helped save him from juvenal hall and from his misguided military enlistment. He vouched for Truffaut’s conduct and his employment while he was a minor, and fostered his critical faculties at Cahiers du Cinéma.
Truffaut has said, “I think being a critic helped me because it’s not enough to love films or see lots of films. Having to write about films helps you to understand them better. It forces you to exercise your intellect. When you summarize a script in ten sentences, you see both its strengths and its weaknesses.”
Andre Bazin died on the first day of shooting for The 400 Blows. It is safe to say that for all the theory that Bazin supplied the impressionable younger Truffaut, it was his humanity and his sympathy that left an indelible mark upon Truffaut’s entire life and career. You cannot find a Truffaut character that is not breathed full of this light and love.
He has said “I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself”, yet François Truffaut is no reflection; he is the real thing, even if at times that thing happened to be a mirror.
Author Bio: Chris is a sometimes filmmaker and freelance writer living in Colorado. He also likes to convince strangers to part with resources to create cultural events. His favorite directors are Federico Fellini, Kurosawa, Billy Wilder, the Coen Bros., Stanley Kubrick, and Edgar Wright.