Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

In the introduction to his Hitchcock interview book, François Truffaut lists 28 directors who seem to him, at one time or another, to have fallen under the Master’s influence. The assortment is eclectic, ranging from Chabrol, Resnais, Donen (of course) to Bergman, Kurosawa, Delvaux (perhaps), and the 28th entry on the list is François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451). It’s slightly surprising to find that Truffaut apparently regards Fahrenheit as more Hitchcock-orientated than, say, La Peau Douce, that love story cast in the style of a thriller. But future editions are undoubtedly going to contain two additional entries: François Truffaut (The Bride Wore Black) and Peter Bogdanovich (Targets).

Both Bogdanovich and Truffaut have interviewed Hitchcock lovingly and lengthily, an occupation which, once embarked on, obviously becomes slightly obsessional; and both their films are riddled with allusions, visual nods and becks in the direction of the great man. They compare intriguingly at other points: neither film finally feels Hitchcockian (Truffaut, after all, is Renoir’s spiritual son, which can’t allow anything closer than a step-fatherly association with Hitchcock); both films deal in the theme of multiple killing, one which for obvious reasons of difficulty and sympathy-switching has never attracted Hitchcock himself; and the Atlantic stretches between Bogdanovich’s view of murder in public and Truffaut’s European preference for bloodless, fantasised death.

The Bride Wore Black (1968)

Perhaps it’s being a little solemn to talk about Jeanne Moreau in The Bride Wore Black as a multiple murderess: she would be, that is, if she were real, and if Truffaut hadn’t gone to a good deal of trouble to keep her in a state of suspended animation – an enigma, an illusion, an elegant black and white fantasy in a Technicolor landscape. In the opening sequence, she is unmistakably playing Marnie: the half-packed suitcase, the neat little piles of banknotes, the doleful parting from mother and sister, and the moment when, having sadly boarded the train on one side, she ducks briskly down on the other and marches back along the platform (Marnie camera angles all around) on her errand of vengeance. But when she turns up to commit her first murder – the avenger in white at the cocktail party, luring her victim out on to the balcony and giving him a vertiginous and entirely unrealistic push – Truffaut is already parting company with Hitchcock. The special quality of The Bride Wore Black, it’s apparent, is the floating airiness with which it dreams strange dreams.

I haven’t read the William Irish novel on which the film is based, though one might guess it to be not unlike his Phantom Lady. But whatever its origins, Truffaut’s construction is distinctly Hitchcockian: the teasing opening; the quick, cavalier first murder, to keep you guessing about what the lady may be up to; the slower, more involving second killing (poison in the bank-clerk’s arrack in an Alpine village); then, with the third victim, the full disclosure of motive; followed by a longer episode in which the question is whether the lady, by now posing as Diana the Huntress for an artist susceptible enough to have painted her before he met her, will have the heart to shoot her arrow.

As a structure, it ought to work. And in detail the film is often so felicitous that it very nearly does. Moreau doesn’t come on to a set: she materialises, suddenly there, with her Bette Davis basilisk stare. And Truffaut has Hitchcockian fun with her delayed entrances – like the sequence in which the little boy keeps glancing over his shoulder on his way home from school, and you expect the apparition in every camera swirl around a bush, and only finally get it after a characteristic trick with a bouncing ball. She has a neat little avenger’s diary, in which she meticulously crosses off names; white gloves, to be drawn on primly while a victim groans at her feet; a trick of fingering knives, though it’s only at the end that she murderously employs one; and she compels a measure of admiring disbelief which makes Kim Novak in Vertigo look like the heroine of a documentary.

One could easily work one’s way through The Bride Wore Black listing instances of Truffaut’s alluring ingenuities – the juxtaposition of scream and Wedding March on the last shot, or Moreau’s engaging appearance, in full widow’s rig, at the tail end of the funeral procession, or the dream atmosphere of the shooting on the church steps, with its mixture of shock and repetition. But everyone knows the quality of Truffaut’s sun-and-shadow charm, and it depends whether you see The Bride Wore Black as a diversion, a minor exercise after the (presumable) disappointment of reactions to Fahrenheit, or whether you take Truffaut up where he might choose to be taken, on higher Hitchcockian ground.

The Bride Wore Black (1968)

His problem is the basic one of persuasion – which doesn’t mean that one is asking for realism, querying how Moreau apparently comes to know so much more than the police, or how at the end she finds herself in a prison cell practically cheek by jowl with her next (male) victim. But her motive for an extreme course of action is that in a careless moment with a loaded rifle five men destroyed the great love of her life; and to show the great love in a fey slow-motion fantasy (I Confess?) of two skipping children really won’t do, at any level from parody upwards. The men, in their role of pre-ordained victims, exist only to die; though Truffaut rings the changes on vanity, folly and duplicity by making each in turn see Moreau as an object, an illusion, a prize to be added to the list of conquests or a consolation prize for conquests never attempted. Because her victims would use her if they could, her annihilating use of them seems somehow defensible, if not credible.

“I dozed off. I thought I was at the cinema,” says the politician, just before Moreau, in her school-teacher disguise, locks him in the absurd little cupboard under the stairs and tapes down the door. One could repeat it of the film: “I dozed off. I thought I was at a Hitchcock movie.” The mistiness is quite deliberate, and knowing Truffaut’s liking for the Hitchcock films (Vertigo, Notorious) which he sees as filmed dreams, the intent seems plain. But Hitchcock, as we know, directs the audience; Truffaut only directs the film, and the dream remains on the screen and never breaks out into the auditorium. The Bride Wore Black remains graceful and slender; a Truffaut lamb in Hitchcock wolf’s clothing.

* * *

Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets is, obviously, a far less accomplished piece of work: but it does the trick, it gets the dream (or nightmare) out into the auditorium, it persuades you that suspense isn’t a dilettante playing of the murder game attached to an abstract ideal of doomed love, but a stone-cold certainty that someone is going to be painfully done to death. Its murders are a matter of concern.

Targets (1967)

Like Truffaut, Bogdanovich films like a man who has seen an awful lot of movies: critics share this advantage, or disadvantage, and I’m not sure how valid his premise would seem to a mind not saturated in celluloid. His hero is an ageing star of horror films, Byron Orlok (played by Boris Karloff, and of course drawing on every association Karloff brings with him, as Truffaut draws on the iconographical quality of Jeanne Moreau). Orlok is tired: the mad count at large in the crumbling chateau has become a joke for sated young audiences, the grandeur has gone, and in a vague way he is worried about a world in which horror is no longer formalised on the screen but blankfaced and incomprehensible in the audience. His young director (played with likeable inexpertness by Bogdanovich himself) insists that he has a real part for him, one that will break through the stereotypes; but the old man can’t be bothered to read the script. Instead, he and the director find themselves watching Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code on late night television: a movie-saturated moment, confronting us with the poised and threatening Karloff of 37 years ago; and equally, of course, confronting the off and on screen Bogdanoviches with Hawks.

Parallel with this, Bogdanovich tells his second story: about a clean-cut all-American boy (Tim O’Kelly) from a sterilised suburban home who kills his wife, his mother and a grocer’s delivery boy, packs his armoury into the boot of his car, and then climbs to a sniper’s vantage point overlooking the freeway and coolly guns down anything that moves. The boy lives in a dream of guns, a reality of incessant TV and ordered routines. It is not so much, the film perhaps suggests, that he hates his family as that he cannot deny his weapons their purpose. And this is, at first, a tender kind of madness, which flinches a little at the sight of blood, straightens out the corpses and covers the bloodstains with towels from the bathroom: the good child’s madness (there’s an even stronger echo at the end) of Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

There are other Hitchcock reminders: Vertigo, and at one moment Strangers on a Train. But Bogdanovich is most powerfully Hitchcockian in the way he introduces his first killings, alerting the audience to an awareness of murder from the moment when the boy opens the boot of his car to disclose his gun collection, then gradually tightening the finger on the trigger as the family go obliviously from television to bed and from bed to breakfast, unaware that the boy is sending forlorn signals for help and that the mechanism of the human time-bomb is already ticking. Hitchcock has spelled out the method and Bogdanovich has learnt the lesson: the route to murder as a positive release from tension. He uses the same double-edged suspense in the later sniping scenes, when sympathy is all with the girl on the road desperately running for help, and fascination all with the lining up of the distant figure in the gunsights, a forced complicity in an act of murder.

Targets (1968)

It isn’t flawlessly done, but it works – partly, of course, because it tunes in so strongly to the American nightmare of the gunman assassin at large in the streets. The last section of the film screws the two threads together. Orlok, reluctantly, has agreed to make a personal appearance at a drive-in theatre. (“How ugly this place has become,” he says in a puzzled old man’s voice, driving through the seedy-shiny Californian neon night.) The boy, meanwhile, has set up a sniper’s post behind the screen itself, firing down at the dazed, popcorn-stuffed faces behind the windscreens, picking off the projectionist in his box, spreading ripples of terror through the audience until the headlights come on, the cars back away, and the manager at last discovers that there’s a gunman in the house. This feeling of an almost stealthy retreat by the audience, the dash for home and safety without even pausing to report the killer, is a fearful, unstressed view of life in the slide area. And one can allow Bogdanovich the melodramatic luxury of his ending, in which the old actor strides out alone towards the whimpering sniper, while his image stares madly down from the screen.

One can be grateful that in this country there is no chance of seeing Targets in a drive-in theatre: the effect could be uniquely unnerving. For Bogdanovich’s film touches a nerve through its imagery: the audience sealed off in their separate cars, little boxes of vulnerability, and the sniper who has submerged all his own identity in his rifle. The attempt to relate the two faces of horror is more notional, unless you take – as Bogdanovich obviously doesn’t – a simplicist view of cause and effect; but if the director has to lean every inch of the way on Karloff’s presence to make his last confrontation scene work at all, that after all is what stars are there for. And perhaps it’s an intriguing comment on these two director-orientated films that in the end they both owe allegiance to principles even older than Hitchcockery. Neither would be imaginable, in anything like its existing form, without these particular star presences.

Bogdanovich responds

In our Winter 1969-70 issue, a letter by Peter Bodganovich was published in response to Houston’s article:

Sir,

Penelope Houston’s kind remarks (in ‘Hitchcockery’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1968) about my picture, Targets, were based on the complete 90-minute version which, unfortunately, is not the one her readers were able to see when the picture was released in England recently, on a double-bill with Goodbye Columbus. At that time, the film ran only 76 minutes.

The reason given to me by Paramount – after the fact – was that the ABC circuit refused to book the two films together unless their combined running time was shortened to allow for a normal ‘candy break’. This simple answer is particularly ironic as we had all been worried some months before that the picture might be cut by the British censor because of its violence. However, it had been passed without cuts and given an ‘X’ certificate. In fact, it still carried this rating on its release, for none of the deletions had anything to do with violence.

No, candy did us in and, appropriately, all the 14 minutes cut were from the lighter side of the picture, among them the two biggest laughs in the movie. This was especially distressing since the story is essentially so grim and any relief was welcome and necessary. The deletions all involved Boris Karloff, and I was perhaps most upset by this since his performance was so good. Several of Miss Houston’s London colleagues commented favourably on his work, and I couldn’t help feeling they would have been more impressed had they seen the entire performance.

The movie is, after all, a story of two people moving inexorably toward a fateful encounter. Though through sheer content, the sniper’s sections dominate even in the full version, a London friend who has seen both told me the picture was ‘thrown considerably out of balance’ by the cuts.

The history of the movies is filled with far greater butcheries than this – and much more lamentable ones – but I believe each one, no matter how minor, should be noted, argued and fought in the hope that every struggle somehow reduces even further the possibilities of such things happening. Despite everything, I like to think we are winning.

Yours faithfully,

Peter Bogdanovich, Rome

Originally published: 7 January 2022