The 400 Blows is Truffaut’s directorial debut and considered one of the first movies in French New Wave canon. The 400 Blows was a very big surprise out of France because it was an oddity to see such great work out of Truffaut, who was known at the time a movie critic for a French magazine. Nobody though than an inexperience young filmmaker like Truffaut, who was 27 years old at the time, could create such a masterpiece.
Where previous films failed due to fictionalizing the film with all sorts of situations, Truffaut does a great job at creating a real situation that helps the audience to relate on the certain level of Antoine, the lead character of the film. While the movie only gives us a short glimpse into of the life of Antoine and his journey of separation both at home and at school, it offers the viewers a great introspective look into the emotional conflict inside of Antoine.
This first person perspective is a powerful way to tell the audience a relatable story, which Hitchcock knows all too well. Hitchcock uses a lot of first person camera work in films of his such as Rear Window and North By Northwest. Hitchcock loved to use visuals to express emotions more than words and Truffaut saw that. Hitchcock stated “Talking pictures often served merely to introduce the theater into the studios. The danger is that young people, and even adults, all too often believe that one can become a director without knowing how to sketch a decor, or how to edit.” Hitchcock was a director of many silent short films in his early years and his importance on visual story telling stems from that. This belief is evident in Truffaut’s first film where the tributes to Hitchcock can be found easily.
The film opens with a beautiful establishing shot of Paris’s city streets. This leads to the introduction of a troubled young boy named Antoine Doinel. Many believe that Antoine is a characterization of Truffaut himself and modeled entirely out of his own childhood. Antoine troubles begin with his parents who argue constantly. His mother is very ignorant towards Antoine and only sees him as an asset when she needs his help to cover for her affair with a coworker.
Three scenes that stand out to me as very Hitchcock-esq is Antoine’s jail transfer and the final scene of the movie. Both of these scenes evoke a lot of power with very little dialogue. This allows for the visuals to speak for themselves. Truffaut uses tracking shot more than once in The 400 Blows and becomes a trademark for him in his other films. The camera sort of flows along throughout the movie almost like it is on a cloud.
Why both of these scenes work is they allow the audience to focus on the visuals and appreciate the beauty of the movie. Instead of Antoine’s transfer having depressing music, it has this beautiful score behind it. Antoine’s transfer between jail cells seems more like a lovely tour of Paris than a dark, depressing jail transfer. The scene evokes this feeling of beauty to the outside world that is now locked off from Antoine. Quite possibly that is the exact feeling that Antoine has in that scene. Just like Truffaut said “Hitchcock films scenes of love like scenes of murder, and scenes of murder like scenes of love”
The final scene of the movie involves Antoine running away from the youth observation center to the shore. Antoine has always wanted to see the visit the ocean for his entire life and the audience roots for him in his escape. But as he reaches the ocean, the relief is short-lived and then turns back looking into the camera. This scene is very reminiscent to The Graduate, which will be release eight years later. Both endings lead up to this moment of escape and freedom for both lead characters. But once the characters have this freedom, their joy is short lived and the audience can see in the character’s eyes “Now what”. It’s a harsh realization for both characters.
In an AFI interview, Truffaut discusses how during the production of The 400 Blows, his unhappiness with a scene helped him return to Hitchcock style to help shoot his classroom scene in the most effective way. In the scene, a student’s parents come to the classroom to publicly humiliate him because he has been lying about his mother’s death. When preparing for this scene, he decided that the most effective way to bring across the stress of the situation would come from showing the eyes of the students and his parents. Truffaut also extended the scene to add a prolonged sense of anxiety and thus getting the audience into the mind of the child.
The look and feel of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and the way it was put together that make it so powerful. Truffaut set the bar for future filmmakers to come. At the time, his idea for the film was risky but Truffaut took the risk and in-turn, created a new wave of filmmaking. The 400 Blows is where it all really begins for the French New Wave. This is where Hitchcock’s eminent style met made the connection with the life of an ordinary person. Truffaut used all of his critic techniques to become a director that he was. He used all of the knowledge and techniques that he had learned at the time and translated it into The 400 Blows.
– Bobby Carney