A better translation for Francois Truffaut's epochal Cannes prizewinner The 400 Blows -- deservedly the second black-and-white Criterion movie to get the Blu-ray treatment -- would be Raising Hell or even Boys Gone Wild. This movie raised hell in 1959, changing movies forever, bringing a new wildness to the screen and a whole new discipline, too.
The blows in question are adolescent blows against the adult empire and its confining proprieties. As the stunningly wonderful, visually and sonically impeccable Criterion Blu-ray edition abundantly demonstrates, the movie is very close to the actual Paris adolescence of Truffaut, who got sent to jail, reform school, and very nearly to prison when he deserted the Army just before they sent him to Vietnam. He was rescued from ruin by sainted film historian Andre Bazin, who died the day Truffaut started shooting this auteurial semi-autobiography at age 27. "I think I really know the universe of 12-year-old kids," Truffaut says in one of Criterion's many revelatory mini-documentary extras.
He sure did. Nobody but Spielberg has ever captured childhood so knowingly. His camera puts you right inside the head of Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud), 14, who screws up spectacularly at school when not cutting class to watch movies, steal things, worship Balzac, and avoid the cutting cruelty of his cold, sexy mom and kindly yet distant cuckold of a stepdad. After Antoine catches his mom on the street smooching her boss (and she catches Antoine cutting class at the same time), that night she's nice to him for the first time, basically bribing him to keep his mouth shut about her adultery. Thanks to the Criterion extras (one commentary track brilliantly explaining the film, another by Truffaut's childhood friend explaining its connections to their actual youth, plus screen tests, newsreels of the Cannes triumph, a definitive essay by pint-size cinema history giant Annette Insdorf, and interviews with multiple insiders with plenty of light to shed), we know that the 1,000 francs his mom pays him off with is worth two dollars. Leaud's face eloquently captures the bitterness of his disillusionment.
The crisp whites, rich blacks, and exquisite chiaroscuro of the transfer isn't just something for tech nerds to gloat over. It's crucial to getting the film's emotional and intellectual message. For instance, when Antoine overhears his mom and stepdad arguing over him, basically wishing they could get rid of him, as they soon do, the last thing you see as the scene fades out are the twin glints of light in his eyes that hint of tears and also steely refusal to cry. In a movie every frame of which is as painstakingly composed as a pointillist painting, you need this kind of technical precision to capture the art.
And for all the autobiographical authenticity, the story is also highly artful. It only looks like cinema verite. In the famous opening credits, we see a panorama of Paris streaking past a car window, with the Eiffel Tower playing peekaboo behind the monumental buildings lining Baron Hausmann's stately boulevards (originally built to thwart revolutionary rioters and impose order). As the Criterion disc teaches us, this was shot to be a scene in the movie where Antoine and his pal take an incredibly long taxi ride to visit the Eiffel Tower, but it would've slowed the movie's taut pace, so it got trimmed into this mise-en-scene-setter, which seems freewheeling, but concludes with a shot deftly superimposing the words "Directed by Francois Truffaut" precisely over the hole at the center of the tower. This movie is about the cascading chaos of real life captured in a series of perfect moments out of time.
What's the secret of immortality? You're looking at it. It helps that Truffaut looked so long and hard at movies before making his own. The 400 Blows particularly incorporates the dreamy, lyrical, romantic realism of Jean Vigo and Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, which showed childhood rising from Nazism's ashes. (So did Truffaut's -- even though he transposed the story to the '50s and had Leaud improvise lines instead of memorizing a script, Truffaut grew up under the Nazis' thumb in the '40s. Like Beckett's Waiting for Godot, The 400 Blows is really about the Occupation. And like that other memoir movie Empire of the Sun, it's partly about the way wartime paradoxically imposes a kind of freedom on kids growing up in it.)
In his interview, Truffaut notes other major bits in the film he filched from great movies. In the exhilarating scene where Antoine takes a whirligig ride, beaming instead of scowling for a change as he defies the very law of gravity, pinned to the side of the spinning wooden contraption, you glimpse Truffaut himself as the last guy to leave the ride -- a nod to his god Hitchcock's appearance in his own films. And what better scene to appear in than one that approximates that early form of movies, the whirling zoetrope?
The Criterion disc shows how bits of The 400 Blows are taken from The Blue Angel, Boudu Saved from Drowning, Abel Gance's Napoleon, and Renoir's La Bete Humaine. But the Hitchcock nicks are my favorite. You can see why Truffaut was able to write the best book on Hitchcock, forcing the magic master to reveal his tricks. One of the themes of The 400 Blows is the agonizing absence of a father figure -- Antoine's English teacher tries in vain to make the kids correctly pronounce the sentence, "Where is the father?" Thank God the fatherless Truffaut found his fathers in the movie world. And escaped his life of crime to became a father of the modern movie himself.
We're all Truffaut's children, esthetically speaking. If you don't buy this Criterion edition (and the Blu-ray is better than the DVD original), consider yourself disinherited.