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Two Men, a Lady and a Van

Hitchcock, Truffaut and Maggie Smith prove truth is more interesting than fiction


Racial diversity wasn't the only thing kicked to the curb by the Motion Picture Academy this year. Also lacking nominations are two films opening this week in Boise: The Lady in the Van and Hitchcock/Truffaut. The latter is for anyone who loves classic cinema, and the former for anyone who loves Maggie Smith—that just about includes everyone, doesn't it?

The Lady in the Van, is based on a true story. Dame Maggie, already a two-time Oscar winner, is glorious as a mysterious lady with an equally mysterious van. More important, the film elevates the ripped-from-the-headlines conversation about homelessness and occupies rarefied air: being socially and culturally relevant while also being a cracking good evening of entertainment.

The "lady" was Mary Shepherd, who, uninvited, parked her van in the London driveway of Alan Bennett and remained there for 15 years. Little did Shepherd know Bennett was an acclaimed playwright. Several years after Shepherd passed, Bennett not only wrote The Lady in the Van, he played himself on the London stage opposite Smith. It took 15 years to bring the story to the screen, but it was worth the wait.

Shepherd's van set new standards in hoarding: clothes, newspapers and food (she had a particular affection for onions) were all askew. Shepherd was also especially cantankerous.

"Shut the door," she would shout at the neighbors who brought her blankets, food and even Christmas presents. "I'm a busy woman."

Shepherd was anything but "busy," but she was a woman of many secrets and The Lady in the Van peels away the layers, uncovering a seaside cottage, a convent and an automobile accident. The film is a brilliant reminder that everyone, no matter their economic status, has a story.

Which leads us to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who chose to tell his story to fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut. In recording sessions spread out over eight days in 1962, Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim) sat with a willing Hitchcock and drilled into the master's career. A full 33 years Hitchcock's junior, Truffaut worshiped the director and went to each interview fully prepared. What resulted was Hitchcock by Truffaut, a book considered a definitive study of filmmaking that includes detailed insight from two legendary directors. Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and more great directors appear in the new documentary, confirming the book is still a "bible" and what the film's narration calls "one of the few indispensable books about movies." When Scorsese deconstructs scenes from Psycho—particularly a pedestrian shot of Janet Leigh driving a car—it feels like stepping into an exclusive film school.

With scenes from Psycho, Vertigo and other Hitchcock classics, Hitchcock/Truffaut sharpens the focus in a new and refreshing way. If you're not anxious to re-watch Vertigo or Psycho after screening Hitchcock/Truffaut, you're not paying attention.

We discover many surprises in Hitchcock/Truffaut including that the two men shared a childhood trauma: both were imprisoned by their fathers as a form of punishment for a minor offense; and even though the directors were separated by more than three decades, they died within four years of one another—Truffaut at 52, Hitchcock at 80. We will never see the likes of them again, but we revisit their masterworks time and again. Hitchcock/Truffaut urges us to do that sooner than later.

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