Sure, Citizen Kane. Yes, The Bicycle Thief. Heck, The Wild Bunch. They are all classics, all bound to be on the top of every critic's supreme film list. And regular people actually watch those. But The 400 Blows is almost always shuffled to the bottom. Among cineastes it's championed by rarely seen. Go to your local Blockbuster and ask the resident film nerd employed there if they've seen The 400 Blows. Seriously, give it a try. They'll usually say, Yeah, that's a brilliant movie. Amazing. I haven't seen it but sure I heard it's incredible. A must see. Ask your uncle, the one who's always going on and on about how people don't "get" cinema anymore. He'll say, Yeah, that's a brilliant movie. Been meaning to see it for years.
That's pathetic, really. Once upon a time, only 40 years ago really, The 400 Blows was like a nuclear bomb - blasting apart the reality of watching movies. Forty years ago it was like Quentin Tarantino 10 times over. It was just that amazing. (I wasn't there, of course, but when you watch it for the first time, the power of the movie is almost tangible.)
The "plot" of François Truffaut's landmark film is simple: a young man, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), lives in a tiny apartment with his poor mother and step-father. School sucks, his teacher is a total jerk. Antoine skips class and hangs out with his buddies instead. He's an outcast, playing at the fringes of society. Getting expelled from school and being sent to a youth center only opens the doors more fully to his uncertain freedom.
It's the look and feel of The 400 Blows, the way it was shot and edited, that makes it so powerful. We see all sorts of film trickery in today's cinema - directors like Tony Scott have made a veritable cottage industry out of off angles and odd splices - but when Truffaut did it, it was new. And it wasn't trickery. It was going out on a limb. It was pushing the envelope where it had never been pushed. The 400 Blows is where it all really began; this is the grandmother of all tracking shots and slow pans. This is the where Hitchcock's eminent style met the gritty reality of everyday life. This is handheld. This is location shooting. Jump cuts. Improvisation. Everything we consider new about film began here in 1959.
Truffaut himself was an urchin, groomed by a critic to become a director. He channeled his own experience into The 400 Blows and though it's particular to a time, to a culture, it speaks volumes about human life. About childhood. About freedom. But most importantly, it informs everything we know today about watching movies.
The new Criterion DVD (spine #5, reissued) includes two commentary tracks, audition footage, vintage newsreel footage, and an interview with Truffaut, among other extras.
Aka Les Quatre cents coups.
The 400 fences.
Run time: 99 mins
In Theaters: Monday 16th November 1959
Distributed by: Zenith International Films
Production compaines: Les Films du Carrosse, Sédif Productions
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: François Truffaut
Producer: François Truffaut
Screenwriter: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, Claire Maurier as Gilberte Doinel, Albert Rémy as Julien Doinel, Georges Flamant as Mr. Bigey, Patrick Auffay as René, Robert Beauvais as Director of the school, Yvonne Claudie as Mme Bigey, Pierre Repp as English Teacher, Guy Decomble as French Teacher, Daniel Couturier as Betrand Mauricet, François Nocher as Child, Richard Kanayan as Child, Renaud Fontanarosa as Child, Michel Girard as Child, Serge Moati as Child, Bernard Abbou as Child, Jean-François Bergouignan as Child, Michel Lesignor as Child, Jean-Claude Brialy as Man in Street, Jeanne Moreau as Woman with Dog, Philippe de Broca as Man in Funfair, François Truffaut as Man in Funfair
Also starring: Marcel Moussy
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