Classic of the Week: Day for Night (1973)

Francois Truffaut’s 1973 gem “Day for Night”, is a celebration of the people who make movies. Not great movies, not bad movies. Just — movies.

Don’t let anyone tell you film critics are worthless. They are often the art form’s biggest fans, the ones that celebrate the medium with the sort of passion even the most enthusiastic Beliebers would never understand. And, if you’re Truffaut, you spent part of your career essentially schooling America on the greatness of now consensus masters like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, as a part of the influential French film magazine, cahiers du cinema.

Teacher became practitioner when he helped launch a new, more personal and loose mode and style of filmmaking with his 1959 masterpiece, “The 400 Blows,” the joy in its telling clear in each camera movement, which is like cursive on paper. Much of the film derived from his own troubled childhood and his escape into a movie theater. 

That same joy of filmmaking is evident in “Day for Night,” which stars Truffaut as a director as well as his muse Jean-Pierre Léaud (who played the troubled adolescent in “The 400 Blows” and four other films) as a neurotic actor. The scenario is the making of a silly melodrama, but its heart lies in the relationships between everyone involved in its production.

Once, again Truffaut surely mines material from his own experience. He began his career on the cutting edge of modern film, but several so-so genre pics in the late ‘60s had one wondering if that personal spirit that infused his best films had waned. The director he plays is also looking for that spirit. In the clip above, he muses, “Before starting, I hope to make a fine movie. The problems begin and I aim lower; I hope to make a movie, period!”

If his director struggles until the end, Truffaut does not. “Day for Night” brings the wonder of moviemaking to the viewer with the warmth of an old friend, the kind that knows all the dirty secrets but can still see the magic. 

Editor’s Note: The author, Marc Rivers, was sent this movie to review courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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