The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents June 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Star Trek
CAS Part 1
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback
The 400 Blows
Nickelodeon/Last Pic
The Wackness
The 400 Blows (1959)
Blu-ray Edition
2.35:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

With the production of his first film, The 400 Blows, in 1959, François Truffaut transitioned from leading film critic of the groundbreaking Cahiers du Cinema to one of the most important directors of the French New Wave, a period that heralded the arrival of fresh, new filmmaking styles of burgeoning creativity and intimacy. Truffaut managed to pack as much poignant, autobiographical material as possible into his debut, demonstrating a unique filmic voice. In the enclosed essay that accompanies the new Blu-ray presentation of this classic, coming-of-age tapestry, film scholar Annette Insdorf notes Truffaut is  “moving backward and forward in time — recalling his own experience while forging a filmic language that would grow more sophisticated throughout the Sixties.”  

The 400 Blows, or Les Quatre cents coups, is a French idiom for the expressions “raising hell” or “sowing wild oats,” and, indeed, the film focuses on the trials of a recalcitrant Parisian boy on the verge of young adulthood who is both oppressed and confused by his surroundings. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the screen incarnation of a young Truffaut, the largely ignored boy from an unstable home who seeks refuge in urban cinemas with his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay), the filmic counterpart to Truffaut’s real-life amigo and eventual collaborator Robert Lachenay. Antoine finds no peace at home; his stepfather emphasizes that the two are not related, and the boy’s icy mother ignores him when she isn’t harping on him incessantly. Even at school, Antoine finds no solace, in spite of being an avid reader filled with curiosity about the world around him. After a series of truancy incidents and a petty theft, Antoine’s parents decide to put him in reform school.      

To bring this bittersweet and very personal drama to the screen, Truffaut wisely enlisted cinematographer Henri Decäe, who had a long history of shooting documentaries and industrials before becoming one of the leading cinematographers of the New Wave directors. Truffaut was concerned that the visual landscape of Antoine’s world be realistic and never overtly sentimental. Both artists felt making use of available natural light before resorting to artificial lighting in as many scenes as possible would render the appropriately gritty backdrop to the story. Using the anamorphic Dyaliscope process, Decäe’s striking, sometimes stark, but always beautifully composed images from this film are some of the most often referenced and beloved in the history of French cinema.  

The Criterion Collection recently released The 400 Blows in the Blu-ray format with generally excellent results. In direct comparison to the company’s terrific standard-definition DVD from 2003, this sharper, nearly flawless 1080p image transfer offers improved density and contrast with no traces of the digital noise-reduction manipulation that sometimes can plague HD transfers of monochrome materials. Though there are two very brief instances of an obviously visible hair stuck in the film gate (which one would assume should have been digitally scrubbed by quality control), the transfer is incredibly vivid. Blacks have a rich depth; a well-displayed gray scale and appropriately visible film grain give the overall presentation an excellent, film-like image, even when it’s digitally projected onto a 30’ screen. The monaural audio has been nicely mastered and sounds full and warm in the center channel.   

Criterion’s superlative array of supplements from the 2003 DVD is a welcome presence on the Blu-ray edition. The lively and informative commentary tracks, one from film professor Brian Stonehill and another by Lachenay, are both excellent. There also are six minutes of audition clips, newsreel footage of the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, nearly 30 minutes of French TV interviews with Truffaut from the 1960s, and the original theatrical trailer.  

While Truffaut’s career moved on for another 20 years, few of his many accomplished works held as much fascination for audiences as the adventures of young, misunderstood Antoine. The character proved to be so popular that over the years, Truffaut returned to his story and made four more films, using Leaud in each of them. This landmark directorial debut has been nicely polished for the digital age. It is sure to impress the legion of fans that already exist and entice newcomers into the timeless film moments of post-war France and the trials of a young rebel looking to find himself.

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