400 Blows, The (1959): Truffaut’s Stunning, Oscar-Nominated Debut, Seminal New Wave Film, Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud

One of the landmark films that launched the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is a captivating autobiographical study of a Parisian youth who turns to life of small-time crime as a reaction to derelict, neglectful parents (the father is ineffectual, the mother is adulterous) and an uncaring society.

The 400 Blows
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Theatrical release poster

Initially intended as a short, the feature was lengthened by adding numerous scenes from Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, through a rapidly presented series of anecdotes, displaying a dramatic and lyric perspective.

Starring Jean-Pierre Leaud (Truffaut’s alter-ego), this fine character study offers an in-depth portrait of a troubled adolescent with sympathy and insight.  The school and home backgrounds are authentically depicted with fresh observations. The director’s attitude is neutral and non-judgmental; he makes fresh observations without editorial commentary. There is no melodrama in handling the story.

This memory-like film is the cinematic equivalent of an autobiographical first novel.  Truffaut concludes with the celebrated freeze-frame shot, which accentuates the story’s prevalent moral ambiguity and youth’s unknown future.  In it we see Antoine from the back at the edge of the water, facing the infinite sea, with his whole life ahead of him.  This single shot of suspending Antoine the boy in an indeterminate future became one of the most influential devices in world cinema, spawning numerous imitations by both French, American and other directors.

The 400 Blows is dedicated to Andre Bazin, the influential French critic (“Cahiers de Cinema”) and Truffaut’s personal savoir-mentor, who took him under his wings and launched his critic’s career before dying in 1958.

Truffaut said at the time: “Adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who can’t remember.  When you’re in that difficult age, the thirteenth year is your bad luck time: discovery of injustice, first sexual curiosity left unsatisfied, too early desire for social independence, and often lack of family affection.”

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel
Albert Rémy as Julien Doinel, Antoine’s stepfather
Claire Maurier as Gilberte Doinel, Antoine’s mother
Guy Decomble as Sourpuss, School teacher
Patrick Auffay as René Bigey, Antoine’s best friend
Georges Flamant as Monsieur Bigey, René’s father
Pierre Repp as an English teacher
Daniel Couturier as Betrand Mauricet
Luc Andrieux as Le professeur de gym
Robert Beauvais as director of the school
Yvonne Claudie  as Mme Bigey
Marius Laurey as L’inspecteur Cabanel
Claude Mansard as the examining magistrate
Jacques Monod as commissioner
Henri Virlojeux as the night watchman
Jeanne Moreau as a woman looking for her dog
Jean-Claude Brialy as man trying to pick up woman

Truffaut also included friends (fellow directors) in bit parts, including himself and Philippe De Broca in the funfair scene; Jacques Demy as policeman; Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Paul Belmondo as overheard voices (Belmondo’s in the print works scene).


Directed by François Truffaut
Written by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy

Produced by Truffaut, Georges Charlot

Cinematography Henri Decaë
Edited by Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Music by Jean Constantin

Production company: Les Films du Carrosse

Distributed by Cocinor

Release date: May 4, 1959 (France)

Running time: 99 minutes
Box office $30.7 million

About Truffaut

Truffaut returned several times in the next 20 years to the figure of Antoine Doinel, always played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, including an episode in “Love at Twenty” called “Antoine and Colette” (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), “Bed and Board” (1970), and “Love on the Run” (1979).

Truffaut began his career as a film critic for the prestigious publication Cahiers du Cinema.  Among Truffaut’s many great films are: Jules and Jim (1961); Fahrenheit 451 (1966), starring Julie Christie; The Bride Wore Black, with Jeanne Moreau, the Oscar-winning “Day for Night,” and “The Last Metro.”  The director is also known for his definitive study, Hitchcock, based on a series of interviews with the Master of suspense.

Truffaut went on to become one of the most important international filmmakers.  His celebrated career was cut short in 1984, when he died of a brain tumor; he was only 52.

Oscar Context

“The 400 Blows” was nominated for the Original Story and Screenplay Oscar (by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy).

The winner was the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy, “Pillow Talk” (see review).

In 1973, Truffaut won the Best Foreign-Language Oscar for the comedy “Day for Night,” one of the most poignant features about the process of filmmaking and the director’s multiple roles–on and off the set.

Please read reviews of other Truffaut’s films.