Sunday, December 14, 2008
Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz finds the master of suspense technically at the peak of his game, especially in comparison to its often-awkward, indifferently shot predecessor Torn Curtain, in which Hitchcock had seemed only intermittently engaged. Though this was reportedly a very troubled project for the director as well as a huge commercial disaster, this Cold War espionage tale is filled with inventively staged sequences; the signature Hitchcock touch is everywhere. Indeed, in many ways this is Hitch at his technical best, and some of the film's suspense sequences are not only tours de force of invention and montage, but are experimental even for Hitch, who to some extent is trying to conceive of new ways of handling his typical subjects. Many of the film's best scenes are nearly wordless, achieving a tense atmosphere solely through tightly paced editing and controlled compositions.
Fittingly for a film about international spy rings, whispers and private conversations play a crucial part in the action, but Hitchcock often lets these moments pass by without the audience hearing what's said. In many scenes, the camera is placed at a distance or in some way prevented from picking up the sound of a conversation, so that words pass between conspirators and spies without the audience getting a hint of what's being said. Without his musical collaborator Bernard Hermann, Hitchcock seems increasingly indifferent to music, which is used at random and without much feeling. The upshot of this is that many scenes actually take place in a suffocating silence, or accompanied only by the dull clatter of street noises and background din. Hitch had not lost his interest in the formal properties of sound, and the sparse, minimalist nature of this film's soundtrack gives it an eerie, airless quality, a close companion to the ostentatious artificiality that, in other films, Hitchcock often achieved through matte-painted backdrops (a device he ceases using with this film). The sound is ostensibly realistic, a diegetic backdrop rather than an overbearing orchestral score, and yet Hitchcock is continually calling attention to the smothered, dulled quality of his sounds, shooting scenes where people talk to each other at length without any sound being picked up on the soundtrack.
It's an unsettling feeling, lending an oddly mechanical air to the film. There's an emphasis on actions and objects rather than words and characters, and the scenes of espionage frequently emphasize the process rather than the people involved. The opening sequence, in which a Russian defector (Per-Axel Arosenius) and his family attempt to escape to the Americans while on vacation in Copenhagen, is handled almost entirely without dialogue. Instead, Hitch cuts back and forth between three groups of people as they walk around the city, trying to evade one another: the defector, his wife and daughter; three Russian agents who are stalking them; and a group of Americans led by agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe). The editing is crisp and simple, often ratcheting up tension simply by cutting from the defector's family to the Russian pursuers and then back again. Everyone is whispering with each other, but the audience hears nothing; when the daughter stops to speak with a museum worker, presumably as part of some plan, the camera takes on the perspective of a nearby Russian agent who cannot tell what's going on. Later, a Cuban spy ring provides an opportunity for Hitchcock to trace the process by which a piece of film is passed from its original photographers to a drop-off point within a hollow roadside railing, after which it is sent to a secret film lab, smuggled stuffed inside of a chicken.
The roll of film (of a Russian missile base in Cuba) is one of several MacGuffins in Topaz, but more than in any other Hitchcock movie the MacGuffins here seem much more important than any of the people. This is a curiously dispassionate film, and despite the frequently interesting mise en scène, it is often a frustrating one, with a turgid plot that's not nearly as convoluted as Hitchcock seems to think it is. Though he arrives late on the scene, French agent Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) is the film's central figure, a Washington, D.C. diplomatic figure who has become a close ally of the Americans during his stay in the country. He is recruited by his friend Nordstrom to execute a number of missions relating to the escalating Cuban missile crisis: to determine what the Russians are doing in Cuba, and then eventually to uncover and disband a ring of French spies operating under the codename of Topaz, who threaten to expose America's plans to the Russians. Stafford, as much as Forsythe, is a blank slate, a complete black hole of charisma where the film's star should be. Other Hollywood directors might get away with a lack of a creditable star, but Hitchcock's films often suffer without a strong presence at their center, whether it's Cary Grant, James Stewart, or Tippi Hedren.
In this case, the film is saddled with long, unbearably dull stretches sentimentalizing Devereaux's relationship with his wife (the equally boring Dany Robin) or his Cuban lover and underground contact Juanita (Karin Dor, who does her best with an underwritten role). It's hard to care about any of this when Devereaux himself seems to have no believable reaction to anything, not when his wife leaves him or when his lover is murdered. Stafford is expressionless, even more bland than Paul Newman was in Torn Curtain, and one wonders if Hitch was simply unlucky in his choice of actors, or if he was losing his ability to get good performances. Certainly, he seems to show a lot more interest for the film's visual components than in anything relating to its rather prosaic plot. Juanita's death, despite its complete lack of effect on Devereaux, is affecting anyway because of Hitchcock's brilliant staging. The sequence is shot from above, with Juanita in the arms of her other lover, the cold-eyed Cuban military leader Rico Parra (John Vernon), who has just found out about her espionage for the French and Americans. His shooting of her is implicitly framed as an act of mercy — or as close to one as he can get — in order to save her from brutal and prolonged torture. Hitchcock shoots Juanita's slow, graceful descent to the ground from above, the camera admiring the billowing spread of her purple gown on the floor around her, pooling at her feet as though it was the blood leaving her body. Only after she's fallen does the camera capture a streak of bright red on Parra's hand where he had touched her side, the only trace of actual blood in the scene.
Scenes like this recur frequently throughout the film, and in fact there are few moments when Hitchcock is anything less than technically proficient. If Torn Curtain had only momentary flashes of visual showmanship in a film that could otherwise have been made by virtually any hack director, Topaz is obviously a Hitchcock film from start to finish, even when its plot and non-entity leads threaten to derail it. The film especially begins to pick up a bit in its final hour, when the injection of some fine French talent into the cast belatedly provides some of the charisma and fun so sorely missing from the main actors. Philippe Noiret is excellent as a French spy, outwardly cool but inwardly growing jumpy; he's introduced at a luncheon where he pours himself into the food like a gourmand, seemingly ignoring the conversation until a sudden revelation startles him out of this act. Also admirable are Michel Piccoli as one of Devereaux's old French Resistance buddies, and the young Michel Subor as a cocky, charming reporter who aids in the investigation. That all of these characters — who only become important when the film's action shifts to Paris after long sequences in New York and Cuba — are more memorable and intriguing than any of the leads is indicative of the film's essential miscalculation.
To some extent, it's possible to think of Hitchcock's dispassionate stance here as a half-hearted commentary on the nature of his story. There was a similar — and similarly under-developed — thread running through Torn Curtain, a sense that all this bloodshed and intrigue is somehow out of proportion to its usefulness. The film is openly propagandistic on its surface, a piece of Cold War agitprop that even takes some jabs at French "neutrality," and yet there's an undercurrent of ambivalence about the necessity of this espionage and deceit. After Devereaux risks his life and his career for the Americans by going to Cuba, resulting in his wife leaving him and his lover dying along with two other agents, the blank-faced Nordstrom congratulations him for the good work, saying that he's "confirmed" what they'd found out from "other sources." The moment passes by without missing a beat, but it's really a jaw-dropping line, tossed off with such casual indifference. That's it? He just confirmed something they already knew? For that, three people died and his life is in ruins? It recalls the moment when the Russian defector, after his tight escape into the arms of the Americans, calls their efforts to rescue him "clumsy," and indeed it's undeniable that their plan for bringing him in seems totally undeveloped. Perhaps there's a reason that all these agents are such emotionless blanks, such impenetrable ciphers.
Even so, whatever slim justifications can be mounted for Hitchcock's use of these flat-lining actors, the film as a whole is a shapeless, uneven affair, one that doesn't seem to conclude as simply end. It's not surprising that no less than three endings were shot, and if the one that's used is certainly the least silly, it's no more satisfying than the others. The film was Hitchcock's biggest commercial flop, and in many ways it deserves its dismal reputation as a strangely unengaging spy thriller. But if Topaz is a failure, it is never less than a thoroughly Hitchcockian failure, one marked with the director's distinctive touch in virtually every image.