Sunday, January 31, 2010

Films I've Watched: Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969)

Hitch - down with the Tank.

Being an auteurist - a film critic whose criticism centers around the mythos of the great director and his personal vision - is a lot like believing in God. Or in particular, believing that God wrote the Bible. Just as the devout will always attempt to resolve away contradictory biblical text, the auteurist, no matter how flat his chosen auteur falls on his face, will always attempt to show that the auteur's failings are really some sort of brilliant realization of the auteur's vision, one that has escaped the stupid critics. For example, Hitchcock's, shall we say, interesting decision to represent Baltimore Harbor by way of transparently painted backdrop in Marnie is often defended on all sorts of grounds as one of his more brilliant touches. For example, Hitchcock couldn't get a real ship to protrude/penetrate into the street in such overtly phallic fashion, so he had a painting made. Or it expresses the "heroine's subjective unreality," or represents "the fake emotional history which has been forced on Marnie to repress her primal memory." Never mind that the art directors themselves later claimed in interviews that the boat wasn't actually supposed to look fake. (In my own view, though blatantly fake backdrops can have their uses - Hitchcock does wonders with them in Under Capricorn, another movie I plan on posting about - the ship in Marnie doesn't work.)

So auteurism has its dangers, and I think it's important to recognize when a bad movie is a bad movie, just like it's important to admit when your favorite rapper can no longer rap. Which brings me to Topaz, which pretty much everyone, aside from a couple critics, seems to believe is Hitchcock's worst American movie, and not even in the "Hitchcock's worst is still better than most anything else" sense - more in the "a disaster in any terms" sense, to quote the editor of Hitchcock's notebooks. And there are certainly moments in Topaz so stupefyingly misperformed, miswritten, and misfilmed as to support that judgment. My favorite might be when the film's French master spy, played by a comically wooden veteran of sub-Bond thrillers, Frederick Stafford, meets up with his family for a New York vacation. His daughter, played by a very pretty and perfectly good French actress whose English-speaking skills are unfortunately rather limited, inanely cries in her French accent, "there is so much to see and do, New York is marvelous!" To which Papa, channeling the dad from Leave It To Beaver, says in his phony French accent, "and we will do it all!"

A less convincing or more vacuous representation of familial harmony simply isn't imaginable. The acting and writing are so poor, one could almost imagine it's the beginning of a twisted father-daughter porno. (Which actually isn't entirely off the mark; to the extent that the daughter plays any role in the movie, she does so as yet another, admittedly subtextual, rival to her mother for her father's affections. There's also something a little porn-esque about the way Daughter's vacation hopes are rather summarily dashed seconds later when the family arrives at their hotel room and finds an American secret agent waiting to meet Father there.) But in the first place this is nothing new for Hitchcock; one could make a very strong argument that there aren't any happy or normal nuclear families in any of his 53 films, and that whatever superficial familial happiness there is in Hitchcock almost always belies severe internal strains. More than that, though, this is where the auteurist in me says that this sequence couldn't be the result of simple laziness or artistic decline, that Hitchcock must have intentionally made it this bad in order to say something about the emptiness of the life of the professional Cold Warrior.

But to back up. Topaz is ostensibly a film about espionage and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movie, other than Hitchcock's decision to cast an abjectly unsympathetic statue of an actor in the main role, is that it's a suspenseless film - about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The most suspenseful week in the history of the world! The week where we all came within inches of annihilating each other! And yet the film is almost entirely devoid of suspense. Of course, we all know, after the fact, how the Cuban Missile Crisis turns out, but the movie acts like it knows too, and like it doesn't particularly care. When Topaz came out, this was one of the biggest knocks on the movie - that it managed to turn that suspenseful week into a nullity whose big exciting ending consists of a man being asked to leave a room. And that's true. But of course that's precisely the point. Topaz is a film with the daring to suggest that the outcome of something even as potentially catastrophic as the Cuban Missile Crisis is a triviality when weighed against the human cost in betrayal, deception, dehumanization, and death of keeping the peace. Hitchcock all but comes out and says so in the film's last shot, a shot of a man tossing a newspaper proclaiming the successful conclusion of the Crisis on a park bench, a shot which in one of three endings to the film Hitchcock interposed with a montage of the film's numerous deaths. There is neither suspense nor release in Topaz, neither crisis nor happy (or unhappy) ending, because for Hitchcock the logic of cold war is one of stasis, inevitability, of a mutually assured destruction that prevents either side from making a move and thereby keeps the entire world and everyone in it frozen in a deathly standstill, or moving along deterministic lines not of their own choosing. Whatever horror there is in Topaz isn't the horror of a possible nuclear war, but the horror of there possibly never being one, of an eternal Cold War. Put in another way, the militarization of the whole globe (the film takes place in Copenhagen, Moscow, Paris, New York, Washington, Havana) paradoxically drains the world of Hitchcockian suspense, or more precisely, Hitchcockian terror, because the trademark of Hitchcockian terror - the moment where a character suddenly realizes that things aren't what they should be, whether it's the windmill turning the wrong way in Foreign Correspondent or the piece of jewelry that Kim Novak shouldn't be wearing in Vertigo - can no longer work in a world with spies on every corner, where every corner of the earth is uniformly charged with paranoia. There's no longer, in Topaz, a normal facade in the world behind which terror can lie.

Topaz's style bears this reading out. When people think of 60s Hitchcock, they think of montage - the 50 cuts/cuts in Psycho's shower scene, the birds picking at Tippi Hedren in The Birds from a thousand angles. Topaz puts forth a different sort of montage. At key moments in the film, individual motions are broken down into their constituent still parts. So a Cuban leader grabbing the arm of his traitor mistress so she can't run away becomes this:

And then this:

And then this:

And his killing her moments later to save her from being tortured becomes this:

And this:

And this:

Followed by this shot of him dropping his gun, unusually sexualized for Hitchcock, to his side:

And finally this famous shot from above:

Movement in Topaz is frequently mechanized, roboticized, broken down into so many still pieces that it ceases to look like movement at all. And with this mechanization comes a sense of inevitability and a concomitant lack of suspense. From the moment the leader grabs his mistress's hand and the soundtrack starts ominously duh-DUHing like someone just walked down the wrong trap door in a bad 50s horror movie, we know how this will go. The woman pictured above, in an exchange with her captor before she gets shot, explains that she worked for the Americans because "you made my country a prison." It would be more accurate to say that, in Topaz, the Cold War has made the whole globe a prison.

For though Hitchcock is careful to not get too morally relative - all the killings, for example, are committed by Soviets, even the Russian defector is somehow made to seem disgusting for selling his beliefs out for a plush safe-house in Washington and a diligent maid - the free world, in Topaz, is not really so free. In one of the film's worse-acted and written scenes, the French spy's wife prattles, "you are French. You are not supposed to be mixed up in this cold war between the Americans and the Russians. You are neutral!" To which her husband replies, "no one is neutral." Or rather, no one is free to be neutral. Constantly this ostensibly neutral party's freedom to be neutral is denied - for example, when as mentioned above, he and his family arrive at their hotel room to find his American spy-counterpart waiting for him there, half-menacingly, half-ridiculously standing before an enormous bouquet of flowers he's had delivered as a sort of consolation gift to the French spy's wife for ruining her vacation:

"I hope you don't mind my dropping in like this."

Of course, he has a job his French underling must do.* Sometimes the intrusions on our nominal hero's freedom are more symbolic, as in this strangely ominous, almost Kafkaesque shot of his coming home from Cuba to a heap of mail that Hitchcock somehow films like an unexpected corpse in his doorway:

"The amount of junk mail that accumulates in just a few days!"

Among the pieces of mail is a paper promising a "Soviet Showdown." Even though he is in danger of losing his wife to his work for the Americans (her return to Paris is the reason no one's picked up the mail), world events require him to plug ahead. In the ensuing collapse of the domestic order, the spies are left to rather pathetically clutch to ice trays:**

After which he is persuaded by a Russian defector whose American protectors afford him fantastic in-home coffee service to betray the French government and do still more work for the Americans:

"Mrs. Fawcett makes wonderful coffee!" [And what else?]

The withholding and granting of domestic, and implicitly, sexual privileges being one of the ways in which the Americans obtain loyalty from those whom they must control. And of course, our hero, Andre, in doing America's bidding, will reclaim his wife - her lover being the very man whom Andre has been sent to ferret out. (The fact that the Soviet spy whose identity Andre is sent to discover happens to be seeing Andre's wife doesn't come as an unbelievable coincidence, but rather as a turn of events which is almost to be expected, given the logic of the movie.) But even this, for Hitchcock, is not an entirely happy outcome; in fact, there is no sadder moment in the movie than when the Soviet mole realizes that his time in the French foreign service is over.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't say something about the march that opens and closes the film and encapsulates everything Hitchcock's trying to say. In the beginning, it plays over newsreel footage of Soviet tanks; in the end, it plays over the shot of the man tossing aside the newspaper that announces the end of the Missile Crisis. Neither a menacing warning of Soviet military ambitions, nor a rousing call to action, it elicits a sort of ironic detachment. What the march does is embody, as one writer has so aptly put it, "the parade of national interests," both American and Soviet, that go on in spite of the "successful" conclusion of the Missile Crisis, rendering all free peoples subservient to its implacable momentum.

* Conversely, in Cuba, spying on missile deliveries is whimsically disguised as a picnic (the cameras are packed in the sandwiches), and ironically, it's that very disguise that gives away the fact that they are spying where they shouldn't be (via a gull, whose movements, unlike those of people in the film, are presented in one shot, not as a series of stops and starts):

** In one of the great small touches in the film, we learn that Cubans, during their appearances at the U.N., have mastered the art of American takeout:

1 comment:

MF said...

I don't mind the ship in Marnie, but only because i think anything looks good in Technicolor.

I've always avoided Topaz but the still edit pix you posted make me really wanna see it now, if only for them.