Monday, February 1, 2010

A Shot So Great It Deserved Its Own Post

Though I do think Topaz is a minor masterpiece and that the film's rigorous suppression of audience sympathies is a big (maybe the) reason why, there's no question that it could have benefited from somewhat less incompetent actors and that the scenes between the lead and his wife are some of the flattest things Hitchcock ever did. But even in this arid wasteland of abysmal acting, writing and not especially expressive or inspired directing, Hitchcock occasionally does something that just floors you.

When Andre, the French spy, is sent off to Cuba to find out what the Russians are up to (the Americans have no intelligence operation there so they're forced to rely on the services of other nations' intelligence agents), his wife is none too happy and some dreadful acting ensues. Then she pronounces the name of Andre's Cuban contact and mistress, Juanita de Cordoba, and we cut to Andre's reaction. But Andre isn't there:

And for several sections the camera sits, immobile, trained on this empty doorway into a bathroom, until Andre sulks out and demands that his wife tell him where she heard his mistress's name. In a film that rarely surprises or shocks, the cut away to the empty doorway when the viewer expects a reaction shot packs quite a lot of punch. In that one shot, Hitchcock says more about the emptiness of Andre's marriage, and the emptiness of all lives subsumed to international power politics, than his actors ever could. Partly it's my German DVD of the film, which offers a fuller frame than the American version at the expense of blanching Hitchcock's Technicolor, but what a haunting study in muted whites. Look at the way the lampshade in the left foreground ceases to be a lampshade and functions as an abstract part of the composition. One's almost reminded of Malevich's White On White:

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