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Film Quarterly (1970) - Topaz




There's an auteur proposition that the best American directors keep improving throughout their careers until, in their sixties and seventies, these artists deliver their film testaments. But this romantic formulation doesn't hold up if you take a long, painful look at the final movies of Andrew Sarris's Pantheon directors: Charles Chaplin's The Countess from Hong Kong, a sadder and more misdirected jape than his Monsieur Verdoux, without even that film's saving venom; John Ford's Seven Women, in which the director tries to camouflage a limp, Painted-Veil woman's story with scenes of gratuitous violence; D. W. Griffith's The Struggle, a strongly felt but ineptly made anti-drink tract, powerfully pathetic in its directness; Howard Hawks's El Dorado, a relaxed and superficial restatement of Rio Bravo; Fritz Lang's The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, an aimless, commissioned repetition of his early classic; Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, an impeccable trifle (well, no theory can be all wrong); Josef von Sternberg's Anatahan, personal and pure, but as dull as his wartime documentaries — and, until the recent release of Topaz, Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain: the Master of Suspense's fiftieth completed feature, as slick, manipulating and lifeless as a vibrator.

If not viewed through the misty-eyed mystique of the auteurs, these testaments more closely resemble last gasps. Contrast these films with Citizen Kane, Sherlock Jr., Stella Maris, Sing-in in the Rain, The Iron Horse, The Miracle Worker, Easy Street, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or, from Europe, L'Age d'Or, Les Bonnes Femmes, The Italian Straw Hat, Potemkin, Breathless, Knife in the Water, Triumph of the Will, Zero de Conduite — all made by film-makers in their twenties. We can be charitable and say that the auteuristes prefer the modulated melancholy of A Winter's Tale to the smart-ass pun-foolery of Love's Labours Lost (but what Hollywood, or cinema, equivalent have we for Shakespeare?). We can sentimentalize our aesthetic prejudices and choose the reflective grace of the moving camera over the youthful vigor of montage: the young man's eye blinks frequently, to catch as many glimpses as possible of a strange new world, each glimpse provoking a moral judgment; but the old man has seen it all, knows too much to argue or to judge, and is content, in Adlai Stevenson's last and lasting phrase, "to sit in the shade with a glass of wine, and watch the people dance."

This attractive thesis works with a number of poets, painters, novelists and even filmmakers, whose life is a via crucis leading through ridicule and self-doubt to a Calvary-Resurrection in the works of wisdom they produce in their twilight years. But it's difficult to work up sympathy for Chaplin, or Ford, or Hawks, or Hitchcock, when critical cool greets their last films, or, like these directors' devotees, cluck in smug misery over all those masterpieces that remain unrealized only because of "the system." Each of these men, and Hitchcock more than the rest, has enough millions on hand to finance War and Peace — not the movie, but the real thing — so they could certainly afford the money to make new films. What they lack is the energy, the will, the ideas: Bunuel has "retired" oftener than Fred Astaire, but for him film-making is more than a profession; it's a compulsion. But then Bunuel, at seventy, is in his lucid, mature prime. While we eagerly anticipate Howard Hawks's new movie, Rio Lobos, or even the release of John Ford's USIA assignment on Vietnam, the final films of these collaborative craftsmen are more likely to be repetitive than definitive. Even smaller is the possibility that such veterans might revitalize themselves by working with modern themes — as fascinating as it would be to see what Ford would do with neo-Grapes of Wrath material like Easy Rider, or how Hawks would apply his "men in groups" psychology to the nirvana and neurosis of the contemporary commune. These directors are politically and creatively too conservative to modernize — "mongrelize," they might say — their way of working and of seeing things.

Of all the Old American Masters, Alfred Hitchcock is the one whose sensibility — cynical if not nihilistic, mordant if not misanthropic — is most adaptable to the new commercial cinema. Hitchcock alone has the economic autonomy, technical facility, and moral ambivalence to keep working (and promoting his work) regularly into the seventies. The steady employment suggests his limitations as well as his artistic resilience, for Hitchcock will often settle for a mediocre script and indifferent actors simply to play with the emotions of an audience. At his best, Hitchcock is very good — not great. When a director like Jean Renoir makes a great picture like La Regie du Jeu, we feel that the film represents the fullest expression of his art and craft, his genius and talent. When Hitchcock made his great film, Psycho, we felt a communion of forces not completely under his control or within his sphere of interest: the superb ensemble acting, the power of metaphysical suggestion in the old-dark-house genre, the complex weave of story and character, of Grand Guignol and Grand Motel, of horror and compassion. But Hitchcock, or at least the phlegmatic Hitchcock persona, refused to acknowledge the very factors that lifted Psycho into the rarefied realm of transcendent cinema. "I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting," he said to Truffaut. "The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it." For Hitchcock, the challenge of film-making is that "the Japanese audience should scream at the same time as the Italian audience" — hardly the most exalted of cinematic ambitions. It's no wonder that John Ford wins our respect when he refuses to direct any Hollywood project but his own, highly unlikely O.S.S. But we might also respect Hitchcock for making a best-seller adaptation and again exposing himself to criticism, instead of lounging in the slightly unearthly light of his canonizers' gaze.

I've gone on about the reputations and achievements of prominent directors, especially Hitchcock, in their chair days because this question tinges so much of the criticism of his films. There's a chasm between the claims of his admirers and the shouts of his detractors, but it's in this chasm that the rarely heard, balanced view of the man's films lies. Hitchcock, as Sarris has said of Nicholas Ray, "is not the greatest director who ever lived; nor is he a Hollywood hack." He is neither the Shakespeare of film, as Sarris and Robin Wood state, nor its Shad-well, as Pauline Kael might want us to believe. And Topaz is neither the quintessence of Hitchcockian cinema, nor an aimless, repetitive exercise. Its delights and disappointments are more worthy of analysis than of hagiographies or captious dismissals. Topaz does lack, say, the cohesion and sustained suspense — and, frankly, the performances — of last year's NBA Championship series between that aging but proud, quite Hawksian group, The Boston Celtics, and the Los Angeles Lakers, an aggressive, fiercely talented quintet of individuals. But the movie has moments — minutes, sequences — that snap with a special excitement that comes from the perfact convergence of character, situation, acting, camera placement and cutting.

The film is Hitchcock's twenty-eighth in America and his twelfth in the spy genre. A recent look at most of his espionage efforts reveals a vague consistency in the charm of their villains (Paul Lukas, Herbert Marshall, Claude Rains, James Mason) and in the complementary blandness of their heroes (Robert Donat, Joel McCrea, the Cary Grant of Notorious, Paul Newman). But this is hardly due to any puckish sense of irony on the director's part: the former is a convention of the genre (how develop suspense if the villain acts villainous from the start?) and the latter is a consequence of Hitchcock's acquiescence in accepting, and lack of interest in reshaping, unsuitable actors. As with Psycho, Hitchcock's best spy films seem to transcend their maker's intentions — whether by a witty script (like the one by Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton, and Robert Benchley for Foreign Correspondent) or by an actor's extra, usually independent effort (Michael Redgrave) — while, in his worst, Hitchcock's concentration on technique seems empty when there's an absence of dense detail (as in Notorious) or involving, living characters (as in Torn Curtain).

Topaz is fascinating partly as an anthology of these insights and excesses. For example, the technical side of the film is occasionally so dreadful — with mismatched movements and lighting, clumsily speeded-up motion for no reason except to get a bit of exposition over with more quickly, poor dubbing, peripatetic matte shots, too-long dissolves, unnecessary crescendoes in the score — that Robin Wood should have a more difficult time than usual defending these inept process shots as Hitchcock's jaundiced comment on the Industrial Age's planned obsolescence. But, just as it isn't pertinent to judge a Hitchcock film as a unified work of art (the success of his movies, like musical comedies and pornographic novels, depends on the success of certain production numbers or set pieces), it's also unrealistic to confuse his reputation as the ultimate technician with the traditional idea of an artist whose work has stylistic cohesion: Hitchcock's "arias" — the shower scene, the chase across Mount Rushmore, the birds' attack on the school children — are constructed with care and executed with flair, but most everything else is so much recitative.

Not only does Topaz have too much operatic small talk, and not only does the opening aria — the smuggling of a Russian defector out of Denmark — seem needlessly distended, but the lead singer is about as capable in his role as Mrs. Miller would be in La Traviata. Frederick Stafford, an actor of indeterminate nationality and few movie credits (he starred in Andre Hunebelle's OSS 117 — Mission for a Killer, released here in 1966), has what purports to be the leading role, that of a French intelligence agent stationed in Washington, with a branch office in Cuba. Stafford is terrible. He's posey, wooden, smug, pausing over a brandy snifter like an early-talkie actor reading his lines into a hidden mike. In fact, Stafford's badness is so consistent, almost stylized, that he is suggestive not of the individual bad actors one encounters in most movies, but of whole genres of bad actors: those Broadway stars of the coming-of-sound period, like Glenn Tryon, who came on so strong or tried to act so cool that they often looked effeminate, or the strong but oafish talkie-serial stars like Don Terry. Stafford is handsome, but his good looks turn whorish when you discover that he doesn't have any character (what's the sense of picking a male performer for looks alone?), a Cary Grant profile without Grant's grace, humor, vanity and vulnerability. A good actor makes you feel he's been inhabiting a character for years, and each nuance evokes a lifetime of experiences, choices and emotions. Stafford, and Dany Robin as his frigid wife, convey to the viewer nothing but the nervousness they feel in characters they don't understand.

It soon becomes obvious that Stafford is Topaz's MacGuffin, or perhaps its Bunbury. It's not Stafford, the stolid maypole, that is the film's emotion center, but the spies, diplomats and femmes fatales waltzing, lurching, or racing around him. Though Topaz is a leading man's nightmare, it's also a character actor's dream. John Vernon, a powerful young Canadian actor (Point Blank, Justine, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here), is outstanding as a manic Castro aide. His black beard and marble-blue eyes first attract our attention, but Vernon keeps himself there by adding, to the Raf Vallone — "I am ze bool" hysteria of the role as written, an unusual amalgam of lust and tenderness for his mistress (who is really Stafford's beloved, and a devoted anti-Communist), the heroic, warm, womanly Karin Dor. The scenes between Vernon and Dor are so superior to those with Stafford and Robin that you wonder how Hitchcock could have directed one feuding couple with extraordinary passion and tactile vividness, while letting a similar scene go memorably flat. The difference probably has as much to do with that felicitous congeries of situation and inspiration, of action and passion, of actor and character, as it does with any directorial epiphanies. Whatever the cause, these sequences in Dor's villa are complex, human, and beautiful. They lead from Stafford's idyll with his real love (who manages to spark this mannequin to real life), through Vernon's discovery that Dor has betrayed him and her government — and it is a measure of Vernon's and Hitchcock's achievement that we can share the Castroite's outrage and nearly tragic, cuckolded disillusionment — to her murder, photographed from above, her velvety violet dress filling the screen as she falls to the floor in a moving metaphor for the grace that informed her way of life and gives her final moral supremacy in their personal and political battle to the death. Throughout this whole middle section of the film, stereotypes become human beings, and Topaz comes vibrantly alive.

The final third of the film, in which Stafford discovers two Russian spies working in the French government, lacks the power and passion of the preceding encounter. Vernon and Dor are physical actors; Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret, who play the spies, are more intellectual, Piccoli in his suave assurance, Noiret in his Lorrean paranoia. The "confrontation" is in fact so oblique that it never really takes place. There is a luncheon for six, of whom two are spies. Hitchcock works over our suspicions through the use of supercilious glances and portentous camera angles, but the villains (the two charmers, of course) aren't revealed until later, and Stafford never gets to tell them off. The movie just runs out, like a tube of toothpaste.

Part of Hitchcock's problem is Leon Uris's unwieldy book, based on a true spy story that is more coherent than the novel and more shocking than the movie. A surprising number of important films, in these days of cinematic autonomy, are derived from that most traditional of sources, the short novel. The Graduate and Rosemarys Baby weren't even adaptations of those books: they were translations for the screen. Even Midnight Cowboy and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? interpret a novelist's vision rather than create a new movie one. None of these novels is as much as two hundred pages long. Topaz, a 400-page novel cluttered with insignificant (presumably documentary) detail and dramatically irrelevant characters, offered a challenge not only of condensation but of elaboration; and here, Hitchcock and scenarist Samuel Taylor (Sahrina, The Monte Carlo Story, Vertigo, Three on a Couch) have performed admirably. Situations and characters have been first simplified and then enriched. The Soviet defector (Per-Axel Arosenius) is thus allowed to suggest that the difference between himself and his interrogators is that he is a severe, aristocratic Russian and they are open-faced middle-class Americans. Roscoe Lee Browne is given a few marvelous, largely wordless scenes that strip his character of Uris's idiosyncracies the better to let Browne create him anew with smiles and gestures. And Michel Piccoli is allowed to be himself: concerned, decadent, so graceful that he obliterates questions of morality.

I've tried to point out how any film, even one by a "great artist in his melancholy twilight period," is the result of a number of stimuli, controlled perhaps by the director, but created by actors, writers and technicians. Beneath the mythical Hitchcock who is the author of everything grand in his oeuvre is a partly creative, mostly collaborate craftsman who must rely on the crucial contributions of his co-workers. Topaz, inept and ineffable, poorly acted and well acted, shoddily shot and exquisitely shot, mediocre and transcendent, should be kept in mind before we send "Hitchcock" to the Pantheon or to critical perdition.

—Richard Corliss

(c) Film Quarterly (1970)