Spying Outside the Comfort Zones: In Favor and Defense of Hitchcock's Topaz


Coming soon:  An article about critics' most significant dissents with the critical tide (featuring Rex Reed and F.X. Feeney) -- hopefully in time for the re-release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate -- and a special guest article by Aaron Hollander examining the merits of the horror genre.  Stay tuned!


Historically, I have not written terribly much about Alfred Hitchcock.  I have not neglected him out of either distaste or obstinacy.  My lack of interest in writing about Hitchcock might very well be because he is among the most written about directors in the pantheon of filmmaking legends, with no less than Truffaut himself having published a now-classic book on his impressive canon.  And by a long shot, that ain't the only book on the man.  To top off the extensiveness of his literary and academic coverage, most likely every Tom, Dick and Harry walking down the street probably has some kind of working knowledge concerning the rotund and orotund Master of Suspense with the trademark profile whose drolly laconic verbal inflection spoke volumes about his notoriously macabre sense of humor.

My so-called "niche" in the world of film-writing is in the realm of cinephemera and estoterica; in other words, I traditionally write about the films and film artists I feel have unjustly not received enough coverage (or sometimes, even any coverage at all).  In a sense, it is the sometimes strenuous act of spilling whatever spotlight I can onto that which has wallowed in the darkness of unfair non-exposure and cruel obscurity.  I will often openly begrudge film retrospectives in venues which showcase films and filmmakers that have been ostensibly over-covered.  In my mind, how many "restored prints" of certain canonical films have we seen pass through our favorite revival houses?  Yes, the films I refer to may very well be great ones -- but have they now taken to restoring other restorations?  I would much rather that venues give other more neglected films a chance to live again, versus re-screening ad nauseam those fortunate works that are vocally (and justly) regarded as classics.


That said, it is still here that I am writing about one of my favorite Hitchcock films -- one of his most unpopular, and one of his least commercially/critically successful.  Even he believed it was something of a failure, most likely because the project was rushed into production (with an only half-finished Samuel Taylor script) and also because he could never get what he felt was a handle on the film in post-production.  It is also often commonly dismissed among erudite Hitchcock scholars as a belabored and needlessly elaborate experiment, no more and no less.  I have the suspicion that this dissent stems from the film stubbornly not conforming at all neatly with the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre.  It is the horse of a different color.  But what specifically do I like about Topaz?  For starters, I love seeing any director stepping out of his/her established comfort zones, let alone someone as admirably stiff-necked as Hitchcock was.  In Topaz, I see him stepping out of those zones at every turn.  It is like watching Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest step out of his humdrum advertising-executive comforts and into newly invented personas, having to learn to carry himself in other ways that do not bespeak comfort.  Hitchcock assumes another breed of director, with his spirit residing assuredly in key scenes and sequences, enough so that we know in the moment that he is winking at us, patting us on the head and saying, "I'm still here."  For many, the latter point concerning his more anonymous reign over the material is a complaint.  For anyone who is drawn in by the filmmaking process, it should be cause for intrigue.  Topaz's relative narrative and stylistic obliqueness, its overarching elegance, its Byzantine sliding-door storytelling with subplot bleeding into subplot, its curious and intriguing starlessness (it turned out to be the first Hitchcock cast in decades without a marketable lead for the U.S. market) and the clear and apparent fact that the project was a playground for a great filmmaker's freedom of experimentation, are all elements that I find exciting in the picture, as both a filmmaker and cinephile.  Perhaps most of all, however, I appreciate that it is the type of film that almost gets made to be misunderstood.

I openly attest that I find Hitchcock's Topaz (1969) to be a far better film than what I feel is his vastly overrated The Birds (1963), which has aged poorly and is today more horribly and horrifically dated than many period films of its ilk (although it is usually the first of his films people seem to remember).  Don't blast me yet in response to my dislike of The Birds.  Hang in there.  I explain and rationalize this half-cocked statement below.  Everyone with whom I have spoken about Topaz seems to have a decidedly ambivalent, sheepish or outright negative view of the picture...except for that occasional rare individual I encounter who agrees with me in thinking that it is one of Hitchcock's best and most misunderstood pictures, and, yes, a masterpiece.  The director of one of my favorite film festivals is one such admirer.  On the occasions I have claimed Topaz to be better than The Birds, however, I have been disparaged and openly mocked; this has happened again just recently.  However, it is Topaz's brilliant and measured technique which lives and breathes for me, rather than the flagrancy and the ham-fisted technique of that other film which everyone seems to appreciate much more.  Many may think me just a contrarian and even a philistine.  That is fine, and I don't mind that because, for one, I would much rather watch two European film industry heavyweights like Topaz's Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret perform over the likes of The Birds' Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren hemming and hawing over creature-attacks and second-rate soap opera any day of the week.  If that makes me a philistine, so be it.  Hedren in The Birds is no Kim Novak, folks.  Sure, Topaz's Frederick Stafford is probably not even Tippi Hedren, but I intend to explain why this works in the film's favor.

In the same breath, I understand both why Topaz tanked and why The Birds was a hit.  After all, subtlety never was a big seller of movie tickets...at least in this hemisphere.  Watching a mob of hostile birds converge on a jungle gym behind a blonde damsel in distress (in an admittedly well executed scene) usually offers far more immediate thrills than untangling the ruefully tangled threads of international espionage and the inner workings of double-cross among spies.  Sure, Topaz is not perfect, nor is it truly 100% top-tier Hitchcock and nowhere near as good as his following film Frenzy (1972), yet it remains a favorite Hitchcock film that I would be drawn to watching over again more so than many of his others.

So, okay, we've got Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz.  Starring Frederick Stafford.  Uh, who?  Featuring Karen Dor, John Vernon and John Forsythe.  Um, who again?  And Roscoe Lee Browne.  Okay, him you might know.  Or maybe not.  In either case, one of the most hotly contested aspects of Topaz is its lack of a star, or a central actor with the charisma of a leading man or woman.  The biggest and most esteemed name actors in Topaz had impressive French film pedigree (namely Piccoli and Noiret), but this pedigree meant little or nothing to the American public in 1969.  The only thing they saw was Frederick Forsythe in a role that would normally be occupied by a Sean Connery or a Paul Newman.  Even the comparatively minor-league Anthony Perkins had scored a key success in William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion before stepping into the shoes of Norman Bates in Psycho.  Many critics have asserted that Forsythe is so bland in Topaz that he has, to quote Steve Martin in Bowfinger, the personality of a ZIP code in Kansas.  It it fitting perhaps that Stafford found his entrance into show business by simply being at the right place at the right time -- specifically, a hotel lobby in Thailand.  He was cast as Agent OSS 117 in an eponymous 1965 French espionage thriller in that hotel lobby.  Incidentally, another in a three-man line of markedly dry 1960's Hitchcock leading men, John Gavin, starred as the same Agent OSS 117 in 1968.  Other points of contention?  Well, you know, how about them process shots?  The process shots are, of course, par for the course when you consider that Hitch took many trips to the rear-projection stage for his end-of-career works, particularly his final film, Family Plot (1976), where the glaringly conspicuous nature of the process work is most unfortunate.  These particular shots, though, speak to a level of oddly affectionate artifice becoming of 1950's and early 60's studio-pressed genre products.

Addressing each "issue" respectively, Hitchcock made a profitable, prodigious and celebrated career of working with not just the best actors but the best stars.  James Stewart was never more the everyman than when he was given the opportunity to be in the Hitchcock films in which he is featured.  Topaz and Frenzy marked the first instances in his career where he was driven towards casting unknowns vs. stars.  A valid question would be "Why?"  I believe it boils down to how Hitchcock ends Topaz.  There exist three separate endings for the film, as Hitchcock was stumped as to how to draw the film to a close.  All three versions, however, are capped with a newspaper being flippantly discarded under Paris' Arc de Triomphe.  We see its headline just long enough before it is tossed aside indifferently, one might say dismissively.  I personally would use the word "dismissively".  Yesterday's news has been left idling as an errant, discarded item, and our characters have tortured themselves and each other over it, as intimated in the series of superimpositions over the headlines.  This ending amazingly is simultaneously cynical and anomalously humanist for Hitchcock.  How befitting it is then that Topaz is one of the extremely few entries in Hitchcock's canon to deal in a plot involving history and headline news, current or otherwise.  Topaz uses as its foundation the Cuban Missile Crisis, co-opting a near fatal international crisis from seven years before the film's production and using it as a story platform.  Granted, this "ripped from the headlines" aspect of Topaz is more novelist Leon Uris' doing than it is Hitchcock's, but it is nonetheless unusual for this director to tackle such topical historical material, the repercussions of the dramatic 1962 showdown between East and West still lingering and echoing at the time of the film's release.  Not since Notorious, of which Topaz is something of a direct narrative heir, did Hitchcock care to place any of his films within a specific historical context -- and Topaz is even more historically specific than Notorious.  Novelist Leon Uris' pedigree in epic material based in some manner of historical fact (think Exodus and Trinity) also opens Topaz up to being Hitchcock's lengthiest film at 143 minutes (at least in its current DVD version which, excluding a newly implemented ending, was his first exhibited cut).  The discarded newspaper headline at the very end of Topaz is a testament to Hitchcock's view of the constantly evolving nature of history itself as it relates to film and filmic incident.  Stafford, hence, becomes a guileless composite...a machine that enables history's small and moving parts to oscillate.  He is the Glorious Enabler who wishes to be a feeling entity (as exhibited in his love scenes with Karen Dor), but cannot really tear himself away from the mandatory moral compromise, which rears its ugly head with almost every character in Topaz.  The final tender billet doux from Stafford's murdered lover Karen Dor serves no real function other than to conceal some key incriminating pieces of microfilm.  An official top-secret item is shanghaied in a lover's parting gift, rendering the human sentiments presumably attached to the gift itself secondary, conditionally empty and, hence, pointless.  Also at this point, the unrequited affair to which we have just been privy is deliberately left on the side of the road, never to be heard of again in the film's multi-pronged narrative.  This is why Stafford's dry, blank, under-annunciated performance works in the film's favor, on a purely intellectual level.  Otto Preminger's final film, The Human Factor (1980), explores the very same notion of spy as second-class individual, with a protagonist who is similarly unrealized on a human level and deliberately another Glorious Enabler.

Before I continue, I wish to state that I do not mean the following simply as an excuse to trash The Birds.  I am, however, using my antipathy for that film's use of formal elements to juxtapose it with Topaz's formalist mastery, bearing in mind well-known Hitchcockian trademarks.  Granted, Topaz might consciously be a more "sophisticated" enterprise that, like the similarly underrated Marnie, works more on an intellectualized, overtly subconscious level than The Birds does, but I will nonetheless proceed along these lines.  I personally consider Hitchcock to be "slumming" with The Birds, but I can still analyze how the two films stack up against each other in terms of directorial voice.  I remember vividly watching a sequence from The Birds in a freshman introductory class at film school, many years ago now.  The instructor was illustrating what the term "eye-line" meant in the context of an actual film.  Specifically, he showed us the overstated sequence in which Tippi Hedren's comically frozen, terrified head and wide-open eyes follow a fire-line that travels along a stream of gasoline to the point where it finally explodes.  The class erupted in lion-like uproarious laughter and it took nearly a full two minutes to get everyone back on task.  Worst of all is that the sequence is so calculated and awkwardly self-conscious that it hits you over the head with the delicacy of a seagull ambush.  The utter camp of that scene did not stop the likes of Bordwell and Thompson lauding it as a sterling example of rhythmic cutting in their much-used textbook, despite the fact that its rigid metronomic rhythm is partly what makes it as laughable as it is.  In contrast to the stilted, posturing visuals of Hedren's terrified frozen mug, there is the exquisite opening sequence of Topaz, which involves a family in Copenhagen defecting to the West.  The kind of meticulous storyboarding Hitchcock adored all but undoes the above sequence in The Birds, but it works to build and establish delicate visual cues in Topaz.

 
Yes, the above sequence is indeed very apropos to use in teaching film students eye-line, in that it is perhaps the easiest to follow among any possible example.  But when I try to take it seriously as drama or as a suspense sequence, it's just painful.  To me, the greatest formal elements in cinema are somewhere in between invisible and appreciably conspicuous.  To me, this scene in The Birds borders on obnoxious.

The first shot of Topaz, following an opening title sequence set over footage of the Russian May Day Parade, is an elaborate crane and dolly track which packs in so much information, visual and otherwise, and sets up the story so well in one single shot that I am immediately left awed.  This is soon followed by a stunning sequence in a Danish glass factory/museum that knows just how delicate its level of tension should be.  It is here that Hitchcock's pronounced use of storyboarding formalism is brilliantly fine-tuned.  Hitchcock in pre-production and directing was famously like a military general like Patton or MacArthur, in that he painstakingly prepared for the nitty-gritty pyrotechnics of battle, leaving little to nothing to the winds of chance.  It is a visionary strategist's approach versus one of an artist who hedges bets concerning precision in favor of chaos theory.  With this in mind, Topaz is Hitchcock at his "military-precision best" since Psycho (1960) or at least Marnie (1964), because its plasticity lies in a comfortable place between invisible and conspicuous.  In the opening sequence, the daughter of the defectors, Tamara, is eluding the Russian agents on her family's tail.  It is simply how the screen-space is used, how silence is effectively exploited for impact, and how the subtle machinations of plot and story bespeak an ideology more than a great deal of his other films do.  In the way that Psycho is almost as fresh today as it was in 1960, Topaz is perhaps just as fresh.  It must me said that Topaz is a more markedly cerebral film than most of Hitchcock's other work.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Cuban scenes.  Even Topaz's detractors admit to the strength of the second-act stretch set in Cuba.  The scene that everyone seems to remember from the film is the dramatic death of Juanita de Cordoba (Karen Dor), her purple dress splaying out onto the checkered floor like a pool of blood as she wilts and collapses with an eerie grace from her jilted lover's bullet.  The scene involving the tortured and starved informant whispering a deadly secret into John Vernon's ear also seems to elicit responses.  The greater crime in Topaz, however, is not cuckolding a lover, but cuckolding country, ideology and nationalism.  This, I am convinced, was at the heart of the film's disastrous test screenings, where audiences complained that it lacked character empathy and interest value.  This, to me, was the director's immediate objective.  The people in Topaz are instruments of institution, and of national and political credo, and their blood bleeds more for them than any human entanglements.  Critic and scholar Andrew Sarris implicitly alludes to this below when he mentions the "French lunch of doubt and suspicion."  No wonder audiences found it alienating.  But the film is much less mechanical and workmanlike than people give it credit for.  Certainly, it works more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, and is not out to entertain one's sympathies for the characters we are watching.  Even the infidelity of Dany Robin's character to her husband, Stafford, is dealt with in a cold, deliberately distancing way.

Willfully gone and out-of-sight are many of the Hithcockian earmarks, although the trademark Hitchcock cameo appearance remains one of my favorites among all the cameos.  In their place, you have a curious kind of irony.  Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris wrote upon the film's release in 1969, "If I prefer Topaz to Z, it is probably because I prefer irony to allegory, and paradoxes to polemics.  On the surface, Topaz would seem hopelessly old-fashioned, if not in bad taste.  But it is with [actors] Noiret and Piccoli that Hitchcock rises to his peak of passionate protocol as he captures, far beneath the surface of picayune Cold War politics, the cerebral irrationality of French manners and institutions.  To study Hitchcock's cutting and camera placement at a French lunch full of doubt and suspicion is to be instructed in the art of transcending a subject with a style.  Suddenly we are caught up short with mixed feelings in the grip of Hitchcock's irony.  Topaz is a haunting experience, both inspired and intelligent, convulsive and controlled, passionate and pessimistic.  At its best, it undercuts its own premises with unexpected glimpses of the most saving of all human graces: perversity and humor.  In an age when love is merchandised like soap, a little cultivated dislike seems refreshingly civilized."

The various plot threads in the film ricochet off of each other in Topaz, and Maurice Jarre's customarily idiosyncratic score accentuates this notion with his whimsically percussive music cues.  The release of Jarre's long unavailable score on disc is partly what sparked my action in putting this all down on paper, even though it had been a long time coming.  I received the soundtrack disc in the mail while working on another project up north, and a person with whom I was working casually and carelessly dismissed the film upon seeing I had received its music score.  I staunchly defended it and was thereafter lampooned.  To each their own, but I think the dismissal of Topaz is irresponsible and near-sighted.  A common complaint during the film's initial test screenings was, "Where is Hitchcock in this?"  Loading an espionage film with ornament and Hitchcockian stylistic flourishes in every scene and shot equally does not always a great film make, and Hitchcock was intelligent and masterly enough to know this.  The film's measured stylization is exquisite.  The general lack of chases and reportable incidents of the like is another complaint, but it is more than just about subtle human deceptions.  It is a biting portrait of the deceptions of the mechanical human(s), and succeeds in rendering Torn Curtain (1966) intellectually shallow in comparison, although most critics and scholars consider Torn Curtain in such a way anyway.  Along with Frenzy, I believe Topaz to be one of the Master's finest late-career pictures.  Give it another look if you've dismissed it, and stay focused.

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