Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Lost Art of Suspense

Topaz is a mineral that appears in prismatic crystal and changes colors depending on the angle from which it is perceived.  It is also the title of a complex, unusual, Hitchcock gem, that is arguably the highlight of his late career.  The movie was released in 1969, at the height of the critical debate over Hitchcock's validity as an 'artist.'  This was also  the era of Antonioni and Godard.  An era during which many avant-garde European filmmakers were taking cinema in an esoteric new direction.  It is this aesthetic that Hitchcock seems to adopt and make his own, and perhaps this can account for the outrage early test audiences felt when they discovered that their ever-reliable master of suspense had gone cerebral.  

In Topaz we see the seeds of Hitchcock's unfinished serial-killer project Kaleidoscope, which was to be a gritty, verite style thriller, photographed on grainy 16 mm film with a cast of unknowns.  The story is based on a Leon Uris novel that presents a fictional account of the players who plotted and ultimately stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For the first time in the history of his career, we have a Hitchcock plot dealing with real nations and real politics.  The emphasis on reality is reflected in his choice not to cast any major stars.  Instead the master assembles an international cast of character actors, chosen  to represent the working-class pedigree of the real life spies who were mixed up in the cold war.  The cast lacks the charisma of the stars that Hitchcock traditionally worked with, but this is precisely the point. 

In Topaz, Hitchcock attempts to deglamorize the spy genre.  He rejects the very same James Bond ethos he helped to invent with North By Northwest and this is part of the movie's fascination.  Topaz is not designed to please an audience the way most of his other films are.    The story does not lead to a decisive, crowd-pleasing climax.  Instead, the movie leaves us with a troubling conclusion in which our 'hero' Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) allows his countryman to get away with murder and treason.  Why does he let him get away?  Because he learns the man is sleeping with his wife and he wants to expiate his own guilt over the affair he himself has had.  Our would-be protagonist, Devereaux, finds himself torn between the Americans and his own people in an effort to uncover the truth behind the Soviet presence in Cuba.  He is also moonlighting between two women: his wife (Dany Robin) and his mistress (Karin Dor), who is a leader of the underground Cuban resistance.  We never learn where his allegiance truly lies.

Considered in the context of Hitchcock's other work, Topaz is strangely analogous to Munich, Steven Spielberg's ambiguous and under-appreciated political film, which also alienated mainstream audiences.  Moral ambiguity is a trademark of Hitchcock's, but in Topaz every subplot leads us deeper into an abyss.  There is no single point of view.  We do not know which characters to trust or believe in and loyalties are constantly shifting.  Some viewers will lose patience with the film based on this lack of cohesion.  Others will find it seductively atonal.  The movie keeps us off balance by constantly shifting between colors and tones, like it's geological namesake.   This seeming lack of direction creates a different kind of suspense. But for those who seek vintage Hitchcock there are still many virtuoso moments to reflect upon. 

We know we are watching a Hitchcock film from the dazzling opening sequence in which a Russian family stages a harrowing defection to the United States with scarcely a sentence of dialogue uttered.  The torture of two Cuban resistance fighters is photographed as only Hitchcock can.  After their interrogator extracts their confession, we watch the man's hands slowly slide up his thighs in resignation.  In Cuba, Hitchcock intercuts staged footage with actual newsreel footage of a Castro rally by matching the film stocks seamlessly.  Most startling is the murder of a woman in a purple sun dress which pools beneath her like a gallon of blood as she slumps to the floor.  There is also a striking use of color to distinguish between locales and countries and the sets are effectively decorated with the highest attention to detail.   

 The master is after a different game here and although he got a bum rap, the film is worth a look.  His approach to the material is occasionally miscalculated.  The ambiguous characters and understated cast fail to emotionally engage us as in prior works.  The complicated mechanics of the plot sometimes grow tiresome and sluggish.  Still, although Topaz is not as iconic as many of his more popular hits, it ranks with Vertigo and The Birds as one of his few true 'art films.'  Watching it, we see a master filmmaker at the top of his craft, stretching to redefine himself and his work.    Even the tiniest gestures -- a tilt of the head, a casual handshake, are charged with sinister implications.  Topaz, as with any of Hitchcock's work, is instructive in the art of suspense.   We may as well call it a lost art for the time being.  

No comments:

Post a Comment