What's new again: Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz | Bleader

What's new again: Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz


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Death and the maiden a la Hitchcock
  • Death and the maiden a la Hitchcock
Since watching The Bourne Legacy last week, I've had Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz (1969) on the brain, as both films could be described as decentralized espionage films. Each is structured in such a way that the main character doesn't come into focus until nearly halfway through; the emphasis is on the network, how the activities of different agents working in different places create narrative patterns more easily recognizable by the audience than by the characters. Fritz Lang's Spies remains the gold standard for this type of filmmaking, but Topaz and Bourne Legacy, each one flawed but interesting, manage some nifty variations on the tradition.

For Tony Gilroy, the director and cowriter of Legacy, the network is a collection of fragments. The first hour of his film jumps between groups of characters in Alaska, Washington, D.C., and several other locations I've since forgotten. The characters are connected by high-tech surveillance systems, which allow a privileged group of paramilitary types to keep track of anyone they choose. (It's worth noting that Lang anticipated this invasive technology in his Dr. Mabuse films; but where Lang regarded total surveillance with dread and disgust, Gilroy—like Tony Scott before him in Spy Game and Deja Vu—is ambivalent and occasionally accepting. Now that the Patriot Act is more than a decade old, Lang's worst fears seem practically quaint.)

Hitchcock, on the other hand, maintains a fluidity between different groups. The pleasure of Topaz is in seeing how the director passes the action from one character to another as crucial information gets passed across the world. The story begins in Copenhagen, as a KGB official and his family secretly defect to American custody while on vacation; then it hops to the U.S. (and, briefly, the perspective of the CIA man assisting the defectors) before settling in on a French diplomat asked to weasel information out of the Americans. But there are narrative detours throughout, such as a fantastic episode about a dandy from Martinique (Roscoe Lee Browne, in the movie's best performance) stealing information from a Cuban delegate in New York.

My friend Ignatiy Vishnevetsky sees similarities between the narrative experiment of Topaz and that of Jacques Tati's Playtime, which came out two years earlier. Both films, he feels, diffract the pleasures of genre entertainment (slapstick comedy, spy films) so that they become stories about societies rather than individuals. For me, the movie anticipates Luis Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty in its relay structure and calculated sense of anticlimax (and, wouldn't you know, Michel Piccoli is in both films!). Regardless, the film has a distinctly non-Hollywood sensibility, which was one reason why it failed to win over a popular audience in 1969.

It would be misleading, though, to describe Topaz as a misunderstood art movie. It's an uncertain, uncommitted work: Hitchcock seems to backpedal after he introduces every bold idea, and the movie gets bogged down with stretches of exposition that try to make sense of what's essentially dream logic. (Never happy with the project, Hitchcock had screenwriter Samuel Taylor rewriting it constantly, sometimes changing whole scenes just before they were shot.) When the movie decides to make a conventional hero character out of the French diplomat (bland, bland Frederick Stafford), it sacrifices the sense of unlimited possibility that was its most interesting quality.

The Bourne Legacy hinges on a similar problem. When it fixes upon a narrative center after an hour of effective cross-cutting, the greatest revelation is that Jeremy Renner is no Matt Damon (though Gilroy continues the patterns of the first half in some effective action sequences in Manila, editing the chases so that the narrative activity becomes a web of intersecting lines of movement). Like Topaz, the movie is an unfulfilled promise redeemed by some inspired stand-alone sequences. Rachel Weisz's interrogation scene, for one, is a marvel of quiet suspense that shows off Gilroy's skill with actors and with pacing—and it's unsettling and intimate enough to make me imagine the career Sarah Kane might have enjoyed today, were she still with us and picking up extra cash as a Hollywood script doctor.

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