Academic journal article CineAction

The Centre Cannot Hold: Betrayals in Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz

Academic journal article CineAction

The Centre Cannot Hold: Betrayals in Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz

Article excerpt

Topaz, Alfred Hitchcock's antepenultimate film, has received minimal attention from either audiences or critics, most of it dismissive. Dan Auiler describes it as "a disaster in any terms," for example, while Raymond Bellour simply dismisses the film as "heavy" and "awkward." (1) While there can be little doubt that both the pace of the film and its use of conventional suspense elements are subdued, especially by comparison with Hitchcock's earlier political thrillers, there also can be little doubt that this is largely a matter of choice on Hitchcock's part; Topaz is not, as were those films, primarily a study of an individual caught up in, but ultimately escaping, the coils of power politics, but rather an examination of the corruptions spreading out from political power itself. In his previous political films, Hitchcock concentrated primarily on the innocent or near innocent person (Alicia Huberman, Manny Balestrero, Roger Thornhill, and so on) used, intentionally or otherwise, as a part of the machinations of political movers and shakers. In Topaz, he concentrates instead on the agents of power, the people who must make use of, and accept the consequences for, those innocents. Topaz thus develops two themes common to many of Hitchcock's films--the distrust of authority and an ambivalence concerning the effects of power on those who wield it--but from a different angle than before. Here, power itself is seen as a corrosive which eats away not merely at those within its grasp but at those who employ it. Power, whether used for good or ill, exists to preserve itself, and thus exists amorally. Wielders of power, on the other hand, exist always within a moral universe, such that they are inevitably corrupted, crippled, or destroyed by what they use and serve. It is this bleak message which provides the foundation for Topaz, and which no doubt helped contribute to its poor reception.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In what follows, I will examine some of the subtle and powerful ways in which Hitchcock has explored these themes, and in the process argue that, far from being an awkward disaster, Topaz, properly understood, deserves considerably more respect than it has hitherto enjoyed. Topaz operates, as befits its subject, on several sequential yet overlapping levels; to take any one of these levels as that of the film as a whole is to misrepresent (in effect to betray) the overall concept and structure of the film. What makes Topaz so unsettling, and so easily misunderstood and unfairly criticized, is precisely that it has no moral center. Topaz inverts the situation found, for example, in The Birds. In the latter film we have action without authority; here we have too much authority, too many centers of moral sanction, each critiquing and canceling out the others, whether implicitly (by virtue of existing at all) or explicitly (through torture, execution, and murders).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

If Topaz has a problem, it is in part that the film is too short to do full justice to its own vision. One of the few well-known aspects of Topaz is the fact that its previews were disastrous, and Hitchcock ended up filming no fewer than three separate endings as he groped for a satisfactory conclusion. His instincts as a moral storyteller led him to seek narrative closure ("Every story has an end," as an intertitle in The Lodger tells us), but the interlocking stories in Topaz, emblematic of a darker reality than Hitchcock had hitherto explored in depth, do not, and can not, have an end until the systems which sustain them (competitive national interests) have themselves been brought to an end. The international scope and casting of Topaz point in the right direction, but for the moment all they can do is point. The "end of Topaz" proclaimed by Andre Devereaux is an interruption, not a conclusion. Given the conventions of the spy thriller, of which Topaz is ostensibly an example, such an inconclusive resolution can only be disturbing and, in one sense at least, dissatisfactory. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.