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Perfection: Stewart and Kelly in Rear Window.

Elegance and Suspense

By Shawn Stone

Topaz

Rear Window

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

 

They’ve been running a Hitchcock festival at the GE Theatre at Proctors, which has provided the rare chance to dive into the oeuvre of the “master of suspense” with an audience. And, yes, seeing Rear Window with a crowd is an enhanced experience.

But first, the much-maligned Topaz. This 1969 Cold War thriller, based on an indigestible lump of a novel by Leon Uris, has always fallen in the category of unloved Hitchcock, alongside duds like The Paradine Case and Waltzes From Vienna (don’t ask). The plot meanders; the film, in dutiful fashion, globetrots from place to place, from Copenhagen to Washington, D.C., then to Harlem and Havana, and, finally, Paris. The hero is French diplomat André Devereaux, portrayed by Frederick Stafford with all the charm of a well-polished block of wood; he is, to the annoyance of his sneaky anti-American superiors, helping the Yanks figure out what those darn Russians are doing in Cuba in the summer of 1962.

Hitchcock seems bored with the plot, but he’s very interested in individual set-pieces—and that’s what makes Topaz so much fun. The film opens with a Russian spy and his family trying to elude their Soviet handlers and defect to the West (personified by square-jawed CIA man John Forsythe); the cat-and-mouse stuff in a factory that produces kitschy figurines is delicious, and the sequence ends in an unexpected burst of violence that catches you off guard. It’s Hitchcock reminding us that it is, after all, a life-and-death situation. The Harlem sequence, with Roscoe Lee Browne as a florist who freelances as a spy for the French, is a perfect little film-within-the-film. André, aka Well- Polished Block of Wood, meets Browne at his flower shop. Not wanting to bore us with details we already know, Hitchcock stages their exchange in silence (they go into a cooler to talk), a motif he carries through the sequence as Browne charms his way into the Hotel Theresa, up to the Cubans’ floor and into the dingy suite of one of Fidel’s right-hand men (a hilariously miscast John Vernon, aka Animal House’s Dean Wormer). The use of “live” street sound is marvelous. This ends in another flash of violence; despite the melodramatics of the material, Hitchcock tries to suggest that spying is a lot of dull footwork, punctuated, occasionally, by bloodshed.

There’s a draggy section in Cuba, though the hacienda set and environs are pure Universal City, Calif. This bit is enlivened only by some amusing news footage of Fidel preening for the masses, a flock of hungry seagulls, and the charisma of German actress Karin Dor. Finally, the film decamps to Paris for its droll climax. André has discovered that a high-ranking French official is spying for the Russians, but doesn’t know who it is. Hitchcock stages a decorous luncheon among André’s colleagues that has as much tension as any of the film’s earlier action sequences (and benefits from terrific French actors Philippe Noiret and Michel Piccoli in their first English-language roles).

The version they’re screening at Proctors has Hitchcock’s preferred ending (three were shot), a bit of dark humor that ends Topaz on a perfect note.

Like most first-rank Hollywood directors working in the 1950s, Hitchcock’s films tended to get longer and longer—but not 1954’s Rear Window, which is lean and mean. It’s a simple situation: World-renowned photojournalist L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) has been stuck in his apartment for weeks with a broken leg. To take the blunt point of view of his physical therapy nurse Stella (the irreplaceable Thelma Ritter), his mind isn’t right: He spends too much time spying on his neighbors across the back courtyard of his apartment building, and not enough time thinking seriously about his sort-of fiancée, Lisa (an incandescent Grace Kelly).

The apartment block set is a wonder, with each window containing a fully drawn character and situation. (The set is as much a character as the leads.) Despite the theatricality of the situation, the film is breathtakingly fluid—and it gets a sense of urban living as well as any film I’ve seen. And Stewart, as Jefferies, delivers a psychological insight into his character with every reaction to what he sees.

Eventually Jeffries suspects something terrible might have happened behind one of those windows. The long sequence in which a murder may (or may not) be taking place is a tour de force; Hitchcock plays with time by fading in and out as Jefferies tracks the suspicious behavior of his hulking neighbor (Raymond Burr) and his now-you-see-her, now-you-don’t invalid wife. It rains. It stops. The neighbor trundles in and out of his flat with a suspicious suitcase; Jefferies drifts in and out of sleep, at one point nodding off and missing some key visual information.

The film doesn’t waste any time on its way to the climactic series of confrontations; every action either moves the story forward or provides a telling insight. It’s perfect.

The screening I attended was mostly full, and the audience was gripped by the movie. What a treat. There are still three days of films left (March 23, 25 and 27) in the fest; check proctors.org for shows and times.


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