Movies We Like
Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.
Though it’s said that Hitchcock was pushed into Topaz by the studio, he seems to be doing a smart James Bond flick. While Torn Curtain felt like a would-be star vehicle with glossy locations (only worthwhile for one brilliant fight scene), Topaz, on the other hand, works in opposite directions. There is no big fight scene, it’s mostly talk, but Hitchcock doesn’t need action to create suspense. And even with a fantastic groovy spy score by Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) this is still stripped down, closer to le Carré or Deighton than Flemming.
After the mega success of Psycho and The Birds, American audiences seemed to turn their back on Hitchcock, but the French kept up the aduration. Hitchcock was a big Influence on the French New Wave who were at the vanguard of '60s cinema, and finally Hitch seemed to be taking a page from their book, stripping the genre down to its barest elements (as much a Hitchcock adventure flick can do that), using lots of mirrors, edgy locations and a very Euro-cast (often playing nationalities other than their own). He even employs many of the New Wave’s actors: Devereaux daughter is played by the adorible Claude Jade, who starred in the Truffaut’s trilogy of Stolen Kisses, Bed & Board and Love on the Run. Subor was the star of Godard’s Le Petit Soldat. Michel Piccoli turns up as a French double agent and his resume is a who’s who of French New Wave directors including Godard, Melville, Renoir, Varda, Resnais and, maybe most famously, the Spanish New Wavist Luis Buñuel.
Topaz’s third act takes another twist. For causing trouble in Cuba, Devereaux is recalled to Paris, but before leaving the Americans tell him about leaks in France. There is a group of high level French intelligence officers working as double agents for the Soviets whose cabal is known as Topaz and Devereaux must find them out. And then there is that crazy lame ending. Hitch, unsatisfied with the climax, shot three different ones and used them in different country's releases (available on most DVD versions of the film), but none of them really work. The vast scholarly writings of why and what Hitchcock was going for in the end gives Topaz another air of mystery. Like the works of Shakespeare or Beethoven, the art of Alfred Hitchcock will hopefully continue to be pondered and studied for generations, if not centuries, to come.