Hitchcock Reviews: “Topaz” (1969)
Posted by therebelprince on September 18, 2012
Welcome back to my Hitchcock reviews. As we near the end of Hitch’s career, let’s take a look at one of the director’s last – and most debated – films.
“To be a man of principle is one thing, but a man doesn’t cut his throat on principle.”
— Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli), Topaz
written by Samuel A. Taylor, from Leon Uris‘ novel.
A French intelligence agent (Frederick Stafford) and his CIA counterpart (John Forsythe) pursue the identities of a Soviet spy ring inside the French intelligence service.
By 1969, Hitchcock was facing the twilight of his career. His longtime relationships had all but passed: producer Joan Harrison, who had gone from films to helming his TV series; editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Robert Burks, both of whom had sadly died; composer Bernard Herrmann, whose fall-out with Hitch during Torn Curtain turned out to be permanent; and his repertory cast. Countless actors had revolved throughout Hitch’s films for decades, longtime players like Leo G. Carroll, stars from Bergman and Kelly to Peck and Grant. But for his final films, Hitch would rely almost entirely on new performers, writers, and crew members. The ageing, health-troubled director was naturally going to take longer to craft each film. But now, he was struggling to find actors that excited him and writers who understood his unusual, lengthy story-planning process.
As a story of spies, international intrigue, and feminine betrayal, Topaz hearkened back to some of the oldest recurring themes in Hitchcock’s work. This time, however, the director would be shooting on location, with a cast almost entirely made up of international stars. Based on a novel by Leon Uris, it seemed that Hitch could be back on top after the setback of Torn Curtain.
Did he succeed? As I mentioned when reviewing Torn Curtain, I don’t generally stand for reviews-by-summary. However, I’m going to have to make an exception here, to try and analyse this film with some kind of internal logic.
To my mind, Topaz is a markedly better film than its predecessor. Both are tales of Cold War defectors, and both have a peripatetic, episodic vibe to them. But, where Torn Curtain centred on two characters who – by acting choices and scripting difficulties – were unable to express the weight of what was happening around them, Topaz is far more contemporary, treating the Cold War as an event, and not “something that happens to Europeans”. Hitch wanted to direct a more grounded James Bond – at the time it was en vogue to decry the gadgetry and glamour of the films as being far removed from Ian Fleming’s novels. I think that he succeeded in that, at least: the film is free of toys and bikini-clad nuclear scientists. The scene in which Cuban official Rico Parra (John Vernon) interrogates two supporters of the underground is particularly gritty. With her lover (Lewis Charles) unconscious, the bloodied wife (Anna Navarro) is unable to speak; it’s an almost wordless sequence that is more affecting than anything ’60s Bond ever did.
Vignette One: The Kusanovs. The opening sequence of Topaz, like most of Hitch’s late works, is a languid sequence, but I rather enjoy it. The Kusanov family (Per-Axel Arosenius, Tina Hedstrom, Sonja Kolthoff) defect to America, via a typically tense-but-low-key escape. It’s another example of Hitchcock’s theory that any scene is interesting if the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table; here, it’s the Kusanovs moving through a factory, trying to remain innocent even as they make a life-threatening decision. Kusanov’s debriefing is shot from a variety of Dutch angles, managing to portray the Americans entirely from the Russians’ point-of-view, while Kusanov’s daughter plays piano in the next room. It’s a stark sequence that sets in motion an unusually structured film. Topaz is really a series of interconnected vignettes. From the Kusanovs, we meet their handler Nordstrom (Forsythe), then his French connection Andre Devereaux (Stafford), and his wife Nicole (Dany Robin). At Nordstrom’s request, the Deverauxs accompany their daughter Michele (Claude Jade) and her new husband Francois (Michael Subor) to America, in the hopes of unravelling the mystery of the spy ring. Their aim is the Cuban, Parra, or his secretary Luis Uribe (Don Randolphe). Did you follow all that?
On the one hand, the film is overburdened with characters to the point where much of the characterisation is left to the actors themselves. Yet, Taylor’s script is often quite intelligent, attempting to provide each character with their own motivation and narrative throughline. While some – particularly John Forsythe’s Nordstrom – fall by the wayside, most characters get their moment in the sun. The Deverauxs sit out half the movie, but they do have a sincere, complex relationship: Andre has placed his job above even his relationship, while Nicole is suspicious that her husband’s business trips are more than just business. The early scene in which they attempt to unravel each other’s secrets is quite underplayed. (Robin is one of the film’s best acting assets.) At the same time, the script sometimes functions as a slice-of-life piece, giving lines to minor characters just to help populate the film’s world. Note, for instance, eager, effeminate revolutionary Thomas (John Roper), and the Kusanovs, who open the film but disappear thereafter.
Vignette Two: DuBois. With no direct method of getting to Uribe, Devereaux calls in spy (and part-time florist) Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), who poses as a reporter to sneak out vital information. Browne gives one of the most spirited performances in the film, with his sly references to race suggesting that Hitchcock enjoyed the frisson that modern, international filming could afford his characters. Topaz is often described as a rare non-star Hitchcock, but it’s more than just the relative lack of famous faces in the cast. It’s that the film is truly an ensemble piece. Each episode becomes its own set piece, and – for the most part – it works. On first viewing, I struggled to connect the dots, but with a rewatch, I’ve found I enjoy the strands connecting the many, disparate characters of the piece.
Apparently, Hitchcock was impressed with the notion of using colours as a storytelling method. In his later years, he was very interested in the colours worn by characters, and he hoped he could use a subtle method of revealing elements of the plot through colour. I don’t quite see it, and I think he may have been a bit deluded on the subject, but I thought I should mention it. For the most part, Topaz follows Torn Curtain in using an earthy palate, but it has a vibrancy that the earlier film lacked. Dubois’ escape from the embassy feels immediate, and there’s more to come when we hit Cuba. The cinematography – by Jack Hildyard – retains that softened effect so common in the 1960s, which is a pet peeve of mine, but on arrival in Cuba, Hitchcock seems to go out of his way to create a more modern, harsher landscape.
Vignette Three: Juanita. On arrival in Cuba, Devereaux meets with his contact, Juanita (Karin Dor). Juanita is the lover of Parra even as she’s selling his secrets, which doesn’t work out well for her, but sets up plenty of tension. It’s a well-played bluff from the script, since it adds nuance to Devereaux, a character who lacks much agency. He’s earlier denied being unfaithful to his lovely wife, and now we find out he is – but he’s the hero of the thing! There’s a yearning quality to the scenes between Andre and Juanita, which – despite Maurice Jarre‘s slightly dated score – adds power to the performances. Stafford’s performances rises above workmanlike for this sequence, but he just doesn’t have the edge necessary to be a multi-faceted hero. One never gets a sense of urgency from him, or a feeling of how his mind is factoring in the constantly-shifting elements of the political landscape. More than many, I appreciate the times when Hitchcock is forced out of his comfort zone when it comes to actors. But this is the kind of role that may have been served better in the hands of a Connery or a Grant. On the flipside, John Vernon, as Parra, is a powerhouse. He’s haunting when he threatens Andre, and you can feel the self-doubt of this self-proclaimed revolutionary leader during the interrogation sequence.
(It’s odd to see the stock footage of Castro in a Hitchcock film. While the director had been contemporary during WWII, his post-war films had seemed to exist in a world of their own. This was great news for pieces like The Trouble with Harry, less pleasant for cutting-edge stories like Torn Curtain. Topaz makes the sudden jump into reality, which is jarring, but also a nice modern touch.)
Vignette Four – Parra. Topaz is not known as a Hitchcock classic, even if – like Marnie – there has been some critical reevaluation in the intervening decades. Disliking Uris’ original script, Hitchcock and Taylor were tinkering even during shooting, and the film reportedly had no ending until production was well underway. I’ve waxed poetic about the tapestry structure, but it threatens to come undone late in the piece, because every character has been performing their role in the plot, rather than allowing us to focus on anyone in particular. Despite the individual success of each vignette – and the sense that they really are part of one, complex world – we arrive at a climax where the sum is much less exciting than its parts. Hitchcock’s innate talent was for storytelling; his interest, however, lay in artistry and the methods of challenging storytelling formula. The result was a film that never really has a climax in the traditional sense. Indeed, the strongest moments come here, long before the film’s end.
There are some sequences in Hitchcock’s canon – the shower scene from Psycho, the slow zoom in Young and Innocent, that bloody crop-duster (you know the one) – that have been talked to death by critics. Topaz contains the most beautiful (and exhaustively critiqued) of them all, but I’m happy to talk about it anyway. Parra has learned that Juanita is a key figure in the underground: she’s been betraying him. He descends the staircase toward her, Juanita’s face gradually crumpling as she realises something has gone horribly wrong. As his subordinates jabber information in the background, Parra clasps her in his hands. They have almost no dialogue: their shared look – which seems to last forever – is enough to portray the various feelings soaring through the pair. Juanita knows he’s found her out; Parra knows he can’t let her live without interrogating her; Juanita knows there is no way to talk things out – she signed up for a risky mission, but now that risk has made its presence known. As the soldiers continue to exchange jovial debate, Parra pulls the trigger, a look of pained regret on his face, and Juanita collapses. As she does so, her rich purple dress spreads across the checkerboard floor, like a flower of blood. (The director apparently had several hands on cords of the dress, in order to achieve a perfect flow.) Vernon and Dor are a sheer wonder in this sequence, and it remains a highlight of Hitchcock’s work. (Credit must also go to William H. Ziegler‘s editing, and Edith Head, in her final role as costume designer.) Nothing can top that shot for pure artistry, yet it feels completely earned within the context of the characters, and the devastating decision made by Parra.
Vignette Five – Andre. Yet, things must move on. Andre returns from Cuba to an anticlimactic spy plot that lacks the immediacy of the Cuban sequences. The fact that the Soviets are placing missiles in Cuba should feel terrifying, and it did when we were in occupied Europe or in Cuban slums. Now, however, the situation is reduced to a bunch of foreign men in suits, and somehow that threat loses its power. The concept of individuals creating a war that could wipe out humanity is a great one, and the members of this “Syndicate” – Claude Martin (John Van Dreelen), Henri Jarre (Philippe Noiret), Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli) are all well-cast. Simply put, though, they’ve come too late in the film to merit individual storylines. Andre’s subtle attempts to wheedle out the spy are interesting, yes, but they’re based on the actions of the previous characters in the film, who have all been left behind. In short, it’s not perfect.
Vignette Six – Jarre (Topaz). There’s a reason that Psycho and Frenzy work so well, and it’s something Hitchcock could usually only explore on television – the point-of-view of the villain. As Jarre realises he is the target of an investigation, he attempts to cover things up, and there’s a chance that the film will come alive in the final reels. Unfortunately, there’s too much exposition for this to happen. Francois (yes, he of the early sequences) is sent to pose as a journalist and interview Jarre, wherein we learn that Mrs. Devereaux is sleeping with Granville. It’s a complicated chain of relationships that is hard to get a handle on, leading to a very messy climax. Francois escapes with his life, leading to a strangely expository sequence in which he and Nicole uncover the identity of “Topaz” mostly by accident. Andre – our purported hero – is left to simply react to this news (and reacting isn’t exactly Stafford’s strong point).
The problem of the film’s ending had plagued Hitchcock and Taylor for some time. Originally, Topaz was slated to end with a showdown between Andre and Granville in a soccer stadium, but test audiences reacted poorly. While it was a reductive ending for such a complicated film, it at least had panache, bringing a sense of climax and release to the audience. The director hastily cobbled together a replacement ending from existing footage, in which Granville commits suicide but this one ultimately wasn’t successful either. With no time or money to make a new finale, Hitchcock had to be as creative with the camera as need be. With four minutes remaining, Topaz relies primarily on long shots and newspaper headlines to convey the status quo. Granville learns that he’s been found out, Andre and Nicole – mysteriously reconciled despite their respective affairs – learn that he has diplomatic immunity and thus can’t be caught, and the groups go their separate ways. The last line is literally: “Anyhow, that’s the end of ‘Topaz'”. For one of Hitch’s most relentlessly bloody films in years, the cavalier attitude to the deaths – and to world peace – seems a little unfeeling! Perhaps it’s fitting for a film about an increasingly complex situation to not end with a simple solution, but this is extreme.
Technically, I respect Topaz, with its harsh angles, gorgeous lighting, and ambitious structure. For the most part, the consummate professional could always overcome the issues that plagued so many of his films. Yet, what he couldn’t beat were the leaden performances of some of the cast. The women stand out – Robin and Dor infuse their characters with far more life than the script allows, while Jade has a small role but handles herself well. Perhaps Hitch simply allowed more time with the actresses, or maybe he was more in tune to the female psychology (which had been central to every one of his ’60s films). Other than Browne and Vernon, none of the men convince. As Francois, Michael Subor seems primarily amused when he is grazed by a bullet with only five minutes left in the film’s running time. John Forsythe – who had worked with Hitchcock on The Trouble with Harry and I Saw the Whole Thing – sleepwalks through his role, originally seeming to be the protagonist but ultimately disappearing for three-quarters of the movie. And, as Hitchcock’s proto-Bond, Frederick Stafford doesn’t even seem to know that he’s in a film!
I’m not about to dismiss this movie, with its rich structure, and lovely direction. The mere idea of “Hitchcock’s twilight years” is nonsense. At the same time, the sheer ambition of the piece – with its seemingly endless tapestry of characters – could’ve used a few more drafts. At a lengthy 143 minutes, Topaz is willing to create multi-dimensional characters, throwing out the notion of “hero” and “villain”. Yet, this leaves us with no idea who to root for, and a defeatist ending that seems accidental rather than deliberate, and left contemporary audiences with an aftertaste of polite confusion. More to the point, it rarely feels like a “Hitchcock”. The director’s earlier spy films had always indulged in humour, pace, and plot structures that gradually whittled down from complex playing boards to tight finales. His later successes – including the two audacious works that would close out his career in the ’70s – could glue together black comedy, grisly sequences, and tight character arcs, without ever feeling like a grab-bag of styles. Topaz never feels like a Hitchcock film, but nor does it have enough dramatic unity to become a great “non-Hitchcock Hitchcock” like The Wrong Man or Marnie. For the stand-out sequences and the overall atmosphere, Topaz stands at about #20 on my ever-shifting list of Hitchcock rankings. Yet, I can’t help feeling that I could be more strongly defensive of the film if they had only let the script simmer for a little while longer…
Hitch Cameo: Unusually, Hitchcock didn’t restrict his appearance to the first ten minutes, as he did in most of his later films (so as not to distract the audience from the plot). Half an hour into the movie, a wheelchair-bound Hitch miraculously rises from his chair to greet an old friend.
Next time: we’ll take a look at why we still love Hitchcock, and analyse his return to London in Frenzy.