It’s been interesting for me to fill in the spots on my list of Hitchcock movies seen and not seen by starting with two Cold War spy movies, both of which essentially fail as complete movies but have flashes of brilliance within them. Torn Curtain was miscast, looked artificial and moved too slowly through an uneven plot, yet presented individual scenes and set-pieces that rank with the best material Hitchock had presented. He followed up the critical disappointment of Torn Curtain with another misfire in Topaz, a best selling spy novel by Leon Uris that Universal had bought for a bundle and basically assigned to Hitchcock. Uris’ own script was unusable, so a new one by Vertigo screenwriter Samuel Taylor was done, and unfortunately it does not streamline the overly meandering storyline into a cohesive plot where suspense would be built throughout the film, as opposed to brilliant suspenseful moments within individual scenes.
But Taylor comes up short as well – most of the dialogue is stilted and overly weighted towards the expositional, and many of the actors appear to merely be reading lines. The best sequences in the film are the ones without spoken dialogue.
The opening sequence works for this reason. We follow a Soviet defector and his family eluding KGB pursuers, and it crackles along briskly – we also get some clever use of mirror reflection shots, crane movements, and sound – all utilized well. The defector’s daughter steps into a display area of assorted china while being tailed by the KGB and the near-silence is sharply broken when she purposefully drops and smashes a small figurine to get the attention of a secretary who can guide her to a private telephone. It evokes the museum chase in Torn Curtain, where only footsteps guide us in terms of how close Paul Newman’s pursuer is to him.
To quickly sum up the premise of this thing, it takes place in 1962 and the Soviet defector reveals some information that the Soviets are building missiles in Cuba. Forsythe knows that no American can get in there, so he recruits his French spy buddy played by Frederick Stafford. Problem is, there’s someone high up in French intelligence working for the Soviets who could blow the whole thing.
Later on in perhaps the best sequence of the film, a Harlem florist/operative played by the great Roscoe Lee Browne must infiltrate a hotel filled with Cuban dignitaries in order to photograph some secret papers in a briefcase that must be finagled away from baddie John Vernon in secret.
But the problem with Topaz is how the main villain does not even appear in the film until the final twenty minutes or so. For a while, it seems John Vernon-as-Che-Guevara is the main bad guy and impediment to our protagonist French spy (rather underplayed by Stafford). Once a long segment in Cuba is over with however, the plot turns towards the uncovering of the French double agent – which makes all the actual material subject to the spy intrigue in Cuba fade into the background.
It all comes out a slowly paced mess by the end. But within it, as with Torn Curtain, some wonderful cinematic moments: the close-ups and whispering when John Vernon learns of a traitor (played by Karin Dor, who you might remember as the flaming redhead SPECTRE chick in You Only Live Twice who bangs Bond and winds up as a handy nosh for Blofeld’s pirhanas) in his midst, the way Dor’s dress spreads as a substitute pool of blood when she is shot, a wonderful little performance by French character actor Phillippe Noiret as a Soviet mole – but this remains a spy film this complex builds to a “Is that IT??? It CAN’T be!!!” climax where the big moment winds up being: a man is asked to leave a room.
At the time, one complaint about Topaz was the lack of stars in the cast. Hitchcock had always filled his films with top names – Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman… and so on. There are no big stars in Topaz, and most of the roles are filled by foreign actors speaking English in foreign accents. As time goes on and we look beyond the cast and look upon Hitchcock movies as, well, Hitchcock movies, the lack of names in the cast means less, especially when one of them went on to play Dean Wormer. So we judge Topaz in comparison to other Hitchcock films, especially those with a spy plotline, like North By Northwest or Notorious – and we come up short.
What I really came away with from my viewing of Topaz (and Torn Curtain, for that matter) was a reinforcement of my view that Psycho and the audience expectations it produced basically burned Hitchcock for the remainder of his career. By upping the ante of suspense and violence, Hitchock had thus typed himself as a shock-suspense director in the minds of the ever-growing young boomer movie audience in the 1960s, losing his rep as a director of more “elegantly” suspenseful films and ending the amazing hot streak he enjoyed throughout the 1950s which began with Strangers On A Train. After Psycho, Hitchcock either (a) delivered the goods to an audience wanting shock (whether in The Birds, a film I can’t help but find rather silly to be honest, and in what is basically a knock-off of Psycho in a way, Frenzy, which was his penultimate film and last critically successful one) or (b) disappointed his audience with three duds in a row – Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz – all of which have wonderful individual sequences within them but don’t hold together as complete films.
What else did I come away with? Well, a reminder of how my mind is an endless wasteland of assorted pop culture memories, when one of the American agents spoke one of his handful of lines, and I clearly recognized the voice. A little IMDB research confirmed my suspiscions. Pathetic or brilliant? You make the call!
Still, even second-tier Hitchcock is better than most old movies out there, and for film geeks like myself, watching Topaz was certainly worthwhile.