Torn Curtain was rocky going, a mostly-at-sea Hitchcock vehicle despite inhabiting the spy/thriller genre that made him famous. His follow up, Topaz, however, proved so deficient, it makes Torn Curtain resemble classic-era Hitch by comparison. An interminably dull thriller based around the Cuban Missile Crisis, it finding the director returning to a propaganda picture arena not really seen since his World War II features. The difference with Topaz being, it’s fairly difficult to feed audiences views if they’ve fallen asleep.
Deveraux: I’ve got to see what the Russians are up to in Cuba!
Hitchcock was adapting Leon Uris’ best-selling 1967 novel of the same name, so while both title and film are somewhat obscure now, Universal probably had good reason to think they were onto something lucrative; the author had also scored a prior hit with Exodus, turned into a reasonably successful film in 1960. It has been suggested the studio pushed the director into making Topaz. Certainly, the novel, initially adapted by Uris himself – part of his deal – before Samuel A Taylor (Vertigo) was brought in, works almost exclusively against the director’s strengths.
Labyrinthine of plot and extremely talky, there’s little opportunity for Hitch’s traditional visual flourish, less still his mordant sense of humour. The director then compounds the issue – possibly, as some have suggested, due to the unhappy experience of having Paul Newman and Julie Andrews foisted on him in Torn Curtain – by populating his picture with largely inconspicuous character actors. This has the terminal effect of understating the entire experience. A two-and-a-half (near enough) hour film – the director’s longest – feels more like it’s four-and-a-half. Indeed, other than a couple of sequences or shots, you’d be hard-pressed to discern this was a movie from the master of suspense. Much as he derided the responses of the disastrous test screenings, audiences were entirely right to be confused.
Leonard Maltin offers a cheerful defence of the picture in a DVD feature, although he ends up acknowledging many of the reasons it doesn’t work – “quiet, subtle, intelligent”, “European”, “personal” – and while one can put together a coherent argument for Topaz having been just too different, and “not a mainstream Hollywood slam dunk”, that doesn’t really address that, as an engaging piece of storytelling, it stinks. Some comparisons have been made between Uris’ tale and the work of John Le Carré, and I suspect Hitchcock would have been similarly at sea with the intricate demands of a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Such dense narratives play against, rather than to, his strengths.
Pauline Kael spent most of her review addressing the foibles of auteur theory, but she was on point noting that allegiance can blind one to the true state of affairs: “The movie will probably be acclaimed as a masterpiece by those who think slow, awkwardly timed scenes and bad set ups are deliberately bad; Topaz is full of them”. Catty as her review is, even unabashed enthusiast Maltin accepts this failing, noting the profuse and unconvincing process shots the director had become dependent on – not being a great fan of location shoots – and how they increasingly identified him as out of touch with prevailing filmic trends. Further, there were those who claimed this as a conscious stylistic trait, one to be venerated (see Marnie’s artifice).
I’m genuinely doubtful a star player – Connery has been suggested as the director’s choice – would have done enough to liven up the stodgy structure, but it couldn’t have hurt. Frederick Stafford isn’t bad per se, but he’s stolid in a film that could use anything for a boost. Stafford had previously played OSS 117, and one can perhaps detect Jean Dujardin riffing on his inexpressive permanence in his own, humorous interpretation of the secret agent (however, it seems Dujardin was actually cast for his resemblance to Connery!)
Nordstrom: The way you’re going, you might find yourself on the steps of the Russian embassy tomorrow.
Topaz’s plot is vaguely based on an actual case of communist infiltration of the French government, but to get there we have to endure a massive detour to Cuba. There’s no doubting where Hitch’s – or rather, his masters’, as he absolutely couldn’t give a toss about such things – sympathies lie, since these Russians and Cubans are an invidious lot. Defector Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius) takes great pleasure in spilling as few beans as possible to his American benefactors (headed up by John Forsythe’s Michael Nordstrom, looking every one of those fifteen years since he last worked with the director). So French agent André Deveraux (Stafford) is called upon to do what he can, confirming there are missiles in Cuba and then heading over to consort with his mistress Juanita (Karin Dor) and fall foul of Castro stand-in Parra (John Vernon). It’s only when he returns from red heaven that he learns of the Soviet spy ring – Topaz – operating within French Intelligence. Essentially there are two plots here – the Cuban and the spy ring – where one would have more than sufficed.
Vernon’s pretty good as a villainous Cuban, but Dor (SPECTRE agent Helga Brandt in You Only Live Twice) is less memorable, particularly in contrast to Dany Robin as Deveraux’s cuckqueaned wife Nicole. They’re additionally encumbered by the inertia of the Cuban scenes. Much like the rest of the picture, in that respect. But then, no one, not Connery (him again), not Soderbergh, seems able to make a decent Cuban movie. Michael Bay, I’ll grant you. And Thirteen Days is a decent enough Cuban missile crisis flick, but it doesn’t spend any time on the ground.
We get to witness what vicious, torture-fixated hounds the Cuban authorities are, so there’s that. And there’s the signature moment – not signature enough to justify 142 minutes of superfluous surrounding footage, mind – where Juanita is shot by Parra and her dress blossoms on the floor beneath her as she falls, like a pool of blood.
But the best sequence relating to Cuban events occurs before we go there, as Deveraux employs the services of coolly confident contact Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) to bribe Parra’s secretary Uribe (Donald Randolph) so he can take the necessary photos of documents. Hitch traces out an effective line of tension as Dubois distracts Parra with balcony photos while Uribe removes the briefcase. On discovering it is missing, Parra and his men break into Uribe’s nearby hotel room mid-the spies taking photos, and Dubois quickly legs it out of the window, falling to an awning beneath and dashing off down the street, hotly pursued. It’s a brief glimmer of the director’s flair.
It’s also evidence that the best scenes in the picture are mostly those absent the lead character. A later meeting between the two French Intelligence double agents Granville (Michel Piccoli) and Jarré (Philippe Noiret) is commanding just for the presence of these two actors (an earlier gathering organised by Deveraux finds Noiret stealing the scene by eating throughout). There’s another with Noiret again – perhaps he should have been the lead – and Deveraux’s journalist son-in-law Picard (Michael Subor), where a discussion of terms ends abruptly with the arrival of agents to silence the former.
Hitch intended to finish the film with a duel between Devereaux and old friend, now antagonist, Granville (with whom Nicole has begun an affair), but it was entirely understandably laughed out of test screenings. It is indeed a risible idea to introduce something so flamboyant in a picture otherwise so determinedly devoid of frills and excess. According to Truffaut, Hitch blamed his audience, suggesting that “young Americans have become so materialistic and cynical that they could not accept the concept of chivalrous behaviour”. Not really: it’s simply that the sequence is a complete non sequitur to preceding events.
He also attempted to edit together an ending where it is evident Granville has topped himself. This was the one included in an initial release, along with twenty minutes hacked out of the film. The now accepted “official” version is the original, presumably on the basis that it’s most aligned to Hitch’s vision, although that clearly chopped and changed, now with a third ending. The director purportedly believed was the best of bad bunch, in which we see Granville boarding a plane heading for Soviet shores, waving ta-ta to Devereaux and a now reconciled Nicole as they board a flight to the US.
That ending is appropriately cynical and probably the most Hitch thing here as a result – that the whole spy game is just a game. It’s also a rare ray of humour in a largely dour, drudge of a film. Topaz as a title sounds as if it should be exotic – maybe a heist movie – but unfortunately, it’s far from a gem. It really does deserve its reputation as one of the few abject failures of its director’s career.