Following his defection to the United States, a Russian General informs the C.I.A of his nation's plans to position nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba. The C.I.A seek the aid of a French secret agent (Stafford) who manages to steal documents, confirming the plans, from a Cuban official (Vernon) visiting the United Nations in New York. Stafford heads to Cuba to investigate further and also meet up with his mistress (Dor), a leader of the anti-Communist Cuban resistance. Meanwhile, the C.I.A have uncovered information regarding a Soviet spy-ring known as 'Topaz', working within the French intelligence network.
Of all his films, 1969's 'Topaz' is arguably the least "Hitchcockian". With it's rambling plot and overly talky script, it resembles the work of a modern Hollywood hack rather than a master film-maker. Hitch had absolutely zero interest in adapting Leon Uris' novel but, following the commercial failures of 'Marnie' and 'Torn Curtain', Universal forced the best-selling book on him. The production was a troubled affair, with scenes being written as late as the night before they were due to be filmed. This infuriated the director, who had spent his career working in a strict, organized manner. He's often quoted as saying how his films were made long before the cameras began to roll, with every last detail worked out meticulously. This was far from the case with 'Topaz'.
After a cheap, stock-footage utilizing, credits sequence, Hitch gives us an impressive opening. The defecting general and his family leave the Russian embassy in Copenhagen, planning to rendezvous with the C.I.A men who will aid their escape. Through a great crane shot, it's revealed that they have been seen leaving the building and are followed by two men and the creepiest female Russian agent since 'From Russia With Love''s Lotte Lenya. Hitch builds a suspenseful, dialogue free, set-piece as the family are followed through downtown Copenhagen by the villains. We're on familiar Hitchcock ground here but it's one of the few occasions in this film's lengthy running time.
This opening sequence apart, there's about two minutes at best of classic Hitchcock on display in 'Topaz'. The film's most famous moment comes when Dor is discovered to be a traitor by Vernon, who holds her in his arms before shooting her. When he releases her lifeless body from his grip, she collapses to the floor, her purple gown spilling out like a pool of blood, all shown in a stunning overhead shot. (Spielberg paid homage to this moment in 'Munich', replacing the gown with a shattering milk bottle). Just as he used the roar of a jet engine to prevent us from hearing plot details in 'North by NorthWest', here Hitch has two characters hold a discussion behind a thick sound-proof door. We can see them but can't hear a word they say.
For the most part, 'Topaz' is a humorless affair but there are a couple of moments of absurd comedy. They both feature Hitch's great love - food! In one scene, Vernon is searching for a document he seems to have misplaced. He finds it doubling as a napkin for a half-eaten burger, its text smeared with grease. (Once again America has meddled with Cuban affairs). The second comes courtesy of photographic equipment, hidden by spies inside baguettes. When seagulls fly off with the bread in their beaks, it alerts the villains as to the whereabouts of the spies.
These brief sprinklings of note are rare and mostly only of interest to Hitch buffs. On the whole, the film is a terminal bore, like watching a Bond movie under the influence of heroin. The plot seems to ramble on for an age, eventually leading to an unsatisfying conclusion. Three endings were filmed as Hitch and his screenwriter Samuel Taylor struggled to wrap it all up.
The final line of the movie comes from Stafford, "That's the end of Topaz". It's a relief to hear it.