As Alfred Hitchcock's previous spy thriller Torn Curtain had not really peaked my fancy, I didn't have the highest expectations for Topaz. The film follows a very similar premise, dealing with soviet agents and defection set around Copenhagen. It is a familiar film, familiar of a film I was not particularly fond of, and so it is set up to be a troubled affair for me. Eventually it steps it up, but it still begs for comparison.
Topaz feels like a slightly more involved personal story than Torn Curtain, but it nevertheless incurs a lot of the flaws that Torn Curtain suffered through. The pace of it all is very slow, and it runs at an extensive length as well so viewers are really going to need involvement in the tale for it to be engaging. The central problem outside of all this was that it didn't break new ground. Alfred Hitchcock's films are usually iconic steps in cinema, and even Torn Curtain was a take on a genre new to him. Topaz is largely a film that treads old ground, and while it serves as an improvement over Torn Curtain, it still doesn't stand out as one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films.
It is a lot more atmospheric than Torn Curtain however because there is less talking and more storytelling. Although the scale of the film is still larger than many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, it remains more interesting and involving with the characters in the tale. This doesn't mean it is perfect because there are still a large amount of scenes with extensive periods of nothing but dialogue to them, but they are of a lesser quantity and make way more for the story to proceed forward. The atmosphere of the film is very good because it makes use of Alfred Hitchcock's signature eye for strong cinematography consistently over the course of the film as well as being enhanced by Academy Award winner Maurice Jarre's terrific musical score. The atmosphere of the film is tense but is subtle in how it does it with a lot of implications of forthcoming plot dynamics as the source of its occurrence. The cinematography also works at capturing a lot of beautiful scenery in the film which establishes the Cuban context of the story as being very legitimate.
But despite all of its best intentions, visual elements and subtext, Topaz still succumbs to many of the same flaws as Torn Curtain. Its story is slightly more engaging and has more thrills, but it still comes off as being rather dull. The screenplay has some strong dialogue to it, but it comes up short in terms of characters because it is another film focused on the bigger picture. The bigger picture is only mildly interesting, and it is a picture which has already been covered by Alfred Hitchcock himself. The film provides a step forward for him in terms of spy thrillers and tales of espionage, but it also serves as a reminder that the genre is not his game. He does what he can and manages to take the film a long way on a very small budget, but the premise is simply not interesting enough to sufficiently sustain itself over the course of the 143 minute running time. Topaz ends up having some good scenes, but they are not tied together well enough for the film to have solid functioning as a whole.
Topaz does prove to benefit from a strong cast though.
Upon its original release in 1969, there was a lot of criticism for the casting of Fredrick Stafford in the leading role. I really didn't see it as much of a problem because I found that he did a good enough job. His performance maintained a nice level of sophistication to it, and considering that the film was an espionage thriller where protagonist Andre Devereux would have to keep his cool the entire time and have a strong level of subtlety to keep his secrets within. I found that his involvement in the character wasn't wooden as many critics claimed and rather that he stood confident in the part with the appropriate amount of subtlety and wit to it. Frederick Stafford is a charming lead in Topaz because he deals with all the material with a sense of wisdom which works as the driving force to his determination in the tale. He makes a decent case in the lead, and while he may not have the charisma of some of Alfred Hitchcock's greater lead actors such as Cary Grant or James Stewart, he makes a name for himself by delivering a solid leading performance in Topaz, engaging with the other actors with a natural level of spirit and secretive sense of determination to him. His leading performance is even greater than Paul Newman's from Torn Curtain in my opinion which is a fair call.
Dany Robin also does her part for the film. She has a lot of beauty to her which makes her a nice sight in the part, but she also puts a lot of spirit into her role. Although her performance fails to deliver the power of Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain, her presence is welcome. She is less subtle in her part than Fredrick Stafford which is positive because it means she does a strong job conveying the stressful status of a character in her situation. She puts an easy level of humanity into her part which makes her role an easily sympathetic one, and her chemistry with Frederick Stafford is strong.
So Topaz is a step up for Alfred Hitchcock in the spy thriller genre due to having a strong visual style, a lot of atmosphere and a skilled cast, but it suffers from the same slow pace, extensive length and sense of repetition that hindered his previous effort on Torn Curtain and fails to serve as one of his superior films.
Like his previous films Rope and The Trouble with Harry, Hitchcock intended the film to be an experiment for whether colours, predominately red, yellow and white, could be used to reveal and influence the plot. He later admitted that this did not work out.
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Hitchcock's signature cameo appearance occurs 27 minutes into the film, at the airport: he is seated in a wheelchair as he is being pushed by a nurse. She stops, and he nonchalantly stands and greets a man, proceeding to walk off screen with him.
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The plot is based on the real-life Sapphire Affair of 1962.
The film begins with a Russian KGB agent defecting along with his wife and daughter. It was based on that of Anatoliy Golitsyn.
André Devereaux was based on French agent Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli of the SDECE.
"Juanita de Cordoba" is loosely based on Castro's sister Juanita Castro who defected to the U.S.
The red-haired army captain known as "Hernandez" is based on Manuel Piñeiro.
Fidel Castro makes an uncredited appearance in the film along with Che Guevara. While in Cuba, Deveraux attends a Castro rally in order to keep up the appearance of his official cover, that of a French trade attaché. The film spliced in actual footage of a real Castro rally of the era to add to the realism, though Castro himself is not heard speaking.
The French title is L'Étau (English: [bench] vice, stranglehold), to avoid any reference to Topaze, a well-known 1951 French opus by Marcel Pagnol starring Fernandel and Yvette Etiévant. In the French script, the topaz gemstone is replaced by "l'opale" (opal).[citation needed
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Topaz was filmed on location in West Germany, Copenhagen, Paris, New York City, and Washington, DC,
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What to say about this film without bad-mouthing one of the greatest film makers of all time? Let me be kind and say that is very much of it's time, though if one had any interest in the Cuban missile crisis before watching, their appetite will be greatly diminished after, not by what one learns but through witnessing one of the least exciting, plodding films old Hitch ever put to film. The script (biggest culprit for films problems) is bland beyond belief and is a total wonder why it ever got picked up (slim pickings?) with it's total lack of any real tension, uninspired dialogue, uninteresting characters or memorable scenes, couple that with some quite poor acting at times and some slightly sloppy editing. It's just so not what we love about the masters work and probably would now be almost forgotten if made by another, less well known and less respected director.
Now, it's not a terrible film per se, but it certainly doesn't have a lot going for it. The plot is the old Cold War spy intrigue/mole hunt sort of thing, with emphasis on a French operative diving into Soviet and Cuban dealings around the time of the Cuban Missle Crisis. The storyline is heavily fact based, and as a result, is pretty cut and dried, and not really as compelling as it should be.
It doesn't help that Hitch made a lot of films like this already, most of them better, and ones I saw before this one. Even though it has ties to reality, the film is dull, not engaging, and kind of a bore. I really didn't care what was happening most of the time, and that's really not a good sign considering the film's long running time.
The film's not all bad though. It has a lot of merit from a technical standpoint, with some good locations, sets, and camerawork. Maurice Jarre's score is also really good, and probably the film's highlight, aside from the film scene Karin Dor is in. Speaking of actors, this could probably have benefited from some serious star power. That wouldn't be a guarantee that it would've helped, but you never know. I do think the highlight as far as acting goes to John Vernon, and his portrayal of a Cuban revolutionary is both bewildering and awesome. I t probably wouldn't fly today, and, while I'm not sure why they got a Canadian to play a Cuban, I won't complain either, as I think Vernon was a solid character actor.
All in all, the film is just kinda 'meh'. I mostly just think the film falls because it all feels very routine and phoned in. Of course, when you're Hitchcock, I guess it's okay to not be on the top of your game all the time...even though it happened to him a few times, especially during the latter years. See it if you want, but just know that its reputation is pretty true.
OK if you need to kill a couple of hours...
The cast is decent enough but no one really captures your attention here. And while there are a couple scenes of great tension that Hitch builds masterfully, but they are a little too few and far between to keep this from being one of his most disappointing efforts.
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.