To say some positive things: Hitchcock at this stage still has a grip on set pieces, and the opening is terrific. It's mostly done without much dialog, if at all, as characters are following other characters, others then notice they're being followed, subtle little things happen like the knocking over of a glass doll, and always the camera and editing make this kinetic while calling just enough attention (i.e. that first shot after the credits where the camera pirouettes, or I should say the zoom lens, from a view into a small window/mirror to the actors leaving a building and then following).
And certain individual shots and moments, like seeing exposition happening but not hearing it (we don't have to hear it, of course), or a couple of key over-head shots in a set-piece involving a man having to kill someone he doesn't want to but has no choice left... I mean, there are moments where it's hard not to get the 'Hitch gives on a spine-tingling sensation).
Oh, and I must point out John Vernon, easily the best consistent part of the movie acting-wise; it's interesting that a white guy who clearly shouldn't be playing a Cuban doesn't show that it's miscast. He completely sold me on this character of this Castro acolyte and makes him intimidating and on occasion soulful. I thought he'd only be in one scene and when I saw he'd be a key antagonist, I was thrilled.
I think even the story itself, when you look at structurally how it's laid out and the little twists and turns it takes, is compelling enough to keep attention, or at the least it's not unwatchable. I think what hurts this is that most of the other actors, even John Forsyth, who worked with Hitch before, are flat and especially so with Frederick Stafford.
On the DVD extras Leonard Maltin may say he's a "good" actor, but I'm not so sure. Maybe in material that wouldn't require so much, if it just was a part that asked for swagger or a little 007-rip-off charm, then fine. Here, this is a character that should have a little complexity even as the straight-man lead spy. Dany Robin is alright too, but not given much to do; I thought it interesting that the writer Samuel Taylor tried to put in some comment on infidelity in the film with this couple, but it gets lost in the scope of this plot.
I might have been even kinder and found this to be a good movie instead of just fairly decent (and, yes, one of the lessor Hitchcock films... which still means it's *not bad*, I need to emphasize that), if it had a strong ending. It's now some film history that there are alternate endings, yet I got the wrong impression from one of the books I read and thought this ended with the duel set-piece (which makes sense, as this needs a final confrontation between the two characters involved in this). I should only comment on how this *does* end, but that sucks so I'll review briefly these alternate endings: the 'duel' one is conceptually brilliant, but I think the lack of the director on set (he had to be called away before it could be shot so a producer stepped in to shoot it) can still be felt despite the storyboarding; the 'airport' ending, which is different than what is on the DVD of this full director's cut, is actually amusing in the way that maybe the rest of the film isn't, but it works well in a way that's unexpected in giving a big shot of ambiguity.
And then there's the third ending, which was screened in the shorter 127 minute prints on its original release, where a character goes and kills himself after receiving some troubling news. This looks awkward, but there's a brief montage showing everyone who died in the line of all of this espionage and that, superimposed over a newspaper headline about the missile crisis being over, is extremely affecting and effective. It almost shouldn't feel earned, but that is a good little gut punch at the end of all of this.
So, I don't know. None of them are completely satisfying, but it turns out to be a case of there not being a sufficient ending, which is a problem. All the same, Topaz isn't some disaster, and isn't as boring as you've heard. It's simply part of that weak period someone this filmmaker fell into after (the underrated) Marnie and his last hurrah in true diabolical fashion with Frenzy.
This is the worst movie I've ever seen and that's coming from a big hitchcock fan. The plotline's impossible to follow, the acting is terrible and there's a bunch of random violence. I can't stand this movie and I'm never watching it again. The ending makes no sense either.
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.