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Posts Tagged ‘Topaz’

Sometimes you hear talk of ‘the imperial phase’, that period of a career or ongoing project where everything is unassailably perfect, invincible, glorious to look upon, breathtaking to consider – pop groups have them, TV series, football teams, even individuals. They seldom last more than a year or so, and the return to the realms of mundane normality is often abrupt and embarrassingly graceless. One minute you’re conquering the world, the next you’re being whipped 5-0 at home to an unseeded team. One minute you’re making The Trouble with Tribbles, then not long after you’re filming Spock’s Brain. And, if you’re Alfred Hitchcock, you can be rewriting the cinema rulebook with Psycho and The Birds, and then only a couple of films later be troubling the world with a project like Topaz.

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This is one of the most obscure of Hitchcock’s later films, and – I am irresistibly tempted to say – deservedly so. Released in 1969, it is an espionage thriller drawn from a based-on-true-events novel by Leon Uris. Hitchcock doing a spy thriller? No obvious cause for alarm there. Hitchcock adapting a book? Well, Psycho started off as a novel, too. But something has gone wrenchingly adrift here.

After opening with jolly scenes of the May Day parade in Moscow, the setting switches to Copenhagen in 1962, where a top Soviet agent defects to the US. Handling the case is CIA man Nordstrom (John Forsythe), who discovers that the USSR is in the process of supplying its allies in Cuba with nuclear weapons, a severe threat to American security. Ooh, those Russians!

So, naturally – and this is perhaps the first sign that this is a film made when a totally different sensibility ruled – the CIA recruit a Frenchman to assist them. He is Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), and he is essentially the protagonist of the movie. The rest of the first act of the film concerns Devereaux’s sneaky attempts to get hold of photos of documents confirming what’s going on in Cuba, an undertaking where most of the risk falls on the agents he employs, principally one played by Roscoe Lee Browne.

So far we’ve seen Forsythe, Stafford, and Browne all effectively take the lead, and the effect is somewhat distancing. Which one of these guys is really the hero? Is this just going to be one of those reportage-style films without a central character? Some degree of conventionality is restored as Devereaux jets off to Cuba to try and get photos of the actual missiles (getting other people to take photos of things seems to be his spy speciality). His chief adversary in his mission is fanatical Communist Parras (John Vernon, who seems mainly to have been cast because he’s terrifically good at brooding behind a Castro beard), but matters are complicated by the fact that Devereaux shares the same mistress as Parras (he really is the most incredibly French man in movie history).

Things resolve themselves in a manner which is notably melodramatic and lacking in tension, and Devereaux heads back to the USA, where – a long way into a film which is not notably in a hurry to go about its business – he learns of the existence of Topaz, a Soviet spy ring inside French intelligence itself. And so… zzzzzzzzzzz….

I’m sorry, but despite having watched this film with the Wikipedia synopsis open in front of me at the time, I still found it almost impenetrably dull to watch and difficult to follow, especially in the concluding act. My researches (all right, Wikipedia again)┬áhave revealed that such were the scripting travails of this movie that it was basically being written as it went along at some points, an almost experimental way of working more commonly associated with the outer fringes of the avant garde (or a Steven Seagal DTV movie) than a major studio movie.

Just coming up with a coherent movie under these circumstances can be a challenge so I suppose Hitch is to be applauded for coming up with something which hangs together as much as it does. On the reflection the main issue with Topaz is not that it is particularly hard to follow, just that it is very, very tedious, so much so that it doesn’t really feel like following the plot is worth the effort.

The reasons for this are numerous. There is a rambling, very nearly disjointed plot, a hero who does very little you could actually call heroic, and an almost total lack of set pieces of action, tension or suspense. Hitchcock’s original cut ended with a duel between the hero and villain, but this was apparently considered overlong and discarded in favour of a much more matter-of-fact conclusion in which the bad guy just jets off into Russian exile… and apparently even this only features in certain versions of the film, in others he commits suicide off-screen (the money had run out).

But above all, to a modern viewer Topaz feels extremely dated in a way that the great Hitchcock movies don’t. I suppose the background to the Cuban missile crisis still has potential for traction with a modern audience, but the film only really touches on this before turning into something about the internal affairs of French intelligence. It’s just that the style of the thing is so staid and conservative, the characters so drab and unengaging. This is a movie made the same year as Easy Rider, but it looks like something ten or fifteen years older. There are evil Communists. Every Frenchman has a mistress or two tucked away somewhere. People travel around in open-topped cars by the miracle of back-projection. As a sealed bubble of yesterday, it takes some beating, and more effort to really break into than I found myself able to make as a casual viewer.

There are, I suppose, more problematic Hitchcock movies in terms of their tone and content, and possibly technically worse ones – not that I can think of any off-hand, though. But in the end the biggest problem with Topaz is simply that it is very low in wit, tension, warmth, or humour – in short, it is by far the least entertaining Hitchcock film I can remember seeing. One for completists only.

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