“I’m not going to fail in your bathroom.”

As we hear, Hitchcock was already planning THE SHORT NIGHT in 1968 while making TOPAZ. That unmade film was preceded by two others, MARY ROSE, nixed by Universal, after which Hitch made TORN CURTAIN, and KALEIDOSCOPE, AKA FRENZY, which was likewise vetoed by Lew Wasserman, leading to the production of TOPAZ in its place. But while KALEIDOSCOPE would have been an experiment in modern film-making techniques, heavily inspired by Antonioni, whose work had impressed Hitchcock enormously, TOPAZ turned into a much more conventional thriller, somewhat influenced by mainstream European cinema, but by no means revolutionary.

Wasserman had objected to the graphic nudity and bloodshed Hitch seemed to be planning for his serial killer movie, and although Leon Uris also had some sex and violence in his doorstop of a political thriller, he seemed a safer bet for Universal, who didn’t want to jeopardize the successful Hitchcock “brand.” In the event, TOPAZ would be a costly flop, and it’s hard to imagine a sexy, gory psycho-thriller from Hitchcock failing in 1969. A case of the major studios lagging behind the times. A case also of Hitchcock not fighting for his artistic freedom, partly because his enemy in this case was a good friend.

I like the idea of Hitchcock as the leading man here, morosely doing his duty without passion or enthusiasm, but in fact the character who seems most like Hitch is Philippe Noiret’s spy — he has Hitch’s heavy lower lip and watery eyes, and his crutch hints at the arthritis which was starting to give the director trouble. His death, a defenestration artfully staged to look like suicide, recalls the time when Alma was ill after the production of VERTIGO, when Hitch talked openly of ending it all. His daughter Pat opened the hotel window and left the room — an odd thing to do, but she was quite clear that this was necessary to convince him to leave thoughts of suicide behind. It seems to have worked.

The cameo — Hitch is wheeled on, then springs to his feet. Unfortunately, as director, it feels more like he trots onto the set, then collapses into a coma.

TOPAZ is such a film maudit that it’s naturally tempting to find things to like about it, which I find easy to do, but I should say up-front that it is indeed an unsuccessful film, in terms of script, casting, and style. Carrying on the ambition of TORN CURTAIN to produce a “realistic Bond,” Hitch runs up against his own counter-realistic vision, struggles with the convoluted source novel, and was basically defeated by lack of time — lack of time to adapt the novel properly, to cast, and for his crew to design the film around his requirements. Designer Henry Bumstead got high blood pressure trying to keep up with the production’s demands, and Edith Head had to costume stars who often had only been cast a couple of days before they were to appear.

Ah, that cast! Hitch was often inspired by his leads in the writing process, and certainly found it useful to know who they would be, which proved impossible here. John Forsythe is absolutely welcome back, but instead of being surrounded by kooks as he was in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, he’s here surrounded with knitwear models. The TV episode I Saw the Whole Thing which Forsythe starred in shows how he’s not really suited to sustaining interest in a void (which is no slam: very few actors could have made TOPAZ more compelling).

Frederick Stafford, our real lead, is more of a problem. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s simply boring in a boring part. If Hitchcock had been able to get a young French Cary Grant, he would have been fine, but obviously such a thing wasn’t going to happen. They don’t make them. If he’d cast a really interesting French actor who didn’t fit his conception of the part, things might also have been fine — an actor with intriguing qualities would have brought something to the thinly-written role. But Hitchcock always liked to fill a pre-conceived outline with a matching actor, which is achievable if you have a large talent pool to draw from. If you don’t, it’s far better to abandon your plans and go with what works.

Stafford is the worst of all possible worlds, because he isn’t interesting and isn’t French. He’s a decent enough actor, but ability is secondary to intrigue. He doesn’t intrigue. And he’s German. His role isn’t a particularly hard one to play: all it needed, really, was a Frenchman. With the bland impression he tends to create, Stafford’s looks count against him.

Playing opposite Stafford is Dany Robin, who seems as dull as him, but isn’t — watch how she comes to life whenever she has someone else to act with. Poor Fred does inestimable damage to this film just by being in it, just by standing there and eating up screen space which could more profitably be granted to wallpaper or sky.

Everyone else is basically a cameo, given the story’s globe-trotting action (essentially the secret backstory of the Cuban missile crisis, and a French spy ring reporting to Moscow). Some of the cameos are interesting (John Vernon and Karin Dor), some are actually fascinating (Roscoe Lee Browne), but none are around long enough to hurt or help the film too much. Of course, everybody plays the wrong nationality: German Dor and Canadian Vernon play Cubans, Browne plays Martinican, the very Swedish Per-Axel Arosenius plays a defecting Russian (I feel I should say “defective”)…  And the weakest stuff is at the end, where everybody’s French. French actors acting with each other in English shouldn’t present a colossal problem, as long as they all speak good English. If they don’t, one starts to wonder: why don’t they just speak French? And then one thinks, ah, they are speaking French, it’s just being decoded by the cinematic BabelFish Translator. So why are some better at it than others? The whole artifice crumbles.

Here, Dany Robin is less fluent than her husband, and while the lovely Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret are always welcome, their scenes tend to sound a little uncertain. It gives everything a quality of awkwardness.

But, there are virtues throughout: after the disappointing stock footage titles, buoyed up by Maurice Jarre’s score (which sounds exactly as a Euro-thriller ought to sound), there’s a terrific crane shot at the Russian embassy. A slight nervous tremor makes this shot seem impossibly difficult, as I imagine it was. Cameraman Jack Hildyard, who’d worked for David Lean on his last British shoots, had been doing big international films for years now, and does a good job with TOPAZ — but Hitch never found another Robert Burks.

Arosenius, though ethnically miscast, does a fine job with the Russian ambassador, and Samuel Taylor, who scripted VERTIGO, manages a pleasing character touch for Forsythe when he has him order new stockings for the ambassador’s daughter after she tears them during the defection.

The plane touches down in Washington — seemingly shot at 16 fps — ground crew scurry about like Keystone Kops. Why was this shot used? The flaw is trivial, but easily corrected simply by deleting the unnecessary, rote airport establishing shot.

We’re already in trouble, and it thickens — such is the convoluted narrative that everything seems to take a long time, and things are set up which don’t seem to be necessary: they pay off two hours later, but by then you’re bored. It’s really a sophisticated and clever piece of plotting, disguised perfectly as a bloated and tedious one.

Another Hitchcock character who draws (see also: BLACKMAIL, REBECCA, VERTIGO — people either draw or they don’t, and since Hitchcock did, he was always keen to feature his half of humanity in his films, it seems), Stafford’s son-in-law, Michel Subor (the narrator of JULES ET JIM), leads us to Roscoe Lee Browne, who fascinates me. I wanted a film about this character. Alternatively, I couldn’t see why his action couldn’t have been given to Stafford, who hasn’t had anything interesting to do. But Stafford is so dull, I’m glad Browne gets the job.

Although much of TOPAZ looks flat and studio-airless, like a TV movie (seeing it in widescreen does help) the recreated hotel exterior is an impressive build (the real place where the Cuban UN delegates stayed and parties had been demolished) and Hitch’s filming of much of the action with a long lens makes this his most convincing faux-documentary moment. In the 70s, telephoto shots like this would almost become a cliché, but Hitch is somewhat ahead of the game for 1969. Perhaps the European influence.

Top-secret meeting in the loo with John Vernon’s male secretary. Later, Stafford will find hidden evidence in a book in an aeroplane lavatory. Toilets are very important to Hitchcock, almost as vital as food. Maybe some Freudian should write a thesis on this.

After a genuinely tense sequence where Browne photographs stolen Cuban documents (the filmmakers’ portrayal of the Cuban delegates as drunken near-savages, while rather crude, does enhance the sense of jeopardy), he leaps from a fire escape into an awning, a dodge last used by George Sanders in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT — another character who rather usurped the hero’s role.

Roscoe Lee Browne is utterly cool, but not in an obvious, “urban” or “secret agent” way. He is, after all, a florist. But the way he eludes pursuit by ducking into the back of his shop, donning a hat, and finishing the preparation of a funeral wreath — that’s suave. I guess the whole reason his character is necessary is because Stafford can’t run into John Vernon at this point, but does Vernon really need to be here? Still, given a choice between Browne and Stafford having screen time, we can count ourselves lucky the better man won.

Off to Cuba, where again Stafford won’t do anything exciting, leaving the work and risks to his agents. His single tense moment, departing through customs, happens offscreen. Defenders of the film may argue that it’s unusual and therefor interesting to have a hero who delegates all the exciting jobs, but I would respond by quoting ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon: “many things are interesting. Not many things are dramatic.” Clichés become clichés often because they’re useful dramatically — it’s no trick to avoid a cliché and provide a dull alternative, the skill lies in dodging both the obvious and the unsatisfying.

Cuba lacks any character as interesting as Browne (maybe he fascinates so because we learn so little about him) so it more or less drifts past me, enlivened by some bravura moments — the Pieta (above) and the death of Karin Dor (a former Bond girl playing a character loosely based on Castro’s daughter, but the fact that she dies shows just how far the filmmakers are willing to depart from the established facts, even if TOPAZ was really SAPPHIRE and most of the incidents have real-life counterparts). Asides from these highlights — and Dor’s purple dress spreading on the tiled floor like a pool of blood (pulled by five stagehands with monofilament wires) is truly a coup de theatre — we mainly get different ways of concealing cameras in food: two of Hitchcock’s favourite things, presented in surreal conjunction. It seems like Stafford should have discovered the secret film strips not in a book, but in a biscuit, just for the sake of symmetry.

If Cuba was a little dull and misshapen, France seems even more listless, although at last we start to feel loose characters like Stafford’s son-in-law, and even his wife, have some real reason for being in the film. (If, as some have suggested, Stafford represents Hitchcock, a European working for the Americans, pulling off a thankless mission that takes him around the world — a married man with one married daughter — a political realist with a naive belief in justice and honesty, caught up in a dirty business, then casting a quirky character actor would surely have been better than this plywood Cary Grant, and would have served as an alibi for the fact that he never does anything heroic. And even if Stafford is in some ways Hitch-like, it’s Forsythe who has an assistant named Peggy, a nice homage to Hitch’s faithful Peggy Robertson.) And now we come to the romantic triangle — Stafford’s lover being safely dead, we can focus on Michel Piccoli as the head of Topaz and his covert relationship with Dany Robin. Romantic triangles go way back in Hitchcock (THE LODGER, THE MANXMAN, BLACKMAIL), although we are unable to find any definite autobiographical reason why they seem to obsess him so.

The narrative is nicely woven to allow Robin to recognize her lover as the ringleader, but doesn’t seem to unfold in an interesting way. Uris and Taylor have been technically skillful, but nobody’s looking out for real sources of dramatic tension, it seems. And then come the three endings. It’s a shame the stadium duel isn’t attached to the most widely available and complete version of the film, but only included as an extra — I’d far rather watch the film through and at least get rewarded with a climax of sorts for my trouble, even if again Stafford is cheated of the chance to be an action hero. The airport ending satisfied Hitchcock’s sense that big spies never really get punished, but it feels very hollow and unconvincing when Stafford smiles back at Piccoli. Why would he? But I like the line “Anyhow, that’s the end of Topaz,” because it reminds me of “The Trouble with Harry is Over.” The only truly putrid ending is the one cobbled together from stray odds and ends. Samuel Taylor, who suggested it, had a decent idea, but it can’t be executed by hauling out off-cuts from elsewhere in the movie, by freeze-framing on a door, by slinging newspapers around. And earlier in the film Hitch has attempted to prepare for this sequence by inserting a few headlines, including one bizarre superimposed newspaper…

Maybe Stafford should have said, “That’s the end of Topaz, thank Christ!” since that’s how the viewer is apt to feel after two and a half hours. And yet, study of the film is far more interesting than casual viewing of it, making it a nice illustration of the auteurist principle that a bad film by Hitchcock is more rewarding of study than a good film by just about anybody else.

19 Responses to ““I’m not going to fail in your bathroom.””

  1. “a young French Cary Grant”

    Calling Jean-Louis Trintignant!

  2. I’ve never seen Topaz, but Dany Robin is delightful acting alongside that charming French actor Michel Auclair in Duvivier’s wonderful La fête à Henriette.

  3. Karin Dor’s death and the Hotel Theresa sequence with Roscoe Lee Browne are the only things of interest in Topaz. Nothing seems to hold the damn thing together in any way. No star no theme, no narrative drive, no Bernard Herrman to prop things up. Nothing.

    It’s a strictly commercial job of the sort that Hitch had always risen very high above. The Leon Uris novel was a bestseller, and it was about spies, so Lew Wasserman thought it would be the perfect commercial match. To put it very very mildly, it wasn’t.

  4. Michel Subor has had a career resurgence of late via Claire Denis (Beau Travail) and Philippe Garrel (Sauvage Innocence)

  5. Trintignant is an inspired choice! Since the character isn’t workable as a sympathetic lead, Trintignant’s talent for coldness could emerge, and you’d get a compelling manipulator who just happens to be on our side. Which would be in keeping with Hitch’s distaste for the practice of spying.

  6. Trintignant would have been perfect in this film. Or why not Belmondo? Definitely not Jean-Pierre Leaud since he’s…Jean-Pierre Leaud.

    The mis-matched nationality didn’t bother me at all. I was surprised when I found out that Dor was German and John Vernon was Canadian, they were that good in their parts. And I didn’t feel the Cubans were portrayed unfairly at all. The most developed and tragic character is Rico Para in this film. He kills Karin Dor because he loved her and didn’t want to torture her, despite the fact that she betrayed him and his country. The film is far more critical of the US than the other guys.

    If there’s a Hitchcock stand-in than it’s the Russian defector. Like Hitchcock he left his nation to come here and like him he has a wife and daughter. Hitchcock didn’t leave England for political reasons of course, but he seems to reveal his misgivings about the absorption process in that guy’s story. And his transformation in the end into a cigar smoking vulgarian is probably a self-criticism at his own American success, if you will. Hitchcock was a big cigar afficionado(and there’s that rueful moment in TORN CURTAIN where the head of the Stasi offers Paul Newman genuine Cubans, saying it’s allowed there…Hitchcock probably thought that good enough motivation to defect)! One amazing scene is that shock cut to model figurines of the family being knocked to the floor by him in rage. It summons up the opening chase scene in the china shop as a rhyme, the conceit taken to another level here. And it’s a dark satirical point about Americanization. If put in a movie today, this would be considered anti-American.

  7. And they were worried mainly about the film seeming anti-French! I think it’s easy to forget that the lines of the Cold War were so clearly drawn, it was very rare for any spy thriller to feel unpatriotic, no matter how the west was shown behaving. Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain is blatantly pro-Soviet and anti-American (I think based mainly of Russell’s aesthetic preference and love of Eisenstein) but excited hardly any comment. One problem with Topaz may be that while we’re still happy to take it as read that the west are the “goodies” here, we need more humanity in our protagonists to bring the struggle to life.

    Hitch seems to be every character in this movie, despite the prevailing sense that it’s a commercial job-for-hire! Piccoli is a big cigar fan in this one, Subor is an artist, Forsythe has assistant Peggy, Stafford and Arosenius are family men with daughters, and both spend most of the film in exile, and Browne is the artist whose work has hidden political significance…

  8. Trintignant is perfect in everything, especially The Greatest Motion Picture Ever Made ( aka. Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) It also appears to be his last picture as he hasn’t made another since his daughter Marie was murdered by her rock star boyfriend.

  9. I hadn’t followed the aftermath of that case closely so I just checked Wikipedia to see what happened to Cantat, and was horrified to discover he’s already at large, having served just four years for murder. I had hoped he’d have had a lengthy sentence since in Latvia, drunkenness is seen as an exacerbating factor rather than an extenuating one, so that his crime could and should have been seen as more serious.

  10. Trintignant was also memorable and moving in Trois couleurs: Rouge.

  11. Oh yes, he’s lovely in that. Twanging his braces.

  12. Roscoe Lee Browne is fantastic in this – I totally forgot. That scene where he has to go reporting and snatch the McGuffin, and we leave that boring protagonist, and then we have that insane Shakespearean performance of a cuban revolutionary by some dude from Saskatchewan. It’s insane that it’s gripping – but its so damned memorable!

    Two things – the movie is half way to a laugh out loud riot. I mean the aesthetic between this and Bananas has to change barely one degree in order to work. I swear, the color green is the same in both films, i.e. the color of don’t-take-me-too-seriously. And equally, the doormen depicted in the aforementioned scene are so close to the Python troupe’s “Were going with you” squad, its clear that both films are bouncing off of Topaz.

    The second thing is – this is a terrible title. And Hitchcock HAS to know that. Maybe he kept TOPAZ to signal exactly what you’re saying D, namely “that a bad film by Hitchcock is more rewarding of study than a good film by just about anybody else.” What he’s saying is “This film has a terrible title.”

  13. Heheh! You made milk come out my nose.

    I guess SAPPHIRE wouldn’t be much better as a title. And I guess the Uris doorstop of a novel was a hit, so they couldn’t change the title. Although they did in France, where the book hadn’t been published and where Topaze is a celebrated work by Marcel Pagnol.

    Double-featuring the movie with Bananas is a lovely idea.

    I like John Vernon but I prefer him sans beard in Don Siegel movies and Point Blank and Animal House, where his cold-eyed intensity is married to just incredible comic timing. “Someone has to put his foot down… and that foot… is me.”

  14. Vernon also put his luxuriantly slimy voice to work playing mob boss Rupert Thorne in Batman: The Animated Series. He’s especially good in “Two Face” and “The Man Who Killed Batman.”
    I was rather surprised to see that the imdb lists eight movies all based on Pagnol’s Topaze. I’ve only seen the first, which has one of John Barrymore’s sliest performances–he’s delighted by having to act so demurely.

  15. It’s not at all bad, that Topaze. But the French have filmed it a LOT. Pagnol’s kind of a big deal over there.

  16. Where does the O’Bannon quote come from? I can’t find it elsewhere on Google.

  17. From my memory banks — it was in a screenwriting magazine interview, possibly “Screenwriter Magazine” or something like that. Wish I still had it, it was a really sharp intro to structure, and made far more sense than Syd Field or Robert McKee, at least back when I read it.

  18. OK, I finally got round to watching this yesterday evening (unfortunately I watched the shortened cut with the contrived suicide ending) and I have an admission to make: I *liked* it. At any rate I liked it better than “Torn Curtain” but that perhaps is a matter of expectation: I watched “Torn Curtain” with the hope that I was about to watch an underrated film, but I approached “Topaz” with the expectation that it wasn’t going to be anything special. Still I think that “Topaz” sustains a general level of interest that “Torn Curtain” doesn’t.

    There is, I daresay, a similarity of theme between “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz”: in both, a (relatively) amateur spy goes on an unsanctioned mission that ends up endangering dozens of lives partly because of the mission’s amateurishness. The difference is that “Topaz” is far more brutal and direct about depicting the human cost of this mission. The costs of Dr. Armstrong’s adventure are somewhat concealed in “Torn Curtain”, but we see directly that Devereaux’s mission to Cuba results in multiple deaths.

    Still, there’s really no disagreeing that the movie only wakes up during a few scenes. The Hotel Theresa sequence is superb, the scene where John Vernon talks himself into shooting Karin Dor is superb, and the _Pieta_ moment of the tortured Carlotta Mendoza cradling her dead husband’s body in her arms gets across all the hidden costs of spying on the small-time operative that “Torn Curtain” and a hundred other spy films remain so coy about. But…yeah. Mostly “Topaz” comes across like a more-than-usually competent Eurospy movie.

  19. In a way, the film’s most obvious weakness — a lack of focus on its main character — turns into a perverse strength, as we get instead a range of more interesting characters. The heroes of sub-Bondian Eurospy malarkey were usually so dull — Stafford exemplifies the type.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: