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.
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.