Topaz (1969)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A French spy based in Washington attempts to rout out a mole in his organisation…

There’s an international feel to this, partly because of the European actors dominating the cast list, partly because of the use of Copenhagen and Paris as locations. But there’s also a Euro vibe to the filmmaking. It’s loucher, more laid-back, more self-consciously sedate, than a typical Hollywood movie.

We begin with cloak-and-dagger clichés as a Soviet intelligence officer defects to the West. He’s lifted by American spies led by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe, in his second Hitchcock role) and soon reveals that the Russians are placing nuclear weapons on Cuba. (It’s 1962, by the way: post-Bay of Pigs, pre-missile crisis.) Nordstrom can’t approach the Cubans directly, though, so enlists an old pal to do it for him – James Bond-ish French spy André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who then becomes the movie’s lead character.

As events develop – Devereaux investigates, travels to Cuba, has a liaison with his sexy mistress, splits up from his wife, learns of a double agent codenamed Topaz – the script uses an odd structure. The focus keeps switching as characters pass the narrative baton on to the next person in the chain. Nordstrom sets the story running, then drops out of the film for long stretches; Devereaux is the nominal lead, but during one section has a proxy called Philippe Dubois.

The Dubois sequence is actually the best in the movie. Played by Roscoe Lee Browne with a smirk and a cool confidence, Dubois is a French-Martinican agent hired by Devereaux. A delegation of Cubans are in New York to attend a UN powwow. In order to show solidarity with the black community, they’re staying at a hotel in Harlem – but Devereaux knows their leader has a document that details the Soviet missile plan. So he hires Dubois to bribe his way into the hotel, pretend to be a sympathetic journalist and charm the leader so he can get a look at the document. In a film that seriously lacks tension at times, this part of the story really grips you.

There are other pleasures too, including a striking shot when a key character is killed – as Cuban resistance leader Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor from You Only Live Twice) falls to the floor, we see it from a camera directly above her, her dress billowing out to echo a pool of blood. There are also some fun moments where Hitchcock shows characters discussing the plot but places them so far from the camera that we can’t hear the dialogue: Hitch knew how boring exposition can be.

But all too often the story drags or diverts down a cul-de-sac. A flat, low-energy script and a weak cast – Frederick Stafford and Dany Robin, playing Devereaux’s wife, are especially poor – make it difficult to care about what’s going on. A number of badly dated rear-projection shots for dialogue scenes in moving cars really don’t help either, nor does the lack of star power in the cast.

Five men in a wheelchair out of 10

Note: The film suffered horrendously in some pre-release test screenings, with the climax (a duel between Devereaux and the unmasked Topaz) coming in for most criticism. So around 20 minutes were cut out and two alternative endings were hastily knocked together. The version used for this review was the longer edit but had the ending seen in the UK in 1969 – Topaz gets away with his crimes and flies off to Moscow. (The default release print in 1969 used stolen shots from elsewhere in the movie to imply that Topaz has killed himself.)

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