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Like so many Hollywood talents, Hitchcock was stereotyped. Also like so
many Hollywood talents, whenever he tried to escape stereotyping, he
would get criticized. That certainly was the case with TOPAZ. Although
not as humorous, nor as romantic, nor even as exciting as the
director's best films, the movie is nonetheless an intelligent and
intriguing spy drama, one that compares more to a motion picture like
DAY OF THE JACKYL than usual Hitchcock fare.
His other spy dramas, like NORTH BY NORTHWEST, may be more fun, but none of them are as realistic. In fact, very few spy films have the authenticity as TOPAZ. The story is based on fact. In 1962, a Russian top-level KGB defector informed the U.S. that some very high-level French diplomats, in a group called "Sapphire", were selling secrets to the Soviet Union. TIME Magazine printed this story in April 26, 1968, and did so using the same source that Leon Uris did: the U.S. sympathizing (and exiled) former Chief of French Intelligence, Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli.
Incidentally, a viewer needs to know the chronology and key events surrounding the 1962 Cuban Missile Crises as background, or else the film will be confusing. I suspect many critics condemn it because it's easier for them to dismiss the film rather than confront their own ignorance.
Not that this movie is without weaknesses. Hitchcock was no realist, and the grim world of films like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is probably the type of ambiance it should have presented, but doesn't. However, I definitely join the camp of those who consider it underrated. I read writers on Hitchcock who unthinkingly rank TOPAZ with his worst stuff, and yet many of us prefer it over THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, and other Hitchcock works that don't get castigated as nearly as much. I can't help but suspect they receive less criticism because they are more typical Hitchcock. This film is atypical Hitchcock, so readjust your expectations accordingly.
"Topaz" is one of Hitchcock's least satisfying films, yet the same time it's
one of his most interesting ones, as well. Usually people don't remember it,
maybe because there are no famous Hitchcock stars. Either the director
didn't get any, or he didn't want them, because the audiences should tightly
concentrate on the complex plot.
The film clearly divides into three parts. The one in the middle, which takes place in Cuba, is the best of them. It involves the films most memorable scene, the beautifully photographed murder. Weakest part is the last one, where you might get confused with the messy intrigues.
There are too many characters in the movie, which leaves many of them just bystanders, for example the worried wife (Dany Robin), who doesn't do really anything. The films brightest spot is Karin Dor, who gives an excellent performance as the beautiful Juanita. Too bad that her screen time is quite short. And the ending climax shines with its absence: the film ends like bumping into a wall.
Based on Leon Uris' novel of the same name about the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis, Alfred Hitchcock's `Topaz' is an underrated cold-war thriller - - underrated by English-speaking audiences and critics probably because the chief protagonist is a Frenchman! The first half of the movie is especially exciting, starting as it does with the defection (very realistically filmed) of a top Soviet official to the U.S, who hints at the existence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.. Frederick Stafford very adequately plays Andre Deveraux, the French trade official with Cuban connections whose help is requested by the Americans. Karin Dor is excellent as his beautiful Cuban paramour. Hitchcock's initial portrayal of Castro's Cuba is that of a rather benign place, but quickly changes to a frightening place later in the movie when the director clearly delineates the full brutality of his terrible regime. Deveraux's allies in Cuba are tortured and killed. The last third of the film, set in France, is not as exciting. The movie takes it own time exposing the members of the Topaz spy ring. The transition of the action from Cuba to France is abrupt and is another weakness of this flick. Maybe, `Topaz' should have been filmed in 2 parts, one about the Cuban missile crisis and another about French fellow-travellers! This is, perhaps, the only movie in which Hitchcock seems to show some sympathy towards those who get murdered, as evidenced by the final scene, which shows the ironical contrast between the superficial newspaper headline about the Cuban missile crisis ending and the grim fates of the unsung secret agents who helped end it. `Topaz' is one of the best cold-war movies ever made. Critics should re-evaluate it. But it is only a good Hitchcock movie, not his best.
While Leon Uris' book is a good read, Hitchcock's adaptation of the
book for cinema captures much of the book's selling points. The killing
of Juanita by Rico Parra is central to book and the film. The book has
a sensual scene where Juanita distracts Parra to allow Andre to escape
before she is killed. In the film, Hitchcock dispenses with the sexual
distraction to go directly to the killing. The killing of Juanita
captured by the overhead camera, shows the purple gown spreading in the
floor as blood would have spread. No blood is shownonly the gown. What
a brilliant shot from Hitchcock and cameraman Jack Hildyard! The second
remarkable facet of the movie is the performance of Phillip Noiret as a
French bureaucrat and spy. The lunch sequence (a typical Hitchcock food
event) may look simple but the montage of shots capturing Noiret's
apparent interest in the food than the conversation is truly engaging.
Noiret is a fine actor. So is Michel Piccoli. The two of them outshine
Frederick Stafford and John Forsythe.
The third most fascinating shot is post-torture interrogation of Mrs Mendozathe whispered response from a posture that reminds one of Michelangelo's Pietawith her dead husband replacing the dead Christ.
Hitchcock's perseverance with "marriage" continues. Andre blandly tells his daughter of his wife "She left me. I did not leave her" after a tryst with his lover in Havana. The Michel Piccoli character says of Andre's wife "Andre, his wife and I were very close. She married him." We know later that Andre's wife was cheating on him as she recognizes the Piccoli character's phone number at his secret love nest.
The defection sequence in Copenhagen might look clumsybut Hitchcock's style is everywherefaces in mirrors, close up of a porcelain figure about to be dropped with no music in the background, etc. What was most amusing was the criticism of the American espionage agents: "We would have done it better" and the exchange of words by the defector in Washington, D.C. Andre's outburst to his bosses on the outcome of French intervention in the defection would lead to the defector's assassination is equally poignant had the film ended with the French spy defecting to Russia (one of the alternate endings).
Finally, Hitchcock's use of the newspaper headlines during key scenes in the background was interesting: The Pieta shot had the newspaper shot in the background and the newspaper left behind on a bench in Paris is the final shot. The alternate endingsthe duel and the departure of the spies to two cold-warring countries would not have served well as well the suicide of the spy suggested by the gunshot in his house.
One aspect of "Topaz" that should be kept in mind is that while American and
British critics were belittling Hitchcock as a "mere entertainer," the
French New Wave critics, led by Francois Truffaut, were lionizing him and
Truffaut even published a book-long interview with Hitchcock published in
Hitchcock hadn't worked in years and was desperately trying to get another movie going when Universal showed him the book "Topaz" -- about spies in the French government, with a French protagonist and climactic scenes in Paris. I think that Hitchcock may have -- unwisely -- decided to do "Topaz" so he could do a "French picture."
There are some great individual scenes in Topaz -- the opening defection in Copenhagen, the suspenseful mission to get secrets from the Cubans in Harlem's Hotel Theresa (Hitchcock in Harlem?!); the hero's dangerous mission into Cuba and the death of his key contact there.
But Hitchcock really didn't like making "Topaz," he was bored and ill and resentful (Universal had killed a project called "Frenzy" -- not to be confused with the 1972 film he made of that name -- and Hitchcock was bitter about it.)
So we end up with a very half-hearted Hitchcock movie with a few good scenes, no real stars, THREE failed endings (all available to see on the DVD), and an attempt to "make nice with my French friends."
Unfortunately, I'd only come across the weak ending version. Despite of
that, it's a truly Hitchcockian film. The memorable scenes are pure and
exclusively visual: the intriguing start, the stealing of the documents,
death of Juanita, the torturing of the cuban spies, the discovery of the
body at Jarre's apartment, the meal of the french officers...
Hitchcock used to take technical challenges in every one of his films, I assume that here he committed to deliver the most complicated information concerning the plot without using dialogue, and he succeed.
There's a lot of subtle humor and some clever twists. The cuban officers are just great, absolutely surreal. I loved the atmosphere in that hotel room, with people doing paperwork, smoking cigars and drinking, and the detail of the hamburger wrapped in the document. I think the very broad differences in tone between the three main sections of the film affects the pace and the appreciation of the story as a whole.
It's amazing how Hitchcock managed to survive in it in the light of the multitude of trouble this film went through.
Watching the video version edited in Norway had its extra. Amazingly, all subtitles were delayed a good five, six minutes throughout the entire film, so you actually had text during the silent scenes and incongruities such as love words during killings.
Topaz was the third from the last of the great Alfred Hitchcock's films
and in those last few films Hitch eschewed using big American box
office names. No doubt he'd come to the conclusion that his was the
biggest box office name on the credits.
But if the leading and many of the supporting players were not known to American audiences they were certainly known to French audiences. Dany Robin, Frederick Stafford, Phillippe Noiret, Michel Subor, Michel Piccoli all have had substantial careers in the French cinema.
Topaz is certainly an international thriller with the action going from Copenhagen, to Harlem, to Cuba, and finally Paris. Only Cuba was not shot on actual location for obvious reasons.
The film is based on a spy novel surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Russian defector whose defection with his family is very nicely shot in Copenhagen hints at some major problems coming our way in the Pearl of the Antillies. Our biggest problem though is that because of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, we've got no real intelligence on the ground in Cuba. What to do?
Well if you're John Forsythe there's been a reason you've been cultivating the French for years. He goes to Frederick Stafford of French intelligence and asks him to find out what's happening in Cuba.
History in 1962 bares witness to what was happening in Cuba at that time, but also Stafford is concerned the Russians have a spy real high up in the French government, code name, Topaz.
There's a romantic angle here to, so very French. Stafford makes use of his mistress, a Cuban girl played by Karin Dor who wife Dany Robin has reasons to be suspicious of. Then again she's not sitting home waiting for the grass to grow under her feet. She's having a fling with Michel Piccoli who is a friend of her husband.
International Geopolitics and romantic affairs are all tied together in this novel which Hitchcock serves up with his usual touch.
What a sad end both the leads in this film had. Frederick Stafford was killed in a plane crash in 1979 and Dany Robin and her husband died in an apartment house fire in 1995. Truly a cursed film.
Besides those mentioned look for good performances by John Vernon as a Castro aide and wannabe and from Roscoe Lee Browne who's an operator for French Intelligence in Harlem. I kid you not.
It's not one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films, but Topaz is entertaining enough and Hitchcock fans won't be disappointed.
"Topaz" is at its best when Alfred Hitchcock lets the camera tell the
story: there are several small but brilliant moments in this film. But
while his direction is still masterful, his pacing certainly isn't -
the film often feels talky and plodding. The abrupt ending is another
problem - one of the alternative endings, the airport one, sounds much
better (unfortunately I haven't had the chance to see it yet).
Frederick Stafford is no Cary Grant or even Rod Taylor, but he does the
job; so do the rest of the actors, with Phillipe Noiret a standout in a
brief role and Karin Dor adding a touch of sensuality to the
proceedings. On the whole, "Topaz" is not even among Hitchcock's Top 10
pictures, but his fans will still have fun spotting his touches here
and there. His cameo - a wheelchair-bound man who suddenly gets up and
starts walking (!) - is just one of them. (**1/2)
EDIT: I finally did see the airport ending: it is undeniably better than the present one, but still a bit too abrupt.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've seen most of Hitchcock's films, most of them many times, and I've seen
all his later films.
I like Topaz. It has its problems. First off, although it may seem unimportant to some, Hitchcock has long relied on Bernard Hermann for some great soundtracks. Not only was Bernard not contributing to this film, but the music is inappropriate, light hearted, and almost comedic. It helps to destroy whatever atmosphere has been built up.
Although the most beautiful scene is the one where the woman is shot, there are plenty of Hitchcock moments in here. Perhaps the best scene takes place in a porcelin statuette shop. There are plenty of overloaded psychological images in here, such as women walking away with their backs turned, etc. The scene where the defectors are approaching the plane has some of that Hitchcock aura about it. If the soundtrack were more weighty, it might help complete the mood. For example, the wry thriller To Catch a Thief is helped along with an incredibly weighty soundtrack. If this scene had some of that music ... but I repeat myself.
As others have explained, the movie has four parts, one involving the defection, another involving some intrigue in NYC and Wash DC, a third part set in Cuba, and a fourth set in Paris.
The first part is a moderate success. This is familiar terrain for Hitchcock and he does not fail. The defection and delivery of the Russian agent and his family has all of the suspense and excitement one would expect of a moderately successful Hitchcock film.
The film begins to drag in the Washington DC and NYC segments. The casting of Vernon as the Cuban revolutionary is unsatisfactory. He doesn't project a Cuban persona. Hitchcock should have gone for the jugular, and cast a real hispanic person in this role and tried to deliver the aura. Instead, he used a white bread character, and it just doesn't come off, despite Vernon's excellent attempt. The black actor who photographs the documents - he does an excellent job and the film would have benefitted with more of him about. He manages to tread the line between ruthless/frightening and light-hearted/likable. I wouldn't know whether to trust him or to run from him.
Things get interesting again during the Cuban segment, but something always seems to drag them down. Maybe it's Vernon's character. There is clearly a play at the James Bond character taking shape here, with the other actor, except this is a slightly more complicated, and morally compromised character, which makes it more interesting.
The last segment of the film, in Paris, has the greatest potential to open up on a new work. I would have liked to have seen more about these characters. For once, we get some red-blooded characters, motivation, complication, emotion, desire, fear, intrigue, double-crossing, etc. This should have been the heart of the film: two men making a play for the same woman, where all three had fought together during the war, and now they play for opposite sides, with a love triangle thrown in. The French characters are good, believable, but this segment of the movie moves along and ends too quickly to ever amount to anything beyond a tease.
So, I like this film, but it's many grades below other Hitchcock films, no question. On the other hand, I think it's a little bit better than Torn Curtain. I shouldn't say that - Torn Curtain has some great scenes, probably better than Topaz, but I think Topaz had the makings for a better film - it's just not realized. They're very similar. Torn Curtain is more successful, but Topaz has a real plot, whereas Torn Curtain is pretty much a glorified chase scene.
Good but no great Hitch film that maintains suspense level , including
constant shift of scenarios keeps spectators on their toes . A French
intelligence agent named Andre Deveraux (Frederick Stafford) befriends
American official called Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) and both of
whom become involved in the Cold War politics to dig out info , first
with uncovering the events leading up to the 1962 Cuban Missle Crisis,
and then back to France to discover a secret conspiracy . Andre travels
to La Habana to obtain evidences of the Missiles , there meets his
lover named Juanita Cordoba (Karin Dor who wears marvelous gowns by
Edith Head and dubbed her own voice in the German Version) who is
secretly embroiled with a local underground resistance whilst also
being entangled in another way with Parra (John Vernon) . Meanwhile, an
ex-KGB official defector flees to USA where he is interviewed and tells
him about Topaz, the codename for a group of French officials in high
circles who work for the Soviet Union , as the protagonists attempt to
break up an international Russian spy ring (Philippe Noiret , Michel
Piccoli) infiltrated in French government .
This suspenseful Hitchcock film contains cloak-and-dagger intrigue , whirlwind plot , thrills , twists and results to be pretty entertaining . Hitchcock takes you behind the actual headlines to expose the most explosive spy scandal of the century, though this was reportedly one of his most unhappy directing jobs , being Alfred's biggest failure , as it cost approximately $4,000,000 to make and received only $1,000,000 at the box office. According to Donald Spoto's book "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years Of His Motion Pictures", Universal Pictures executives forced this project on Alfred Hitchcock. Overlong film as a running at 143 minutes, this is Alfred Hitchcock's longest film . The first draft of the script was hired Leon Uris to adapt his own novel , but Uris didn't care for Hitchcock's eccentric sense of humor, nor did he appreciate the director's habit of monopolizing all of his time as they worked through a script. Hitchcock was disappointed that Uris seemed to ignore his requests to humanize the story's villains , in his opinion the novel painted them as cardboard monsters , with only a partial draft completed, Uris left the film. Alfred declared it unshootable at the last minute and called in Samuel A. Taylor , writer of Vertigo , to rewrite it from scratch , as some scenes were written just hours before they were shot. According to Alfred Hitchcock, this was another of his experimental movies ; in addition to the dialogue, the plot is revealed through the use of colors, predominantly red, yellow and white , he admits that this did not work out. Good support cast mostly formed by European actors who give nice interpretations such as : Dany Robin as Nicole Devereaux , Vernon as Rico Parra , gorgeous Karin Dor as Juanita Cordoba , Michel Piccoli a Jacques Granville , Philippe Noiret as Henri Jarre , Claude Jade as Michèle Picard and Roscoe Lee Browne as Philippe Dubois . Of course , habitual Director Cameo , as Alfred Hitchcock appears about 30 minutes in at the airport getting out of a wheelchair . Emotive and sensitive score by Maurice Jarre , Jean Michel Jarre's father ; knowing that he had no ear for music, Alfred Hitchcock didn't even bother listening to Maurice Jarre's completed score for the film, slotting it onto the images without a quibble . Colorful and bright cinematography by excellent cameraman Jack Hildyard who photographed 'Bridge on the river Kai' and David Lean's usual . Appropriate production design by Henry Bumstead , Hitch's ordinary . This is a medium-to-rare Hitchcock picture in which was shot three versions with completely different endings , all are included in the Laserdisc , video , DVD and BluRays reissues.
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