Monday, June 13, 2011


Alfred Hitchcock, 1969
Starring: Frederick Stafford, Dany Robin, Claude Jade, Michel Subor, John Forsythe, Karin Dor, John Vernon, Michel Piccoli, Dany Robin

I finally saw Topaz for the first time and expected to thoroughly dislike it. I made it about half an hour in and almost gave up, but persevered and am grateful to have done so. Though this is one of Hitchcock's last works and has a somewhat poor reputation, it's actually quite a good film. Not great, but certainly good and undeserving of the initial public hatred.

This sprawling, almost two and a half hour long film feels more like a miniseries than a feature length Cold War thriller. Set in the early '60s, Topaz jumps locations almost as fast as a James Bond film and involves roughly the same number of secret agents. In Copenhagen, a high ranking KGB agent defects to the West with the aid of the CIA. He and his family are taken to Washington and given a home and protection under the condition that the official shares some information. At first he is stubborn and reluctant. The agent in charge, Nordstrom, seeks help from a trusted French agent, Devereaux. The US is desperate for intelligence on Cuban involvement with the USSR and the missile situation. Devereaux and his wife Nicole are set to visit their daughter in New York, while her journalist husband covers an event at the United Nations. Coincidentally, some top Cuban officials, namely the abrasive Rico Parra, will also be in New York.

Using some quick thinking, Devereaux gets a copy of Parra's papers. Much to the dismay of his wife, he agrees to continue helping the Americans and takes a trip to Cuba without alerting French intelligence. He has an established network there that will help him get the information, but his wife is upset that the leader of the network is a beautiful woman and suspects him of infidelity. He goes to Cuba to the home of Juanita, who he is indeed having an affair with. She also has a close relationship with Parra, though we are unsure if it is sexual in nature. They do some clever work and gather enough photographs to prove that the Russians are bringing missiles to Cuba. Unfortunately, Parra captures two of the spies and tortures them into identifying Juanita. Though Devereaux is suspected, he manages to escape to the US. Parra shoots Juanita to spare her the torture and implied rape that befalls traitors and spies.

Devereaux reaches the US and receives three pieces of bad news. First, his wife has left him and returned to Paris. Second, he is in trouble with the French government and has been recalled to to report to the chief of intelligence. Third, the defected KGB official finally gave up a gem of information, pun intended. There's a leak within French intelligence, a network called Topaz that has been in contact with the KGB. Devereaux gets a name or two and realizes he cannot tell French intelligence what he knows without first finding the rats. He gets together some of the high ranking intelligence officials to give him advice, but he is really trying to scent out the Topaz members. One of these is Granville, an old friend of Devereaux's, who his wife happens to be having an affair with. Meanwhile, Devereaux's daughter is trying to get her parents back together, so he uses her husband to help him root out information. Her husbands helps to back one of the traitors into a corner, which unravels the spy ring and put Devereaux's family back together.

The main problem is that Topaz totally belies expectation. Hitchcock established a reputation for himself, but this film counters every one of them. It is relaxing, slow paced and thoughtful, with a more personal feel than his top-tier works of suspense. As he is a normally purposeful and economic director, it almost seems like the film belongs to someone else. It has a decidedly European flavor and has a lot more in common with the French and Italian films of the period than anything coming out of the US. This is enhanced by the international locales and contingent of French supporting actors. For instance, I was very happy to see Michel Piccoli. Apparently it was a big problem for American audiences that there was no star power, but Topaz is full of capable actors and a slew of interesting, colorful side characters. Karin Dor, sort of a German cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Steele, is fantastic. It was really when Devereaux journeyed to Cuba that I decided not to abandon ship and was finally won over.

Though it is a Cold War film, there's not a lot of suspense or action, but it is rife with intrigue and personal drama. The score brings a refreshing element of whimsy usually absent in this genre. You can tell, without a doubt, that this is a Hitchcock film based on his use of sound and tightly controlled visuals. In particular, he makes great use of conversations we cannot hear, but are powerful none the less. There also are the same dazzling shots, namely in the handful of murder scenes sprinkled through the film. If you have the patience to give Topaz a chance, I don't think you'll be disappointed. It has been remembered fondly and revisited by a number of critics and, as Leonard Maltin said during an interview included on the DVD, a merely good, second-tier film of Hitchcock's is better than a great film by almost anyone else.

I only have a few major issues with Topaz. The opening is long, uncomfortable and nonsensical. It also concerns characters who don't appear in the remainder of the film. The ending is also problematic. Hitchcock shot one ending, in which Devereaux and Granville have a duel, but this was axed by the studio. The second ending implies that Granville commits suicide, but he was forced to shoot a third, in which Devereaux and his wife board a plan back to the US and spot Granville boarding a plane to the USSR, essentially getting away scot free. For some reason this ambiguous ending is my favorite. Though the film is quite long, I think many of the cut scenes are necessary, so make sure you watch the restored version. Topaz is available on single disc or in the Masterpiece Collection boxset, which is the version I'm reviewing.

A few final fun facts: Topaz is based on a book by Leon Uris, which is based on a real events in the '60s actually called the Sapphire Affair. The real French spy who inspired Devereaux was Uris's friend. Footage of Castro appears in the film during the Cuban rally scene and the character of Juanita was based on his daughter who defected to the US.

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