A French intelligence agent becomes embroiled in the Cold War politics first with uncovering the events leading up to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and then back to France to break up an international Russian spy ring.
It’s easy to look at Alfred Hitchcock’s last few films and come to the conclusion that he lost his touch, but while it’s true they are not as entertaining or as audacious as his best work, there is still a sense of a potent power at work. Just a few key details are missing and in the case of Topaz, almost completely cripple the production.
For one thing, was Topaz made for the right reasons? I’ve been banging on about Hitchcock possibly being an influence on Bond and I wonder if he had a sense of pride to indulge, seeing as that franchise was now fully underway. In his first true espionage thriller since Foreign Correspondent, the plot concerns a suave spy [albeit French] investigating Russians at the height of the Cold War, which could easily have been a Fleming story. There’s even a Q type character in Cuba! Additionally, Hitch uses another of his favourite themes as Topaz turns out to be a secret organisation in the upper echelons of France’s Government, echoing the Fifth Columnists of Saboteur.
Unfortunately, it’s far too long, ponderously slow, has an uneven tone and doesn’t know how to end. A victim of test screenings, it was changed twice (alternate versions are on the DVD), although the original ending was absurd and needed Hitchcock at his cheeky best to sell it so it would never have worked. In retrospect though, key scenes show the director was still a force to be reckoned with. A superlative sequence in New York is an absolute stand-out and much better than an average Bond any day. Similarly, the Cuban set scenes with the tortured Resistance are powerful and visually stunning (look out for a shocking, sudden murder on a tile floor; easy to see how it was achieved, but not to be underestimated). The brilliant opening scene with the Russian defector narrowly escaping capture with his family and the New York segment, also demonstrate his cleverness with narrative, hiding exposition like he did in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake (we see characters talking about key points, but can’t hear them!), yet lingering on character moments. No-one handled the MacGuffin better, before or since. Even this sub-par effort has enough “how did he do that?” moments to make today’s directors feel inadequate.
A big problem though is surely that the story was told after the fact, undermining the tension. Released in 1969, the Cuban Missile Crisis was over, while his WWII thrillers worked all the better for being released during WWII, especially the clever, shifting tone of Foreign Correspondent that ended with a poignant scene that could send a shiver down the spine, even now.
Timing aside, the film lives and dies on its cast and unfortunately it’s no accident that the best moments are driven by the supporting characters; John Vernon as Cuban Rico Para is a tangible threat and Karin Dor as the beautiful Juanita makes you feel it, along with her Resistance fighters (awful moment in a cell, that I’m guessing Eli Roth would have handled very differently!). Roscoe Lee Browne is a live wire in New York and you’ll hold your breath as his operation hinges on nervy Don Randolph. Quieter, but solid support also comes from John Forsythe (better here than in The Trouble With Harry), but the lead character is Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) and while he has the look of Connery, he can’t convince as a likable bastard. He’s just a bastard, and we’re stuck with him for two hours! I commented that Torn Curtain suffered from not focusing on one character, so clearly, I’m never happy. It isn’t all Stafford’s fault (his wife, Dany Robin, is annoying as well, for a start) as actually he is never given anything to do. In a better received film, I’d see him as a sharp parody of James Bond, all style and no substance, letting the Resistance do the work, while he gets the credit. A plot point concerning his adultery and another that puts his son-in-law in terrible danger because of him proves irony was surely the intention, and even in the deleted original ending, he gets off without doing anything. But he is a wet blanket when the film was barely smouldering anyway. At least Paul Newman was under threat in Torn Curtain.
Of course, even in retrospect, it’s easy to see that the film suffers without the megastars Hitchcock was known for. A well placed Cary Grant can turn any film into a classic, but before you accept the obvious, bear in mind Grant, Stewart and Bergman were all superb actors as well, who worked brilliantly with the director. If the rather frustrating lead characters in Topaz were played by very good unknowns, I think it would have worked, or even someone not very good, but easily manipulated by Hitch, like Tippi Hedren. Torn Curtain managed to scrape by with disenchanted movie stars because they could do engaging performances in their sleep.
So no, Alfred Hitchcock had not lost his touch, it was everyone else! In fact, as Achim said, this was a brave film in some respects. But after all is said and done, was the world’s greatest director even relevant any more when this film was released? There’s a curious sense of isolation while watching these last few films (even the talking head documentaries are missing from the DVDs! Did no-one want to talk about Topaz, apart from a passionate, defensive Leonard Maitlin?). The studio system had collapsed and while you’d think someone like Hitchcock would thrive, maybe he needed something to fight to generate his most focused work. He’d failed to work well with new stars on Torn Curtain, lost key collaborators (Maurice Jarre, Lawrence of Arabia composer, nevertheless proves to be no replacement for Herrmann and his score makes Topaz feel like a TV Movie of the Week) and even in retrospect, the tone of Marnie through Topaz is out-of-date considering this is the era of the independent director approaching. This was a brave new world and the Western, period and urban, was making a revisionist comeback. There was no place in American film for Hitchcock any more. Maybe it was time to go back to his roots?