31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.
In Copenhagen in 1962, a Soviet colonel, his wife and teenage daughter outwit the KGB and deliver themselves to American intelligence agent Nordstrom (John Forsythe). News of the defection immediately reaches the French embassy in Washington, where maverick intelligence agent Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) is tasked with finding the defector. Devereaux is wary of how Paris got its information and whom they’re sharing it with.
Devereaux is good friends with Nordstrom, and despite protests from his feisty wife Nicole (Dany Robin) that he’s too close to the Americans, he invites him to dinner. The defector later tells Nordstrom that the Soviets have informants within the French government, and engineers building missile batteries in Cuba. He knows a man who might be paid to hand over vital documents about the missiles, but this man will not deal with Americans.
Nordstrom tells Devereaux what he knows and asks him to gather intelligence on the Cuban missiles. Devereaux travels to New York, where he slips away from a family gathering to employ a French agent (Roscoe Lee Brown) to obtain the missile documents from their contact man, a secretary to a Cuban strongman named Rico Parra (John Vernon). The agent is able to photograph the documents and hand them off to Devereaux just as Parra gets wise to him.
Devereaux then heads to Cuba – over his wife’s objections – where he contacts Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor), widow of a famed freedom fighter who leads an anti-Castro spy ring. She dispatches her agents to photograph the missile batteries and finds time to sleep with Devereaux as well. But her agents are captured, and one of Parra’s men recognizes Devereaux from New York, increasing the odds that he will not make it out of the country.
Through sacrifices made by the anti-Castro spies, Devereaux’s operation is a success. He returns to Washington with film of the missile batteries, but discovers Nicole has left him and that his superiors are demanding he share whatever intelligence he gave to the Americans. Devereaux arrives in Paris, where he tries to bide for enough time to find out which of his friends in the French government are working with the Soviets.
Despite the failure of Torn Curtain, director Alfred Hitchcock was encouraged by the chairman of MCA/Universal – Lew Wasserman – to have another go at a realistic spy thriller. The idea of making one more Richard Hannay “shocker” appealed to the director, but rights to John Buchan’s hero from The 39 Steps were unavailable. Instead, Hitchcock settled for a 1967 novel by Leon Uris titled Topaz.
Uris had based his hero on Philippe de Vosjoli, a French spy who had developed intelligence on Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba for the CIA, but was ultimately ostracized for failing to share his sources, which ended up including Fidel Castro’s sister. The novel had been a bestseller, but Hollywood ran away due to a perception that the White House was not comfortable with it. Uris was hired by Hitchcock to adapt his novel to screenplay in April 1968.
Hitchcock pictured Topaz in the vein of Notorious – “espionage with an emotional relationship” – but Uris felt the 70-year-old director was out of touch with the real world and only turned in a partial draft before being let go. Hitchcock brought in Sam Taylor to produce a script that could be ready to shoot in the fall. Taylor was still revising as interiors were being shot on the Universal lot in November and December.
Hitchcock’s health was in decline throughout Topaz, and the director had rushed pre-production. When the film was test screened, the cards were so hostile that Hitchcock was pressured to shoot a new ending for the first time in his career. Released in December 1969, critical reaction was just as harsh, and without stars, the film languished at the box office. Though Hitchcock came to regard Topaz as “a complete disaster,” it has grown incrementally in critical esteem over the years.
Topaz was and still is a letdown for many Hitchcock fans. Instead of Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, the film starred Frederick Stafford and Karin Dor, capable actors who are hardly charismatic. There’s suspense, but none of the killer tension or surprises the director was renowned for in his “shockers.” The DVD release clocks in at 143 minutes, making it the longest film of Hitchcock’s career, and there’s still debate on whether the ending works or not.
Maybe because the reaction against this movie is so scornful and my expectations were so low, I came to admire Topaz. Hitchcock succeeds in almost everything he set out to do here, making a realistic drama on the nature of spycraft that hinges on story and intimate relationships, not stars or entertainment for the masses. While some might say this was Hitchcock losing his touch, I see this as Hitchcock making a more personal film.
From the beautifully designed defection sequence, to the theft of missile documents (with the great Roscoe Lee Browne) to one of the greatest visual moments of Hitchcock’s career – the death of Juanita de Cordoba – Topaz commanded my attention. There are process shots and scenes staged in a studio, but there’s also more location work (in New York and Paris) than typical for Hitchcock. And while the ambiguous ending of the DVD release feels a bit thrifty, I like it best out of the three proposed endings.
Dan Jardine at Apollo Movie Review writes, “You’d think that the man who brought you great political thrillers like Notorious and The Man Who Knew Too Much would be in his milieu. Instead we get a film with flaccid pacing leading up to an unconvincing climax. It is clear that in Topaz, Hitchcock’s heart is not in the work.”
“Far be it for me to damn the work of the director I hold so dear, so let it be said even the best have their off days. Although I will comment that I always feel a bit of sadness when I view the last three movies Hitchcock directed, because it seemed he was moving to a different and very modern phase of his career that was very much with the times,” writes Harold Gervais at DVD Verdict.
Squish at The Film Vituperatem says, “For as exciting as this was, it’s not a memorable film at all. It smacks of decent parts of The Man Who Knew Too Much in its political intrigue (both versions, meaning he’s done this all too often, now move on) but there were moments of real boredom, entire scenes that could have been cut or shortened, or altered.”
“Warm blooded men and women take risks, make love, face death for stakes that involve the world.” View the 1969 theatrical trailer.