Thursday, March 24, 2016

Film Friday: Topaz (1969)

I’m a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, though apparently I prefer his lesser known films over his more popular ones: Rope, Torn Curtain, The Trouble With Harry. One that has always frustrated me, however, is Topaz. It frustrates me for the very reason that almost every other spy film frustrates me. Let’s discuss.
Based on the novel by Leon Uris, Topaz is the story of... well, that’s kind of the problem. Topaz isn’t really one story. It’s a series of backstories that all collide.
The story opens with a Soviet intelligence officer, Boris Kusenov, on vacation in Copenhagen. He and his family walk away from their Soviet minders and slip into the arms of the Americans, led by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe). This has been a planned defection. The Americans get Kusenov to Washington, where he is debriefed. But the story isn’t about Kusenov or Nordstrom.
Kusenov warns the Americans that the Soviets are placing ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. Nordstrom is told to learn more. Unfortunately, the Cubans are a little miffed at the Americans and Nordstrom can’t investigate anything in Cuba. So Nordstrom turns to his old friend Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) of French Intelligence. Devereaux is told to find a man named Luis Uribe, who is part of Cuba’s UN delegation, and bribe him for the information. Uribe can be bought, but he hates the Americans so the fact that Devereaux is doing this for Nordstrom must be kept quiet. There is another subplot coming too, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Devereaux goes to New York City, where the Cuban delegation has taken over an entire hotel. Devereaux cannot get inside without being identified, but his friend, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) can. He is a black florist and former agent who will pretend to be a fellow-traveler journalist working for Ebony. He will claim to seek an interview with Rico Parra (John Vernon), a highly placed official in Castro’s administration. Uribe is Parra’s private secretary. After getting the information, Dubois delivers it to Devereaux and escapes.
Devereaux returns to Nordstrom and informs him that the Soviet’s are indeed placing missiles in Cuba. At this point, the film falls apart. For reasons that are never clear, Devereaux heads to Cuba at Nordstrom’s request to gather more information about the missiles. What information? We never really learn. Basically, Devereaux goes to Cuba, meets a rich woman, and is given the information he needs as a sort of love story unfolds in which we learn that Devereaux and the woman have had an affair, which is ruining Devereaux’s marriage. The woman and Parra also have a sort of relationship, which leads to Devereaux and Parra coming face to face, though little comes of this.

Devereaux eventually leaves Cuba with the information and gives it to Nordstrom. Cuba is then forgotten as Devereaux learns that there is a mole within French Intelligence and he engages in a scheme to smoke the man out. The film ends after this.
This Film Frustrates Me
This film frustrates me so much. It has such potential, but it never achieves any of it. For example, it has some classic Hitchcock moments... but often meanders. The scene where Dubois gains access to the hotel, argues with Uribe, bribes him, gets what he needs and escapes deserves credit as one of Hitchcock’s best scenes. But then the film blows an hour on an irrelevant ex-lovers story between people we don’t care about.
The film has great actors, but asks too little of them. I love Forsythe, but he’s barely in this. Stafford has compelling screen presence, but he spends most of his time watching other characters handle the plot. Browne is fun to watch. He’s wonderfully playful in a deadly serious role, but he gets dismissed from the movie right after he wins the audience over. Vernon is perhaps the only one to hit his potential, but even he is denied a true confrontation with Devereaux.
The film promises so much too vis-à-vis the spy genre, but never delivers. You have a high-level defection, which is handled so well by Hitchcock, but all we see is the escape. There’s no setup to tell us who these people are and there’s no payoff as the story dismisses Kusenov right after he gets to Washington. The story promises a field trip to one of the most fascinating places and times in our history – Cuba at the start of the Cuban missile crisis. Talk about cool! Yet, Devereaux’s "spy work" in Cuba ends up little more than Devereaux visiting a former-lover in a Spanish villa, some stock footage of Castro, and a few tension free moment as some people take some photos. The story even promises a counter-intelligence mission against a highly placed mole in French Intelligence, but it ends up more like a police interview followed by an argument. All of this had amazing potential, but none of it ever came close to achieving its promise.
I am left to wonder why such a master as Hitchcock couldn’t make a great film out of this material. In fact, this is such a common problem with spy films that I almost wonder if there isn’t some problem within the genre. Try naming a group of spy films and you will see a collection of dull, overly-complex, long-winded, boring films. The best are really pure fantasy, like the Bond films, and are often packed with silly double-crosses to inject fake tension, like the Bourne films. The rest are dull, depressed and completely lacking in interesting stories.

So what is the problem? At times, I wonder if it isn’t that Hollywood has an ideological block which keeps it from seeing the Soviets as evil and therefore keeps Hollywood from creating solid conflicts. Indeed, too many spy films are about disillusioned spies who claim to see no difference between East and West. Maybe that’s why they had to create a non-communist SPECTRE, or why they love shifting the focus to rogue CIA operatives to get tension into their films? At other times, I wonder if maybe the writers just assume that defections and outing a mole are exciting enough that there’s no need to build an exciting story around it. But that's a bit like a Western involving only a single gun fight or stage coach robbery without anything else.
The thing is, there have been good spy films, and three in particular give me a clue here. From Russia With Love is a great spy film. It is exciting to see Bond escape Eastern Europe as operatives from the other side hunt him. What makes it work though is that the film spends time building up the characters before the chase begins and it turns the film into a one-on-one struggle between two of the best. The film Breach is an excellent tale of the FBI outing a spy. What makes this film work is getting insight into the mind of the spy as the FBI agent struggles to befriend him, to discover what he is doing, and then trap him. Finally, Ronin is a tremendous film about a heist involving a group of unemployed spies. What makes this film work is the extraordinary skill and knowledge displayed by the characters as they hunt each other. Ultimately though, what made each film work was the relationship of the characters. Each one has equally matched, highly professional opponents who despise each other.

So putting all of this together, a great spy film must have strong characters who personalize the struggle between East and West in their struggle against each other; they must represent different and opposed points of view and they must come to despise each other. And they must use their expert skill to outwit their enemies, either to steal from them, to kill them, to escape them or to expose them, and scene after scene needs to involve close escapes that require a display of extraordinary spy skills or knowledge. When you think of it that way, you begin to see the problem with Topaz. At its best moments, Topaz involves great characters, but little was done with them. There were few close escapes. There was virtually no display of spy knowledge or skill. There was virtually no one-on-one cat and mouse game, and what there was felt over-matched for the hero. What’s more, large moments of Topaz involve the hero waiting for others to do his work for him or are spent on the dull not-love story in Cuba. This makes Topaz a tease only. It has a great premise and the bones of a great plot. It just doesn't have any meat on those bones.
Honestly, Topaz is screaming out for a remake... a remake that exploits the missile crisis and the Cuban circus in New York and injects a real cat and mouse game between Devereaux, Soviet intelligence, Cuban intelligence, and the Americans.



ScottDS said...

I remember three things from this film: Dean Wormer as a Cuban, the lovely shot of Karin Dor's purple dress spreading across the floor like a flower, and that the film is at least 20 minutes too long.

From what I understand, Hitch wanted to make a "realistic" spy film. Torn Curtain was supposed to be it, but Hitch didn't enjoy the experience at all: at the time, he was dealing with the death of his long-time editor and the end of his relationship with Bernard Herrmann (which started over Torn Curtain, not to mention he didn't particularly enjoy working with either Paul Newman or Julie Andrews.

What Hitch really wanted to make was Frenzy, but it would have to wait. In the case of Topaz, it was another unhappy experience for Hitch. He and Leon Uris never saw eye to eye and the film went into production without a completed script. After Torn Curtain, he didn't want to work with A-list stars; he wanted to make Stafford into the next Cary Grant but it didn't work. And of course, around this time, Hitch was dealing not only with his own health but the impending end of the studio system and the rise of youth-oriented films (i.e. Easy Rider).

There are three endings to this movie: the "Duel," the "Airport," and the "Suicide." The duel was laughed off the screen by test audiences and the suicide was cobbled together from existing footage. I don't even remember how the film ends - I think it's the airport ending.

Thankfully, Hitch would go on to make Frenzy which many consider a return to form and his last great movie. (Though Family Plot has its moments, too.)

tryanmax said...

...vacation in Copenhagen...

Sold. I am watching this movie. Now I shall read the rest.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's true about the endings. I think it's interesting that people did laugh at the one ending. I would love to see it, but never had the chance. At point, TMC was supposedly showing the alternate endings, but I missed it. :(

In any event, they did choose the Airport ending, which is rather unsatisfactory.

You can definitely tell that Hitchcock wanted a more realistic film, but the lack of a solid script is a killer. This film just keeps falling apart over and over. It's like they had several good ideas. They couldn't decide which they liked, so they did all three. And then they never bothered to figure out how any of them are supposed to end, so they just jammed endings on each section. "I don't know... how about we kill the girl?"

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, LOL! That is a nice thought!

Kit said...

Interesting thought about most spy movies being overly-complicated and slow.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Those alternate endings are on the DVD and Blu-Rays and can be seen here.

Re: the script, Uris was surprised by how little Hitch really knew about espionage and spycraft. It seemed that what Hitch really wanted to do was simply an updated version of Notorious.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Good to know! The version I have, an early DVD, didn't have any extras.

Between this and Torn Curtain, I can see where Hitchcock didn't have much spy knowledge. He's got the big picture ideas and he does well in come scenes, but it all feels cinematic rather than realistic.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, To sum it up better, I think the problem is really a lack of strong, expert characters pushed their limits.

Mike K. said...

"..a great spy film must have strong characters who personalize the struggle between East and West in their struggle against each other; they must represent different and opposed points of view and they must come to despise each other. And they must use their expert skill to outwit their enemies, either to steal from them, to kill them, to escape them or to expose them, and scene after scene needs to involve close escapes that require a display of extraordinary spy skills or knowledge."

I think that's an excellent summary of what is essential in a spy movie, and I think it explains why I prefer early episodes of Mission: Impossible over 90% of the films in this genre.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Hmm, I swear most of the "lesser" Hitchcock films were issued on DVD only once or twice (same content, different artwork), and the alternate endings were always included along with a 30-minute tribute by Leonard Maltin. Weird...

Now I'm interested in hearing your take on Torn Curtain. :-)

Kit said...


Long time no see!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Perhaps you recall the great DVD land rush right after they first came out? Somehow, I doubt everything available was legal, but it was available. This is one of those. I just never bought the real one because I had other things to buy.

AndrewPrice said...

Hey Mike! Welcome back! :)

Thanks! The more I thought about it, the more that made sense to me. It also explains why so many spy films fail. Far too often, the spies are cynical types who don't care about anything, or the film relies on gadgets rather than skill, or it's just dull. I felt that Tinker Tailor was like that. It was so slow and so little happened and there was very little in the way of a one on one struggle.

Interestingly, the characters in Ronin seem deeply cynical, but they aren't, and you see this as the film progresses. De Niro is highly motivated to get his man and Jean Reno comes to care about De Niro very much as a friend. Even the bad guys are highly motivated.

And I agree with you about Mission Impossible. It had all the elements.

Allena-C said...

Thanks for the review, Andrew.
I haven't seen this one but it looks like I didn't miss out on anything good.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, Allena. I do think that any Hitchcock film is worth seeing, but this one is more flat than full and frustrates me.

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