Thursday, March 29, 2007


I love Hitchcock. I am fascinated with his films. Even some that have been considered failures seem wonderful to me. So I do not speak lightly when I declare that Topaz (1969) was a dreadful movie. I have watched the final cut and the uncut, preview version; I have watched all three endings that were filmed for it; I have even sat through a video in which film historians "appreciate" the film, and attempt to rehabilitate it. I did all this with an open mind. But the stink of an abysmal artistic failure remains. The movie is just plain bad.

Based on a Leon Uris novel, the movie begins with the family of a high-ranking Soviet official defecting to the U.S. while visiting the Netherlands. The official tells the CIA that his government has a contact in the French intelligence service, code-named Topaz. A CIA spook tells the resident French spook in Washington about it, and said French spook runs down the lead via a circuitous route that includes a caper in a New York hotel, a mission in Castroist Cuba, and finally some high jinks in France.

The badness begins, perhaps, with Frederick Stafford playing the lead role. (Stafford is pictured at right with co-star Claude Jade.) I can understand Hitch's reluctance to work with a "big star" after his negative experience dealing with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews on the set of Torn Curtain. I understand he was trying to prove that an auteur can make an effective film, even with little-known actors of fair-to-middling talent.

Nevertheless there is something to be said for a bit of "typecasting." It's easier to find your footing in a film where you immediately know who the main character is, and a good deal about him too, without a line of dialogue or even a moment of expository footage. You see Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Sean Connery, and BANG! you're off on exactly the type of adventure you should expect them to be in.

But what do you make of Frederick Stafford? He doesn't show up until 30 minutes into the film, and even then he only gradually grows in importance, and he is so little known and (I'm sorry) lacking in charisma that you still don't accept him as the main character for some time afterward. Such is the dubiousness of Stafford's position as the leading man that, when John Forsythe reappears near the end of the movie, you wonder if there's going to be a third act where Forsythe's character assumes center stage. You almost wish it to be so.

But the lack of star power isn't the main thing. It's just a stupid movie. It's long-winded, badly structured, and confusing. Some of the acting is dreadful. The beginning (including a freeze-frame of stock footage of a May Day parade in Red Square) looks silly and cheap. The longest and best of the three endings is the one that Hitchcock withdrew after the preview audiences declared it ridiculous. The short one that played in most theatres is quite abrupt and practically incomprehensible. The in-between one, in which Stafford cheerfully tells his wife that Operation Topaz is over, is so inappropriate that it's downright eerie.

The only part of the movie that I care for is the Cuban interlude, which is an island of Hitchcock genius in a sea of mediocrity. John Vernon is terrifying as a Cuban spook-soldier who stays one step behind Stafford. The moment when he realizes that the woman he loves is a double agent is stunning - as much because of Hitchcock's editing as Vernon's acting. And when he holds said woman in his arms and shoots her, and when her dress pools around her body like a puddle of blood, your heart stands still. But the movie is only 2/3 over at that point, and it's all downhill. Too bad, too bad.

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