Topaz (1969)

*. A lot of people thought Hitchcock was played out after Torn Curtain. Topaz is, in my opinion, much worse. It was also (not coincidentally) the longest movie Hitchcock ever made, his most expensive, and his biggest box office failure.
*. You’d be forgiven for thinking his career was over, but Frenzy, which I think is pretty good, was still in the wings. And in his defence, there’s some truth to the fact that neither Torn Curtain nor Topaz were movies he really wanted to make. He had difficulties with both productions, from which he seems to have finally withdrawn here, either falling asleep while shooting or leaving the set altogether and letting someone else take over. John Forsythe just found him “very sad.”
*. The film was the studio’s idea. Hitchcock wanted to do Frenzy but was meeting resistance. So even after the failure of Torn Curtain he was basically assigned to do another Cold War spy drama, a genre that by now had totally passed him by.
*. Apparently he was interested in making a “realistic Bond picture,” but I’m not sure what he might have meant by this. According to Leon Uris, author of the bestselling novel Topaz was based on, Hitch knew nothing about modern spies and had little interest in politics. His “research” consisted of rewatching The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.
*. You can tell right from the opening credit sequence how little interest and effort was being put into the project. A still photo of a Red Army parade turns into stock footage of the same. We’re a big step down from the sub-Bond credits of Torn Curtain already.
*. “A most unhappy picture to make,” in Hitch’s own words. The script was being written up to the same day of shooting. The process shots don’t just look artificial but laughable. There were no stars (he’d had enough of them after working with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews). Instead there was Frederick Stafford as a sort of EuroBond (not the financial instrument). He’s stiff and uninspiring. Pauline Kael called him an “Arrow-collar-shaving-cream-ad hero.”
*. But then I think perhaps the biggest drawback here, among many, is that we don’t like anyone. The secret agent Devereaux is adulterous without being passionate, and so is his wife. Well, they’re French. But who else can we warm to? Roscoe Lee Browne as a Harlem florist/undercover man possesses the only charm in sight, and John Vernon as mini-Fidel has the only charisma.
*. The one shot, and it’s a shot not a scene, that everyone singles out for praise is the flowering death of Karin Dor. For a movie that runs an unforgiveable two hours and twenty-three minutes this isn’t enough. Sure there are a few other moments of interest, but that’s all.
*. There were three different endings filmed, and indeed it was released in these different versions for different markets. All are included on the DVD. I don’t know which is the worst. I guess the airport scene is the best. But as I’ve said many times before, if your movie has three endings then it really doesn’t have any. You’re just flailing.
*. In his video appreciation included with the DVD Leonard Maltin does his best to salvage what he can for it. “Not first-tier Hitchcock but very solid second-tier Hitchcock, and second-tier Hitchcock is better than almost first-tier everybody else.” I don’t agree with this. It’s bottom-tier Hitchcock, and that is not better than almost anyone else.
*. I do agree with the point he makes that “good is no small achievement” for most movies, but this was a major studio production, and even though Hitchcock was disengaged (Kael: “lazy and out-of-touch”) I still think he might have come up with something better than this. On no level, even the most basic, did I enjoy any part of Topaz. It’s actually worse than just a bad movie. It’s a joke.

4 thoughts on “Topaz (1969)

  1. fragglerocking

    Very dispiriting for the viewer. It’s difficult to do a good job when you’re forced into doing it when you don’t want to so I’d blame the studio more than Hitchcock. Was the script and plot salvageable if they’d used a different director do you think?

    1. Alex Good

      Possibly. Hitchcock at this point was a poor fit, in addition to his heart not being in it. I think it would have been a very different movie anyway.

  2. tensecondsfromnow

    …never felt any need to re-watch this, one and done. There’s a case to be made for Torn Curtain, Frenzy and Family Plot, but not this…and you thought The Kremlin Letter was dull?


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