A more traditional Universal logo kicks off ‘Topaz’ than a few of the previous Alfred Hitchcock films and we’re straight into some military style strident marching band music over shots of Russian army muscle library footage. A caption sets up the story succinctly and feels to me like it was added on in post to clarify just what the devil is going on for the first chunk of the film. Another caption establishes that we are in nineteen sixty-two (the time of Cuban missile crisis) and Hitchcock pulls out a pretty sleek crane move sequence showing the Russian minister, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius – there’s a name for you), and his wife and daughter exiting a secure building whilst being observed by a hidden suspicious sort (the female members of the family are Mrs. K – Sonja Kotholff – and Tamara – Tina Hedstrom). Boris is going to defect and ostensibly become an informant to the Yanks but is actually very uncommunicative when he gets to the US – especially when quizzed about a leak in the French government named ‘Topaz’. The Cold War between America and Russia is bubbling along, and the Yanks are particularly interested in plucking Kusenov’s brains about events unfolding in Cuba…
For nearly ten minutes the film runs like a silent, the family being tailed around the Russian streets stalked by three agents. They think they’ve lost them and end up in a porcelain factory and eventually contact Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe, becoming more the famed silver fox than his appearance in ‘The Trouble with Harry’). Michael is backed by a portrait of JFK, just to underline the chronology. This sequence feels very much like a Hitchcock movie, in mood and pacing – it’s really pretty good.
The defecting sequences are fairly exciting – loads of people from both sides expectantly waiting for the family to make their break. When they do, triggered by a fire alarm, you want them to get away with it as the daughter stumbles in a bike and grazes her knees – go! And they make it. Kusenov criticizes Nordstrom, saying the whole thing was ‘clumsy’ (thanks a lot) as they get on the plane that will fly them out. Curiously with the all the urgency the plane only has one propeller on the go, I don’t know much about planes but I would thought you could have had both of them running to be even more ready. There’s an unintentionally humorous front shot of the two pilots, wobbling slightly, and I was immediately reminded of ‘Airplane’, expecting dear departed Leslie Nielsen to pop his head through the curtains…
Kusenov is fantastically disinterested in America, his daughter avidly wanting to see the White House – her father looking more and more miserable. Partner this with his then unwillingness to actually proceed with the process of bean spilling and you wonder why he’s bothered defecting in the first place – play the game, fella. There’s a right load of driving and establishing of place and location getting Kusenov to his family’s new house, this slowing the film down a little (and it’s pretty static anyway to be honest – although, getting all arty about it, these exteriors and the shot of the daughter playing piano reminded me of Vermeer paintings a little, interesting lighting and compositions). Things come alive a bit more when he is asked about ‘Topaz’, the camera cutting to an above the head shot of Kusenov – a clear signal he knows more than he is letting on.
It’s nice later on in the picture when Kusenov has clearly resigned himself very comfortably to his new American life. He sits relaxedly with a large cigar (probably a Cuban) and sips coffee before going for a nice walk to watch the sunset. Neat how he has given way to the many temptations of the decadent West.
Andre Devereaux heads up the French part of the plot (played by Frederick Stafford). He’s pretty slick and I like him, probing around trying to suss out why the Russians had rung to tell the French that one of the guys had defected to the US. He and his wife have Michael over for dinner as Andre wants info. I like his wife a lot (her name is Nicole and she’s played by Dany Robin), she comes straight out with questions and gossip and basically takes the piss out of the two ‘spies’. After she leaves, Andre leans into Michael’s shot, proferring brandy and questions about Kusenov in a neat Hitchcockian composition.
Kusenov carries on being unhelpful and seems genuinely outraged. I didn’t really buy that anyone in his position could be so naïve about what was expected of him when he defected – he gets shirty as to why they keep asking him so many questions! I do like the three plaster of Paris busts the Americans have mocked up showing the Kusenovs their new disguises, which are swiftly swept onto the floor by happy daddy.
Tamara picks up her own head and cuddles it, she quite liking the idea of a music scholarship – mum quite liking the new fashions she is being fitted for.
Andre has a jaunty little Gallic theme that comes in when he goes into spy mode, it’s kind of TV-lite but fun (it feels a little like the theme from ‘The Saint’ or something – music here by Maurice Jarre). It is there when we first see him and again when Michael asks him to get hold of some secret Russian /Cuban documents. It’s very handy that Andre’s son in law is a sketch artist at…the United Nations! So he has drawings of all the guys they’re interested in – particularly the big Cuban boss Rico Parra (the great John Vernon – you’ll know him from ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ and the great Walter Matthau caper ‘Charley Varrick’)…
…and the more malleable and open-to-bribery Luis Uribe (Don Randolph). It’s also a bit of a stretch that Andre has to borrow the massive piece of paper that the sketches are on – what sort of spy is he who can’t remember a face? And he has to carry a massive folded piece of paper in his inner jacket pocket so if he’s gets busted by the enemy they can trace it back to his son in law. ‘Gee thanks Dad, the Cubans just went and bumped my hubbie off because of his sketchwork, good call’. OK, I know he has to show his photographer pal Philippe Dubois (the very smooth Roscoe Lee Browne) but still…
The whole sequence with Philippe getting to photograph the secret documents is pretty good – if a little drawn out. He establishes contact with Uribe and this is played out as a silent movie with Andre observing from across the Harlem street. When big bad Rico realizes what Uribe is up to he, and his curiously ginger haired and bearded sidekick (Hernandez played by Carlos Rivas looking very ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ to me), steam in and Philippe executes a deft window leap using a shop awning as a cushion. Rico just gives a look and you know it’s ‘come in Uribe, you’re time is up’. Philippe equally slickly slips the camera to Andre and then assumes his usual cool position in his florist shop – home free.
The Cuban section of the film has Andre jetting down there to ostensibly check out what’s occurring with Rico and the Russians (not a bad title, that) but Mrs. Andre knows he has a fancy woman on the go also – and worse still it’s Rico’s woman Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor – a dusky scarlet dressed brunette in contrast to Nicole’s blonde locks). Sure enough, as soon as Andre gets there he’s doing his best for international relations right under the nose of the armed-to-the-teeth Cuban revolutionary. He’s full of good ideas, is Andre.
The mercilessness of Rico is matched by the determination of the Cuban resistance. A nice scene occurs as two members of the resistance hide a camera in a baguette to photograph goings on, they then getting nabbed due to the woman being shot – but an old guy plodding out on a horse to retrieve their secreted camera with its precious film (a little kick on the picture to hide a tighten up edit – who moved that tripod?!) The camera is then hidden up the arse end of a chicken – wow, they really don’t want to fall fowl of these revolution guys. When Rico gets a-hold of them he doesn’t mess about – the couple beaten and tortured and arranged in a classic pieta, she eventually telling Rico it was Juanita who’s the bad penny.
Rico furiously confronts Juanita, who descends her staircase to be slow arm-grabbed by him. Vernon is almost operatic as he delivers his determined threatening speech to her before unhesitatingly delivering a bullet-in her. Hitchcock pulls out a lovely high shot as Juanita slumps to the chess board floor, her dress flowing outwards like deep purple blood – wow!
He’s also pretty scary when he confronts Andre in the presence of Juanita, although she then effectively tells him to sling his hook and chucks him out – good for her. Andre still manages to get the photos out of the country even in the face of high suspicion (it all gets a bit Bond like at this point, although Andre doesn’t hide the pics in any sort of poultry), but it feels like their love affair is over as they say goodbye with high emotion – the score sweeping in to underline everything, if we were in any doubt. I didn’t buy at all that he, as a veteran spy, would water soak the book cover that hides the photos whilst he is still on the plane home just to check they’re there (!)
Like the start of the picture, Hitchcock uses actual documentary footage of real events – Fidel Castro giving a speech intercut with the actors – it’s pretty well matched as well (unlike a lot of this kind of thing where it is screamingly obvious that the two different scenes/clips don’t match at all).
The last third, from the time Andre is banished back to Paris for all his country hopping spying/double sided shenanigans, is by far the dullest in the film. He tries to investigate the spy ring Topaz more and we have fairly long scenes of dialogue but no real suspense or excitement. Jaret (Philippe Noiret*) one of the Topaz guys, coolly chomps down his lunch as all this is discussed – only being engaged when Kusenov’s name is mentioned. He explains that Kusenov actually died a year before, much to Andre’s confusion.
Following the big summit meeting between the French and Americans – from which Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli) is frozen out from as he is exposed as the ringleader of Topaz (he’s also been having an affair with Nicole, the scoundrel**) – we go back to the airport and Andre and Nicole are boarding a plane back to the US. They see Granville boarding also and Nicole muses how he gets away with it, Andre flatly stating ‘anyway, that’s the end of Topaz’ which indeed it is, thank the Lord. A very handy headline tells us ‘Cuban Missile Crisis Over’ and we’re done. It really does feel that the director couldn’t either come up with an ending or just had given up by this point***.
‘Topaz’ is a film with tons of exposition and no pay off – it’s like going up a really long mountain chair lift and then not being allowed to ski down. After the supreme world conquering triumphs of previous years it’s a major let down – watch it about the time you view ‘Number Seventeen’ to experience the very worst of the director’s work.
Nice little Hitchcock cameo about 32 mins in, he being pushed along in a wheelchair at the airport – then effortlessly standing to greet another guy.
*you’ll know him from his all time classic turn as Alfredo in Giuseppe Tornatore’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1988).
Some of the all time worst Hitchcock rear projection in the driving scenes about an hour and 42 in – howler.
Another example of a crap mocked up photo @ 2 hours 11 mins – couldn’t they just have taken an actual photo of the three actors together? It’s not like they don’t appear in scenes at one point or another. (See Week 38).
**a very wobbly camera move towards Granville in this meeting – much worse than similar longish crane shots from Hitchcock films from twenty years earlier, what gives?
***On the DVD in the UK Universal box set collection they helpfully feature the two alternative endings – the dual scene between Andre and Granville (the latter being shot in the back by the Russians) and the stranger ‘Granville leaving the meeting then going into his house and shooting himself’. The dual scene, for me, is the best ending and would give the film some feeling of climax and closure – but apparently was rejected by preview audiences. The Granville suicide is very odd as you only glimpse him going in to his house (it’s actually Philippe Noiret’s character Jaret but Hitchcock had to cut it just as you glimpse a figure going in – Jaret has a walking stick throughout) – the frame then freezes and a zoom is added in post as you hear the gunshot. I have to say that either of these endings are preferable to the limp one chosen for the version I saw – although none of them are really great.
Again, like the past three releases, the Universal UK box set edition features an open gate 4:3 ratio – see previous notes.