Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Hitch continued: Topaz

The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, brought a best-selling spy novel to the screen with riveting results in this spellbinding espionage thriller. John Forsythe stars as an American CIA agent who hires a French operative named Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to go to Cuba and check out rumours of Russian missiles and a NATO spy called Topaz. In Havana, Devereaux's investigation becomes dangerous, leaving behind a wake of shaken governments, murder, betrayal and suicide. His mission complete, Devereaux returns to Paris but as he moves in to expose the double agent, the danger and the suspense builds to a heart-pounding conculsion in this lavish, globe-trotting thriller.

Well, thats one description of TOPAZ, from the dvd blurb. I don't think my heart pounded once, but its certainly globe-trotting, with lots of arrivals and departures at airports and scenes of Stafford on aircraft. (Ironically, he died in a plane crash in 1979, and co-star Dany Robin and her husband perished in a fire in 1995.....).

TOPAZ will never make any top 10 Hitchcock list - we dutifully went to see it on release in 1969 and promptly forgot about it, the only scene that impressed was that one stunning shot with Karin Dor .... however it cropped up again last week as part of the ongoing Hitchcock revivals here in London (see Hitchcock label for my recent reviews of PSYCHO, THE BIRDS etc) so it was interesting to record it and study it again. Then talk of 3 different endings got me to order a cheap dvd, with again has lots of those interesting extras on the making of it, and those endings. I think the one they went with in the movie works the best - the 'duel' ending is totally ridiculuous and the 'suicide' one where the exposed agent goes indoors and then we hear a shot, just does not work at all. It ironically shows the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis and the sacrifices people made as we see in newspaper headlines thrown away at the end; some people are always expendable, while the Russian defector gets to enjoy the high life in the West ... an interesting view of the Cold War then, but a long way from NOTORIOUS.

It seems Hitch was not much interested in the material - and decided to work without stars, after all his name was the biggest draw on the theatre marquee! He tried the biggest names of the time in TORN CURTAIN (Newman and Andrews) and that did not work out well either. But who then could he have used for these roles - a decade after the heyday of Grant, Stewart, Grace Kelly ?. Forsythe and Stafford are fairly wooden and Robin while attractive does not register much either. When one thinks what Rod Taylor, Montand, Trintignant, Deneuve, Schneider or Seberg could have brought to these roles ... the film too looks shot like a television feature with that bland Universal colour. But the structure is all wrong - the first section with the Russian family defecting in Copenhagen is reasonably gripping, then we get the exciting section in Cuba after that good scene in the Hotel in Harlem as Rico Parra's documents are photographed - but after that there is the sluggish final section back in Paris as the spy is unmasked, which is basically a lot of people talking. Hitch at least engaged Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret as his spies here ....

Its the Cuba section that holds the attention - little known German actress Karin Dor is marvellous here as Juanita de Cordoba and the very prolific John Vernon totally convinces as Rico Parra the man you would not want to cross (He was also terrific in JUSTINE, POINT BLANK, CHARLEY VARRICK etc).  His scenes with Karin Dor crackle and then there is that final visit of his to her house and that brilliant overhead shot of her body falling with her purple dress spilling out around her .... its the best section of the film. Stafford on the plane going home discovers something in the lining of the notebook she gave him - he had rang from the airport and been told she has been shot by Parra.  Another brillianly realised scene is the 'Pieta' pose of the tortured servants the Mendozas whom Juanita sent to take photos of the Russian ships - they get exposed when gulls steal the bread from their picnic and are seen by the soldiers ...
Hitch it seems had not filmed since TORN CURTAIN and was desperate to make another picture, so went with the awkwardly structured Leon Uris book and ended up with a very half-hearted Hitchcock movie with a few good scenes, no real stars, and 3 failed endings. TOPAZ has curio value as the last of Hitch's '60s films, he returned to London for the very polarising FRENZY in '72, and then that rather nice last one FAMILY PLOT in '76, he died in 1980... however he now seems revered all over again what with VERTIGO as the new "Sight & Sound" number one movie of all time - we will never tire though of watching his masterpieces.

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