Judge Harold Gervais doesn't have the heart to throw the book at one of Alfred Hitchcock's later, weaker films.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
"For me a film is ninety-nine percent finished with the screenplay.
Sometimes, I'd prefer not to have to shoot it. You conceive the film you want
and after that everything goes to pieces. The actors you had in mind are not
available, you can't get a proper cast. I dream of an IBM machine in which I'd
insert the screenplay at one end and the film would emerge at the other end,
completed and in color."
As part of Universal's continuing series of releasing the films of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD comes his 51st movie, 1969's Topaz. Judged by the lofty standards as the Master of Suspense, Topaz does not hold up as one of his best efforts, yet there are enough instances of his masterly way with the camera to make viewing this movie required to anyone serious about film and the medium. While this may not be the best known of Hitchcock's movies, Universal puts together a nice package, including a pretty good documentary. Add on top of that video and sound that is as good as can be expected and you have a worthy addition to your Hitchcock library.
Facts of the Case
Based on the Leon Uris novel of the same name, Topaz is a spy movie set in the days immediately before the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. To its advantage, the novel and the film have at their center a bit of truth. Working at the highest levels of Charles DeGaulle's administration was a Russian spy who was feeding to the KGB information about the West and its activities. It is this double agent who provides Topaz with the bulk of its second half plot.
To try and describe all of the movie's Byzantine twists and turns would take hours. The simple version features at its center a French spy named Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) who is rather cozy with America's CIA and in particular with an American agent named Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe).
Used as shill by the CIA, Devereaux is sent to investigate charges made by a KGB defector. His investigation takes him to Cuba to work with the freedom fighting underground as well as investigating the status of Soviet missiles in the days leading up to the Cuban showdown.
After getting out of Cuba with the required information, Devereaux must deal with the French double agent, a spy who is closer to Devereaux than he could have possibly imagined. It is also a spy that has put Devereaux's career and life in grave danger. Working against the clock, Devereaux puts his plan into motion as he attempts to discover exactly who or what Topaz really is.
If one person had directed any one of those above movies it would have been enough to make that person's reputation. Two of those films would have made that person a sensation, yet from 1951 to 1963 all of those films, and more, were the product of one gifted director—Alfred Hitchcock.
So imagine what Hitchcock was feeling in 1969. Coming off a pair of critical and financial disasters in the form of Marnie and Torn Curtain, for the first time in decades Hitchcock was without a new project. Dealing with the blows to his ego and a massive loss of confidence, is it any wonder that Hitch answered the call when his friend and former agent, Lew Wasserman, approached him about directing the screen version of Leon Uris' best selling novel. Wasserman, now the head of Universal Studios, was eager to get his old friend back to work, yet there were conditions to the offer. The biggest condition and obstacle was that author Uris was the one to write the film's screenplay.
Simply put, what Uris turned in Hitchcock found to be totally unshootable. Calling on his old friend and screenwriter Samuel Taylor, the two tried to come up with a shooting script that would work. It would be nice to say that the two old partners-in-arms came up with something to make Topaz play; unfortunately they could not. Despite some brilliant individual sequences and one truly beautiful example of pure cinema, Topaz is ultimately a failure. To add insult to injury, at 143 minutes the movie is far too long and after all the time one has to investment in Topaz, the ending, the third Hitchcock tried, is anti-climatic in the extreme.
Still Topaz has its place in the Hitchcock legacy. To watch Topaz is to view a filmmaker in transition. All anyone has to do is look at Torn Curtain and then go and watch Frenzy to see a major shift in the way Hitchcock was working. At this stage of his career, Hitchcock had to move forward with most of his regular crew disbanded and with the times rapidly changing. Always wanting to be current and fresh, Hitchcock was searching for new ways to make his art relevant. To that end, he looked to Europe and specifically the French New Wave, of which Hitchcock was one of the patron saints, to tell his tale of international espionage. Topaz moves differently than most of Hitchcock's other films. It has a matter-of-fact coolness to it, a pace that can best be described as leisurely, and is one of his only films not driven by "star" power.
It is perhaps this lack of a star that really dooms Topaz to failure. As French spy Andre Devereaux, Frederick Stafford is competent but uninvolving. Worse yet, Stafford is unable to generate any kind of sympathy from the viewer. He offers no kind of edge in his performance, and it is here that the film could have really used the actor Hitchcock originally wanted, Sean Connery. Connery's presence might not have been enough to save Topaz, but it certainly would have made it a whole lot easier to watch.
Otherwise, performances are solid but again, uninspiring. Charlie Townsend himself, John Forsythe ("Dynasty"), is around as the CIA operative that gets things moving and it's good to see him without Joan Collins and Linda Evans hanging around. You Only Live Twice beauty Karin Dor has one of the film's better roles as Cuban freedom fighter Juanita de Cordoba, and also lurking around is John Vernon in his pre-Animal House days as revolutionary leader Rico Para. It is these Cuba-bound sequences that contain the most effective parts of Topaz. It's easy to see why, since Hitchcock was always most comfortable dealing with the man-out-of-place-and-surrounded-by-danger scenario. It in this middle section of the movie that Hitchcock moves with the greatest degree of confidence, and contains some of the films most striking imagery. The rest of the film cannot live up to this section. Topaz stands as the only film Hitchcock made where he was unable to figure out an ending. The movie drags and drags, choosing to finally exit with a whimper rather than a bang.
As part of Universal's Alfred Hitchcock Collection, Topaz is given an anamorphic transfer that preserves its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image overall is pretty good and pleasant to watch. The process footage shots may show some wear and tear, but otherwise nothing comes off as glaringly bad. Flesh tones and other colors appear natural and life like, while black levels are solid and posses strong detail. There are very few visible instances of pixel breakup or edge enhancement, and its clear the print used was in fairly good shape.
Sound is of the Dolby 2.0 mono variety and is as good as can be expected. Dialogue is clear and well mixed, with the score by Maurice Jarre, of one of filmdom's most overrated composers, heard to good effect. The soundtrack's only real weakness lies in some distortion heard in the quieter passages of the film and in a general thinness that is prevalent throughout the movie. Still, like the video, the audio is more than passable, with both standing as examples of their age.
Even though Topaz is one of the master's few failures, Universal has provided at fairly well stacked special edition. First up is a feature from DVD's best documentarian, Laurent Bouzereau, and it is titled "Topaz: An Appreciation by Film Historian and Critic Leonard Maltin." This look back at Topaz runs a little under thirty minutes, and in it Maltin gazes at the movie through fairly pragmatic glasses. Just dealing with one person's perspective is a unique approach to take and in this case, it certainly works well enough. Maltin's insights are concise and to the point, with this feature proving to be a nice break from Pat Hitchcock's gush-a-thon on all of the other movies in the collection.
The disc also includes the film's three conceived endings. To be blunt, all three suck. It can be said however that Hitchcock eventually went with the one that made the most commercial sense, but in this case it is more like choosing the lesser of three evils.
There is also a storyboard sequence, which in the case of a director like Hitchcock should be a mandatory inclusion of all discs of his work, production photographs, production notes and the movie's theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is normally the section where we list our problems with both the film itself and the disc. Since I pretty much covered my complaints in the evidence section, let me say that Topaz is far from being classic Hitchcock. The movie barely qualifies as middle tier work from the Master of Suspense. Still, like all great artists, their failures give us something to learn from and something to appreciate. With Topaz you have a director in the autumn of his career trying to grow and trying to change. You have a man whose talents had outgrown the times. You have the man who understood the medium of film better than anyone before him or since doing something new. As someone who cherishes his work, I will be the last person to pound the memory of Alfred Hitchcock and his films. In my view, with a career as long and as successful as his, taking the good with the bad is an important thing. Granted, it helps that the bad is head and shoulders above most of what is considered top tier filmmaking today.
Vertigo and Rear Window it is not, and I would be hard pressed to find a good reason to buy Topaz except for the fact it is a film by Alfred Hitchcock. Completists already own this disc, but if you are new to the world of Alfred Hitchcock, this is not the place to start. Topaz has its moments, but they are few and far between. Still, when they occur, you know you are watching the work of the best to ever sit behind a camera.
To buy or to rent…that is the question. As a Hitchcock fanatic like me, the answer is easy; to the more casual fan, my advice is to give it a rental and go from there.
Far be it for me to damn the work of the director I hold so dear, so let it be said even the best have their off days. Although I will comment that I always feel a bit of sadness when I view the last three movies Hitchcock directed, because it seemed he was moving to a different and very modern phase of his career that was very much with the times, and one that was going to do nothing but add to his already impressive legacy.
Universal is thanked for another job well done but is given a stern lecture by the court for not releasing the episode collections of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" separately, instead making the true fan buy the box sets, including versions of movies we might already own. Shame, Universal, shame!
Unless there is any other business, this court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "Topaz: An Appreciation by Film Historian and Critic Leonard Maltin" by Laurent Bouzereau
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