Friday, March 18, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Topaz (1969)

In conversations about Alfred Hitchcock, Topaz doesn’t come up. It’s not one of Hitch’s weird psychological movies like Marnie that has a cadre of ardent admirers. It’s simply never mentioned. Going in, I wasn’t even sure what it was about.

It’s about the Cold War, inspired by a scandal that occurred in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s about two and a half hours long. Considering that it’s based on a novel by Leon Uris, whose books snap the needle on the Michener meter, that’s no small accomplishment on the part of Hitchcock and screenwriter Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo).

The globetrotting thriller opens in Copenhagen, with a Soviet official and his family defecting to the U.S. in the care of intelligence operative John Forsythe. Upon learning about the Russians’ plans in the Caribbean, Forsythe reaches out to a French counterpart (Frederick Stafford) for assistance. Stafford journeys to New York, Washington and Cuba to confirm the threat at great risk to both life and career. He then returns to Paris where he must square off against the title spy ring, a group of officials in his own government who are relaying information to Moscow.

In many ways Topaz feels like Hitchcock’s reaction to his disappointments on his previous film Torn Curtain. The studio forced stars on him; here he relies on a cast of little-known European actors. There is no love story. Stafford and his wife are jaded sophisticates, each having an affair that has bearing on the plot. Hitchcock puts the narrative squarely at the center, emphasizing tradecraft and the incremental gathering of knowledge and not his flamboyant visuals. He allows himself one “Hitchcock” moment in the Cuba section, a dazzling overhead shot granted additional impact because it stands alone.

The director’s genius expresses itself in more subtle ways. Like the cunning use of silence during the set piece in Harlem, where the Cuban legation to the U.N. stayed. We don’t hear Stafford’s instructions to his agent Roscoe Lee Browne, and when Browne tries to suborn a Cuban official we watch their conversation from across the street, filling in the blanks ourselves. Hitchcock takes this adult approach throughout.

Poor responses during test screenings led to changes in the film’s ending. The DVD print uses the climax Hitchcock preferred, but the disc includes the intriguing original coda and the slapdash one put together for the American release. Watching the Washington scenes I became convinced that several of the same locations were used in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading. It’s the kind of oblique tribute I wouldn’t put past those scamps.

Topaz is low-key but consistently engrossing, a procedural with a markedly Continental feel. It’s atypical Hitchcock, more akin to The Day of the Jackal than any of his own films. Hitch partisans may not care for it, but I do.