Universal must have been salivating at the prospect of ‘Topaz’. It was, after all, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Leon Uris. Considering that ‘Topaz’ was produced in the wake of the staggering success of the early James Bond films, the fact that its story revolves around a globetrotting spy surely put a gleaming smile on the faces of the studio’s accountants. Tack the name of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock onto all of that, and ‘Topaz’ had to have seemed destined to be a runaway hit. So what happened?
‘Topaz’ wasn’t at hit. Responses from the audiences at preview screenings were brutal across the board. Critical support was sparse. ‘Topaz’ isn’t one of those movies that was unjustly overlooked upon its initial release only to earn a loyal following over time. It was and remains perhaps Hitchcock’s single most forgettable movie.
After repeatedly skipping over ‘Topaz’ during my Hitchcock binges for several consecutive years, this blogathon seemed like the perfect opportunity for a re-evaluation. Though I still feel that it’s the greatest miscalculation of Hitchcock’s that I’ve come across, I have to admit that I found myself warming up to ‘Topaz’ far more than expected while preparing for this article.
For the uninitiated, ‘Topaz’ is a Cold War-era political thriller. The CIA becomes aware of a Soviet plot to transport missiles to Cuba, a threat that might as well be a straight-razor pressed directly against the throat of the United States. The Cubans are too wary of Americans for one of the CIA’s own agents to infiltrate this scheme, so Uncle Sam instead enlists the talents of a French spy named André Devereaux. However, the conspiracy is far greater in scope than anyone could have imagined, and the closer Devereaux gets to the truth, the more bodies start to pile up…
From a distance, it may seem as if ‘Topaz’ delivers everything one could hope for in this sort of thriller – namely: spies, sex and shooting. There are even some bleeding-edge spy gadgets and the obligatory microfilm for good measure. Whatever it is you’re expecting, though, ‘Topaz’ is instead a turgid, uninvolving movie where hardly anything ever threatens to happen. For instance, ‘Topaz’ doesn’t open with the sort of bang audiences had come to expect from the likes of James Bond. In its place are a screenful of text and a rather plain-looking girl tripping over a bicycle. Among the film’s earliest stabs at intrigue is a conversation where an agent is asked to have dinner with a close friend. But… wait! They’d already had dinner together two nights ago! Surely this means something, but what…?!? I wish I were kidding.
Nearly a full hour has passed before ‘Topaz’ gets around to delivering any action in the vein expected from a spy thriller. The body count doesn’t start to tally up until the film approaches the 90-minute mark. There’s not even a satisfying climax to help ease the sting. ‘Topaz’ eventually stops after nearly two and a half hours, but it never really ends. Crafting a proper ending to ‘Topaz’ was a well-documented ordeal for Hitchcock, and the one that made it onto the screen is a dismal failure. From start to finish, ‘Topaz’ is a thriller all but devoid of any thrills. A director so frequently referred to as the Master of Suspense couldn’t be bothered to deliver any.
Hitchcock, who so frequently collaborated with some of the most dazzling stars in the industry, shied away from them in ‘Topaz’. The bulk of the actors who take their place are devoid of any charm, charisma, or any meaningful screen presence whatsoever – and that includes Frederick Stafford sleepwalking his way through the pivotal lead role. Hitchcock’s startling cinematic eye is largely set aside, with just a single shot (a gunned-down woman’s dress spilling out onto the ground as if it were a pool of blood) exhibiting any of the director’s trademark flair. Hitchcock toys with some potentially intriguing concepts, such as turning the audience into spies of a sort, by keeping viewers at a distance from the characters on-screen and unable to hear conversations they’re witnessing, though it ultimately comes across as a gimmicky technical exercise. It’s jarring to think that a film with no grace or elegance to its camera movements could be part of Hitchcock’s filmography. Similarly, who would’ve guessed that such aggressively bland characterization, stilted dialogue and bizarre interjections could’ve been penned by Samuel A. Taylor, the masterful screenwriter behind ‘Vertigo’?
Though many of my complaints about ‘Topaz’ remain, I was surprised to find that my reaction isn’t nearly as intense now as it once was. I used to find the plot, which repeatedly shifts settings and pivotal characters all across the globe, confusing to follow, but didn’t feel that way with this most recent viewing. I may still not care about what’s going on in the slightest, but I understood every bit of it this time. I used to lose track of characters, which admittedly isn’t difficult in a film that refuses to make meaningful use of so much of its sprawling cast. A great many of them serve little or no purpose, such as the breathtakingly beautiful daughter that Claude Jade plays, but I don’t find that to be a distraction these days either. Glacial though its pace may be, this is the first time I’ve found ‘Topaz’ to be legitimately watchable.
Knowing that I’d have to fill the expanse of a blog entry, my hope was that I’d discover some glimmer of brilliance in ‘Topaz’ that had previously eluded me. Though the film certainly strikes me as less awful now than it once did, I still see little to admire. Ambitious in scope but a unilateral failure, ‘Topaz’ is a rare misfire from a brilliant director.
‘Topaz’ is currently only available on DVD, most recently as part of Universal’s Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection. Definition and detail are decent enough, and the film’s Technicolor hues come through passably well, but the production design tends to skew towards a sterile, lifeless palette. As expected from a Universal DVD from the class of 2005, there’s a fair amount of edge enhancement. It’s a perfectly watchable disc, but there’s plenty of room for improvement should ‘Topaz’ ever find its way to Blu-ray.
[Ed.: VUDU also currently offers ‘Topaz’ in 1080p “HDX” format. While I haven’t rented it from there, I would expect that streaming version to originate from the same master as the DVD, and to suffer many of the same problems that Adam describes. -JZ]
In association with the National Film Preservation Foundation, High-Def Digest is proud to join the 2012 Hitchcock Blogathon. During the week of May 14th to 18th, we will blog about topics related to the films and career of the legendary Sir Alfred Hitchcock. This year, the NFPF hopes to raise money to fund a new musical score and online streaming distribution for ‘The White Shadow’, an early silent film that young Mr. Hitchcock (then officially a writer and Assistant Director) used as a stepping stone to launch his own directorial career. To contribute, please visit the NFPF’s donations page.