US (1969) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
This film finds Hitchcock nearing the end of his illustrious and peerless career; in fact he made just two more films after this one. There is a sense that we are watching the work of someone in their twilight years with only a few occasional flourishes to remind us of their prior form. It’s certainly not a bad film by any stretch but it isn’t “prime” Hitchcock.
The story however, is typical of Hitchcock with its multiple twists and turns, based on the novel of the same name by Leon Uris, who used as his inspiration the 1962 Sapphire Affair. At the centre of this fictionalised version is Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), a French agent who becomes embroiled in an international incident leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the breaking up of a Russian spy ring in France.
A top Soviet intelligence officer Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius) defects to the West with his wife and daughter aided by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe), giving information about Russian nuclear warheads are on their way to Cuba. Since Americans won’t be trusted by either Russians or Cubans, they opt for an intermediary in Devereaux who had already known about Kusenov’s presence under US security. Devereaux is asked to go to New York to get some sensitive and incriminating papers from a Cuban official Rico Parra (John Vernon), using his daughter’s honeymoon as a front.
With the New York mission barely completed Devereaux jets off to Cuba where he recruits his lover Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) and her underground resistance group to gather further evidence of the Russian missiles. Again surviving buy the skin of his teeth Devereaux returns home to Paris where a mole within the ranks needs to be flushed out once and for all.
What makes Topaz such an enigma among Hitchcock’s seminal canon is that it is atypical of his work and style, which presumably puts people off from viewing it or remembering it with any real fondness. It is a decent thriller and well played out but it carries with it an air of pedestrianism to suggest that really anybody could have directed it. That’s a rare thing to label a Hitchcock film but there it is although again it’s not that bad.
One key element which sees Hitch fly in the face of convention is the absence of a big starring name, instead he opted for a solid but largely unknown cast – at least for audiences outside of Europe – which no doubt harmed it box office appeal in the US. The actors themselves can’t be faulted as they are being given a golden opportunity by one of the all time greats to grab that brass ring and to their credit, they do just that.
Production on the film was fraught and troublesome too, with Leon Uris adapting his own novel for the screenplay until disputes with Hitchcock over the direction of the story caused Uris to quit. After replacements fell through Samuel A. Taylor, co-writer of Vertigo, was drafted into the role at the last minute, with many scenes being filmed with the script literally hot off the typewriter!
The Cold War makes for fertile ground for espionage thrillers and many have harvested some fruitful crops from it, with Topaz being a rather topical example, arriving only a few years removed from the actual incidents taking place. It really is an international experience with the locations taking in Denmark, France, Cuba and the US although not all the characters are portrayed by natives. Perhaps it wasn’t so possible in 1969 Hollywood to hire local actors while, also typical of the time, the dialogue is all in English albeit with inflections of an accent, and not all of them particularly successful either.
However the various sets and stand in locations at least create an aura of Devereaux’s jet setting mission, the verisimilitude of which is reflected in the minutiae; for example, in the US and Paris they have hi-tech means to transfer information, disguise weaponry or smuggled goods or cover up one’s tracks, while in Cuba they use simpler means such as hiding a camera inside hollowed out sandwich or concealing the camera film inside an old typewriter ribbon. Still ingenious though.
At 137 minutes this UK cut – which has a different ending than the US version – feels that long with a final act that seems to run forever. Perhaps if the love scenes between Devereaux and Juanita were excised and some of the flimsy domestic squabbles our man has with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), the film could be tighter.
There is one scene though which is pure Hitchcock. It is during the New York mission where Devereaux enlists an old friend Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) to help get the papers from the Cubans. The interaction between Dubois and his Cuban contact Luis Uribe (Donald Randolph) is shot at a distance with no dialogue to be heard, only traffic noise. It is simple, daring and very effective, covering more ground than pages of mundane verbiage could have. This is the Hitchcock we all know and love.
Regarding the cast of then unknowns, modern audiences will marvel at seeing no familiar faces such as a dark haired pre-Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty John Forsyth, the highly regarded Roscoe Lee Browne and TV bad guy stalwart John Vernon, also known as Dean Wormer in Animal House. Frederick Stafford makes for a dashing if not so dynmaic agent while French muse Dany Robin is little more than the obligatory Hitchcock blonde. Providing considerably more feminine fire is Karin Dor as Juanita but she is still essentially eye candy.
Topaz shouldn’t be overlooked as it has plenty to offer Hitchcock fans and may prove to be a pleasant surprise after hiding in the wilderness. It’s a well-crafted political thriller and manages to hold interest but be aware this film comes long after Hitch’s greatest achievements.