Alfred Hitchcock Makes a Modern Spy Drama

8 03 2011

The late 1960s was a difficult period for Alfred Hitchcock. Audiences’ tastes were moving in two directions: Toward the escapism of James Bond or the realism of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Hitchcock’s brand of carefully controlled suspense in films layered with meaning derived from camera movement and lighting, costume and color was no longer in style.

Hitchcock was certainly aware of the change in the air. After more than twenty years, the title “Master of Suspense” was weighing him down. Trends in European filmmaking had given him new inspiration that he wanted to follow. Around 1965, he developed a script called, alternately, “Kaleidoscope” and “Frenzy” (having nothing to do with his 1972 film of the same name). This was to be a very violent and sexual thriller, with a killer for a hero, and Universal Pictures killed the project.

While “Kaleidoscope” was in development, Hitchcock also began another script called “R.R.R.R.,” working with Italian writers Age and Scarpelli. Hitchcock had first dreamed up the idea of a comedy about a hotel full of criminals in the 1930s; now he hoped to direct it with a cast of unknowns. Again, Universal had no interest in this film, and it was dropped with little writing done.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock directed “Torn Curtain,” a movie with stars he did not particularly like, and an undercooked script. As a counter-balance to Paul Newman and Julia Andrews, Hitchcock populated the film with European actors, and set the action primarily in East Berlin.

Hitchcock took this modified European approach further with his next film, “Topaz,” released in 1969. Based on a bestselling novel by Leon Uris and adapted by Samuel Taylor, who had written the sublime “Vertigo,” “Topaz” is a difficult movie on many levels, with touches of Hitchcock’s filmmaking brilliance peeking through the morass only occasionally.

“Topaz” is divided into three sections. (It’s hard to call it a three-act structure, since each part is so separate from what came before.) Set in 1962, it begins with a typical bravura Hitchcock set-piece, as a Russian intelligence officer, on vacation in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter, defect to the United States. The suspense builds slowly as the Russians attempt to quietly evade capture by their former comrades while on a tour of a porcelain factory, the two sets of players moving against each other like chess pieces on a board. The defectors get their instructions from CIA agent Mike Nordstrom, played by John Forsythe, and make a break from a department store into the American’s getaway car, while other American agents block the Russians’ way in an oddly stiff dance, trying not to cause a panic on the crowded streets but still reach their quarry.

A beautiful, almost abstract shot of the defectors' car approaching their plane

The defectors board a plane bound for the U.S., with Kusenov, the intelligence officer, griping about the clumsy operation. After being set up in a house, Kusenov refuses to cooperate; he’s now decided that there he never made any promises to the Americans. But his hosts refuse to take no for an answer, and Kusenov finally gives up some hints about the mysterious Topaz they’ve been asking about. He sends the agents after Cuban revolutionary Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Kusenov warns the Americans that Parra won’t talk to them, and so Nordstrom enlists the help of a French agent, André Devereaux, played by Frederick Stafford.

Devereaux picks up the story here as the second part begins; he heads into Harlem, where he enlists Phillippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) to infiltrate Parra’s offices to find documents concerning a missile program, which lead Devereaux away from his wife and into Cuba. There he contacts Juanita de Cordoba (Karen Dor), a well-connected anti-Communist with romantic ties to Parra. Devereaux and de Cordoba are in love as well, and they plot how to gain information on the Russian missile program. When Parra learns that de Cordoba has been passing classified information to Devereaux, he regretfully shoots her, trying to spare her from being tortured.

Part three begins as Devereaux, now compromised as both an agent and a husband, flees Cuba and heads back to Washington, where he learns that the spy organization Topaz is based in the French intelligence community. Devereaux flies home to Paris and calls together his most trusted associates, hoping to piece things together; one of the men, Jarre, lets slip a bit of information that tells Devereaux that he is a counter-agent. Devereaux sends his son-in-law, a reporter called Francois, to learn more from Jarre, but Francois is put in harm’s way when killers show up at Jarre’s doorstep. Francois escapes unharmed, and, on recalling a phone number he heard the killers mention, tells Devereaux that the leader of Topaz is his old friend, Granville, another intelligence agent.

Word gets out that Granville is an enemy agent, and the film (at least the version I saw) ends at an airport, as Devereaux and his wife, now reconciled, board an airplane; nearby, waving to them, is Granville, boarding his own Aeroflot plane to Russia.

“Topaz” is populated – perhaps overpopulated – by characters we barely get to know, including the CIA agents attempting to make Kusenov cooperate, de Cordoba’s network of Cuban peasant operatives, Parra’s revolutionary stooges, and the French agents who work with Devereaux. Hitchcock costumes them distinctively, which helps the viewer to keep them straight, but very few of the cast are engaging as characters. Although Hitchcock’s concession to Universal was to film a bestseller, he preserves so much of the convoluted plot that it’s hard to follow what’s going on from one scene to the next. One that feels that Hitchcock might have been making a point about the ultimate triviality of spy work by reducing the secret agents to near ciphers.

Or are the heroes and villains of “Topaz” not the cast members but their nations? There are scenes set in Sweden, the United States, Cuba, Russia and France, and Hitchcock creates a distinctive look for each setting; the countries almost have more personality than the characters do.

Hitchcock makes his traditional cameo about halfway through the film; he’s in an airport, being pushed along in a wheelchair, when he suddenly stands up to greet a friend.

“Topaz” encountered some serious trouble during test screenings. Originally, the film ended with Devereaux and Granville dueling at a football stadium, but American audiences found this laughable. The second ending, described above, was also disliked, as the villain gets away with his misdeeds. A third ending was made, too, in which we see Granville enter his house, followed by a gunshot that’s meant to imply that he killed himself; this is the most commonly seen ending, although it was tacked onto the movie so late that it had to be made with reused footage. It’s both cheap looking and unclear.

Of the sprawling cast, the standouts are John Forsythe, who recalls the cool, early spies of Hitchcock’s films like “Secret Agent”; Karen Dor, who played Juanita de Cordoba; John Vernon as Rico Parra; Dany Robin as Devereaux’s wife; and Roscoe Lee Brown as Phillippe Dubois. There’s also some rather bad acting from Tina Hedstrom as Kusenov’s teenaged daughter and Claude Jade as Devereaux’s daughter, although Hitchcock was fond of Jade.

As with “Torn Curtain,” Hitchcock rushed “Topaz” into production, and the script feels unfinished. The dialogue is flat, even laughable, at times. Hitchcock had often said that by once the script was finished, the film was over for him; actually shooting it was both boring and the dreaded point where compromise began. Now, it seemed that even the act of creating the script no longer interested Hitch. After the test screenings, Hitch cut the movie considerably, although it’s the full two hour twenty minute version that appears on DVD currently.

Still, there are moments of genuine brilliance in the movie, including that opening defection, the sequence in which de Cordoba’s operatives capture information on the missile program and are themselves captured, and, especially, the moment when Parra shoots de Cordoba. As she collapses, her dark purple dress spreads out on a black and white tile floor; shot from above, it looks almost like a pool of blood. It’s a fascinating moment in an otherwise workmanlike movie.

Here’s the exciting trailer for “Topaz,” in which Hitchcock briefly describes the movie against modern graphics and type treatments. Note the emphasis on the novel’s bestseller reputation…




One response

12 03 2011
Ron Hobbs

Never has any Hitchcock movie come across more as a work for hire, than Topaz. From its tacky bestseller origins, to its multiple pointless plotlines, it feels like material the Master was never quite comfortable with. Still Karen Dor’s beauty almost makes up for things, and when she dies in that overhead shot that you mention, I liken to a flower blooming open, we see a powerful, poetic moment you would never find in any Bond movie.

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