Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hitchcock Month - Topaz

Topaz (1969)
**Original Director's Cut**
Starring Frederick Stafford, John Forsythe, Karin Dor, and John Vernon
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Apparently reviled by test audiences prior to its release, espionage thriller Topaz certainly isn't top tier Hitchcock, but it's an okay flick that only works for about half of its 145-minute running time.

Loosely based on true events, Topaz is set in 1962 shortly prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  A Russian dignitary defects to the US with his wife and daughter.  In exchange for their safe-keeping, CIA agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) presses the Russian for information regarding Cuba whom the US knew was making deals with the Russians for military equipment.  With the US seemingly shut out of contact with Cuba due to the Bay of Pigs invasion, Nordstrom contacts his French intelligence friend André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford).  Devereaux eventually heads to Cuba himself to attempt to uncover as much information as possible and finds himself becoming more intimately involved in the whole crisis when he discovers that the French may be selling secrets to and helping out the Russians.

While Topaz is an espionage thriller that brings nothing new to the table, it works very well for about 75 minutes.  The first half is actually quite well done.  The pace is brisk and the storytelling moves from character to character (the focus shifts from the Russian defector to the CIA agent Nordstrom to the French Devereaux) allowing the audience to never grow tired of a particular set-up.  

However, once Devereaux heads to Cuba, the film turns into a nighttime soap opera.  Not only does the acting become over-the-top, but it just seems like Hitch lost interest in what he was shooting.  Everything from the set design to the costumes to the dialog seems so low budget and simplistic and it stands in stark contrast to what we had seen in the first half of the film.  And the ending (which is much better than the original ending that was shot and removed after absolutely disastrous test screenings) is incredibly anti-climactic and it finishes the film on an unfortunate sour note.

Topaz isn't a bad film, but it's one that could have been much better had the overly dramatic second half been toned down significantly (it's this second half that makes this, Hitch's longest film, seem to go on forever).  I'm actually quite happy that I watched it -- this is one of Hitch's first "Hollywood" movies to not use any "stars" and that's certainly one of the reasons it is not well known and probably one of the reasons I've never gravitated towards it.  As it has been evidenced already with Frenzy, Hitch definitely started going on a downward spiral artistically towards the end of his career and Topaz is not an exception to that rule.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

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