The story of Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz is really a sad one. By this point in his career, the director was deeply frustrated with how things were going in Hollywood. Things were changing quickly and he was dealing with the scorn of test audiences, which in turn set studios to the task of having Hitch drastically alter his sensibilities. This 1969 film is a clear instance of such meddling.
Based on a 1967 espionage novel by Leon Uris, Topaz took shape with such rapidity that it began shooting without a completed screenplay. One can easily imagine how this would play with Hitchcock given his copious pre-planning. He was luckily able to cast his vision on a few shots in the film, but much of it seems out of hand, scattered and cluttered.
The movie opens in Copenhagen as a Russian intelligence officer (Per-Axel Arosenius) is defecting to the Americans. CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe) discovers that the Russians are planning to put missiles in Cuba, so he gets the help of his pal in the French intelligence agency (Frederick Stafford) in hopes of getting a handle on things in New York City.
The French agent works to get information on Cuban official Rico Parra (John Vernon). He also gets close to Parra’s lover (Karin Dor), who is actually working undercover. The intelligence agents scramble for photographs that show that there are Soviet weapons in Cuba, all the while the personal costs of these actions take hold.
There is something to be said about the latter point. Topaz does at least appear to be interested in how such international goings-on can influence the intimate lives of its characters, but it’s hard to feel attached to any particular individual. The film flips through characters like a Rolodex, planting more names and faces only to almost completely abandon them later.
By the time the audience discovers NATO official Henri Jarré (Philippe Noiret) and his connection to Russian intelligence, it doesn’t matter. Further, the head of this espionage hydra (Michel Piccoli) exists in a realm of little consequence for the bulk of the picture. These issues of balance make it nearly impossible to care.
To make matters worse, Hitchcock had Topaz greeted with disdain from test audiences so he fiddled with the ending to the point of making it ridiculous. Initially, the plan was to have a duel between the French agent and the character of Jacques Granville. He shot the sequence meticulously, spending more time on it than on any other segment in the film.
When the scene tested, audiences laughed. Of course, the idea that anyone would deliberately allow themselves to be killed was something Americans didn’t understand. Hitch discarded the duel scene, but not before developing a healthy resentment. He considered the young American audiences too “materialistic and shallow” to understand such chivalrous behaviour.
Another ending was shot (and another, as a compromise), but the damage was done. For the first time in his career, Hitchcock didn’t know how to end a picture. Part of this was the fault of rushing into production and part of this was the matter of caving to test audiences in such a fashion. For an auteur always in command of the commercial aspects of his pictures, this had to sting.
Despite the shine being off the apple, so to speak, there are some great moments of cinema in Topaz. The much-discussed scene in which Juanita is shot is a tour de force of colour and overhead shooting, with her purple dress bucketing beneath her like an intensifying blood pool. And the opening overhead shot is a wonder, too, as it zeroes in on a small mirror.
But as a complete picture, Topaz isn’t very good. It lacks depth and wears out its welcome. It is, as test audiences figured in the late 1960s, much too long. It meanders. It’s tortuous. It is flavourless. It’s still an Alfred Hitchcock film to be sure, but it is a specimen of a “very cautious” director and a gloomy testament to the changing tide in Hollywood.