Topaz: lacking in the suave Hitchcockian style but still its director’s offspring in theme and motifs

Alfred Hitchcock, “Topaz” (1969)

Coming towards the tail-end of a long and illustrious career in film direction, this Cold War spy thriller is one of two 1960s movies that Alfred Hitchcock made in the then popular secret agent film genre. By then, there was a glut of secret agent films in both cinema and TV and perhaps Hitchcock was ill-advised to join the bandwagon. “Topaz” may not look or play like a typically smooth and suave Hitchcockian film but it still possesses elements and themes typical of the work of the Master of Suspense. In contrast with many spy films of the 1960s, “Topaz” shows intelligence work as risky, dangerous and involving tests of character and one’s ethics as people betray one another and are themselves betrayed, and suffer the consequences of betrayal in torture and death. Relationships come under strain and are broken with perhaps no chance of reconciliation. Deception and self-interest count for more than honour, love and loyalty to others, and even close family can be dispensed with as part of collateral damage if necessary in service to one’s masters.

In 1962, just after the US and the Soviet Union have come close to nuclear war in the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba, a senior Soviet agent and his family defect to the US and are taken to Washington DC for debriefing. There, the agent reluctantly informs his CIA handlers that the Cubans are hosting Soviet missiles and the Soviet Union has a group of NATO double agents working under the codename Topaz in Paris who have infiltrated the French intelligence service. Senior CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe) recruits French intelligence officer Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to go to Cuba and obtain information about these missiles as the country is off-limits to Americans and the Cuban government would be suspicious of lone Americans wandering about the Cuban countryside even as tourists or business workers. Over the objections and tears of his wife Nicole, Devereaux embarks on his mission. He obtains some information from an old pal Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) who narrowly escapes being shot  by bodyguards of a Cuban government official, Rico Parra (John Vernon) who is visiting New York to appear at the opening of the United Nations headquarters. Devereux then flies off to Cuba and into the arms of Juanita (Karin Dor), his secret Cuban mistress, who helps him with his mission to collect photographic evidence of the missiles. The grunt work is done by Juanita and her household servants in an ingenious scheme but they are undone by their carelessness and a bunch of hungry seagulls (well, birds were never Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite animals) and these traitorous Cubans suffer grievous consequences when they are cornered and arrested by Cuban government and security officials.

Back in Washington DC, Devereaux discovers that his wife has deserted him. He hands the information to Nordstrom who then informs him that the Topaz group exists for real. The rest of the film is given over to Devereaux trying to uncover the identities of the members of Topaz and of its leader in particular.

The film looks good if old-fashioned for its period but the colours suit the generally serious and sombre tone of the plot and its concerns. None of the cast was very remarkable at the time the film was made: John Forsythe’s fame would come much later with TV series like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Dynasty”. The acting ranges from merely efficient on Stafford’s part to good or above-average on the part of the actors playing Juanita and Rico Parra, the only characters who show any genuine emotion and who have more redeeming features than most of the cast. Browne as Dubois is the only really appealing character who steals all his scenes.

The interesting aspect of the film, given its historical context, is that the good guys – those supposedly working for democracy and freedom – are often portrayed as self-serving and lacking in moral backbone while the bad guys, serving Communism, are often intelligent and principled people. Rico Parra does not come off badly at all; he kills Juanita himself to prevent her from suffering torture and his love for her appears more heartfelt than what Devereaux has so far expressed towards her. The defecting Soviet agent comes across as a peevish and ungrateful fellow, his wife is shallow and their daughter is spoilt and selfish. The CIA officers only value the defector for as long as he has information that they can pump out of him; after he hands over the information, they will set him up with a new identity and a job, and then he and his family are pretty much out on their own. Devereaux and Nicole are unfaithful to each other and both their liaisons are nearly their undoing. Even their daughter and her husband, minor characters though they are, are a bit grasping and Devereaux himself sees nothing wrong in risking his son-in-law’s life.

The film excels in its design and in the way key scenes are shot: there are several passages of completely silent film in which significant action occurs and Juanita’s death scene is remarkable in the way her purple dress billows out imitating the spread of her blood. Scenes of black humour also appear, notably in the way the seagulls give away the presence of Juanita’s helpers to Cuban guards.

While this is not one of Hitchcock’s best films and the acting and plotting are patchy with the seams showing in the stitching, “Topaz” still manages to intrigue with its cast of non-heroic and morally suspect heroes and heroic, morally upstanding villains, and its themes of moral duplicity, deception and expedience serving as the means to an end. Espionage is not the glamorous profession most people reared on James Bond films and its spin-offs imagine. “Topaz” might lack the suave style of earlier Hitchcock films but even as a so-so effort, it’s still better than a lot of current spy thrillers coming off the Hollywood assembly line.

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