Topaz (1969): Hitchcock’s Espionage Thriller, Starring International Cast, John Forsythe, Frederick Stafford, and Dany Robin

Topaz, made right after “Torn Curtain,” one of Hitchcock’s weaker films, was a middling work that, despite some merits, was not the effective entertainment the director was hoping for, nor a feature that restored his self-confidence and former reputation.

 

 

 

 

It took the director four years, the longest gap ever in his career, to make a follow-up to the 1965 picture, which had starred Julie Andrews and Paul Newman (at their very worse, I might add, though not in the least their fault).

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

As Hitchcock’s 51st movie, “Topaz” was greeted with mixed reviews by the major critics.  Some reviewers claimed that Hitchcock strayed beyond his form, deviating from his specialized skills. While others felt that, in its current shape, the story was simply not worthy of a director of Hitchcock’s caliber.

Set during the Cold War, “Topaz,” like “Torn Curtain,“ is a tale of of international espionage and intrigue, though it lacked real suspense and suffered from a complicated, verbose narrative marked by heavy talk that lacked much humor or wit.

Yet, though flawed, “Topaz” is also challenging and experimental, using unique cinematic codes, such as specific (often peculiar) camera movement and angles and particular color schemes to convey its meanings.

Based on a sprawling novel by Leon Uris, which was inspired by the factual account of Thyraud de Vosjoli, the script is credited to Sameal Taylor, encouraged by Hitchcock to take loose approach toward the original text.  (This (continued the disillusionment of Uris, who was also disappointed with Preminger’s 1960 version of his epic novel, “Exodus”).

The director took risks not only in constructing the narrative but also in casting the main roles. It’s the first Hitchcock movie not based on mega stars, boasting a large ensemble of international thespians, French, American, even Cuban, all gifted but unrecognizable or semi-recognizable marquee status.

Hitchcock hoped to redeem the verbose narrative and excessive dialogue with careful planning of set decorations and use of color codes. As biographer Donald Spoto pointed out, the film tells its story entirely in terms of specific color relationships and configurations.

The story is set in 1962, during the Kennedy administration, amid the Cuban missile crisis. Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe), an American intelligence agent in Copenhagen, helps Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius), a noted Russian security office on vacation with his family, to defect to the West.

Like “Psycho,” “Topaz” begins by grounding its saga in the particular context: The place and date appear on the screen. The camera then moves from showing a vast overview of Copenhagen to the particular locale of one private residence.

Some critics found the film’s structure too elliptical, as the action moves from Copenhagen to Washington DC to New York, then back to Cuba, Washington, and finally to Paris

The spy group known as “Topaz” is located in France, and yellow is associated with most of the French people. Thus, the lampshades, chairs, and flowers in the Devereaux residence in Georgetown are yellow; Nordstrom brings large bouquet of yellow chrysantemums to the Devereaux suite in New York; and the Harlem florist who helps Devereau is in yellow wardrobe.

Moreover, when Juanita agrees to help Andre, she changes to a yellow skirt, and her lounge chairs are yellow. Later on, yellow roses decorate Granville’s room. The French-based Topaz group is part of a Communist plot, for which Hitchcock combines yellow and red. Yellow and red Picasso harlequins are framed on the wall, and red and yellow Tiffany lampshade stands in the foreground

The color red, in many ways Hitchcock’s favorite, is prevalent too. Parra’s assistant has a bright red beard; a red attaché case contains the Russian-Cuban treaty; Granville wears a red dressing gown; Andre’s son in law sketches Jarre with red pencil taken from a bunch of yellow and red pencils on the desk. Hitchcock darkens the more optimistic yellows with the color linked to Communism, bloodshed, risk, and death.

Lavender is a color with strong and poignant emotional overtones. Dubois is last seen pinning lavender “Rest In Peace” motto across a funeral bouquet in his shop. “I’ll finish this,” he says, a reference to the implied death of Uribe, who has betrayed his peers.

In the next scene, Nicole Devereau wears a long lavender gown as her husband leaves her for his mission and his mistress. When we first see Juanita she is suitably dressed in red, due to her pro-Castro politics. Upon Devereau arrival, she changes into yellow (identifying her as pro-French. But in the powerful scene, in which she is coolly murdered by Parra, she is wearing a long lavender gown.

When Andre leaves her in the bedroom, which is shaped and furnished like the Devereau’s residence in Georgetown, Juanita doesn’t answer his farewell, but her eyes are filled with tears; earlier, his wide also didn’t bother to bid him a personal adieu.

The association of colors is more than a balancing act; colors have specific psychological and emotional resonance for the viewer, which derive from their effects on the nervous system and the cultural, subconscious values.

Hitchcock himself had strong reservations about his movie, which went into production without a finished scenario, without full casting, and without a satisfying conclusion.

Longtime collaborators Edith Head supervised the costume design, but the presence of the reliable collaborators, cinematographer Robert Burks and composer Bernard Herrmann, is very much missed.

Hitchcock Cameo
Hitchcock’s signature cameo occurs 28 minutes into the film, seen at the airport seated in wheelchair, being pushed by a nurse. She stops, and he stands and greets a man, before walking off screen with him.

Cast
Frederick Stafford as André Devereaux
Dany Robin as Nicole Devereaux
Karin Dor as Juanita de Cordoba
John Vernon as Rico Parra
Claude Jade as Michèle Picard
Michel Subor as François Picard
Michel Piccoli as Jacques Granville
Philippe Noiret as Henri Jarré
Roscoe Lee Browne as Philippe Dubois
Per-Axel Arosenius as Boris Kusenov
John Forsythe as Michael Nordstrom
Edmon Ryan as McKittreck
Sonja Kolthoff as Mrs. Kusenov
Tina Hedström as Tamara Kusenov (as Tina Hedstrom)
John Van Dreelen as Claude Martin
Donald Randolph as Luis Uribe (as Don Randolph)
Roberto Contreras as Muñoz
Carlos Rivas as Hernandez
Roger Til as Jean Chabrier
Lewis Charles as Pablo Mendoza
Sándor Szabó as Emile Redon (as Sandor Szabo)
Anna Navarro as Carlotta Mendoza
Lew Brown as American Official
John Roper as Thomas
George Skaff as René d’Arcy
Ann Doran as Mrs Foryth (uncredited)
Eva Wilma as Rosita Gomez (uncredited)