Topaz (1969): Hitchcock’s Espionage Thriller, Starring International Cast, John Forsythe

Topaz, which was made right after “Torn Curtain,” one of Hitchcock’s weaker films, was disliked by most critics and viewers.

 

 

 

 

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).

“Topaz” was greeted with mixed reviews, with some critic claiming that Hitchcock strayed beyond his form, deviating from his specialized skills. Others felt, in its current shape, that 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 complicate, verbose narrative marked by
endless talk.

Yet, see from the perspective of time, 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 does 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 a loose approach toward the original text (which upset Uris, also disappointed with Preminger’s version of his epic novel, Ëxodus”).

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 was the first to point out, the film tells its story entirely in terms of specific colors and 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 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.

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