Monday, March 07, 2016

Topaz (1969)

A decidedly lesser effort by Hitchcock's usually high standards, Topaz follows in the same Cold War spy vein as the director's previous film, Torn Curtain, but suffers from a dull plot, languid pacing, and unremarkable performances that prevent it from rising to even the level of that earlier film (which itself was far from Hitchcock's best). Based on a novel by Leon Uris, the film tells the story of a French secret agent, working with the Americans, who travels to Cuba at the height of the Missile Crisis to collect information about a spy ring that has been leaking confidential information to the Soviets.

While it's interesting to see Hitchcock working with this topical material, the script (by Samuel Taylor) is a plodding, lumbering affair with too many scenes that go on too long with no payoff. Indeed, the entire film runs nearly 2 1/2 hours (at least in the cut featured on the Blu-ray edition I watched; apparently a shorter, alternate cut also exists). At times, Hitchcock seems to be almost overwhelmed by the scale of the production, with its many characters, locations, and unusually complicated plot. Hitchcock's best films took an economic approach to storytelling, starting with the essential plot and packing it densely with layers of style and suspense. Here, it feels like the director has his hands full just trying to keep things moving from Point A to Point B and to cover all the little plot details, so that there is little room for the signature Hitchcock touches.

SPOILER WARNING: The most striking visual moment occurs just after the Cuban official discovers that the woman he loves has been spying for the Americans, and shoots her, causing her to fall silently to the floor. The shot is photographed from a high angle that reveals her purple dress unfurling from beneath her, stunningly contrasted against the white floor in a flowing spread of color. It's a sublime moment that only Hitchcock could have pulled off. Another good moment occurs when the French agent meets with his contact in his Harlem flower shop, and rather than repeat the details of the plot (which we already know) through redundant dialogue, Hitchcock draws upon his silent film background by having the actors talk inside a walk-in floral display case for privacy, while the camera remains outside, presenting their conversation silently. Unfortunately, there are few opportunities in Topaz for Hitchcock to engage in interesting stylistic moments such as this, and the film ultimately collapses under its own weight.

Thankfully, Hitchcock would get back to his roots with his next film (also one of his best) -- Frenzy, a tightly-paced thriller shot in his native England, which proved that the Master of Suspense had lost none of his touch.

No comments: