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Saturday, November 8, 2014

TOPAZ (1969)

The fault-line on this third-tier Alfred Hitchcock political-thriller can be found in the film’s MacGuffin, Hitch’s oft-cited term for the thing everyone in the film is looking for, but which needn’t concern the audience. Here, it’s nothing less than the discovery of a network of Soviet agents in the French Cabinet just as the Cuban Missile Crisis is about to implode. A MacGuffin fraught with importance! Even a big explanatory speech, not unlike Mr. Memory in THE 39 STEPS/’35, but with weighty international import replacing the delightful, old inconsequential double-talk. Add in the fact that everyone in jeopardy is either a spy, a counter-spy or a resistance fighter, with nary an innocent man in sight, and you can see that the story, taken from a typically ponderous Leon Uris novel is a fine example of what’s often misunderstood as Hitchcockian.* Er, yes, all very interesting . . . but how's the movie? Well, from a nearly dialogue-free Prologue in Amsterdam, thru three acts in NYC, Cuba & Paris, it’s something of a Curate’s Egg, good in parts. Best watched that way, too, for a few set pieces. The Cuban segment is noble & deadly, a shame as it holds the film’s greatest shot: a romantic murder and a gun going flaccid. (But, oh!, that tinkly fountain by the dining room.) Hitch knew the film was D.O.A., letting it go out with the worst of the three endings he tried. Fortunately, the DVD splices on the best of the lot. And it's worth sticking around for the last act in Paris which has the best perfs. (Only Roscoe Lee Browne back in the NYC segment gets anywhere near the level of Philippe Noiret in France.) Plus, Hitch seems to give lenser Jack Hildyard his head in the European locations to fine effect.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *So, why did Hitch choose to make TOPAZ? Contrary to what you may have read, Hitch’s previous pic, the little liked TORN CURTAIN/’66, another Cold War espionage thriller, was no flop, but one the year’s Top Ten grossers. But with no project on tap, Hitch was open to ‘suggestions’ from his masters at Universal, meaning his pal and one-time agent Lew Wasserman. Wasserman had okayed a very expensive book sale for the Uris bestseller. Uris even got to write his own screenplay. (Not that Hitch used it.) And to Wasserman, the material was another Hitchcockian Cold War thriller, just like that moneymaking TORN CURTAIN. In Hollywood, you’re either a working director, or your dead. Hitch made the pic. (This should probably be labeled SCREWY CONJECTURE OF THE DAY.)

DOUBLE-BILL: After this, Hitch downsized to superb effect on FRENZY/’72.

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