Duels and Gemstones: Hitchcock’s Topaz

Nobody of sound mind is going to recommend Topaz to you as Hitchcock’s finest. There’s no sense of necessity to the proceedings, the majority of characters are like charismatic debris, and you’ve got actors doing Foreign after using their ass to pick an accent out of a tombola. Yet the sprawling 1969 spy film has plenty of beautiful, masterful sequences, and enough excitement to keep you watching til the end.

OK, it's not THAT exciting.

Ah yes — the end. I should forewarn you, this post *will* contain spoilers. But then, so does the film I guess. And you’ve had like forty years.

So the film starts with a Russian official who defects to America, dishing dirt on his country’s dabblings with Havana. An evil spy ring — the titular Topaz — comes up.

Investigating all this is French spy (and Roger Moore lookalike) Andre Devereaux.

It's Roger Moores!

Long story short it turns out the spy ring was run by his BFF Jacques Granville (played by actual Frenchman Michel Piccoli).

But wait! They can’t do anything about it!

Best. Picture. EVER.

The movie ends at the airport. Devereaux climbs aboard an aeroplane with his wife, Nicole, and notices his friend-turned-nemesis Granville boarding a neighbouring flight to Russia.

He got away with it! There’s nothing we can do! After all the scheming, the deceit, the murders…

Man, Devereaux must be pissed.

Bon voyage LOL

Oh, you!

But fair enough. It’s nice to have an ending to this sort of espionage romp that doesn’t wrap it all up. In Topaz things are left sucking. There’s no sense of closure.

Now, being a kind of critical lamb, I took this all to be purposeful and good. It’s Hitchcock. But then I see this on the DVD menu:

Typically I pass through to the Bonus menu with few hopes. At best I’d have a short, scholarly documentary, not fronted by Kim Newman. At worst, yet another fascinating STILLS GALLERY…

“Remember this?”

“And this?”

*   *   *

So there I was with —

“What about this?”

Thanks, DVD!

But for whatever reason I thought I’d try my hand at the alternative endings. Cut straight to THIS:

Wait —

Wait, wait —

Wait, wait — wait —

Say WHAT?

This should have been called Alfred Hitchcock’s Tenuous

The old ‘duel’ ending, eh? Right up there with ‘it was all a dream’ for prefab cop-outs.

It’s SO BIZARRE. And the characters even point this out.

But wait —

I’m listening…

Two opponents drawing guns on one another?

Nope, that’s definitely an ordinary duel.

Let’s just make a correction there:

*Not actually true.

That’s better.

So Devereaux and Granville shimmy over to a sports stadium for the duel. A duel is about honour; it’s about your word. And right now this bizarro version of the film is held together by the word of a character with the dimensionality of a biscuit.

But wait:

I’ve gone ahead and put in the corrected version already there.

Long story short in this dimension Granville gets shot by a sniper with a season ticket and they all go back to bed.

I like the airport ending better. Airports HAPPEN…

*   *   *

But this doesn’t seem fair on Topaz. Like I say, it’s got some beautiful shots, some ingenious sequences. Let’s take a run-through.

So we’re already wise to the Russian defector. There’s a wonderful scene in a chintz factory where his daughter gives her pursuer the slip.

FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!

The Russian official officially defects to a character — if it can be called that — played by Trouble with Harry vet John Forsythe.

Now, while the trouble with The Trouble with Harry was that it was tedious, I’d say Forsythe’s annoying-but-charming artist was about the least awful thing in it. And yet here is Forsythe playing a character entirely without characteristics, who is almost completely useless. It’s like finding a piece of driftwood with a face. He sort of occupies a chunk at the beginning of the film, then hands things over to Devereaux, then gets wheeled back on again at the end. His character is like a door or a window: you’re not gonna pay it much attention, but some of the scenes wouldn’t make sense if it wasn’t there.

This is the voice of Charlie’s Angels, people.

Anyway, Devereaux then passes the buck himself to one Philippe Dubois who, in another great suspense sequence, nabs a paper agreement between the Russians and Cubans — from under the very nose of evil Cuban leader Rico Parra.

It's Howard Keels!

Parra goes apeshit and Devereaux goes off to Cuba to do some spying and hook up with his mistress, Juanita De Cordoba.

...and Natalie Woods!

Here he is explaining to his suspicious wife (imagine a cross between Pussy Galore and Helen Daniels):

He reaches Cuba and shacks up with Cordoba, who also happens to be a rebel spy he works with. In fact, her entire domestic staff are secret agents.

That’s right, Kado!

Well anyway, it turns out that Parra is Cordoba’s landlord, and he has a thing for her.

He acts like he owns her, the romantic triangle is far from equilateral, and they go off to a rally to listen to THIS guy:

It's Liam Neesons!

Finally the lovers are left alone to do some spying, after Parra goes off to be a communist for a bit.

So off they sneak with the help of Cordoba’s kitchen staff, who have an ingenious way of smuggling around their surveillance kit.

It all goes pear-shaped and Parra finds out that Cordoba is double-crossing him after he tortures one of her assistants.

It’s another great scene, another great image.

Devereaux heads back to the USA with his evidence, and invites Cordoba to come with him. After all, she’s not really very safe in Cuba. But no, she’s too patriotic to leave.

Parra comes round and confronts her, then kills her. Cut to a plan view of her falling to the floor — a baroque, but beautiful image.

...also too patriotic to LIVE...

It’s sad. Devereaux makes it back to Washington with his intel and goes about exposing the leader of spy ring Topaz. John Forsythe pops up again and the movie ends — in whichever fashion you prefer.

I personally prefer the first ending, with Granville smugly evading justice. But the duel ending — boy oh boy — it’s unexpected, it’s bizarre —

Just imagine how many plots could be improved.

g

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3 Responses to Duels and Gemstones: Hitchcock’s Topaz

  1. Pingback: Sketchpads in Hitchcock | enterthesnowman

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