Topaz is a slow, slow movie. Not just because of the drawn out running time (at 143 minutes, it’s the longest film in Hitchcock’s canon) but also because the pacing is so laborious you can almost hear joints creaking. It makes Torn Curtain look rollicking
Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Leon Uris, in turn based off the Cuban Missile Crisis, Topaz begins with a high ranking Russian official Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius) defecting over to America. He reveals to US agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) that NATO secrets are being passed to the Russians by a French spy ring codenamed “Topaz”. In order to expose the spies Nordstrom calls in his French friend André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to clear things up.
Topaz is a film Hitchcock never wanted to make, but the project was forced upon him by Universal executives. Everyone involved seems to be on auto-pilot. The actors, the screenwriter and, sadly, even Hitchcock himself. His heart was clearly not in this one. It feels like the work of an old school filmmaker struggling to keep relevant in a changing Hollywood industry.
Some scenes were rewritten just hours before filming and Hitchcock ummed and erred over the ending, resulting in several alternative versions. This kind of sloppiness was usually unthinkable to Hitch who tended to work closely with his screenwriters and would meticulously plot out every shot before filming. But when it came to Topaz he had simply stopped caring.
Many of the individual shots are beautifully executed – there’s an especially effective moment with a lavender coloured dress spreading across a chequered floor – but that’s the bare minimum we expect from Hitchcock by this stage of his career, now on to his fiftieth film.
The one bit of interesting (but failed) experimentation is the film’s visual design. Characters were assigned different colours. The French are associated with yellow, the Cubans with red and so on. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could reveal elements of the plot through colours. He couldn’t.
It’s sprawling, unfocused and at times proves a real chore to sit through. Topaz is a spy “thriller” is the loosest possible sense of the word.
The Golden Age of Hitchcock couldn’t last forever. With New Hollywood on the rise, the ground was shifting. Now in his sixties, there was a danger that Hitchcock would be shafted by the studios like other old-time directors such as Frank Capra and John Ford. This meant that for Torn Curtain Hitchcock was forced to do something he hated almost more than anything. Compromise.
American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), travels to Soviet-occupied East Berlin for reasons he conceals to his to his fiancée, Sarah (Julie Andrews). Sarah secretly follows him to Berlin to get some straight answers, worried that he’s defected to the other side. But Armstrong is, of course, secretly working for Uncle Sam; gaining the confidence of his communist hosts in order to uncover a crucial anti-missile equation. Armstrong struggles to escape the watchful eye of Soviet goon Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), to get the crucial information back home.
There’s one particularly good scene, both tense and darkly comic, where Hitchcock shows just how long and arduous it would be kill someone by strangulation. Other than that, there’s little to pull Torn Curtain out of mediocrity.
Brian Moore’s plodding screenplay is the film’s biggest fault, but the cast don’t help matters. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Julie Andrews in a non-singing role. Her short, prim delivery makes every line sounds same-y to me. As for Newman, well, I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as much as the next person, but here he just looks lost. There’s a blankness to his performance that leaves him completely unconvincing as a man caught between duty and his personal feelings. Someone bring back Cary Grant!
Actually, Grant was exactly who Hitchcock wanted, as well as Eva Marie Saint for his leading lady, but Universal refused, claiming the pair were too old. Accustomed to the wide production control the studio had granted him with The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock now found himself grappling with Universal over key creative decisions which also led to to an irreparable falling out with his long-term collaborator Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the score for every Hitchcock film since 1955. Hitch despised the process and later wrote it off as the least enjoyable production he’d ever worked on.
Marnie is a very difficult watch for viewers who knows anything about its production history. Hitchcock had already started to develop a stalker-like obsession towards Tippi Hedren during The Birds, but things became even worse during the filming of Marnie. Hedren claims that he followed around outside the set, tried to control what she wore, ate and drank and eventually made “an overt sexual proposition that she could neither ignore nor answer casually, as she could his previous gestures.” She rejected his advances and refused to work with him again, despite Hitchcock’s threats that he would ruin her career.
I firmly believe that art can be brilliant and beautiful on its own merits regardless of the artist’s personal life – no matter how despicable – but after the behind-the-scenes allegations of entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment raised against Hitchcock, what is Marnie about? Entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment.
But, unsettling as it, Marnie is extremely good. Hedren plays the eponymous heroine, a cunning thief who suffers from psychotic episodes brought on by the colour red (sound familiar?). She applies for a job at a publishing company owned by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) with the intent of robbing him. But Rutland guesses her secret and blackmails her into marrying him.
There are times when Marnie is good enough to stand alongside Hitchcocks’s last five films. Hedren absolutely excels in the lead now she gets the chance to dig her teeth into a meatier role and her screen relationship with Connery is the right level of creepy. You get the impression that Rutland truly loves and cares for Marnie, but he still acts detestably towards her. Every time he uses phrases like “wholesome animal lust” it makes the skin crawl.
But boy oh boy, the film drops the ball with the ending. It’s hard to discuss it without major spoilers, but in essence the film moves from what was an intricate and disconcerting portrayal of an abusive relationship to a cop-out slice of victim-blaming. It stinks. And it retrospectively tarnishes what was up until that point a superb and effective film.
Film biographer Donald Spoto describes it as Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. Close but no cigar. I’d say it’s about 80% masterpiece. Well worth watching, but switch it off before the last twenty minutes.
Where on earth would Hitch go after a masterpiece like Psycho? He chose to return one of his favourite authors for inspiration, Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca and Jamaica Inn) in his first attempt at paranormal horror.
The story revolves upon one spooky speculation: what if, for completely unexplainable reasons, all the billions of birds of the world started to attack humankind?
But, like all the best disaster horrors, Hitchcock keeps us waiting before we get to the full on avian attacks. The first half of the film is dedicated to character development and gradually building sense of menace before he unleashes the full feathered fury.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), travels to the deadend hamlet of Bodega Bay to play a flirtatious practical joke on Mitch (Rod Taylor) who she met in a San Francisco bird shop. Melanie starts to get close to Mitch, despite his protective mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and befriends the local school teacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette). They are startled in the middle of the night by a loud thud of a gull killing itself by flying against the front door.
“Poor thing,” remarks Annie, “Probably lost his way in the dark.”
“But it isn’t dark,” responds a puzzled Melanie, “There’s a full moon.”
DUN DUN DUNNN
From then on, it’s full on Birdageddon, with our heroes trapped in the epicentre. Inevitably, a few of the special effects have dated somewhat. But the film succeeds because the build-up to the attacks is just so damn good. You can’t help but get the sense that there must be some pattern or purpose to it all…but Hitchcock’s masterful execution doesn’t provide you with any easy answers.
The Birds was the film debut for Tippi Hedren, who Hitchcock picked up after seeing her in a commercial for a diet drink called Sego. His alarmingly possessive treatment of her will be covered in more depth when we get to Marnie, but for now let’s just say that it ain’t pretty. Despite the behind-the-scenes trauma, she’s a magnificent onscreen presence. Hitchcock had been searching for a leading lady to fill the void left by Grace Kelly’s departure and in his eyes Hedren was even greater still. He could well be right.
In many ways Psycho is a victim of its own success. As Hitchcock’s most well-known film, many of the iconic scenes, lines or plot twists are often familiar to modern moviegoers through parody and reference long before they see the film. The shock felt by original audiences has been softened by general pop culture awareness.
But those who know some of Psycho’s more famous moments, but have never got around to watching it, are missing out. It’s Hitchcock’s most famous film for a simple reason. It’s his best. And it remains the greatest horror/thriller ever made. But if there is anyone reading this who’s still totally in the dark about the plot details, don’t worry. I won’t spoil anything.
After stealing $40,000 from a client, secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) skips town and heads across country to join her lover, Sam (John Gavin). She begins to panic about her decision and stops off at a lonely motel for the night, owned by the awkward and shy proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Back home, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) becomes concerned and teams up with Sam and a private detective (Martin Balsam) to get to the bottom of Marion’s disappearance. But the truth behind the Bates Motel proves to be worse than they could have ever imagined.
Psycho is perhaps the most skilful example of directorial control over the audience. Hitchcock perfectly balances how much he shows with how much he leaves to your imagination, both in terms of visual depiction of the horror and in terms of plot revelations. The astounding delicacy of the film’s delivery means that even though Hitch misdirects the audience, you never feel cheated for being misled.
The rising tension in film’s first act is aided by career-topping performances from star Janet Leigh and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose slicing violins make the heart race each time you hear them.
And then there’s Anthony Perkins. It is perhaps sad that his career never escaped the shadow of Norman, but when his performance towers this high it’s not hard to understand why that is. From the way he clenches his jaw to his nervous stutter and crooked smile, he’s a wonderfully subtle blend of creepy and charming.
Psycho is the kind of masterpiece that reminds you why it’s brilliant each time you watch it.