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.
It took nearly 30 years of waiting, but America finally had its answer to The 39 Steps. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman set out to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”. He sure as hell delivered the goods.
Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant in his last Hitchcock film) is unsuspectingly kidnapped by a couple of goons after they mistake him for a man called “George Kaplan.” After escaping an attempt on his life, Roger finds himself also wanted by the police after a UN diplomat dies in his arms. On the run from the cops and from his would-be assassins, Roger heads across the country in search of answers with the help of his seductive acquaintance Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).
North by Northwest might well be the most splendidly uninhibited of Hitchcock’s films. No plot point is too ludicrous, no set piece too big, no innuendo too corny. From the scuffle on top of Mount Rushmore to the much-parodied crop duster chase scene, it’s big and bold fun throughout.
The banter between Roger and Eve was some Hitchcock’s more risqué yet and he struggled to squeeze a lot of it past the Hayes Code. Yet somehow the censors missed the absurdly phallic final shot that Hitchcock himself called “one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”
Grant’s at his most bumbling in this light-weight lead role, but he’s still immensely watchable as an everyman protagonist. Saint (who’s still acting today aged 89) makes a deceptively cool femme fatale and James Mason has suave menace as the villainous Vandamm. But for my money, the true stand-out is Vandamm’s right hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) whose face displays the kind of villainy straight out of a comic book.
How does it compare to Hitchcock’s early adventure hits such as The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes? It depends what you’re in the mood for. In terms of large, blockbuster spectacle North by Northwest is unrivalled in the Hitchcock canon. Personally, I prefer the dry humour of The Lady Vanishes to the innuendo-crammed silliness we find here. But it’s not this is an either/or scenario. Why not watch both of them? And 39 Steps too. They’re all great.