TOPAZ (1969): “Now that I have given you this information, what are you going to do with it?”

TOPAZ – 1969 – Universal Pictures  – ★★1/2

Color – 143 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Frederick Stafford (Andre Devereaux), Dany Robin (Nicole Devereaux), John Vernon (Rico Parra), Karin Dor (Juanita de Cordoba), John Forsythe (Michael Nordstrom), Michel Piccoli (Jacques Granville), Roscoe Lee Browne (Philippe Dubois), Philippe Noiret (Henri Jarre). 

Screenplay by Samuel Taylor from the novel by Leon Uris

Cinematography by  Jack Hildyard

Edited by William H. Ziegler

Original music by Maurice Jarre

A desperate choice:  Hitchcock began work on this film after the longest dry spell of his career,  his previous film coming in 1966.  Hitch had immediately begun work on another film (now referred to as Kaleidoscope), developing a screenplay and shooting some test footage.  However, the studio execs nixed this film as soon as Hitchcock pitched it to them.  After this rejection, he seemingly did nothing for about a year.  Finally, with no projects in sight, he went to the studio and asked if they owned any properties that might work for him.  And Universal suggested Topaz.  

This movie completes what I call the “frustrating Hitchcock” trilogy, following Marnie and Torn Curtain.  All three films mix scenes that showcase Hitchcock’s technical brilliance, with scenes that are utterly banal.   First off, let’s take a look at some of the elements of the film that did work.  Then we will take a look at some of the things that were lacking.

Defection, Hitchcock style:  The film opens with a classic Hitchcock sequence.  After the title sequence, Hitchcock opens on the Russian embassy in Copenhagen.  A single camera shot goes from eye level, to a bird’s eye view as we watch a family exit the embassy, then goes to eye level again.

This man is a Russian named Kusenov, who wishes to defect to the United States with his wife and daughter.  The opening sequence of the film details the Kusenov family’s attempt to defect as they are trailed by three KGB agents.  First they wander through a ceramics factory, then end up in a department store.  It is outside this store that they barely make their escape.

The American who aids in the defection and brings the Kusenov’s back to the US is Michael Nordstrom, played efficiently by John Forsythe.  Ultimately, a film that begins with Russians and Americans deals more with French and Cubans.  There is a spy in the French government who is in the employ of the Soviets.  Michael Nordstrom’s French counterpart Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) tries to ferret out who the spy is, as well as figure out what the Russians are up to in Cuba (the movie is set in the days prior to the Cuban missile crisis).

The Harlem sequence, a film-within-a-film:   Devereaux learns that one of a group of Cuban soldiers staying in New York may be willing to share information, so he goes to Harlem to one of his contacts (played to perfection by Roscoe Lee Browne).  This Harlem sequence is far and away the best section of the movie.  It is full of vibrancy and life, and equals Hitchcock’s many other trademark sequences.   Here are Hitchcock’s comments on the sequence:

The best sequence in Topaz was the one outside the Hotel Teresa in Harlem, with Roscoe Lee Browne.  There, you see, was a genuine use of the long-focus lens.  Because, strangely enough, in real life, if you stand across a very wide street, you are able to single out two individuals and watch them and exclude everyone else.  But if you were to do that on film, the eyes of the audience would never go where you wanted them to go.  So I used a long-focus lens to single out the two principals to the exclusion of all else.

The sequence begins with Devereaux meeting Dubois in his Harlem flower shop.  They go inside a refrigerated room to speak, but the camera stays outside.  Here is a technique Hitchcock used many times.  We don’t need to hear the conversation because we already know what Devereaux is asking Dubois; to obtain infomation from a Cuban named Luis Uribe.

Later, the two men go to the Harlem Hotel where the Cuban delegation is staying.  Devereaux stays across the street, and the camera stays with him.  This is the telephoto lens Hitchcock was speaking about in the quotation above.  Again, for several moments, we do not hear Browne’s dialogue.  The audience along with Devereaux, is watching a silent movie.  First Dubois enters the lobby and asks the clerk to call Uribe, who comes down on the elevator.  We watch Dubois make a proposition, which Uribe refuses.

Finally Dubois convinces Uribe to come outside, where he sweetens the pot, offering cash.  This time, Uribe accepts, and the men go inside.  Now the point of view shifts from Devereaux, as we join Dubois and Uribe in the hotel.

The documents that Dubois wishes to see are in a briefcase in the room of a Cuban revolutionary named Rico Parra (John Vernon).  First Dubois and Uribe discuss the matter in Uribe’s bathroom.  Here Hitchcock cuts to a high camera angle, an angle he used at least once in almost every film, usually to heighten the tension.

It is agreed that Dubois will talk to (and distract) Rico Parra while Uribe grabs the briefcase.  They succeed in their plan, but soon Parra notices the briefcase is missing.   Dubois makes a daring escape jumping out the window onto the awning below, and running down the street.

After this fantastic sequence, the movie begins to slow down considerably in pacing, with the next section taking place in Cuba, and an even slower (and duller) section in Paris.

A bleeding dress and a Pieta:   Devereaux ends up in Cuba, where he makes contact with another spy, who he is also having an affair with.  The affair was a large part of the book, and it features prominently in the film as well.  The woman is named Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) and Rico Parra loves her just as much as Devereaux does.  Juanita’s network of spies get photos of the Russian missiles in Cuba, and Devereaux escapes with them, but things don’t go so well for Juanita and her spies.  In the film’s most famous image, Juanita meets her end at Parra’s hand, and as she falls to the floor, her dress spreads out around her, simulating a pool of blood.

And the spying couple that captured the photos meet a tragic end, after being tortured by Parra’s men.  Here, Hitchcock returns to an image he used several times, that of the Pieta.   This is his most deliberate, and most touching reference to the dead Christ in Mary’s lap.

Hildyard and Jarre:  Two men who were most closely associated with director David Lean worked on Topaz, and their solid contributions often go unmentioned.  Cinematographer Jack Hildard was a master of color cinematography, who had won the Academy Award for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.  His interior lighting on this film is splendid, with several memorable images.

Where Hildyard really shone, however, was on exterior shots.  What might have been “throwaway” transitional shots for other DP’s became magical for Hildyard.

And Maurice Jarre composed the musical score for this film.  Jarre had won two Academy Awards scoring movies for David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.  His score on this film is very engaging, sometimes even more so than the visuals.  The score was one of the few things about this film that Hitchcock was happy about, and he hoped to work with Jarre again.  Unfortunately that never happened.

Topaz, for all its flaws, does have arguably the best post-Bob Burks cinematography, and the best post-Bernard Herrmann musical score of any of Hitchcock’s final four films.

Languorous pacing:  The final hour of this film is marred by slow pacing.  Devereaux’s attempt to uncover the French spy simply drags on.  There are a couple of good moments, but overall this stretch is overlong and unrewarding.  Philippe Noiret was an interesting choice to play one of the French spies, but most of the other Frenchmen are forgettable.

Alternate endings:  Hitchcock shot an ending which involved Devereaux and the Russian mole engaging in a duel  (yes, a duel!) but this ending was rejected after test audiences hated it.  Here is Hitchcock talking about the sequence:

     The company took that out – they didn’t like that.  Put in an ending with Piccoli committing suicide.  It was a compromise.  I actually saw pictures of a duel in a very early edition of Paris-Match, I think, in which two men did meet in a football stadium.  I thought that was a rather fascinating setting, instead of the usual dawn-in-the-woods with the low fog and the black-coated men with their top hats.  That’s the cliche, you know.  But to do a duel up against a sign which says “Dubonnet” or “Perrier Water” or whatever, I though was more amusing.  I suppose it was a bit of self-indulgence.

A second ending involved the Russian agent departing on a plane to Moscow, with a smug look on his face.

The final choice, mentioned above by Hitchcock, involved a suicide.  Unfortunately by this time the actors were all discharged.  So a piece of footage of a different actor entering the Russian mole’s door was used, followed by a freeze-frame and the sound of a gunshot to imply a suicide.  None of the endings work very well, but this is probably the worst of the lot.

Performance:  Most of the performances fall flat in this one.  Frederick Stafford is a solid and capable actor, but he comes across as very wooden in this film, as do most of his compatriots.  John Forsythe is solid in a supporting role, but he has little to do.  There are two standout performances in the film however, both in smaller supporting roles.  First of all,  Roscoe Lee Browne as Dubois, the French spy working as a Harlem florist, gives a spectacular performance.  And John Vernon, as Rico Parra, gives humanity to a role that was very thinly written.

Source material:  The film was based on the bestseller by Leon Uris.  Uris was best known for Exodus, which had been a phenomenal hit in the late 50’s.  This was a more modest success.  The film maintains much of the story from the novel.  One can imagine that a book involving both Cold Way spy intrigue and the Cuban missile crisis would have been popular in 1967;  now, it all feels very dated.  Uris struggles to balance the romantic interludes and arguments of infidelity with the moments of spy craft. The book suffers from the same problem as the film;  some sections are engaging while others lag.  Deveraux’s departure from Cuba is more fraught with danger in the novel, which creates great tension for the reader.  And Juanita’s demise is not nearly as poetic as the billowy dress of the film; she dies a bloody, violent death.

Recurring players:  John Forsythe had earlier starred in The Trouble With Harry.  Lewis Charles (Pablo Mendoza, the man who takes the photos with his wife, is captured and tortured) had a small uncredited role in To Catch A Thief (he is the man who pours the bowl of milk and offers it up to John Robie in the early kitchen restaurant scene).  Hal Taggart (ambassador) had earlier appeared briefly in Marnie (man at racetrack).

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 34 minute mark.  In the airport scene, he is seen being pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse.  The wheelchair comes to a stop, and Hitchcock stands up, seemingly in fine health, and shakes the hand of a man approaching from the right.

What Hitch said:  Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock how he felt about Topaz in a May, 1972 interview.  Hitchcock said “It was a film which had great drawbacks, I feel, because of the problem of foreigners speaking English.  For example, you had a Frenchman talking to a Cuban.  Now, there’s no truth there because you don’t know really what language they represent.”

When Bogdanovich asked if Hitchcock chose to do this film, he replied “No, it was owned by the company.  I was desperate for a subject and they asked me to do it, so we took it on.  It was done under pressure to a great extent…You can correctly say, Why did you do it?”

Definitive edition:  The Universal blu ray released in 2013 is the best version available.  This print is not fantastic;  a handful of Hitch’s later films could do with a clean-up.  That being said, Jack Hildyard’s cinematography looks great in several sequences.  The extra features include a half-hour documentary hosted by Leonard Maltin, which functions as a sort of apologist’s view of the film.  Also included are all three alternate endings, a storyboard comparison, production photographs, and the original theatrical trailer.

 

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THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955): “He looked exactly the same when he was alive, only he was vertical.”

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955) – Paramount Pictures – ★★★1/2

Color – 99 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  John Forsythe (Sam Marlowe), Shirley MacLaine (Jennifer Rogers), Edmund Gwenn (Captain Albert Wiles), Mildred Natwick (Miss Ivy Gravely), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Wiggs), Jerry Mathers (Arnie Rogers), Royal Dano (Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs).

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by Alma Macrorie

Music by Bernard Herrmann

When Alfred Hitchcock first proposed The Trouble With Harry to Paramount studio execs in 1955, they were not very keen on the project.  But they were not really in a position to quibble; in his short tenure at the studio Hitchcock had delivered a monster hit in Rear Window, and his follow-up To Catch a Thief had all the makings of a hit as well.  So they indulged him in his desire to make a small budget character piece, a comedy no less.

The movie involves the inhabitants of a small New England village, and their interactions with the corpse of a man named Harry.    Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) believes he accidentally shot the man, and enlists the help of  local talented painter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) to bury the body.   Captain Wiles later determines that he couldn’t have shot Harry, and the body is dug up.  Local spinster Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) admits to hitting Harry on the head with her shoe, and Harry is buried again. We later learn that Harry was the estranged husband of single-mother Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) who has no love lost for Harry.   Over the course of the film, the body is interred and disinterred about three times, practically right under the nose of the local dimwitted Deputy Sheriff, and finally the four friends decide what to do with Harry.   This film is in no way a murder mystery.  It is very simply a character study with  darkly comedic tones.  One could almost call it a sweet film.   Interestingly, the film takes place entirely in one 24-hour period.

Innuendo:   Screenwriter John Michael Hayes was as much a fan of sexual innuendo as Hitchcock.  There had been hints of innuendo in Hayes first screenplay for Hitch, Rear Window.  He added even more to his next screenplay, To Catch A Thiefand became even bolder still in this screenplay.  When Captain Wiles confesses to Sam that he has a date with Miss Gravely, Sam replies “Do you realize you will be the first man to…cross her threshold?”  The Captain replies “She’s a well-preserved woman, and preserves have to be opened someday.”  The first time Sam kisses Jennifer she tell him “Careful, Sam, I have short fuse.”  This kind of banter pops up throughout the film, right up to the very last line, the admission that Sam asked the man who purchased his paintings for a double bed!

 

Performance:   For this movie to be a success, the performances had to be just right.  First of all because of the tone of the film,  a dark comedy with a subtle sense of humor.  Secondly because it is an ensemble piece with a very small cast.  There are only  nine speaking roles in the film.   And every performance is just right.  Edmund Gwenn is charming and lovable as Captain Wiles.   The great character actress Mildred Natwick was the perfect choice to play the spinsterish Miss Gravely.  Shirley MacLaine in her film debut shows the charm that she would elicit to even greater effect in later films like The Apartment.  And John Forsythe pulls off the most challenging role in the film, by making his character a bit of a cynic, who isn’t above the occasional snark in another person’s direction, but always remains likable.  That could be said of all the characters, really.  They have a streak of New England eccentricity, but all remain endearing.

Source material:   The original novel by Jack Trevor Story is a light and breezy read, similar in tone to the movie.  Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes stayed very true to this.  There are a couple of character substitutions, namely a pair in the novel that are having an affair.  This pair, and their respective spouses were excised from the screenplay.  The character of Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs did not exist in the novel.  With the exception of these character changes, and the setting moving from England to New England, the plot is virtually identical in the novel and film.   John Michael Hayes even used entire sections of dialogue from the book, almost verbatim.   Compare this dialogue in the novel to the same scene in the movie, when Sam and Captain Wiles are talking about the corpse:

‘Suppose for instance,’ he said, ‘it was written in the Book of Heaven that this man was to die in this particular place and at this particular time.  Suppose for a moment that in some manner the actual accomplishing of his demise had been bungled; that something had gone wrong.  Perhaps it was to be a thunderbolt and there was no thunder available, say.  Well, you come along and you shoot him and Heaven’s will is done and destiny fulfilled…’

This is almost word-for-word how the scene plays out in the movie as well, just one example of many in the book.

Hitchcock touches:  This is often referred to as a “minor” or “lesser” Hitchcock movie.  But even though Hitchcock himself thought of this film as a bit of a self-indulgence, he still took it very seriously, and was always looking for ways to challenge and push himself.  This can be said of every film he ever made.  Here are some comments Hitchcock made in a couple of interviews for  Cahiers du Cinema in 1955 and 1956:

The Trouble With Harry was to be filmed in the East of the United States, at the time when the trees were in full autumnal color.  It’s the first time, to my knowledge, that a film has been made in color specifically in the season for which the action occurs.  So I brought together actors, cameramen, a whole crew and we left for Vermont.  There we waited for the leaves to deign to transition from green to yellow and from yellow to red…It’s very interesting because during the entire film the color scheme will be that of the trees:  yellow and red.

Initially Hitchcock hoped to film the entire movie on location in Vermont.  Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate, so after filming about a third of the movie on location, the remaining work was done back on the Paramount lot in Hollywood.

Here is Hitchcock, again:

Although the action unfolds in the course of a single day, the film begins green and ends red.  It was essentially a counterpoint.

 

This green and red color scheme extended beyond the foliage;  you can see the dominant green in the above image, as Sam and Jennifer get to know each other.

Late in the movie, we can see the red color scheme extends even to the wallpaper in Jennifer’s house, as well as the decorative dried leaves on the mantel.  Hitchcock again:

The autumn colors are magnificent, and you may have noticed that I never show the corpse in a way that could be disagreeable.  Rather than show the face, I show the drawing that represents it.

Hitchcock:

To my way of thinking, the characters in The Trouble With Harry have reactions which are absolutely normal and logical.  It’s their peculiar behavior, free from affectation, from dissimulation, from worldly concerns, from conformity, that makes us believe they cannot be real.  In other words, instead of the logic of the absurd, I prefer the absurdity of logic.

Mr. Hitchcock, meet Mr. Herrmann:  Legend has it that while Alfred Hitchcock was completing To Catch A Thiefhe asked that film’s composer, Lyn Murray,  if he could recommend someone to score his next movie.    Murray immediately suggested his friend Bernard Herrmann.  And so began one of the greatest partnerships between director and composer in the history of cinema.   Herrmann’s scores for Psycho and Vertigo are his most remembered for Hitchcock, and his most discussed.  But his first score for Hitchcock,  The Trouble With Harryis absolutely charming, and perfectly suited to the material.   Late in his life, Hitchcock said this was his personal favorite of all the Bernard Herrmann scores for his films.

Recurring players:  Edmund Gwenn, a Hitchcock favorite from his time in England, had already appeared in The Skin Game, Waltzes From Viennaand Foreign Correspondent, in which he had a juicy cameo as Rowley the assassin. And  John Forsythe would appear in Topaz fourteen years later.

Where’s Hitch?   Hitchcock’s cameo comes at around the 21-minute mark.  When Wiggy looks out the window of her general store and sees the old man looking at the painting, Hitchcock can be seen walking along the road from right to left.

troubleharrycameo.jpg

 

What Hitch said:   When he spoke with Truffaut, Hitchcock had the following to say about this film:

I chose that novel and was given a free hand with it…I didn’t change it very much.  To my taste, the humor is quite rich.  One of the best lines is when old Edmund Gwenn is dragging the body along for the first time and a woman comes up to him on the hill and says, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?”  To me that’s terribly funny; that’s the spirit of the whole story.

I’ve always been interested in establishing a contrast, in going against the traditional and in breaking away from cliches.  With Harry I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it out in the sunshine.  It’s as if I had set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water.  These contrasts establish a counterpoint; they elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level.  

Definitive edition:  The Universal blu-ray released in 2013 features excellent sound and picture.  The Vista Vision format translates very well in HD, and the movie looks lovely.  Also included are a documentary clocking in at a little over half an hour, which includes interview footage with actor John Forsythe, associate producer Herbert Coleman and screenwriter John Michael Hayes; and production photographs.  The trailer included is not the original theatrical trailer, but rather a VHS release trailer from the late 1980’s.  I’m not sure why the original trailer was not included, as it can be found online in widescreen format with a little searching.