Alfred Hitchcock had a ridiculously successful run, consistently good throughout his career. Of a career though that spanned six decades, he had his best string of films over the late 1940s and basically throughout the 1950s (for me at least). For all his good ones though, there were some duds, including one film often cited as his worst, 1969's Topaz.
It's early 1962 and American intelligence agents, including Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe), has managed to convince and arrange for the defection of a high-ranking KGB official (Per-Axel Arosenius). Debriefing him after a tense escape in Copenhagen, Nordstrom and his fellow agents discover that the KGB officer knows the vague details of the Russians sending nuclear ballistic missiles to Cuba. Needing answers as to where and how many missiles, Nordstrom seeks out a French agent, Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), with who he has worked in the past. He enlists him to investigate the missiles, knowing that any American involvement could lead to a nuclear war. Following what little leads he has, Andre pursues the case, even traveling to Cuba to investigate. What and where will the trail lead though? Countless lives hang in the balance.
I was surprised to find out that one of Hitchcock's last films was a story about a little known chapter that ultimately led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 'Topaz' based closely on the Sapphire Affair, the story of French involvement with the intelligence movement. I'll get more into my specific issues/compliments with the story later, but the real historical basis seems like an odd choice for a director who specialized in making films with unique, original stories. In the meantime, something doesn't translate. The finished product is a film that aspires to do and be a lot, but it never quite makes it. There is something missing as if Hitchcock couldn't decide what type of film to make, what tone to take, what story to focus on. Instead, we get a 143-minute film that drifts along, mixing up some beautifully shot, high tension scenes with long, dull scenes that go nowhere.
In casting his film, Hitchcock made a point of casting relatively unknown Stafford in a lead part. By 1969, he had been in a couple Euro-WWII movies, a couple spy flicks, but he was not a known commodity for audiences. It works well. I thought Stafford was a strength, his part as Devereaux a solid, layered character. As a favor to a friend (Forsythe's Nordstrom), he gets involved in an international incident that is bigger than him. He sees what's at risk and continues on even when his life is at danger (and of those around him). We also see his interactions with his wife (Dany Robin) and their troubled marriage, his journalist son-in-law (Michel Subor), and a former contact and lover in Cuba, Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor). It's not a flashy James Bond-esque spy, just an intelligence agent who's human and follows the clues and leads as presented.
While the eventual focus here is on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Russians supplying the Cubans with nuclear missiles, it is more of a MacGuffin that gets the story moving. It moves in episodic fashion, first the Russian defection, then the Americans, and then Devereaux's involvement and all the people he meets and places he goes to. Some work better than others. His recruitment of Roscoe Lee Browne's Caribbean agent is a highlight as he poses as a journalist to infiltrate a Cuban diplomatic party visiting New York. His venture to Cuba where he meets Dor's Juanita and an oddly cast John Vernon as a Cuban officer and Castro supporter is more hit or miss. Too much time is spent on Andre and Juanita's passionate affair, not enough on the actual mission and Vernon's officer's suspicions.
That's the entire movie. It's good for a stretch and then.........it's just there. 'Topaz' lacks any real urgency or energy. It drifts from episode to episode and takes too much time actually getting to the crux of the mission or investigation. There are parts that work extremely well, especially the conclusion to the Cuba venture with a simple, artsy and very effective single shot. Those moments that work so well are fewer and far between as the story develops. By the time a double agent is revealed in the French intelligence field, it lacks any punch. As things should be raring up to an uncomfortable level, the movie is limping to the finish line. Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret co-star as Devereax's fellow agents, Claude Jade as his daughter, and Edmon Ryan as McKittreck, a high-level American agent leading the defection charge.
I don't know. I hate just saying a movie was boring as a reason I didn't enjoy it. That's it though. This is a dull, slow-moving flick that has lots of potential and some really cool individual moments. All combined though, it never quite adds up to anything you would expect from a Hitchcock film. Sorry to say I came away disappointed with this one.
Topaz (1969): **/****