Week 8: Topaz (1969), James Bond, and The Cat From Outer Space

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

I’ve got news for you. Waltzes from Vienna is not Alfred Hitchcock’s worst movie, not by a long shot, at least in my mind. Eight weeks in and based on what I remember of his catalog, I’m willing to call Topaz (1969) my least-favorite and potentially his worst film.

I’d seen it before but remembered little of it. I can’t for the life of me imagine why I picked it this week. I think I’m still trying to stick to my well-know / not well-known on/off week strategy, and I guess I felt having a Cary Grant film warranted something of lesser quality. Oddly Topaz comes just a few years after Week 5’s film Marnie, although their fates are certainly related.

Reportedly Hitchcock was disappointed by the critical & box-office reception to Marnie (although the film eventually made money) as well as his falling out with star-in-the-making Tippi Hedren. 1966’s Torn Curtain was a financial success but a mess of a film, and Hitchcock fought constantly with the two A-list stars of the picture, Paul Newman & Julie Andrews. I suppose it’s possible to see Topaz as a kind of retreat, a best-selling espionage book adapted by the Master of Suspense with an international cast, shot on multiple continents. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot. This isn’t the brilliant, quick-witted Hitchcock of The 39 Steps (1935). Nor is it the British provocateur of Notorious (1946). It’s not even the elder statesman of 1959’s North by Northwest. This is a seventy-year old man who seems defeated by his job. In talking about this film, Hitchcock speaks about it as though it was an assignment, which seems ridiculous, given his stature in the film industry. Yet his sense of defeat in the face of this sprawling, unwieldy film is palpable.

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So we have to start with the source material, Leon Uris’ novel Topaz, published in 1967. Hitchcock had been working on other ideas for a follow-up to the lackluster Torn Curtain, grappling with his own identity and torn between running for cover and making a grand statement. Lew Wasserman of Universal urged him to try another spy thriller, and Topaz ended up in his lap. Uris was initially thrilled at the chance to write his own adaptation, but it soon became clear that Hitchcock’s clubby sensibility didn’t mesh well with the iconoclastic author. This led to months of dithering as Hitchcock tried to force his own ideas onto this epic screenplay and Uris tried to remain true to his own work. Later Uris would be replaced by Samuel A. Taylor, who struggled to bring together disparate strands of ideas and complicated set pieces.

Adaptation in Hollywood is a funny thing. I think most people would tend to side with the writer of the original book, as they obviously know their story best. Certainly anytime a book is adapted into a movie, “the book was better” is a common refrain.

But the truth is that there are a lot of great movie adaptations of bad books. Have you read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather? It’s trashy pulp, but Francis Ford Coppola elevated it to epic levels. The same is true for Peter Benchley’s Jaws, which I read as a Spielberg-obsessed kid. Certainly not every adaptation is great, but plenty of them have been, especially books where the plot is simple and pulpy enough that it can be turned into great cinema. Movies with detailed inner monologues and shifting points of view might falter on screen; a movie about a giant shark terrorizing a beach town, BOOM, it’s gold.

Or take a look at the king of spy thrillers, Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. Leon Uris falls somewhere in between classic literature and Fleming. He’s not on the level of John Le Carré’s elegant spy thrillers, but he’s not total trash either. Yet his books are long and focus on the details of operations, the plot mechanics of it, which is exactly the kind of thing that bores Hitchcock to tears.

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Hitchcock isn’t disinterested in plot, but he also doesn’t care about intricacy. He’s interested in moving people from Point A to Point B in an entertaining manner, so he can set up his next big moment. A story like Topaz is actually the worst kind of film for Hitchcock, because every scenario depends on us, the audience, remembering who a character is, what they’re doing, why they’re acting the way they are, etc. Hitchcock found such details trifling The best example of this would the gloriously avant-garde North by Northwest, where the mistaken-identity makes little sense, and the cross-country chase even less so, but who cares? It’s Cary Grant and he’s running through  cornfield with a biplane chasing him. We’re firmly established in Grant’s point of view, just as we are in Rear Window, Psycho, and The 39 Steps. By contrast, Topaz has multiple main characters, shifting points of view, and no clear audience identification.

Hitchcock’s technical faltering doesn’t help either. Despite location shooting in New York, Amsterdam, & Paris, he still relies on corny rear-projections, flatly lit interiors, and overly orchestrated sequences that don’t mix with the docu-realism of the plot. Hitchcock isn’t a realist; he’s a fabulist, an entertainer, a vaudevillian with a total command of the audience and a darkly British sense of humor.

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Frederick Stafford, emoting about as much as he does in the movie.

In Topaz, there’s a long opening sequence with a Soviet defector that works pretty well. John Forsythe (who also acted for Hitchcock in the lovely The Trouble with Harry) plays a US intelligent agent who manages the defection where the Soviet agent informs him of the USSR placing missiles in Cuba (troublingly, the film takes place AFTER the Bay of Pigs, and characters even reference it, which is bizarre). Forsythe, for reasons that are hazy even though I saw the film less than 24 hours ago, recruits his friend & French agent André Devereaux (the supremely bland Frederick Stafford) to find out more information. Devereaux agrees to put his entire career in jeopardy (the French are oddly uninterested in the whole matter), and begins a quest to seek out the Cuban missiles. This is juxtaposed with Devereaux’s marriage falling apart over his wife’s jealousy of his Cuban mistress. Somehow this all eventually leads to a Soviet double agent highly placed in the French government. It’s three films in one; a defection story, Cuban revolutionary espionage, and a classic double-agent saga. It’s far too much movie, and it makes for a bloated 143 minutes, Hitchcock’s longest film (although it was originally released in the US at 127 minutes, the full 143 minute cut is the one now available).

The film is also full of people pretending to be nationalities that they’re not, which is not uncommon for the 1960s but still problematic. The boring Frederick Stafford (whom Hitchcock hired in the hopes of making him into the next Sean Connery) plays a Frenchman but was born Czech. American Roscoe Lee Browne plays a man of Martinique descent. Karin Dor from Germany plays the Cuban mistress of Devereaux. And most preposterously, American white person John Vernon (best known as the mayor in Dirty Harry and the Dean in Animal House) plays a Cuban revolutionary with a thick black beard. Sigh.

But if I’m being honest, I know John Vernon from another film. A movie I saw countless times in my childhood, one that my dad had taped on VHS for me (on Super Long Play setting so I could fit six hours of movies on it). A film we taped off the Disney Channel, commercials and promos and all. A little thing called Herbie Goes Bananas (1980).

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John Vernon as Cuban revolutionary (left) and as rich businessman stymied by the shenanigans of a sentient car (right)

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Herbie Goes Bananas was the fourth of the “Herbie” movies, starting with The Love Bug (1968), Herbie Rides Again (1974), and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977). If you haven’t seen them, they’re a series of Disney movies about a sentient Volkswagen Beetle who gets into shenanigans. And while I’m not saying these are good movies, I can’t deny that those type of films are a huge part of my life.

I definitely remember growing up with television And you can argue about whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but I loved it. My earliest memories of TV are watching Sesame Street and Mr Rogers, and staying up to watch The Muppet Show. I still vividly remember the ITC logo that would proceed every episode of The Muppet Show, because it meant that the Love Boat or whatever boring crap was on before was over, and it was time to start the music. I was the perfect age to really take in The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Born in 1976, I’d sprawl out on the carpeted floor of our living room, assemble my space Lego sets, and drink it all in.

Sometime in the early 1980s we got basic cable. I remember it seeming like an extravagance, something that only rich people could have. My parents both worked for a local school district and we were never rich; when we went to visit my mom’s relatives in Illinois, we’d drive straight through for 22 hours. We had a big Chevy van, and my dad built a little bed in the back, so we could sleep in the back. I even have a memory of my mom and dad switching out in the drivers seat while still heading down the interstate, although I might be making that up.

But somehow we had money for basic cable TV and that included the Disney Channel. It was a mix of some new programming with tons of TV shows and movies from Disney’s inexhaustible vault. I saw and devoured the Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier films as well as all the Herbie movies. There was the glorious 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, still a masterpiece of action cinema. And then there were the oddities, Disney’s bizarre 1970s & 80s live action films like Escape to Witch Mountain, The Watcher in the Woods,  and the king of all oddities, The Black Hole, a movie that starts out as a Star Wars rip-off, then steals from 2001: A Space Odyssey, before ending, literally, in hell. Fun stuff for a kid with an over-active imagination and plenty of TV time.

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The ending of The Black Hole, a movie marketed towards children

But The Black Hole aside, The Disney Channel was a treasure trove of movies, old weird TV shows, and cartoons, all specifically designed to fuel your imagination. Later Nick at Nite would continue my exposure to the old, weird sitcom America, but those goofy shows and movies helped define who I am. Sure, it would have been nice if I’d ridden my bike more, gotten outside, maybe played a sport or two. But then I wouldn’t be as familiar with Ken Berry’s leading role in 1978’s The Cat From Outer Space, a movie that, goddamnit, has a talking cat from outer space with magic powers.

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“Starring the Goonies’ Jeff Cohen and special guest star Kareem Abdul Jabbar”

And this is to say nothing of the made-for-TV movies! The oeuvre of Jay Underwood in both The Boy Who Could Fly and the Not Quite Human films! Or Sean Astin of The Goonies and The Lord of the Rings in the Marine base comedy B.R.A.T. Patrol! Yes, Disney is a corporate monolith, with all shows and movies tied into merchandising and theme parks and on and on. But as a nerdy young kid who struggled to feel comfortable riding his bike and playing with other kids, Disney movies and shows felt like they were made for me. They were, and still are, movies about outsiders, movies about the little guy, and they made me feel safe. Just as I was creating worlds out of my Legos on the living room carpet, the Disney Channel created worlds that I could feel safe in when I didn’t always feel safe and comfortable in the real world.

So it’s a shock to see John Vernon, whom I’m used to seeing getting knocked into the mud by a Volkswagen bug, strutting around with a black beard and ridiculous cuban accent. Although he is part of Topaz’s one moment of true brilliance, the moment when Juanita, Devereaux’s mistress, is discovered. Vernon’s character knows she has betrayed him, and he stiffly embraces her. We hear a gunshot, and in an overhead shot, she crumples to the floor. Throughout the film, she has been associated with flowers, greenery, and the lush natural beauty of Cuba. Here she crumples to the ground with her dress spilling out like a purple flower echoing a pool of blood forming. It’s a gorgeous, simple, and beautiful shot that the rest of the film never comes close to.

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There are a few other decent moments (a scene from Devereaux’s point of view as Roscoe Lee Browne tries to talk his way into meeting with the Cubans is a standout) but overall it’s a mess. Hitchcock had enjoyed and been influenced by the James Bond films, but instead of directing one himself (the mind reels), he harbored a desire to make a more “realistic” Bond film. After several other aborted projects, Topaz became that attempt, yet the seventy-year-old Hitchcock proved out of touch with what was happening in cinema. As proof of how stodgy Topaz is, consider some of the other spy movies that were out at the same time. 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, based on the John le Carré novel, brilliantly combined Cold War spy heroics with a darker, more naturalistic tone. Even better was 1969’s French Army of Shadows, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, a gritty, haunting film about the French resistance.

In 1969 Hitchcock simply didn’t have the ability to make a film like that. He’d already reinvented himself so many times, that he simply couldn’t keep up. His penultimate film, 1972’s Frenzy, has some of these elements, but remains squarely old-fashioned for most of its running time. Faced with an unwieldy, confusing script and a flavorless leading man, Hitchcock tried to fall back on his old tricks to save him and it simply didn’t work. Budgeted at $4 million dollars in 1969 money, it was Hitchcock’s largest budget ever for a feature film, with location shooting and extensive sets that sadly, never add to much of anything.

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Even in his cameo, Hitchcock wasn’t trying that hard

Hitchcock knew Topaz was a mess. His health was on the wane and he actually left the filming of the climax in Paris to rush home when his wife Alma was sick (the end of the film was another issue, as there are three endings that no one was happy with. The excellent DVD contains all three options). Hitchcock doesn’t even appear in the trailer for Topaz; only five years before he appeared in the gloriously over-the-top trailer for Marnie, riding in on a camera crane from on high with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Here he says only a few words that look like they’re cribbed from an Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

And to be fair to Hitchcock, the script is not only ridiculously complex, it’s downright terrible in the way it handles character and motivation. Throughout the course of the film, Stafford’s Devereaux is positioned as a top secret agent of exceptional ability. Yet he quite literally does nothing except have meetings. Meanwhile these are the things that other characters, most of whom we have just met and have no identification with, do for him:

  • A friend infiltrates the Cuban embassy for him, which leads to the death of an informant
  • His Cuban mistress spies on her own contacts, leading to her death
  • A cook and her husband spy on a Cuban shipping port, and are tortured & probably killed
  • A young servant packages all the stolen files, processes the microfilm, and does all of the top-secret spy stuff for him
  • His own son-in-law entraps the French informer, and is almost killed
Roscoe Lee Browne And John Vernon In 'Topaz'
The delightful Roscoe Lee Browne does the hard work while the protagonist of the film sits and watches

Not only is it a bad moral compass to have your lead character let someone else do all the dangerous work for him, but it’s bad drama. We don’t have time to care about characters we’ve just met, let along figure out why they’re eagerly sacrificing their lives for some random French agent. This might be true to how actual spies work, but Hitchcock doesn’t make the human toll clear, and it doesn’t seem to affect Devereaux. It’s as if James Bond was suddenly relying on everyone else to go out and scale the walls, infiltrate a building, and shut down a ray gun while he sat around in a villa drinking martinis.

More than anything, Topaz is boring. And that’s sad. Hitchcock has made so many entertaining & brilliant films where you can feel the life & energy brimming around the edges of the frame that it’s depressing to watch something this joyless. It has some beautiful cinematography, and a few great moments, but alas it’s barely worthwhile. Fortunately, Hitchcock would make two more films before he died, 1972’s Frenzy, a return to British form and a half-hearted embrace of filmmakers like Antonioni, and 1976’s Family Plot, a bizarre, goofy thriller that isn’t good but definitely has its charms. Stay tuned!

Watch It: Topaz is not available on any streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO). It is available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime, and can be found at almost any existing rental store or library collection.

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