Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A French intelligence agent becomes embroiled in the Cold War politics first with uncovering the events leading up to the 1962 Cuban Missle Crisis, and then back to France to break up an international Russian spy ring.
Topaz (1969) might be the most disappointing movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made. It lacks suspense and comedy, two things you expect when seeing a Hitchcock movie. But worst of all, the camera work does not seem like something Hitchcock would do. Normally there are a handful of great shots that become iconic in a Hitchcock movie. Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant running around Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. Or Cary Grant being chased by a plane through a Midwestern field in the same movie. These are the images Hitchcock is famous for. But we only enjoy one such moment in Topaz.
To begin with, the movie is set during the Cuban missile crisis. This might be a reason why modern audiences are disappointed by the movie. When it was first released there were many critics and fans who were also disappointed as the setting held no significance for them.
The year is 1962 and an American intelligence agent, Michael Nordstrom, helps a Russian security officer defect from Russia to the West. This sequence is shot well and with little sound, which makes the whole thing a bit more eerie.
Once the officer and his family arrive in Washington though, things go downhill. The Americans learn that the Russians are involved in some Cuban military strategy and that there is a Communist spy group, named Topaz, within the highest levels of NATO security.
Conveniently the Americans can gain some more information about this Russian-Cuban alliance because one of Castro’s senior assistants, Rico Parra, is in America for a UN event. Parra’s secretary can be blackmailed for the information. Things look good for the Americans. There is just one problem -- Parra refuses to talk to Americans. Michael decides to bring in help from Andre Devereaux, a friend from the French embassy.
Devereaux makes his trek to New York where he is able to employ West Indian florist Philippe Dubois, who is able to help him photograph the secret treaty between the Russians and Cubans. This is probably the most suspenseful part of the movie. It involves the daring breaking in of Parra’s hotel room in order to obtain the treaty. Then the daring escape through the busy streets of New York as Parra and the Cubans give chase.
It seems like mission accomplished for Devereaux, but he insists on making a trip to Cuba in order find out how much the Russians and Cubans are doing together. Here Devereaux is away from his family, but not away from love. He spends time with his mistress Juanita de Cordoba. She happens to be the widow of a national hero and is also Parra’s mistress. With her husband’s status as a national hero, she is not watched as closely by some of Castro’s men. She uses these extra freedoms to lead a resistance network against the Communists.
Unfortunately for her, the resistance is found out. Her servants are arrested and tortured when their surveillance cameras are found, in perhaps the only other suspenseful moment in the movie. In the movie’s only iconic image, Juanita is shot by Parra while in his arms. As she falls to the ground, the dress she is wearing floats out, creating the image of a pool of blood.
Devereaux escapes form Cuba and reaches America. He finds his family has gone back to France and soon finds himself summoned back as well.
In Paris, Devereaux tries to learn the identity of the head of Topaz. Ironically that man turns out to be his wife’s lover, Jacques Granville. Granville has already implicated a NATO economist and killed him so as to suggest a suicide. But the movie ends happily as Granville’s strategy fails and he is discovered. Once this is found out, Granville runs home and kills himself. The movie ends with newspaper headlines proclaiming the end of the crisis in Cuba. Timing is everything in movies. Had Alfred Hitchcock seen ahead in time like he did about uranium when he developed Notorious (1946), he might have been able to make a hit movie with Topaz if it had come out just before, during or just after the Cuban missile crisis. Of course we all can’t see into the future, but the timing of the movie could have been better. It was already dated when it was released and had little connection with the current political climate of 1969. This is perhaps the main reason why the movie failed when it was first released and has never rebounded since.