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  • Documentaries - Topaz - An Appreciation by Film Critic/Historian Leonard Maltin


Universal/Universal . R4 . COLOR . 136 mins . M . PAL


Good eeeeeeeeeeeeeevening…

Join us, won't you, for another tale of international intrigue. A highly ranked Russian official, Boris Kusenov, disillusioned with his government's displays of force, his wife and daughter defect to America with the CIA's aid, most notably from one operative named Michael Norgstrom. Hoped to be a boon for their efforts battling the Cold War with Russia, the Americans soon find out that they have more to deal with than first thought, with Kusenov being less than cooperative, especially in regards to anything to do with a known leak in the French government, codenamed Topaz, which has seen top secret files leaked to those in Moscow. On discovering an agreement between the Russians and Cubans, Norgstrom enlists the aid of his friend, and French agent, Andre Devereaux - as naturally enough the Cubans will have nothing to do with any American capitalist pig dogs.

After managing to get hold of some seriously damning papers from a visiting Cuban official, sneakily of course, a concerned Devereaux jets off to Cuba and catches up with his mistress Juanita De Cordoba, the wife of a dead revolutionary who is now secretly involved with a local underground movement whilst also being involved in another way with one of the country's leaders. The Russians are stockpiling weapons and fears of something rather serious being about to go down are rife. Reconnaissance efforts don’t go exactly to plan, and torture, murder and just-in-time escapes for some are the order of the day.

Ever the jetsetter, Devereaux is now off home to Paris to get to the bottom of this whole leak problem. More shady characters become involved, and he's left facing family problems (he was after all cheating on his wife, so really who could blame her for dumping him?) as well as treachery from those he never would have expected.

"I've been shot - just a little..."

Sounds convoluted? Well, you'd be right. Based on the rather voluminous tome of the same name as the film by popular author Leon Uris, Topaz is basically a tediously long, drawn out mess, and is probably one of the biggest blots on Alfred Hitchcock's generally incredible copybook. The Cuban missile crisis of the '60s held so much potential for a great conspiracy story and oodles of suspense, however sadly the most intriguing question raised throughout this film is, "when is it going to end?".

To understate matters to a phenomenal degree, Topaz is so un-Hitchcock that if not for a few selectively deft touches here and there one would seriously doubt he had any involvement at all with the film. Much against type, this is devoid of anybody resembling a star, except perhaps for the slightly known at the time John Forsythe. A lacklustre cast makes an extremely average fist of things throughout, and in his portrayal of the lead character, Devereaux, Frederick Stafford seems to try, but ends up displaying a depth of emotion akin to that of a postage stamp. Add to this a leaden screenplay which surprisingly was tweaked by Samuel Taylor (also responsible for Vertigo) that battles to include way too much in too little a time (not that this flick isn’t way too long already), and things get too convoluted and simply just don’t quite gel.

It has been well documented that after a couple of relative failures in a row, at least in box office terms when it comes to Marnie, Hitchcock was undergoing quite the confidence crisis at the time of the making of Topaz, and to be without his many regular collaborators surely would not have helped matters. Fans of the director are used to his artfulness, be it in the set-up of shots, a certain snappiness and wittiness in the script or even the casting itself, not to mention the key element in that previously he was not usually one to follow trends - now with two spy-type films in a row within the era where James Bond bloomed? And to think it could easily be said that he firmly slammed the yardstick for the genre into the ground with the classic North by Northwest.

As alluded above, there are certain scenes that could almost only be Hitchcockian in origin - most notably one involving a death in Cuba shot from above that is simply stunning - but much like the predecessor to Topaz, Torn Curtain, the overall appearance smacks of much less attention to detail and almost a general kind of "she'll be right mate" attitude - and those laughably bad process shots! The fact that test audience pressure was heeded to the point that even after principal photography was completed the director was left floundering for a suitable ending, after most all of his previous works were planned pretty much to the letter before a single camera rolled, may just be enough to sum things up perfectly.


Get down to the sound of a stuck record, as once again it must be observed that we were apparently deemed unworthy of an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer of Topaz, which those in region 1 were graced with. Seemingly this is another pan and scan "effort", as whilst some scenes display a more open matte than those in the ever so teasing 1.85:1 scenes included in the accompanying documentary, others have their sides severely curtailed. Need it be mentioned that the video mark has been affected because of this? I thought not…

At least there is some good news for Hitchcock trainspotters, as this is basically the original cut of the film, rather than the one edited for brevity after test audiences almost unanimously claimed it was too long. Curiously though it appears to have a different ending to the original planned one, as well as that which was released cinematically.

As to the video quality, it's another mixed bag. Detail is superb at times, especially towards the beginning of the film, however this is also the DVD's downfall in some ways as it makes the myriad of process shots all the more obvious. Still, it wouldn’t really be a Hitch film without such scenes, so we'll move on. Grain is often an issue, although it is milder than in many of this recent batch of Hitchcock releases, and the extra sharpness afforded the vision has an almost inevitable downside - with many examples of shimmering throughout. Colour and black levels are pretty good, with quite a drab Europe juxtaposed nicely against a brighter Cuba. The print is generally cleaner than many of Topaz's sister releases, with a minimum of speckles and other detritus unlike some releases of films of a later vintage.

Another reasonable layer change features here, freezing at the end of a scene with no audio hiccups.



What? You want more than that delightfully succinct summation? Well, the soundtrack is very squished, distorts on odd occasions, and quiet parts often have a mild hissy crackle to them. Lip synch is fine, however with a preponderance of accents often verging on the ludicrously bad (this is not an attack on the languages, rather the actors trying to imitate them) many may have trouble catching everything that's said. Thank heaven for little subtitles…

Maurice Jarre composed the soundtrack, and there's not really a lot more to say about it. It's most definitely there, it's often quite apt, but it is also quite emotionless, and doesn't have anything particularly magical about it to inspire further comment.


Another static menu, another film still, another dose of Funeral March of a Marionette. Next...

Documentary - Topaz - An Appreciation By Film Critic/Historian Leonard Maltin: Quite the departure for this series of Hitchcock documentaries, here we get no interviews with cast or crew, simply the much unfairly maligned Leonard (perhaps here it should be Leonid?) Maltin's views on the film. Some vaguely interesting storyboard comparisons are featured here, as well as side-by-side contrasts between some scenes of the version we get and the abridged one released to cinemas. Quality is fairly good, although once again it grates somewhat viewing the many snippets of the film presented in 1.85:1, considering the utterly slaughtered version we've had spewed forth at us. Once again subtitles are included.

Alternative endings: Bless those test audiences, as for once (probably just once) they appear to have done us all a favour. Included here are three endings, the first a somewhat preposterous scene demonstrating the nasty side of what testosterone can do to men in the form of a duel, which tested so badly it was replaced; secondly there's the ending we get in the version of Topaz included on this disc, and finally the theatrical version which was cobbled together from other footage laying around as it was too late to do pickup filming. Interesting for comparison's sake, and to see how truly silly the original ending indeed was, these are in a ratio of 1.85:1 and are in reasonably good shape all things considered.

Storyboards: A curious selection of stills alternating between scenes of McBain's nemeses the Mendozas on their reconnaissance picnic, and the storyboard art that (sort of) corresponds with them.

Production photographs: A rather disappointing collection of just 37 stills, promo shots and behind the scenes photos, and a measly two examples of poster art.

Trailer: As this isn’t an Austin Powers film, this trailer could only have been made in the '60s. It has quite the James Bond vibe to it, is of average quality (although at least it's 1.85:1, even if it isn’t 16x9 enhanced) and unlike most latter day Hitchcock trailers depressingly it only features the man for a second or two, and rather awkwardly at that.

4-page booklet with production notes: Apparently this comes with the disc, however unless some remarkable new breakthrough in the creation of invisible paper has been discovered one most definitely did not accompany this review copy.


Really this DVD can only be recommended to serious Hitch completists, and even then if you must own it the region 4 version is hardly desirable when the much superior region 1 release is but a few clicks away.

The theme of betrayal abounds throughout Topaz in every way, story-wise from governmental levels all the way down to marital ones, from a frankly pathetic DVD presentation of the film in the incorrect ratio, to the entire kit and caboodle itself, easily one of the worst films to ever feature a directing credit with the name Alfred Hitchcock next to it.

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      And I quote...
    "Easily one of the worst films to ever feature a directing credit with the name Alfred Hitchcock next to it..."
    - Amy Flower
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Pioneer DV-535
    • TV:
          Sony 68cm
    • Receiver:
          Onkyo TX-DS494
    • Speakers:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse RBS662
    • Centre Speaker:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse ECC442
    • Surrounds:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse ECR042
    • Subwoofer:
          DTX Digital 4.8
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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