Topaz plays more like a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Leon Uris‘ novel than it does an Alfred Hitchcock film. Long, deliberately paced and mostly lacking the dark humor that typified his other movies, Topaz demands patience of its audience. That patience is rewarded with an intelligent, if subdued motion picture experience.
Set against the days immediately preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis, Topaz concerns itself with the efforts of a French intelligent agent, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), on behalf of his American counterpart, Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe), to learn exactly what the Soviets are doing in Cuba, while keeping this information from his own country because a Soviet defector has revealed the existence of spy ring within the French government, code-named “Topaz.”
The film takes its time getting there. The opening sequence deals with Nordstrom handling the defection of a KGB official, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius), while visiting Denmark. He is able to confirm that the Soviets are providing military assistance to the Cubans but not specifics. He does tell the Americans who would know. The secretary to Rico Parra (John Vernon), the Cuban delegate to the United Nations, has a copy of the agreement between the U.S.S.R and Cuba. This secretary can be bribed but won’t deal with an American. Nordstrom contacts his friend Devereaux to make the contact at the hotel in Harlem serving as the Cuban mission. Using another agent (Roscoe Lee Brown) to approach the secretary, Devereaux gets what Nordstrom is after, but it doesn’t go completely smoothly. The Cubans know someone has compromised their agreement with the Soviets.
Having now learned about the missiles, Devereaux agrees to go to Cuba to learn more. He makes contact with the head of Cuban underground, Juanita (Karin Dor), who is also Parra’s mistress. Things seem to go off without a hitch until one of Parra’s men recognizes Devereaux from New York.
Hitchcock’s second Cold War thriller in a row is more successful than the first, Torn Curtain, even if it doesn’t conform to the audience’s expectation of what one of his films should be. The audience was more than likely expecting another North By Northwest, but what they got was a film that was unique among the director’s body of work. Topaz is more along the lines of a John le Carré story adapted for the BBC. This film assumes a fair amount of intelligence on the part of its audience and asks that they have the patience to wait for the events of the film to play out at their natural pace. Those willing to meet this film half way will be rewarded with a thoughtful, if atypical, Hitchcock film.
The film is not flawless, however. As Rico Parra, the blue-eyed John Vernon makes an unconvincing Cuban. The women playing Devereaux’s wife and daughter (Dany Robin and Claude Jade respectively) don’t impress either. The rather fractured, episodic nature of the story is a bit confusing as well. Every section of the film seems to have its own cast of characters which need to be introduced anew. For instance, the characters involved after Devereaux’s return to France late in the film have had nothing to do with the rest of the plot, not appearing or even being mentioned. Characters that figured in the defection and the Cuban section are dropped and never heard from again.
However, stacked up against the confused and listless Torn Curtain, Topaz represents a significant improvement as Hitchcock’s career entered the 1970s. This is especially impressive when you consider that, after Uris’ script was rejected at the last minute as unfilmable, screenwriter Samuel Taylor was writing the film as it was being shot, often completing scenes mere days before they went before the cameras.