Monday, February 11, 2008

Hitchcock and the Cold War: Torn Curtain and Topaz

On paper, 'Torn Curtain' has all the makings of a classy, crowd-pleasing thriller: a couple of big stars (Paul Newman, Julie Andrews), a script by Brian Moore ('The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne', 'Black Robe'), some atmospheric European locations and a plot involving the defection of an American scientist working on a defence programme - topical stuff for a film made during the Cold War.

Newman, in a commendably low-key, thoughtful performance, plays Professor Michael Armstrong. Attending a conference in Scandinavia, he begins acting secretively and strangely, receiving coded messages. His fiancee and fellow researcher Sarah Sherman (Andrews) grows suspicious. When Armstrong takes a plane to East Germany, she follows. But is Armstrong really going over to the other side, or does he have an even deeper agenda?

This is the stuff of le Carre or Deighton, and you need only look at the film versions of 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' or 'The Ipcress File' to see how impressive the material can be if handled properly.

'Torn Curtain', however, is mishandled quite badly, mainly because Hitch never really engages with the material. He'd dealt with espionage-related plots before - 'The 39 Steps', 'Saboteur', 'North by Northwest' - but these were essentially chase movies boasting one suspenseful set-piece after another. 'Torn Curtain' has a grand total of two set-pieces (I'm discounting here the ludicrous scene where Armstrong and Sarah escape a theatre by yelling "Fire!" and slipping out while panic ensues - even though none of the other patrons are English speakers!). The first is Armstrong's confrontation with hard-to-kill Russian agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) at a remote farmhouse - the sequence is extended, excruciating and only the time the movie truly comes to life. It then settles back into inertia for another hour before set-piece number two comes along. This is a contrived bit of business involving two buses, the tension deriving from the distance between them and the presence of roadblocks by the authorities. Hitchcock's predilection for process shots renders the entire sequence risibly phoney.

Elsewhere, matte paintings complement the process shots in terms of artificiality. The sets look like something cobbled together out of cast-offs from other productions. The dialogue is often blandly expositional. There's no chemistry between Newman and Andrews, the latter wandering lifelessly through the film. The music, by John Addison (Hitchcock jettisoned Bernard Herrmann's score after they fell out), is bland.

Curiously, 'Torn Curtain' proved a box office success while it was Hitchcock's similarly-themed follow up, 'Topaz', that earned him the worst reviews of his career. Curious because, while over-plotted and mostly dialogue-driven in its second half, 'Topaz' boasts a lot more in the way of pace and directorial flair.

American agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) oversees the defection of Soviet politician Boris Kusenov (Per Axel Arosenius) and his family. The debrief reveals activity in Cuba and a double agent codenamed Topaz. Nordstrom targets Cuban politico Rico Parra (John Vernon) as a source of information but given American/Cuban relations cannot approach him directly. So Nordstrom persuades French operative Andre Devereux (Frederick Stafford) to undertake a mission to Cuba. Devereux has an ulterior motive: his affair with Cuban double-agent - and Parra's consort - Juanita (Karin Dor). Meanwhile, Devereux's wife Nicole (Dany Robin), a heroine of the Resistance, is clandestinely involved with one of Devereux's superiors, Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli). Granville, when not romancing Nicole, is protecting his alliance with fellow minister Henri Jarre (Philippe Noiret) - a man with his own agenda.

Devereux's Cuban interlude ends in a welter of violence and betrayal when his spy ring is uncovered. Returning to France - to face the music now that his paymasters are aware of his off-the-books mission on behalf of the American - knows, but cannot prove, that Topaz is high-ranking member of the French government. But who can he turn to, who can he trust?

'Topaz' has more incident, tension and plot development in its first twenty minutes than the whole two hours of 'Torn Curtain'. Location shooting is used optimally, with minimum reliance on process shots. A largely European cast shine in roles that could easily have been ciphers instead of characters, particularly Piccoli and Noiret, two of France's finest acting talents, with kudos due, as well, to the luminous Karin Dor. John Vernon is also excellent as Parra.

There are plenty of good scenes - from Kusenov and his family stalked by security personnel to Devereux inveigling his son-in-law into gaining entry to a suspected traitor's apartment - shot through with Hitchcock's genius for creating tension. The minutiae of spying is well-observed. So is the grim aftermath. The single best scene is Parra's discovery of Juanita's double life. Hitchcock delivers a highly memorable overhead shot - a moment of cinematic alchemy that transmogrifies an act of violence into pure visual poetry.

Where 'Topaz' loses its footing, however, is in the talky second half. Once Devereux returns from Cuba, the pace slows and the movie never quite recovers. The ending doesn't help, a damp squib that Hitchcock shot as a compromise after test audiences reacted badly to the original conclusion in which Devereux agrees to a duel with his nemesis. The DVD includes this sequence, and it's easy to see why it incited mockery. Although thematically valid, the sequence is risible. After the double-dealing, hidden agendas and back-room politics which suffuse 'Topaz', the duel tips the whole film into melodrama. Unfortunately, what Hitchcock replaced it with isn't much better.

Still, 'Topaz' has more going for it than it's often given credit for, and deserves re-evaluation.


Meeg said...

I remember seeing Topaz. It was fairly entertaining (I guess even bad Hitchcock isn't too bad). The one shot with Juanita is gorgeous, and I remember how they showed Fidel Castro and his entourage staying in a seedy hotel in Harlem (which he actually did). It's interesting how it's basically about the lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Waldemar Lopes said...

I love Julie Andrews in "Torn Curtain" and think she and Paul Newman look great together. The opening scene with both of them in bed was great. I had fun watching this Hitchcock movie, he was definitely a master. Julie is so beautiful and elegant, there's a cool 60's atmosphere there which makes the movie such a joy to watch. To me, it was great fun!