While Hitchcock’s Topaz also finds its roots in the Cold War like its predecessor Torn Curtain (1966), it revolves around more intricate professional espionage which in this case pertains specifically to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The establishing shot of the film makes it clear that we are somewhere, once more, behind the Iron Curtain as we see a waving flag emblazoned with the faces of Lenin, Marx, and Engels. Interestingly enough, although the film begins with a high Russian official fleeing the country with his family and includes the deal he cuts with the Americans, Topaz really focuses on something else entirely. It plays off this idea of a man caught in the middle of the Cold War. Except this is not an everyman, but a specialized agent trained in espionage. Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) is a Frenchmen who should seemingly be outside the fray of the opposing Superpowers.
But as anyone would probably try to explain, such issues of international relations and security are never so cut and dry. There is a lot more ambiguity involved and being an old friend with one of the American agents (John Forsythe), Devereux obliges to get involved with the whole affair in Cuba because he too is interested to see what the Russians are up to.
Agent Devereaux gets fully embroiled in Cold War espionage after making contact with Juanita (Karin Dor), the esteemed widow of a Cuban Revolutionary who now also happens to be a spy. Andre slips her aide a Geiger counter so that he can monitor the surrounding area to see if the Russians have nuclear warheads. And his results are conclusive. When by some lucky break Devereaux actually does get his evidence out of the country, Agent Nordstrom (Forsythe) confirms that the new information matches that from other sources including U2 plane surveillance. While the history stops there with Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Mission Crisis, the film continues, following Devereaux back to France where he suspects a Russian mole. Since Hitchcock was always more of a showman than a political filmmaker, it makes sense that he grabs hold of the spy thriller thread in one final act. It channels paranoia very similar to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold although it is a glossier affair with intrigue crisscrossed with illicit romance.
Whereas the previous Torn Curtain was generally concerned with life behind the Iron Curtain, Topaz is decidedly more continental moving swiftly between Russia, France, America, Cuba, including a few pitstops at international embassies. However, the film does end up spending a lot of time focused on Cuba which can very easily be juxtaposed with the East German scenes in the former film. Hitchcock once more creates an illusion of reality using the Universal backlot and the adjoining area to craft Cuba, and he makes into a place of sunshine and romantic verandas, but it also runs rampant with totalitarian militia. It’s perhaps more exotic and welcoming than East Germany, but no less repressed. In both cases, they become a perilous locale for our protagonists. Still, rather unlike the previous film, Topaz lacks a truly A-list star like Paul Newman or Julie Andrews.
It’s as if Hitch has lost a number of things that made some of his best films, a stellar cast backed by a truly inspired script, carried out with his typical ingenuity. However, this film holds a special place in my heart as my first introduction to Claude Jade. That alone made it a worthy piece of viewing, but it also stands as a historical relic.