Behind the Scenes – “Topaz” (1969)

Hitchcock wanted to follow Torn Curtain (1966) with Frenzy – initially with an American setting – and spent $75,000 on a screenplay but his paymasters Universal nixed the idea. Stuck for another project and hating idleness, Hitchcock rummaged through the studio’s outstanding list of properties and came up with Topaz because it was “better than nothing” and “he was getting to the point where he would consider anything, pretty well, just to continue exercising his craft.” The Donald Spoto version has it that Hitchcock’s wife Alma “approached Lew Wasserman, begging him to find a project to get her husband back to work.”

Nonetheless this hardly had “desperate” written all over it, as some have argued, not with Universal willing to stump up $4 million, his biggest budget to date. With a political backdrop similar to Torn Curtain, the director aimed for “espionage with an emotional relationship” like Notorious (1946).

Hitchcock hired Topaz author Leon Uris (Exodus) to write the screenplay. Uris had some experience in this field have written the screenplays for Gufight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and adapted his own Battle Cry. Uris was far more high-powered writing partner than Hitchcock had been used to, considering himself as much a master of his own genre as the director was of his. He had such a high opinion of himself that he wrote the lyrics to a song “Topaz” to go out as a sales gimmick for the publication of the book. And was formidable in other ways. He had been the first author to deny the hardback publisher a share, as was traditional, of both paperback and movie rights.

Incidentally, Universal only picked up the project on second go-round. Uris had originally sold the movie rights for $500,000 to British businessmen Shel Talmy and Sir William Piggott. But the Bank of England refused to sanction the deal because Britain had just devalued the pound sterling and it did not wish such a large sum of money to leave the country.  

It was unlikely that Hitchcock and Uris would hit it off. The relationship got off to a difficult start when Hitchcock tried to install the author “in a little office in his cottage” while Uris held out for his own private domain in the studio’s executive building. Uris “made a fight” out of other little things in order to exert his own authority. Perhaps to get his own back, Hitchcock forced Uris to undergo a crash-course in Hitchcock films, watching the director’s output with the director providing a personal commentary. Uris called it “a drill in self-aggrandizement.” The partnership failed to gel and Uris was off the project.

But Hitchcock recognized that Uris had been correct in some of his assessments of the director’s approach and realizing he was out of touch with modern espionage arranged to receive briefings from top intelligence operators including George Horkan, former deputy inspector general of the CIA.

Next up for screenwriting duties was Samuel Taylor (Vertigo, 1958). Hitchcock dropped Uris’s flashbacks to World War Two and insisted on building up the Cuban section, altering the Uris plotline and making Rico Parra (John Vernon) “a sympathetic, almost tragic figure.”

The most memorable scene in the picture – the death of Juanita – was never properly scripted and instead relied on the genius of Hitchcock’s cinematic inspiration. “Although it was a death scene,” said Hitchcock, “I wanted it to look very beautiful.” It was also a piece of technical (of the old-fashioned kind) wizardry. The director had attached five pieces of thread to her gown. The threads were held by five men positioned off-camera. As Juanita fell, “the men pulled the threads and her robe splayed out like a flower that was opening up.”

Hitichcock’s biographers continued to insist that the director was caught short by the production process. The picture’s main problem, according to Taylor, was that “Hitch was trying to make something as if he had Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in it.” To accommodate a major Hollywood star would have meant changing the entire plot to accommodate the desire of a big star to be included in more of the action. Bankable international stars like Yves Montand (Z, 1969) and Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour, 1967) were passed over in favor of relative unknown Frederick Stafford (OSS 117, Mission for a Killer, 1965), a late starter in the movie business, but bringing a certain elan to any part, and old dependables like John Forysthe (The Trouble with Harry, 1955). 

But Hitchcock had already decided to ditch big stars and would not have been looking for a Bergman/Grant equivalent while working through the screenplay. Prior to production he announced he would “cast unknowns to give the film more authenticity.” And he already planned to take a less-than-heroic look at the spy game. He had been disappointed at the ending of Torn Curtain. “I would personally preferred to have the hero suffer qualms about behaving like a professional spy and I would have ended the film with his disgust at his own position.”

Biographers also asserted that the opposition of the French government came as something of shock. Not true either. It was obvious to all that the film would annoy the French. Asked about this issue in a press conference, Hitchcock joked, “I shall disguise myself as thin man.”  The French government, clearly not sharing the Cahiers du Cinema blind faith in the director, complained the script was anti-French and refused permission to shoot in France and although the issue was finally resolved after top-level discussions shooting was delayed.

Coupled with an almost documentary-style approach and the fact that some of his most acclaimed films – Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Trouble with Harry and Psycho (1960) – had been made without big stars, he seemed to be taking no great risk.

Roberto Contreros as the Cuban police chief Vernon was also a last-minute replacement, called in for Aram Katcher, who had shot all his scenes and didn’t realise this had occurred until, having been lined up for television talk shows, he discovered he had ended up on the cutting room floor.

The key role of Juanita was not cast until a few days before her scenes were to be shot. Hitchcock had turned up his nose up at various suggestions and found fault with every actress interviewed. “She will show up,” said Hitchcock. And at the last minute she did. The German-born Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1965) had Latin features and fluent English.

Huge sets were built on the Universal lot for the Harlem hotel, a mansion in Virginia, a Cuban street and La Guardia airport, but for a Cuban hacienda Hitchcock had to look no further than director Clarence Brown (National Velvet, 1944) who made available his home.

Hitchcock had planned that Topaz would include his first modern love scene, that is with the actors fully topless. That notion was scuppered when Hitchcock was informed that both principals had significant surgical scars on their torsos.

The climax was not in the book either – an old-fashioned duel in a soccer stadium. But Hitchcock did not shoot it. His wife Alma had suddenly fallen ill and Hitchcock left the filming of the scene to Herbert Coleman. Test audiences rejected the ending. Interestingly, the main reason the original ending was changed was due to adverse reaction at the San Francisco preview. There had been an unholy scramble for tickets, primarily from youngsters, among whom Hitchcock’s stock was riding high – and far higher than any other director among the older generation. So it may have been that he was brought down to earth by the very audiences that were otherwise praising him to the stars.   

Under pressure from Universal, Hitchcock shot another more cynical ending, Devereux (Frederick Stafford) and the French traitor Granville (Michel Piccoli) waving each other off as they boarded planes for Washington and Moscow, respectively. To pacify the French, who might object to a traitor getting off scot-free, Hitchcock devised a third ending, utilised from existing footage, which suggested Granville committed suicide.

There was enormous debate at the studio over which ending to use. The result was, inevitably, compromise. Different versions were shown. So what ending you saw depended on where and when you viewed the film. Between a 142-minute preview screening in London – it was released in Britain prior to America – and a 126-minute release a week later the ending changed to the suicide. Biographers claimed British distributor Rank lopped 20 minutes off the picture, but since the 142-minute version was a rough cut the editing was not quite as brutal as it sounds.  The suicide was seen in France and America. The duel version can be seen on a DVD. 

The one I saw, in case you are interested, had the pair waving each other off at the airport which I thought an excellent and wholly believable ending, given that most famous British traitors did escape. 

Nor was there outright condemnation of the finished picture. The New York critics, the most influential in the country, were split. Vincent Canby, the most highly-regarded mainstream critic of the time, gave it a rave review in the New York Times. (Canby placed it number seven on his year’s top ten). Two others – the New York News and the New York Post – gave it favorable reports. The three magazines who gave it gave it the thumbs-down – Newsday, New York and Cue – had significantly smaller circulations than the newspapers. Universal had no concerns about its potential, releasing it during the busy Xmas period.

However, it didn’t help that the film came out just as the lionization of Hitchcock had begun. The Truffaut book had begun to win admirers, Hitchcock was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1968 and elected to the French Order of Letters in 1969. Critics, except in France naturally, felt it was vastly inferior to his previous work. As a consequence, when his career began to be reassessed, biographers began to look for reasons why this film did not meet with their approval, forgetting that they had been mauling him for most of the decade.

He must have been ill, was one assumption. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan: “Photographs taken during the filming of Marnie show an almost trim and dapper man; in contrast…in 1968 (he) was again far overweight, pink-cheeked from drinking and transparently depressed with the realization that time, always his cruelest enemy, was closing in.” It would take quite a photographer to make Hitchcock look trim and dapper but the almost purple prose employed here by McGilligan serves his purpose of explaining why Topaz fell below, in his view, the director’s normal high standards.    

John Russell Taylor, Hitchcock’s official biographer, commented: “He (Hitchcock) has declined to discuss the film beyond making it clear that he regards it as a complete disaster, whatever some of his wilder admirers may say in its favor.”

But this would not the be the first good – not to say excellent – movie produced in difficult or traumatic circumstances. Since Hitchcock was the most fastidious of directors and liked the movie he made to be a mere reflection of the movie that had already unspooled in his head a long time before, his antipathy towards the picture clearly comes from his unhappiness at his loss of control, rather than, I would guess, any genuine horror that he had made an atrocity.  As a Hollywood veteran, and especially one who had worked with David O. Selznick, he would be more than familiar with the need to re-edit pictures after previews. Perhaps he felt he was beyond all that.

Whatever the case, don’t let the inevitable inanities of Hollywood production and post-production, or the carping of critics, put you off an enjoyable film.

SOURCES: Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock, A Life in Darkness and Light, (Harper Collins, 2003), p682-695; John Russell Taylor, Hitch, The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock, the Authorised Biography (Faber and Faber, 1978), p279-281; Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, (De Capo Press, 1983), p498-503; “Leon Uris Forces Publishing Yield Better Terms to Successful Writers,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p28; “Cuffo Disk to Promote Uris Upcoming Topaz,” Variety, September 20, 1967, p49;  “Bank of England Asks Pic Savvy,” Variety, December 13, 1967, p8; “Hitchcock-Uris Reveal Topaz as De-Politicized,” Variety, May 8, 1968, p32; “Hitchcock To Produce Topaz for Universal,” Box Office, May 13, 1968, p17; “Says Actor: U’s Kindness Hurts,” Variety, April 30, 1969, p7; “Hitchcock London Bow Exudes More Mystery Than Pic Itself,” Variety, November 12, 1969, p30;  “NY Critics Dec 24-31,” Variety, December 24, 1969, p4; “Time for Year’s 10 Best Lists,” Variety, December 31, 1969, p7.