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Topaz: The Alfred Hitchcock Collection

Based on the best-selling spy thriller by Leon Uris, Alfred Hitchcock's 1969 Topaz is a very long, very tedious, and very talky movie with almost nothing to recommend it. Set during the Cuban missile crisis, the convoluted plot involves a French intelligence agent (Frederick Stafford) who's called upon to intervene for the U.S. to break a French spy ring — code name: Topaz — and reveal what the Russians are really up to in Cuba. One of the few times when Hitchcock started a film without a finished script, some scenes were still being written by Samuel Taylor (Vertigo) up to a few hours before they were shot, and it shows. It's also readily apparent that Hitchcock wasn't especially interested in the politics of Cuba, preferring instead to concentrate on fine details at the expense of plot. Because of this, Topaz is a potpourri of ingenious Hitchcock moments that, taken individually, are interesting but ultimately serve the flaccid story not one whit: Conversations are seen, but not heard, through glass doors; spy gadgetry like remote cameras and microfilm hidden in razor blade cartridges are lingered over with obvious relish; vibrant colors are used as a recurring symbol (though not with notable success); a mislaid state document is discovered being used as a napkin; a Cuban wife is shown holding her dead husband after they've been tortured in a Castro prison, in the style of Michaelangelo's "Pieta." If these details had been part of a good movie, they'd be pure genius — as part of Topaz, they just feel like they've been squandered. It also doesn't help that, with it's bright, unnatural studio lighting and horrid TV-style music by Maurice Jarre, Topaz feels like an overlong 1960s television drama, and the presence of John Forsythe as an American CIA agent adds to the nagging feeling that this is really just a very long, very boring episode of "Mission: Impossible." While there is a perverse pleasure in seeing actor John Vernon (Dean Wormer in Animal House) play a bearded, blue-eyed Cuban rebel — and seeing Roscoe Lee Browne in his first film role — it's not enough to make it worth your while to sit through this movie. Universal's DVD release of Topaz — part of their Alfred Hitchcock Collection — offers the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound. Extras include the 30-minute documentary "Topaz: An Appreciation by Film Historian and Critic Leonard Maltin" (yes, that's the actual title), in which a few interesting things can be learned about Hitchcock and the movie, but mostly it's just a half-hour of Maltin enjoying the sound of his own whiny voice. The disc offers three alternate endings for your perusal. The original ending featured a duel, which was roundly trashed by test audiences; it was replaced by a second ending, which also stinks. A third unused alternative is also provided. There are also production notes, storyboards, a still gallery, cast-and-crew notes, and the theatrical trailer. However, only the most hardened of Hitchcock scholars/completists will care about any of it. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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