Topaz (1969)

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Released 15-Nov-2001

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Thriller Main Menu Audio
Featurette-An Appreciation By Film Critic/Historian Leonard Maltin
Alternate Ending-(6:24)
Storyboards
Gallery-Photo
Theatrical Trailer-1.85:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0 (3:04)
Booklet
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1969
Running Time 136:27 (Case: 147)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (98:40) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Alfred Hitchcock
Studio
Distributor

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Frederick Stafford
Dany Robin
John Vernon
Karin Dor
Michel Piccoli
Case ?
RPI $36.95 Music Maurice Jarre


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Screen, not known whether Pan & Scan or Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, during credits

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    One of my favourite authors of long standing is Leon Uris and over the years I have read a fair number of his novels, some many times over (notably Exodus). Rather unbelievably considering the number of novels I have read by him over the years, I am a little shamed-faced in admitting that I have never read Topaz. Now whether that is a good thing or not when approaching this film for review, I don't categorically know but I would suspect that based upon readings of Leon Uris' other novels, it was probably a good thing.

    Heavily based upon the Cold War and specifically the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, we begin with the annual Communist display of military power in Moscow for purposes that really have no purpose. We then move to Copenhagen where a top Soviet official is seeking to defect to the United States. Despite the heavy presence of the obligatory KGB agents, the defection is managed out front of a department store through the aid of Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe), from whence the Kusenov family is whisked away to a waiting DC-3 for transport to Wiesbaden and from there on a C-135 to Washington. But their new prize, safely ensconced in a safe house outside of Washington, is not eternally happy and initially does little to provide information to the Yanks. He does, however, provide some indication of a serious leak in the French Government through which top secret documents are passed to the Soviets. The code name for this little leak is Topaz. Of greater immediate importance, though, is some indication of the purpose of an agreement between the Soviets and Cubans as Soviet engineers start arriving in Cuba in force. That agreement suddenly becomes very important to the Americans, but there is only one copy of it and it is held by the Cuban official Rico Parra (John Vernon). Obviously it is unlikely that he would hand this over to the Americans, but he has a secretary who has a penchant for the greenback - but hates Americans. So Michael Nordstrom enlists the aid of his good friend Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who just so happens to be a French agent, err, cultural attaché.

    The involvement of a French agent is not likely to go down too well in Paris, but the French connection works pretty well. In fact too well, as Andre finds the contents of the agreement to be very worrisome - and heads off to Cuba to check things out himself. His wife Nicole (Dany Robin) is not that enamoured with this idea, as the diplomatic gossip chain has made it a tad too clear that Andre's visits are not so much to do with work but rather an attractive leader in the Cuban underground movement, Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor). But that underground movement can provide Andre with all the information that he needs. Andre leaves Cuba with information, but arrives in Washington to the proverbial manure hitting the fan, but before heading to Paris to face the result of the manure hitting the fan, he gets an audience with the Soviet defector to listen to the details he has provided to the Americans about the extensive leaks in the French Government. So Andre heads back to Paris not so much to face the music of his activities but to uncover the unknown head honcho of the Topaz ring - code name Columbine.

    Whilst heavily based on an historical event that has been the subject of many films and many books and basically has been done to death, the Cuban Missile Crisis is but a loose framework around which to base a not especially wonderful story of the espionage game. Too long and not enough suspense, this is about as obvious as you can get. A decent amount of pruning was made to the film after rather disastrous preview screenings, but these have in general been restored to the film for this DVD release. Compounding the rather mundane story are a whole bunch of relatively unknown actors - at least as far as American audiences would be concerned. About the only "known" name here would be John Forsythe, but that would be a stretch to call him serious drawing power. The rest?

    The lack of serious acting ability is probably what drags this film down somewhat. Frederick Stafford is reasonable enough but is anything but truly convincing when pushed with genuine depth of emotion. Mind you, you could pretty much say the same thing about the entire cast and the more I think about it, the less there is of any real conviction here. Add into the mix a somewhat staid piece of directing from the maestro, and a film that once again relied a tad too much on the old processed shots - pretty darn obvious too in the car scenes from the airport in Paris. About the only thing to lift the film itself out of the ordinary is the use of actual newsreel style footage of Moscow and Cuba.

    So basically as we progress further through the films that make up the Hitchcock Collection Volume 2, we are getting thinner in terms of quality and thinner in terms of desirability. To be blunt, this is not a really desirable title and definitely falls into the category of take it or leave it.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The original theatrical presentation of this film was in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, as exemplified by the excerpts of film seen in the extra package and as exemplified by the transfer afforded the Region 1 release. Read this somewhere before? Yes you have and I shall continue on with repeating myself for this is virtually identical in transfer to Marnie. Universal have again for some reason seen fit not to bless the Region 4 release with the correct aspect ratio and have given us a 1.33:1 aspect ratio transfer. Once again the all-important question is whether this is a pan and scan abomination or not. Regrettably, once again none of the readily accessible sites I checked out could give me any definitive answer in this regard, so I have again had to revert to gut instinct by checking out the excerpts in the extras package and comparing them to the feature transfer. That less than scientific checking would seem to suggest that the format is in fact Full Frame, since there appears to be more top and bottom information than is contained in the film excerpts. However, if someone could give a definitive answer, please feel free to let us know.

    Since the lack of widescreen presentation is in common with the release of The Birds and Marnie, and presumably with the soon-to-be-reviewed Torn Curtain, there is no surprise in that the transfer holds other common factors with those releases. Again grain is quite an issue, although on this occasion some of it is unavoidable if the non-movie footage is from newsreel type sources. What makes the grain a little too obvious is the segments that are virtually crystal clear, as well as being superbly sharp (check out the car scene at around the 16:00 mark). However, the overall extent of the grain is better than in Marnie or The Birds. In general, this is an improved transfer as far as definition is concerned and whilst not really what you would call sharp, it is by no means in the same sort of diffuse category seen in Marnie. Detail is generally good, which highlights the use of processed shots quite obviously and thus is slightly distracting to the DVD presentation. Shadow detail is good. There did not appear to be any problems with low level noise in the transfer.

    The transfer is quite reasonable as far as the colours go, although the blend of genuine movie with news reel type footage is not exactly the best: there are simply too many differences in colour style to make it seamless. The colours are not what you would call vibrant and in some instances are a tad prone to very mild oversaturation, most notably the red dress worn by Juanita. I would have preferred a little more depth to the blacks here, but perhaps the slightly drab look of certain scenes could not have sustained this. The colour is believable enough. There did not appear to be any colour bleed problems in the transfer.

    There did not appear to be any significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer. There were plenty of film-to-video artefacts in the transfer, mainly aliasing and assorted shimmer problems in the usual suspects: fences, cars, window frames, furniture, doorsteps. Regrettably, these on occasions do get to be too much to be able to readily ignore. There were a deal of film artefacts in the transfer but in general these were not that distracting to the film.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD, with the layer change coming at 98:40. It comes right at the end of a scene and is not at all disruptive to the flow of the film.

    There is unusually only the single subtitle option on the DVD. The English subtitles are good, but do miss a little in the dialogue.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack.

    The dialogue comes up well in the transfer and easy to understand. There are no significant audio sync problems in the transfer.

    The original music score comes from Maurice Jarre. In all honesty I cannot say it did much for me other than the fact that I did notice the sizeable periods of silence in the film. Does that mean the score was good or bad?

    There again is not much to say about the sound. It could have been remastered to better effect, and the continuing use of mono sound in such comparatively recent films always puzzles me. Hitch must have had his reasons, but this is one film where the lack of stereo sound is noticed, as the overall soundscape is fairly flat sounding. At least the sound is not congested and is free of any real distortions.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    This is probably one of the poorer efforts in the way of extras yet seen on one of these releases from the Hitchcock Collection.

Menus

    You know exactly what this one is going to be like as you have seen the same thing about ten times now.

Documentary - An Appreciation By Leonard Maltin (29:24)

    This is a big disappointment - not only does the length get really shortened compared to the other efforts we have seen, but Leonard Maltin is not especially interesting in my view. Oh he knows a bit about films but I just find his clichéd approach to be lacking in enthusiasm and genuineness. Presented in a Full Frame format, it is not 16x9 enhanced and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The technical quality is generally good, although suffering somewhat from aliasing and minor cross colouration. Probably the least essential effort yet seen in the two volumes of the Hitchcock Collection.

Alternate Endings (6:24)

    The film was unmercilessly savaged at preview screenings, so much so that Alfred Hitchcock had to make significant changes to the film. One of the most panned aspects of the film was the frankly appalling ending. The use of the duel as a means of ending the film was possibly the most preposterous thing ever imagined, and quite what Alfred Hitchcock was thinking was anybody's guess. So he shot another ending, the one that is in the DVD version of the film. But even this was apparently deemed unsatisfactory and a third ending was proposed but never actually shot. However, this ending was knocked up from some judicious use of footage from the film and some added sounds. The result was the ending that was used in the theatrical release of the film. So here you get to see all three endings and can compare the three. The big loser is the duel scene, which even today remains an appalling effort. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, they are not 16x9 enhanced and come with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The technical quality is decent enough.

Storyboards

    Talk about a waste of time. This looks at the scene of the Mendozas spying at Variel, and alternates between stills from the film and the storyboards done by Hitch. Unimaginative in its presentation, it adds very little if anything to the understanding of the film, since Hitch was famed for storyboarding a film to death prior to the actual shoot. There are no real surprises here in general, and frankly it is not worth watching. It suffers from some noticeable cross colouration problems.

Gallery - Photos

    Comprised of 37 publicity shots and some poster stills, this is a less than spectacular collection of photos - and one that suffers somewhat from cross colouration issues.

Theatrical Trailer (3:04)

    Topaz did not even warrant one of those droll Alfred Hitchcock efforts, and this is a more conventional style trailer than usual for a Hitch film. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, it is not 16x9 enhanced and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The technical quality is nothing much to jump up and down about and there are plenty of film artefacts to put up with too.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 release misses out on:

    The Region 1 release misses out on:

    You can pretty well guess that Region 1 is the preferred version of the DVD.

Summary

    Topaz is an avoidable late film from Alfred Hitchcock in just about everyway. Were it from any other director, it would probably be panned as B-grade mediocrity, but since Hitch could never descend to that level, it gets called a good film. Good is just a euphemism for an embarrassing Alfred Hitchcock film. There is nothing in any area here that would entice me to recommend the DVD to any but strong devotees of the maestro.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Tuesday, October 09, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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