Friday, January 20, 2017

Fridays With Hitchcock: TOPAZ (1969)

“Topaz” (1969)

Screenplay: Samuel Taylor based on the novel by Leon Uris Starring: Frederick Stafford, John Vernon, John Forsythe Roscoe Lee Brown.

This film was based on a big best selling beach read by Leon Uris - one of those ripped from the headlines things about the secret shenanigans behind the Cuban missile crisis, filled with as much intrigue between the sheets as behind the doors of the embassies... and a cast of thousands. And the major problem with TOPAZ is probably with the source material's scope. Novels are an entirely different medium than screenplays and the movies that come from them. There are many things that you can do in a novel that just don't work in a movie. As I noted in the last chapter, a movie is viewed all in one gulp and we expect the story to flow and the pieces to connect to each other. Usually the audience does what I call the “skin jump” where they imagine themselves as the lead character and live the story on screen vicariously. They imagine they are James Bond or Indiana Jones or Neo from THE MATRIX or the character looking for love in a romantic comedy.




A book is a completely different animal – though there *are* books that you might read in one gulp, for the most part books are read chapter-by-chapter and we put a book marker in and set it aside. We may take days or weeks or even months to read a single book. So the focus is often on the *chapters* rather than the overall story. Even if a chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, it also usually works as a self-contained unit, giving us someplace to put a book mark and set the book aside. Due to the way the story is delivered to us – chapter by chapter – a book can be episodic and doesn't need to be from the protagonist's point of view. Because we can “get into a character's head” it is easier for us to identify with everyone, even the antagonist. We can bounce from character to character without ever being pulled out of the story. So the problem with adapting some novels is that they work so much differently than a movie works that our best set is probably just to toss the book and just run with the concept... or just leave it as a book. Some things are more at home in the medium they were created in.



The big problem with TOPAZ is that there is no lead character - it bounces back and forth between characters - so most of the scenes “star” minor characters that we haven't really gotten to know. The tone also works against it – a “ripped from the headlines” story often plays like a “just the facts” documentary, which means low key drama and less focus on emotions and drama. Combine that tone with no lead character to identify with and we end up with a story that was probably exciting in book form but ends up dull on screen. The screenplay is by Sam Taylor who wrote VERTIGO, but his skill set may not have been able to tame this all- over-the-place novel. The film just isn't very good, but does contain an amazing experiment which makes it well ahead of its time. Twenty five years before PULP FICTION, this film does a very similar story experiment.

Experiment: A big one! The film actually has four plots - and each is like its own little story. Like PULP FICTION, different lead characters in each story with some overlapping characters who show up in more than one story, and one character who connects all four. It's a great experiment that probably comes directly from the novel's structure – but like most experiments, it ultimately fails. But let's look at it anyway, since PULP FICTION shows that it *can* work. Here are the four stories...

In Denmark: A top ranking Russian and his family defect to the USA.
In the USA: While the Cuban delegation is in town, secret documents are photographed that hint at Russian missiles sent to Cuba.
In CUBA: Spies find the Russian missiles.
In FRANCE: A high level spy ring in the French government is exposed.

Wow, that seems almost linear and not nearly as complicated as the movie is. But when Frederick Stafford (who?) walks into frame, we have no idea who the hell he is and he has to “earn” our identification... and in TOPAZ the characters are each on screen for only a brief time before we are on to the next character. Not enough time to get to know them, let alone like them or care about them or hope they resolve whatever problems we really don't have enough time to learn about. So that Hitchcock aversion to paying star salaries backfires in this film.



Nutshell: In the USA segment, an American CIA agent (John Forsythe) wants to bribe the secretary (Donald Randolph) to Castro's right hand man (John Vernon) to steal his papers.... but doesn't want it traced back to the USA, so he goes to his pal in the French espionage pal (Frederick Stafford) who is having problems with his wife (Dany Robin) to get his son-in-law (Claude Jade) to provide a sketch of the secretary so that his agent (the late great Roscoe Lee Brown) whose cover is a florist, can pretend to be a reporter for Ebony Magazine in order to get past security and bribe the secretary so that he can photograph the papers. Oh, and Castro's right hand man has a head of security and the florist has an assistant and the son-in-law is obviously married to the French espionage pal's daughter and... well, there are no shortage of characters in this one segment alone! And the character who does the actual spying stuff is Roscoe Lee Brown - a peripheral character who we will never see again.

That's the big problem with the story - in the Cuba section it's not any of our main *Cuba story* characters who sneak onto the military base to photograph the missiles, it's some characters we've never seen before who are only in this once sequence... so when they are in trouble, we don't care. They are disposable characters... and *all* of the characters in this film are disposable - they do their little bit of the story and then we never see them again.



It's like a movie about the extras instead of stars.... and there are no movie stars in the film. Zilch. Hitchcock had paid *half* the budget of his previous film TORN CURTAIN on Newman and Julie Andrews' salaries and that film bombed... so he ditched stars completely for this film, and it suffers because of it. The closest we have to a lead character is the French espionage guy played by Stafford - but he never goes on any dangerous missions himself - he hires someone else. Which means he ends up with soap opera plots - his marriage is in trouble, he's having an affair with an agent, his wife is having an affair with a guy who ends up being a Russian spy, his daughter and son in law have issues... All kinds of silly things that make for a great beach read, but don't work very well on the big screen.

Hitch Appearance: A nurse pushes him through the airport in a wheelchair... then he stands up and walks away.

Music: Maurice Jarre does an okay score that sounds a lot like his JUDGE ROY BEAN score - so maybe he recycled it.

Bird Sightings: Hey, a seagull ruins their whole mission in Cuba!

Hitchcock Stock Company: John Forsythe was an odd choice for romantic lead in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY.

The whole film is kind of ho-hum and shows the problem with doing experiments in a script and film - most experiments fail. That’s why we call them experiments. Even though some of the experiments in Hitchcock’s films don’t entirely succeed, they usually have a handful of great scenes to make up for it, or the experiment itself is interesting to watch (like in ROPE). Here we discover the importance of having a protagonist who is involved in the entire story - *the* pivotal character in each segment. We learn this because this experiment fails in this case - four stories with four different protagonists squeezed into a 143 minute film doesn’t give us much time to care about any of these people or get to know them... so they remain chess pieces moved around the board to tell the story. The more you split the focus among different protagonists, the more you split our emotions so that we don’t have time to care. We take a closer look at this film and it’s episodic structure (and how it paved the way for PULP FICTION) in HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR.

- Bill






Of course, I have my own books focusing on Hitchcock...

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!

Films Included: NOTORIOUS, SABOTAGE, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, THE 39 STEPS, REBECCA, TO CATCH A THIEF, FRENZY, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE LODGER, THE BIRDS, TORN CURTAIN, SABOTEUR, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1955), SUSPICION, and NUMBER SEVENTEEN. 17 Great Films!

Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

OTHER COUNTRIES:


UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

And....

HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR






USA Readers click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 52 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.

Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

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