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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Topaz
Topaz
Universal // PG // March 6, 2001
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted March 10, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
The most important part of any film is the end; That's where the filmmaker gets to reveal why they set out to tell that particular story in the first place. The very best endings, like those in Casablanca or The Godfather comment so sharply on the characters and their lives that they give the viewer a strong sense of closure. An ending like Night of the Living Dead can recontextualize everything that came before and suggest that the film was actually far deeper than it originally seemed. Even an ending like American Psycho that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers can be an unsettling, and yet still satisfying, experience.

The flip-side, of course, is the bad ending. A bad ending can easily kill a good movie, proving that it indeed was about LESS than it appeared. The ending of Boogie Nights, for example, was a direct rip off of Raging Bull, revealing that it was nothing more than a shallow exercise in image thievery.

Alfred Hitchcock always played fast and loose with the rules of ending his films (Just see North By Northwest for a strange and brave finale). By the time he reached the Sixties (his fifth decade of filmmaking), however, he was no longer quite on top of his game, and the ending of Topaz (1969), based on Leon Uris' best-seller, shows a filmmaker running out of ideas. Although the film itself, a complex and subtle journey through the international politics of the Cold War, is quite rewarding, the ending is so weak and lacking in any sort of excitement that it derails the film.

That is a real shame given the dense web Hitchcock weaves up until that point: Spies and traitors make up the cast in a story that travels to Russia, Copenhagen, Washington, New York, Cuba, and Paris. A mission to photograph some secret Cuban-Russian documents in a Harlem hotel finds Hitchcock staging some of his most audacious scenes. He uses silence on a crowded street, forcing the viewer to figure out what is going on based on visuals alone (shades of Rear Window, but still thrillingly original). Another memorable scene comes in Cuba when Castro's right hand man discovers the leader of the underground movement, who also happens to be his lover. Hitchcock cuts to a gorgeous overhead shot at just the right moment and creates one of the most memorable images of his career.

And yet it all leads up to that damn ending. A film that covers a lot of interesting territory ends up being about absolutely nothing. You get the sense that the ending is severely compromised (and a look at the supplements proves that). Topaz is certainly worth a look, especially for Hitchcock fans, and it contains some absolutely classic moments, but the bewildering ending, which David Letterman might describe as "a long, long walk to find out the store's closed," marks this film as a lesser effort from a master director.

VIDEO:
The video is good, on par with other recent Universal Hitchcock releases, although not as pristine as the renovated Rear Window. It is anamorphic (although the package says that it isn't), and the picture is sharp and the colors as clear. Hitchcock's color designs are always sophisticated and this print reproduces them well.

AUDIO:
The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and serves the film well. Again, Hitchcock's sound design is subtle but complex and the transfer does it justice. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and French. For some reason on my disc the subtitles were set to automatically start in Spanish, so each time I popped in the disc I had to switch them off.

EXTRAS:
Once again a generous set of extras are included. Another fine half-hour piece by Laurent Bouzereau features critic Leonard Maltin discussing the highs and lows of Hitchcock's career and of Topaz. He speaks frankly of the problems with the film and narrates two alternate endings for the film, one that was originally used and scrapped due to negative comments at a test screening, and one that was ultimately used for the theatrical release, a sort of Ed Wood-ian editing chop job. All three endings are also featured on their own. I guess the version that appears on the film presented on the DVD is a middle version. The original ending (the one rejected by testers) is by far the best and most exciting, although it is completely implausible. This seems to have been a movie that couldn't find an appropriate ending.

A trailer is included, as are still screens containing bios, production notes, storyboards, and production photos.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
A flawed film, Topaz still deserves a look from Hitchcock fans and fans of political intrigue. The characters are complex and many of the scenes have a sense of being about far more than the facts of the plot. If not for the ending this might have been considered a true classic.

Other Hitchcock reviews:
Jamaica Inn / Rich and Strange
The Trouble with Harry
Family Plot
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 2
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 3
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Vol. 4

Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.

E-mail Gil at buskerdog@yahoo.com
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