Movies

I Never Knew You Could Do That with a Chicken

Note: This is my entry in Maddy’s “Second Annual Hitchcock Blogathon”, wherein I discuss Hitchcock’s 1969 film, “Topaz”, based on the Leon Uris thriller. Even if you aren’t especially fond of movie reviews, this is Bonnywood and you can trust that things go off the rails a bit.

 

We start out with some old black-and-white footage of a military parade in Moscow’s Red Square. We know that Hitchcock didn’t shoot this segment, mainly because he couldn’t afford to pay the roughly 4 million men stomping around the square and paying homage to Lenin or Stalin or whoever was the maniacal Soviet dictator at the time. Hitch clearly knicked the footage from somebody else. But he gives the scenes his own spin by having someone colorize certain bits, using a startling red hue just so we can fully understand we are viewing Evil Communistic Activities.

Then we jump over to Copenhagen because, well, why not?

There we watch a small family (cranky-looking dad, badly-permed mom, presumably-bitter adult daughter who is still living with them) as they furtively leave what looks like a fortified residence/gulag/possible Russian Embassy. There are some very long scenes at this point, meant to build tension as we wonder what they hell they are doing, but the bottom line is that they are trying to seek asylum in America. They do this in a head-scratching manner by touring a ceramics factory, breaking some crockery, running at appropriate moments, and making a frantic phone call to someone in Washington (John Forsythe playing “Mike Nordstrom”) so he can arrange for a diplomatic Uber, pronto. He does.

The plan almost goes awry at the last minute when the daughter, apparently feeling she’s not getting enough screen time, loses her mind when the family is running across a busy street and she slams into a motorcycle going roughly three miles an hour and easily avoidable. She then falls to the pavement and writhes about in a lurid example of what can happen when you hire actors who can’t act. The Uber team manages to hurl her melodramatic ass into the escape vehicle just in time, before ugly people with guns start shooting.

Once in Washington, the family is ensconced in a huge mansion, which is apparently what the American government does with deputy chiefs in the KGB who decide to run for the border. Daddy is a pompous twit and we hate him immediately, but he has the down-low on Moscow so all the official minions running about try to keep him happy. (This includes a car-tour of Washington wherein the daughter has a small orgasm when they drive by The White House. That girl really has some issues.)

We then meet Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), a French diplomat. He has a wife, Nicole, played by an actress even worse than the actress who went ass-up Copenhagen. She’s extremely high-strung for no apparent reason and has one of those flip hairdos that were all the rage for three seconds in the 60s and were then banned forever. She whines (and wines) incessantly and makes weak jokes about Yankee Pot Roast. I will not be sending her a Christmas card.

American agent Mike meets with Paris agent Andre. The asshat KGB guy has spilled the beans on a possible Russian/Cuban plot that needs verification. The Russians and the Cubans hate Americanos, so would Andre mind running with the ball on this one? During their conversation, this eye-opening exchange takes place…

Andre: “You and I have done things for each other that no other agents would do.”

Mike: “And I’d like to keep it that way.”

I smell a rainbow flag. You?

Andre agrees to help, partly because we wouldn’t have a movie if he didn’t and partly to get away from his flip-haired wife in the other room. (Quick scene with cognac-swilling Nicole eyeing her trusty carbine prominently-displayed on a wall and muttering “I used it in the Resistance.” That’s a thread I’m not pulling.)  The first item on Andre’s subversive itinerary is to get his hands on documents currently in the hands of a Cuban named Rico Para. Sadly, this Rico never learned about sharing as a child, so this might prove difficult. On the flip side, Rico’s assistant, Luis Uribe, will happily sell his soul for some pocket money. Both of them can be found at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Go forth and conquer.

Andre opts for a less-direct route, instead enlisting the help of one Phillipe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown), a florist (yes, florist) near the hotel who apparently dabbles in espionage when tulips are out of season. Phillipe enters the hotel and, whilst Andre watches impotently from across the street, he manipulates the situation to gain access to the upper floor where Rico (and Luis) can be found. This extended sequence is done from Andre’s viewpoint and therefore we cannot get any of the interior dialogue. (The artsy part of me would like to think Hitchcock is making a tribute to the film “Rififi”, with its infamous 28 minutes of silence during a heist, but I may be wrong.) In any case, this is my favorite part of the movie, with purely visual storytelling.

Phillipe manages to get upstairs, where he meets with Luis and convinces him to steal Rico’s briefcase while Phillip distracts Rico, in yet another extended scene wherein both Phillipe and Luis surreptitiously gaze longingly at said briefcase with sexual intensity. The plan works, and the two scurry back to Luis’ room, where they have a conversation in which Phillipe utters yet another mystical bit of dialogue: “I’m not going to fail in your bathroom.”

Two seconds later, Rico discovers the ruse. He and a flame-haired assistant known as Hernandez approach Luis’ room. In a typical Hitchcock shot, we zoom in on something that Hitch really wants us to focus on, which is Rico’s hand on the doorknob. He jiggles it for far longer than is necessary, then he turns to Hernandez and says…

And this is where I have to stop babbling about the plot. There is much more to the story, as at this point we are just shy of the one-hour mark, and this is a two-hour plus movie. The plot gets very twisty, and I don’t want to ruin it for those who might be contemplating a viewing.

But I will share these non-spoiler highlights for the remainder of the film:

Somebody jumps out of a window but manages to survive due to a helpful awning and a disregard for the laws of both gravity and velocity.

Somebody utters the phrase “Let the Americans do their dirty work”.

Two people make love in the glow of a radium clock whilst a nearby Geiger counter is sending a staticky signal that maybe they should find another place to bump uglies.

Critical electronics are hidden in giant sandwiches.

A telephoto lens gets shoved up the carcass of the biggest chicken I have ever seen. (I may not be able to sleep tonight.)

Someone utters the phrase: “The small thin ones that slide out”. (Ditto.)

There is an artfully-staged death involving billowing couture.

John Forsythe is forced to deal with an unexpected tray of ice cubes.

 

All in all, this is a moderate Hitchcock film. The story is intriguing, to an extent, and there are some interesting ideas from a film-making perspective. But the movie suffers from Hitch re-using some of his trademark techniques that had grown stale by this point, and the best sequences feel like safety-net borrows from directors who did it better.

Cheers.

 

24 replies »

  1. i loved this review so much, and really sums up this film that i ran across by accident on late night cable. there were so many bizarre elements involved in this film, from the dialogue to the actors, to the settings, that i saw it as a sort of hitchcock comedy. not his intention for sure, but i enjoyed it from that perspective. you are spot on with so many things that happened and didn’t, in this film!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love it! Your description of the daughter of the defecting man is so spot on, that I have to inform you that I nearly choked laughing(you have to stop making me do that! ;-)).

    That death scene with the billowing dress is unforgettable and is one of the most iconic Hitchcock images in my opinion. I agree that this film has both good and weak points, but I quite enjoy it and consider it to be very underrated.

    I also like that Hitch went the down the road of not casting big stars in this. I think that allows us relate to the actors in this more as the characters, instead of seeing them as a big stars who we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

    Thanks so much for joining.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! I also first watched this many decades ago, and I couldn’t remember if I liked it or not. After viewing it again for Maddy’s Blogathon, I realized that it’s not exactly top-notch Hitchcock and I apparently sublimated the memory.

      As for the airplane, there’s a quick airborne scene where KGB Daddy is asked by an American agent what he thought of the extraction process. Daddy snottily replies: “The operation was clumsy.” Sadly, that phrase can be applied to certain parts of this movie…

      Like

  3. Andre: Why do you have a hat on your ass?
    Mike: Because there’s a hole in it.
    Andre: Your hat has a hole so you wear it on your ass?
    Mike: No! The hat is covering the hole! Shit!
    Andre: You’re covering the hole in your shitty underwear with your hat??? (Aside: I don’t get Americans at all.) 😉

    After all, spy thrillers (and orange politicians) are no good without asses being covered by hats.

    Terrific post. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is one of the very rare Hitchcock’s films I didn’t like! Too long and yeah, I think you pretty much said everything about that subject (Topaz not being a very good film). However, I thought the casting was quite interesting due to its variety and the scene where Karin Dor dies is quite impressive visually.

    The only thing I truly love about that film is Maurice Jarre’s score.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I really did try to love this one, especially since there are certain sequences that are quite amazing, but I just couldn’t get there. I do agree with you on the casting, aside from the two actresses that really annoyed me. As Maddy points out with her comments above, using “lesser-known” actors allowed us to focus on the story and not on the star quality.

      As for Maurice Jarre, well, he does amazing things, especially in his work with David Lean…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I cannot believe I’ve not seen this one but, judging by the comments, it sounds as though your analysis is far more enjoyable than the actual movie! If the movie turns out to be half as lively as your review, it will be time well spent.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The movie is still worth a viewing, as there are many trademark Hitch motifs where one can appreciate his style, and there are a handful of esteemed movie reviewers (then and now) who are quite fond of this one, so maybe I missed a few things. Then again, even the best of directors stumbles a bit here and there…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Um. Never seen the film, now never will. Thanks for the synopsis. On a side note which has nothing whatever to do with the review, where you been? I’ve missed my daily doses of Past Imperfects, random lists of stuff and such. Miss you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, I’ve been to Spain, for one. Things have been a little crazy for the last month, but I did notice that we weren’t crossing paths for some reason. I miss you, too, and I really need to catch up on what you’ve been doing lately…

      Like

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