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Spies Like Thus

Three espionage-related titles from The Hitchcock Project: Foreign Correspondent, Torn Curtain, and Topaz.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) stars Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, and George Sanders (better known as Shere Khan). McCrea plays an American journalist dispatched to Britain to cover the final days before World War II inevitably starts in Europe, including a nonprofit peace activist group and the visit of a Dutch diplomat. The diplomat is apparently assassinated, but McCrea knows that the victim was in fact a doppleganger — the real diplomat is being held hostage while his captors try to extract secret terms of an international treaty from him.

The bulk of the movie is MacGuffin fare; the protagonist and his two British companions searching for one kidnapped person or another. What does stand out is the degree of humor — from the more seasoned fellow journalist who spends his time not drinking in bars, to McCrea’s complete inability to retain his hat, to the world’s worst bodyguard, to Sanders’ character’s lack of capital letters in his name. The ending was apparently quite dramatic at the time, involving an over-water plane crash. Plugged in after that is an open plea on the radio from McCrea’s character for America to join in the war effort — it feels very tacked-on, but I’m sure in 1940 it was quite a serious matter.

Day’s character is the stock part for the time period: dutiful daughter of the important man. Sanders is an atypically-helpful Bristish man (atypical considering that McCrea is American). There are some bold choices dramatically, like letting the audience know who the real bad guy is well before the end. There are also some questionable ones, like a car that allegedly disappears “into thin air” during a chase sequence, but could have been found in 30 seconds if anyone had bothered to actually look for it. Plus, like Torn Curtain below, for some reason people in some movies can’t spot close acquaintances and family members sitting ten feet away from them on airplanes. And it wasn’t the smoke.

On the whole, though, especially for the well-integrated humor, well worth watching.

Torn Curtain (1966) with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews is considerably less worth watching. Not that it didn’t have potential. The plot is interesting enough; Newman plays a US scientist who defects to East Germany to work on anti-missile defense systems for the Communists after the US government cancels his own research into the same technology. Except that that’s not actually what he’s doing; in reality he’s faked the defection to see if the German program hides the solution to his own roadblock. What makes the plot interesting is that Newman’s character has enlisted zero help from the CIA or anyone else for this venture; he’s just thought it up himself and gone for it, counting on East German sympathizers to help him back out once he’s learned what he wants to know.

Where Torn Curtain falters is in execution — the script (especially in the first half) has no flow and provides no insight into the characters — it’s more like a procedural; the soundtrack is light and peppy, which is totally at odds with the alleged suspense of the plot; and I hate to say it but the effects don’t work. Matte paintings, rear-projection screens, and sets that look as much like outdoor Berlin as the inside of a Taco Bell. The problems (according to DVD documentary sources) plagued the entire production, with numerous rewrites and disagreements … at one point, there was even serious talk of Julie Andrews having a musical number.

On the plus side, though, the last act picks up the pace considerably; Newman and Andrews manage to have a pretty good escape sequence, including the only time in film history when a bus ride provides any dramatic tension (yes, yes — I have seen Speed, and yes, that is a commentary on what I thought of Speed). An interesting DVD feature is the ability to watch most of the movie with the original Bernard Hermann score instead of the replacement ordered by Hitchcock after he and Hermann had a falling out. Hermann’s is the better; it hits moments on screen that make you wonder early on about the allegiances of the characters, and actually feels like a drama the entire way through. I don’t know what Hitchcock was thinking asking for it to be pepped up.

Topaz (1969) concerns US and French secret agents trying to uncover a ring of high-level double agents that has been feeding secrets to Cuba. In my opinion, it’s excellent; it got unfairly slammed at the box office when it came out, but if you look at why, it’s hard to sympathize. It has no big name stars, no hidden identities, and no chase sequences. It has dialogue. Entire scenes where the only way you can follow what is going on is by listening. Hard to believe, but that is enough to turn off most movie audiences (now and in 1969).

But it’s filled with interesting devices, such as a nearly silent scene where the daughter of a defector escapes a tail while browsing in a porcelain museum, two sequences where the French agent enlists local help to talk his way past Cuban security, and you have to observe the action without the benefit of hearing the dialog because it is behind glass, and one of the few times in movie history where a cartoonist saves the day (the only other one I can think of is Zodiac).

So yeah, Topaz isn’t a “suspense” film like Notorious or Dial M For Murder. Hitch deserves some credit for trying something different, and more for actually pulling it off. The production this most reminded me of is John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, because it is also about uncovering a double agent, but at a deeper level, too. Both films emphasize what espionage is really like — lying about who you are and what you do, tricking people into giving up information they want to keep secret, and never knowing which of the people around you you can trust. It doesn’t look like fun, does it? Jumping out of planes, racing speeding cars along the Riviera, scaling down the walls of hotels — that looks like fun … which is probably why the James Bond movies made a lot of money. And why they’re all individually forgettable.

Topaz isn’t as good as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, but the latter is a seven-part miniseries, and it digs in deep to some real issues about giving up a little information to gain a little more information — and how the intelligence business is ultimately an untrustworthy house of cards because both sides are always willing to do just that. Topaz settles for less far-reaching fare, but it delivers a solid dose of intrigue and open questions in its own right. I’d recommend both, but within the Hitchcock canon, Topaz is definitely in the yes pile.

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