Hitchcock Reviews: “Torn Curtain” (1966)
Posted by therebelprince on August 29, 2012
This week, in my complete Hitchcock reviews, we arrive at the Cold War, and Torn Curtain.
“Big deal. You still have that expression, ‘big deal’?”
— Walter Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), Torn Curtain.
Torn Curtain (1966)
written by Brian Moore, Willis Hall, Keith Waterhouse
As the Cold War intensifies, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) grows suspicious of her fiancee and scientific partner (Paul Newman), and shadows him on a trip to East Germany, where she discovers he may have defected.
When I started this project, I expected to have many more negative things to say over the course of examining a man’s entire film career. As it turns out, I’ve found few stinkers (Number Seventeen, Jamaica Inn), and a surprisingly small number of failures (Spellbound, Mr & Mrs Smith). That’s not to say that everything else was a masterpiece on the scale of Rear Window, but even an average Hitchcock flick is elevated by the consummate craft involved, and by the clear ambition at play in almost all of his works. Hitch faced patchy scripts (The Paradine Case), unimpressed studios (Psycho), rigid performances (Topaz), and many other challenges. Each time, the director aimed for suspense, psychology, lingering themes, and audience connection, whether or not he was able to achieve them. Perhaps this is why an average Hitchcock is still worth ten of your factory-made studio films.
Sometimes, though, the obstacles are too much. Sometimes, you just can’t win, and such is the case with 1966’s Torn Curtain, Hitch’s least successful outing of the 1960s. Admittedly, up against the preceding five gobsmacking works, Torn Curtain faced an uphill battle, but things just fall apart in all sorts of ways.
Torn Curtain came at a crucial time for Hitch. His TV series had finally come to an end after ten years, and he had sold his film rights to Universal, becoming the highest paid director in Hollywood, but giving up a certain level of freedom at the same time. For his 50th film, Alfred Hitchcock found himself in a brave new world. Without his long-time collaborators Robert Burks and George Tomasini, he had a new cinematographer and editor (John F. Warren and Bud Hoffman, respectively), as well as adjusting to a new screenwriter. Despite his desire for Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, the studio wanted more modern stars, and handed the director Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Finally, a fall-out with composer Bernard Herrmann (which we’ll discuss below) saw John Addison join the team in his place. Aside from his longtime costumer Edith Head, Hitchcock was flying blind and – perhaps worse – he was filming in a studio for the most part, rather than on location. After more than forty years in the industry, the legendary director was still having to make compromises all over the place.
(While I’m not usually a fan of review-by-summary, I think it’ll be necessary for this film and Topaz, to really examine the whys and wherefores.)
We open with our leads tumbling in bed together on a slow boat to Europe. And it’s fair to say that our first problem begins with the leads. Andrews is a true talent, but – God bless her – she was never particularly earthy. In itself, this might not be a problem, but Newman is the stereotypical Method actor (never a great match with Hitchcock’s laidback beliefs about acting). Monty Clift had managed to overcome this difference with the complexities of the script of I Confess. Here, with Andrews so sweet and innocent, it’s an unfortunate choice that Newman opts to play Michael as an enigma. Any hopes for chemistry are shredded from the very first scene.
For the first half-hour, Torn Curtain is rather uneventful. Sarah becomes increasingly suspicious of Michael, eventually following him to East Berlin, where it appears he has defected. Andrews does her best with this material, and there is a certain vague power to Sarah’s growing realisation of what has happened. Yet, whether it’s the script or Hitchcock pulling back from the actress, Torn Curtain shifts from her point-of-view to Michael’s, making Sarah’s part of the story seem a waste. After becoming known for her sweetness-and-light portrayals in roles like Eliza Dolittle, Maria Von Trapp, and – in its own way – Mary Poppins, Andrews was self-consciously tackling mature roles in hopes of reverting her image. Unfortunately, despite her talents, she never quite finds a way to connect with her co-star. While I don’t think it’s a terrible movie, Torn Curtain is arguably the director’s least feature since Under Capricorn two decades earlier, and it’s for many of the same ill-judged reasons. Take, for example, the hotel room scene in which Michael tries to convince Sarah to leave East Germany. It’s staged quite well, but the two acting styles are conflicting rather than complementing. Andrews is subtle and haunted, which would be a good choice if she were working with a more charismatic Hitchcock lead, like Sean Connery. Yet Newman is underplaying the role to the point when he’s not even looking at her. Rather than creating an intelligent scientist struggling to keep up a facade, Michael becomes an everyman cipher, at odds with the script. I’d argue that Newman was just too much of an internal performer for a director like Hitchcock, and it does the film so much damage. He may want to create the character from the ground-up, but he’s not contributing to making an interesting movie, which was this director’s raison d’etre.
It becomes clear quite early on that Michael is feigning his defection. The main crisis is going to be whether Sarah blows his cover, and how the pair can escape from East Germany. The use of non-“name” actors – mostly native Europeans – in the supporting roles adds a nice level of tension to the film, since it becomes far harder for us to associate them with “good” or “bad” then if we see, for example, James Stewart. Is Professor Manfred (Gunter Strack) just a kindly academic, or is he shadowing Sarah for more malicious reasons? Is the glamorous ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) on the plane simply a fellow passenger, or a Communist informant? While I think the cinematography is lacking – everything’s just a little too studio bound in earthy tones, disappointing after the point-blank designs of Psycho and The Birds – Hitchcock continues to have fun with the camera. As Anderson leaves his hotel room for a rendezvous, we hold on an overhead shot of European cleaning ladies polishing the floor. It’s exquisite, and leads into the first real sequence of the film, wherein Anderson is stalked through an empty museum by his handler, Hermann Gromek (the deliciously evil Wolfgang Kieling).
Like its immediate successor, Topaz, Torn Curtain takes on the feel of a road trip movie with several interconnected vignettes. Unlike Topaz, however, here it doesn’t seem deliberate. From that tense chase sequence, we cut to a cheerful discussion between Anderson and his contact on board a tractor. It’s full of exposition, explaining away the entire first hour of the film (something that will happen again later in Anderson’s scene with Gisela Fischer‘s Dr. Koska) without even a nod toward urgency. It’s unlikely enough that a recently defected American scientist could travel around East Germany so freely, let alone that he’ll take all this subterfuge in his stride. Worse, Addison’s score reaches its nadir here. Bernard Herrmann was commissioned – unsurprisingly – to write the score, but he soon fell out with the director. Hitchcock (and the studio) wanted something infused with pop music (including, if you can believe it, a pop song for Andrews to burst into at one point!), and Herrmann instead created another classic Herrmann piece. There are rumours that Hitchcock felt his long-time composer was becoming repetitive, but I’d dispute this, given the stunning variety exhibited over the course of their collaborations. Either way, a permanent feud developed between the two men. Sadly, while Addison’s score is undeniably more ‘modern’, it’s also far more dated than anything Herrmann ever wrote. In the opening sequences, it’s inappropriately cheerful (complete with a wacky trombone playing the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme to accentuate the director’s cameo!), then suddenly in the tractor sequence it becomes a taut piece for strings, as if they realised in the editing suite how boring and declamatory the dialogue was.
From here, we segue into the film’s most talked-about sequence, in which Anderson and the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell) – without speaking the same language as each other – are forced into a murderous attack upon Gromek, who has caught on to the truth about the American. For the most part, the scene is a Hitchcock highlight. In contrast to the slick James Bond films, Hitchcock wanted to show how difficult it could be to kill a man. Gromek goes out in an all-out brawl, lacking a musical score and punctuated only by shallow breathing, the dint of a shovel, and so on. It’s a great scene, but not quite the bravura creation of old. There’s something in the editing that is just a little too scattered to make it a classic moment, but it undeniably livens the film considerably.
The second half of Torn Curtain is far more successful, primarily because Sarah learns the truth about her lover. In a starkly directed sequence, Sarah is interrogated by a bunch of turncloaks including Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath), the contact Michael has been edging toward the whole film. As she seats up against a blackboard, the men gather in the classroom’s steeply-graded seating, staring down at her from all angles. For the first time in the film, Europe is made to seem alien, and we realise that Sarah is out of her depth. (The less said the better about the soft-focus sequence in which Michael confesses the truth to Sarah. It looks like a dream sequence, or something out of The Wizard of Oz, completely destroying the good faith our director has built up. Or maybe the inside of Julie Andrews’ mind really is a Disney movie?)
Still, with Sarah aware that Michael is faking his defection, Torn Curtain becomes a piece about survival and escape. Like the final third of Marnie, in which Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren work together rather than at odds with one another, the actors seem to uncover a new level. When she’s sly rather than concerned, Andrews is allowed back into the script (and Hitchcock’s good graces). When he’s sharing his secret with his lover, Newman manages to convey something more than opacity. There’s a dinner sequence in East Berlin that works because of this sense of shared secrecy, making this less a mystery, and more of a Cold war caper.
While the film’s set pieces are often remarked upon, it’s the moments striving for authenticity that are Torn Curtain‘s greatest. The awkward, wordless way that Anderson and the farmer’s wife conspire after Gromek’s death, for instance. The director latches on to something human, something base in which these two are bonded in the darkness of murder, which is conveyed with no music and few words. Even better is the sequence in which Sarah and Anderson sneak aboard a bus out of the city. The others aboard are less than happy that they are being put in danger by the presence of two foreigners, and Hitchcock creates a believeable situation of strangers united under pressure. Every member of the crowd is characterised, turning against our heroes for legitimate reasons, but ultimately developing a complicated bond with them. The sequence stacks up the obstacles as the bus is attacked by deserters, “saved” by a police escort (which of course makes things more dangerous), and is then stymied by the need to stop and pick up new passengers, to avert the suspicions of the law. It’s nailbiting and masterfully directed, bringing out the best in all the actors involved (even Addison’s score seems to sense the seriousness of the situation, for once).
Sadly, the sequence ends abruptly, cutting to later in the day as our heroes seek out their next contact. I don’t know if Hitchcock didn’t shoot enough material to cover scene transitions, but a big issue with the film is that all the major sequences finish as quickly as they began. There’s no room to breathe, which lessens the vignette feel that will work much better in Topaz but doesn’t allow it the unity of Marnie. (The cinematography, too, comes and goes. The exteriors – filmed on location in Germany – have a muted but realistic quality to them; the studiobound sequences, by contrast, are the least interesting Hitchcock frames in years.)
After an utterly delightful encounter with an exiled countess (the pitch-perfect Lila Kedrova), Sarah and Michael prepare for their escape during a ballet performance. Unfortunately, they are spotted by the ballerina from their earlier flight into the country, who gives the game away and sets in motion a final chase sequence across the border. As well-characterised as Toumanova’s ballerina character is, it’s somewhat cartoonish that she would recognise people from a flight weeks earlier, particularly during a performance. And moreso that she would rush offstage instantly, as if she psychically intuited that they were in the midst of an escape. The fact that she then happens to be on the ship that gets them over the border later on is even more ludicrous. Perhaps more unfortunately, the sequence is deflated by an (admittedly accidental) meta-textual connection. Julie Andrews’ character waits anxiously in an old theatre, as soldiers slowly swarm in all the doorways? No-one in history will be able to watch this sequence without instantly thinking of The Sound of Music.
Still, things end decently, with the pair on the voyage home, back under a blanket. It’s cyclical, at least, and a little quirky, but – aside from the few notable sequences – the final scene is far more reminiscent of James Bond than it is of the gritty anti-Bond that Hitchcock reportedly wanted to make.
So, why doesn’t Torn Curtain work as a whole? The wonderful blog Screen Savour argues that there are numerous reasons for the decline of Hitchcock. While I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that Hitch’s last films are all flawed (we’ll get to that in coming weeks), their points are certainly valid in regard to Torn Curtain. The already punctilious director took more and more interest in minor details at the expense of the big picture. He was proving unable to integrate with the younger generation of cast, crew, writers, and even audiences. Perhaps, despite his love of modern filmmaking and the New Wave, he was simply of another generation, and his ideas on narrative and style weren’t going to be as cutting-edge as his younger colleagues. (The climax – reminiscent also of the Albert Hall sequence from The Man Who Knew Too Much – is beautifully shot, but feels more majestic than urgent.)
There’s another element, from my perspective. Hitchcock was a constantly maturing storyteller, yet he was still telling the same kinds of stories as in his younger days. Look at the mature works of a great storyteller in any field – Sondheim, Shakespeare, Wagner, even Larry David! – and you’ll recognise a great difference in the intention and nuance of what they were making over time. Even for those whose broad brushstrokes look the same in early and later works, there’s a sense of gradual philosophical and structural development. A sense that if they were to rewrite an early work later in their career, it would be endlessly layered in a way us mere mortals will take years to unravel. I’m not about to dismiss the spy film, and Hitchcock made some of the best. But at this point in his life, it’s clear that his strengths lay in singular character investigation: Scottie Ferguson. Norman Bates. Melanie Daniels. Marnie Edgar. With his depth, wisdom, and older style, Hitchcock simply was never going to make another 39 Steps.
It’s noticeable that this is the third film in a row with no real “MacGuffin”. During his middle era, the MacGuffin was Hitchcock’s favourite technique: the stolen money that leads everyone to the Bates motel, but plays no real role in the plot, for instance. After Psycho, things change. The titular birds and Marnie’s psychology are narratively and thematically crucial to their respective plots. Similarly, the formula that Anderson seeks may have all the hallmarks of the MacGuffin, but it ties in much closer to the central focus of Torn Curtain. The formula isn’t just a catalyst for the plot to happen, it informs the actions and beliefs of every character. This might be an accident – that where other Hitchcock scripts are always looking for new avenues to explore, this script never delves below the level of “plot! plot! plot!” – or it could be the result of a Hitchcock developing artistically, inspired by the European films of his era but struggling to reconcile these ideals with his love of pure storytelling.
If this meandering review has revealed anything, it’s that my feelings on Torn Curtain are still in development. The film staggers along at over two hours, too analytical to ever be a real action piece, but too self-indulgent to get down to the bones of a thriller. The film was a reasonable success, what with the name of the stars and the director, and the timely subject matter. Yet it was the second Hitchcock film in a row not to be a blockbuster. There’s enough control in the direction that I can’t write off Torn Curtain entirely. At the end of the day, however, I’d class it as the weakest Hitchcock since 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and possibly since Under Capricorn. The central performances are at odds with one another, the pacing and intensity is scatter-shot, and there’s little of the innovation or flair that so characterised the tubby Brit’s career. Hitchcock would make a second attempt at the neo-Bond film with Topaz before releasing two genuine surprises in the ’70s, but in 1966, it wouldn’t be out-of-line to suggest his day was finally done…
Hitch Cameo: Sitting in front of the hotel elevator, with a baby on his knee, about ten minutes in. (You’ll notice it. The musical score won’t let you forget.)
Next time: we follow Hitchcock on a global adventure in Topaz…