Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)
To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors, and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.
US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.
The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!
The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.
The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.