Monday, June 4, 2012

Dial H for Hitchcock: Torn Curtain (1966)

Under the pretense of attending a conference in Copenhagen, Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist, defects to East Germany. His fiancee and assistant, Sarah (Julie Andrews)--confused by his suspicious activities in Copenhagen--follows Michael behind the Iron Curtain. He tries to persuade her to return to the U.S. It is only when Sarah refuses that Michael reveals his true intent: to steal information about an atomic formula from a Communist scientist and somehow escape.

Hitchcock hatched the idea for Torn Curtain after reading about the defection of two British diplomats. In Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut's superb book of interviews with the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock said that he began to wonder what the wife of one of the diplomats thought of the defection. The premise of a wife questioning her husband's true motives can be seen as a variation of Suspicion. The difference is that Torn Curtain dispenses with this plot in the film's first third. All that is left is the quest for the MacGuffin (the secret formula) and the escape. This is familiar Hitchcock territory, but it comes off as uninspired and weary in Torn Curtain. The result is a suspense film that generates very little suspense.

In Truffaut's book, he writes that "Hitchcock was never the same after Marnie, and that its failure cost him a considerable amount of self-confidence." That lack of confidence is magnified in Torn Curtain, in which the studio influenced Hitchcock's decisions on the cast and music.

Eva Marie Saint in 1966 in The
Russians Are Coming.
By the mid-1960s, most of Hitchcock's favorite stars--James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant--had either retired from show business or moved on to different roles (i.e., instead of romantic leads, James Stewart begin playing fathers). Hitchcock had also failed to create new stars, the most famous example being Tippi Hedren, whom he once envisioned as one of his classic "blondes" (personally, I think Hedren's performance in Marnie is widely under-appreciated). According to some sources, Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint to reunite for Torn Curtain. However, Grant felt he was too old for the part and the studio nixed Saint for the same reason. In the end, the studio convinced Hitch to cast two hot, young talents in Newman and Andrews.

Unfortunately, neither seems comfortable in their roles and, as is apparent in their opening scene in bed, they dearly lack chemistry. Hitchcock implies to Truffaut that Newman's "method acting" approach hindered him in key scenes. Certainly, Newman desperately wants to make us understand Armstrong's motivations, a serious approach at odds with a movie composed of a thin framework (e.g., Armstrong undertakes this incredible mission on his own without the government's sanction). Julie Andrews tries hard as Sarah, but the script makes her character extremely naive (the audience is always ahead of her) and she is relegated to an accessory in the final the final two-thirds of the film.

Sadly, Hitchcock was also convinced to jettison the original soundtrack composed by long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for what was considered a more commercial, upbeat one by John Addison. I find Addison's title theme to be almost playful, more appropriate for a black comedy. In contrast, the Herrmann theme is punctuated and more disturbing. 

Trying to kill Gromek.
Yet, despite its flaws, there are flashes of the typical Hitchcock brilliance in Torn Curtain. The film's most famous scene is the death of Gromek, an amusing but dangerous enemy agent played by Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek confirms that Michael is a spy after following him to a rural farmhouse, Michael and the farmer's wife are forced to murder him. It's a lengthy, brutal struggle involving kitchen utensils and ending with Michael forcing Gromek's head into an oven as the gas is turned on. Earlier in the film, there's a visually stunning scene--reminiscent of Vertigo--in which Gromek trails Michael through the streets and buildings of East Berlin.

Hitchcock left a scene with Gromek's brother on the editing room floor, a decision based solely on the film's running time (a too long 128 minutes). Truffaut's book contains a description of the omitted scene: Michael visits a factory where the dead Gromek's brother (also played by Kieling) is a foreman. Gromek's brother picks a kitchen knife (like the one used in the farmhouse fight), cuts off a piece of sausage, and tells Michael: "My brother loves this kind of sausage. Would you be kind enough to give it to him in Leipzig?" It sounds like a classic Hitchcock gag, similar to one from Young and Innocent.

It's interesting to speculate what Torn Curtain might have been with a better script, more compatible actors, and perhaps a more engaged Hitchcock. Unfortunately, all that remains is a misfire with just enough interest to make one depressed over the reality that it isn't a very good film. 


  1. This is an interesting post about one of my least favorite Hitchcock films. I did not know about Herrmann's score being replaced and frankly I truly prefer his work over the one utilized. The scene with the killing of Gromek is strong yet feels out of place with Michael's character. "Torn Curtain" is an uneven film that never captivated me. Your profile of it was accurate, Rick.

  2. Hi Rick - good to be back at the wonderful Cafe. Excellent article about a movie that always made me feel sort of bad because I love Hitchcock, but not this movie. The murder scene was indeed well-done, and most disturbing. And, anybody who would replace the music of the great Bernard Herrmann must be temporarily insane...

  3. I think you gave a very fair assessment of the film, Rick. I enjoy the final third of the film, and find a little of that old Hitchcock magic in there, as he ratchets up the tension. And of course the great Gromek murder scene you mentioned. I think Newman was probably not a bad choice but definitely think Andrews is miscast. As with all Hichcock films it's still worth seeing, but there's little of that lightness of touch we associate with his best thrillers. I think you made it clear why this is so in your thorough post.

  4. I agree with @toto2 about the movie being uneven. There are certainly parts that project the Hitchcock magic, but for the most part, it lacks the suspenceful energy of many of his other works. And I love Julie Andrews absolutely to bits, but maybe that's why her role/performance in Torn Curtain is such a let-down. Thank you for posting!

  5. Rick, when this first came out I did't have to see it to know that Newman and Andrews weren't exactly compatible in style or anything else. They seem like such wrong ingredients for this type of film. Hard for me even to picture Newman as a physicist.

    Anyway, I still enjoyed reading your post. It's harder to write about a film you're not loving or remain kind of ambivalent about.

  6. Rick,

    I was excited to go see this movie when it first came out, Hitchcock and Newman were two of my favorites working together. It had to be great, I thought. Sadly, it turned out to be one of Hitchcock' less impressive films. Then as you write Newman and Andrews were not a good match and the script left something to be desired. Your thoughts are all right on target and we are left with what might have been.

  7. Rick, I can't help but agree with everyone's assessment of TORN CURTAIN. Make no mistake, it had its moments; the big murder scene between Michael and Gromek was worth the price of admission (so to speak) in itself. Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are fine actors and looked pretty together, but I agree that the chemistry wasn't there (heck, I think Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint still would've been awesome together, though I agree the script needed work). I do wish that Bernard Herrmann's TORN CURTAIN score was still available for a more affordable price, though, as I'm a big fan of his scores. I very much appreciated this treasure trove of information, in any event!