Sunday, August 14, 2022

On the Occasion of Hitch's 123rd birthday: Mending the Reputation of "Torn Curtain" (1966):

For two decades film director Alfred Hitchcock, whose 123rd birthday was on August 13, had such a great run in Hollywood: Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicions (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960).  (I think Hitch's Agatha Chistie-ish mystery film Stage Fright [1950], which I rather like, was actually a British production.)

That's 20 films (21 counting Stage Fright) in twenty years, most or even all of them arguably classics of film!  And that's not even counting the comparative "duds," ostensibly: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) (Hitch does screwball, pretty well, acturally), The Paradine Case (1947) (yaaaaaawn), Under Capricorn (1948) (zzzzzzzz).  I mean, this guy was practically a film industry unto himself.

After the hugely influential Psycho, Hitch slowed down, comparatively, making just six more films before his death in 1980: The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976).  

Torn Curtain seems to be a film that tends not to get much respect, a certain scene excepted (see below).  The critics at the time didn't like it--though the film, starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, was a modest box office hit--and it hasn't really undergone major "reassessment" over the years, in contrast with some other undervalued Hitch films.  I finally watched it for the first time on Saturday the 13th, and I have to say I rather enjoyed it.  It's derivative of earlier Hitchcock films in a lot of ways, but in my eyes derivative Hitch is better than no Hitch at all--not to mention most other films.  

In retrospect, Torn Curtain seems like a sort of last hurrah for Hitch, unless we count his genial minor screwball crime coda, Family Plot, a throwback to his English films of the Thirties.  I still haven't seen the "starless" (by American standards, anyway) Topaz, but I've always found the serial murderer film Frenzy utterly repellent and compelling evidence of Hitch's putative misogyny, about which his former leading actress Tippi Hendren has spoken out and written.  Torn Curtain, however, is classic Hitch in a lot of ways, the sort of romantic suspense thriller with big name attractive leads that he had made so successfully throughout his career.

In Torn Curtain Paul Newman--apparently Hitch wanted Cary Grant again, but he, now past 60, was on the verge of retirement; he would have been twice Julie Andrews' age--plays nuclear scientist and university professor Michael Armstrong and Julie Andrews his loyal (but how loyal?) secretary and fiancée Sarah Sherman.  The film opens picturesquely with the couple on an ocean liner in a fjord off the coast of Norway. (There is some location shooting in the film, though it is minimal.)  

The fjords are alive with the sound of passion! 
Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) in bed with Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman)

In an ill Cold War omen, the temperature on board is freezing, the ship's heating being on the fritz, but Michael and Sarah have piled into bed together under blankets and coats to keep warm.  This is the sort of cutesy couples stuff Hitch had been putting in his films for years, but here it's made clear that our unmarried heroine is not virginal.  (Neither is Janet Leigh in Psycho, of course, but she gets severely punished for her transgressions.)  

We get to see Newman's bare chest, the first of several times in the film, which is not surprising since he was probably deemed the sexiest American man in film at the time.  Newman even gets his own "shower scene," like Janet Leigh in Psycho, though things end better for him!

Paul Newman unbuttons himself.

Soon Sarah finds that Michael, who is supposed to be speaking at a scientific conference, is planning instead to fly over the "iron curtain" to East Berlin!  Now what is that about?  Naturally, Sarah gets a seat on the same plane to find out what her man is up to--and she finds to her dismay that he is defecting!  Of course it all gets more complicated than that, as you may imagine. 

It seems that Michael is playing his own double game....

Eventually the film turns into Hitch's fave, a flight and pursuit thriller, as Michael and Sarah have to flee for their lives from East Germany with the "MacGuffin." (This is Hitch's term for the prized object people want in the film--this time it's in Michael's head.)  

In the middle of the film comes its most famous and praised sequence, where Michael and a supposed  "farmer's wife" (Carolyn Conwell) who is working with American intelligence are caught in the act, as it were, by Michael's sinister East German security minder, Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) and, well, they simply have to murder him, even though Michael, a university professor, has no idea, really, how to go about it.  And, to be sure, the murder does not go exactly as planned.  Gromek proves to have a horrific Rasputin-like indestructibleness.  

Murder isn't easy.

Even people who don't like Torn Curtain praise this sequence and it really is bloody brilliant, though the grimness it rather at odds with the tone of much of the rest of the film.  I think this gets at much of the problem the film has had with critics.  Torn Curtain is a Sixties spy film, but despite the continued popularity of the arch James Bond franchise, the tone of spy films in the Sixties was getting bleaker and more "realistic."  

Just the year before the release of Torn Curtain, critics and audiences alike applauded The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, adapted from John le Carre's jaded novel and starring a world-weary Richard Burton in an Oscar-nominated performance. The film, incidentally, was directed by Martin Ritt, who directed Paul Newman in four films, including his praised Sixties performances in Hud (best actor nomination) and Hombre.

Both the opening and ending scenes in Torn Curtain are cutesy couples scenes (cleverly matched) that would have been at home in any of Hitch's older films but feel somewhat out of place here.  So many of the sequences are reminiscent of older Hitchcock films, in fact, but the tone fits at least in most cases and they are nicely done on their own terms for the most part.  

There's the extended sequence where Michael and Sarah are fleeing East Germany on a defectors' group bus, which recalls the scene in the train car with the circus "freaks" in Saboteur.  The brilliantly done ballet sequence near the end of the film recalls the Fifties version of The Man Who Knew Too Much as wells as Saboteur and the The Thirty-Nine Steps.  Michael and Sarah have to hide in baskets at one point, recalling, as I recollect, The Lady Vanishes.  When Paul Newman falls (after being tripped) down a flight of stairs, he looks like Martin Landau in Psycho.  When Carolyn Conwell holds up that butcher's knife to stab Gromek, we're reminded of Anthony Perkins. The farmhouse is an unervingly lonely and  isolated rural building, reminiscent of the Dutch windmill hideout in Foreign Correspondent.  You might almost expect a crop dusting plane to appear (North by Northwest).

Two Pairs of Blue Eyes: Michael and his helper are not thrilled to welcome Gromek.

But who cares if Hitch is imitating himself, it's damned entertaining, or at least I thought it was.  Another criticism this film gets is aimed at the leads, Newman and Andrews.  As already mentioned, Newman was not Hitch's choice, and nor was Andrews.  He was "saddled" with them as it were because they were huge stars.  

Torn Curtain came between Paul Newman's hits Harper and Hombre, while Julie Andrews had just come off Mary Poppins (best actress Oscar) and The Sound of Music and had Thoroughly Modern Millie in the pipeline, though her film career was soon to take huge hits with the musical bombs Star! and Darling Lili and would not recover for some time as Hollywood tried to figure out what to do with their on the whole wholesome star in the Swinging Seventies. 

a couple apart

Like everyone else Andrews wanted to work with Hitchcock, but Hitch had wanted Eve Marie Saint, the female lead from North by Northwest.  I have to say I think Saint would have been better than Andrews (or, say, Newman's distinguished actress wife, Joanne Woodward, who was in Alfred Hitchcock Presents).  

Andrews distractedly reminds me in this film of a koala bear with her prominent eyes and boofie head of hair, and I find her rather bland, but the role really is not really a very substantive one anyway, so I'm not sure it matter that much.  (Andrews does nail a scene where she called upon, finally, to lose her temper.)  It is true you kind of expect her to break out in song at any moment, as Hitch supposedly complained.

Newman gets dinged for being sullen, but I think people are reading into the performance the fact that Newman and Hitch did not get along personally.  Newman was one of those younger "method" actors who wanted to have long, intense discussions about his character with the director and Hitch has no time for that. When Newman asked his director what his motivation was, so the story goes, Hitch drolly responded, "your motivation is you salary."  But Newman was right: his character is underwritten and the script had to be rushed because Julie Andrews had only a short window in which to participate in the filming (another reason not to have hired her).

another couple apart

I think Newman does fine, though, though like Ryan O'Neal in the Seventies screwball comedy What's Up, Doc?, he seems too fit and tan to be a college professor!  If Newman's character is limited, it's probably more due to the script, which really does not give him any big speeches to explain himself.  His character is supposed to be hampered by the fact that he does not want his girlfriend trailing him and he cannot explain to her what he is up to.  He is tongue-tied, in short.  The most important thing, however, is that Newman steps up to the plate during the Gromek murder scene, the pivotal piece in the film.

Footsteps will follow till I'm dead: Michael tries to evade his determined pursuer Gromek

Critics have also faulted Hitchcock's continued reliance in Torn Curtain on stage bound locations, particularly the use screen projection and matte paintings, the latter of which is definitely evident in the sequence at the East Berlin art museum and the hilltop reconciliation scene between Newman and Andrews.  It is definitely old-fashioned by 1966, but nevertheless the "footsteps" museum cat-and-mouse pursuit with Michael and Gromek manages to be quite suspenseful due to the photography and the sound effects.

Gromek rises
You can't keep a bad man down

Speaking of Gromek, there are numerous secondary characters in this film and the actors playing these parts strike me as uniformly terrific.  Aside from Gromek, who as mentioned above  is really memorably played by German actor Wolfgang Kieling (It doesn't hurt that his character, even with his limited screen time, is better written than either Newman's or Andrews'), Carolyn Conwell as the "farmer's wife" really makes an impression.   

Why did Conwell not have a bigger career, I wonder; she is really good and intense here and looks like Liv Ullmann, yet her primary acting work seems to have been for a quarter century on the soap opera series The Young and the Restless.  

Anyway, besides these Kieling and Conwell, there are also:

Hansjorg Felmy as the handsome, dapper East German security chief

Native Austrian Jew Ludwig Donath as the irascible University of Leipzig scientist from whom Michael hopes to extract information (he would have made a great Dr. Priestley)

Gunter Strack as another East German university professor and bespectacled minder to Michael and Sarah

American Jew David Opatashu, a familiar presence from American television in later years, as the head of the East German defectors' group

Gisela Fischer, another German Jew whose family fled the Nazis, as an agent of the defectors group (an attractive woman and a medical doctor, she functions as a sort of romantic engagement for Newman--in two scenes he respectively dances with and disrobes for her--and admittedly she is more interesting than our own Sarah Truehart)

Showstopper: Tamara Toumanova

Former émigré Russian ballet prima donna Tamara Toumanova as, yes, an East German (?) ballet star, a particularly nosy and nasty one (she pops up three times in the film and has a great story arc; one of her bits on stage during a performance of Tchaikovsky's Francesca de Rimini is highly dramatic and recalls another brilliant scene from the Thirties Hitchcock film Young and Innocent)

And, last but certainly not least, Lily Kedrova, another Russian émigré who the pervious year had won the best supporting actress for her performance in Zorba the Greek.  She appears late in the film and chews the scenery terrifically in three scenes.  In contrast with Newman and Andrews, it seems this darling Lily made a big hit with Hitch and his wife and he refused to trim any of her bits when the film was edited.  She plays a colorful former Polish countess who is desperate to escape from the Eastern Bloc to the United States.  Some critics dismiss her performance as ham.  It is, to be sure, but it's juicy, succulent ham.  

Countess Kuczynska (Lily Kedrova) needs sponsors!

Kedrova's role was intended as a nod to all the captive peoples of the Eastern Bloc, and it is indeed striking how many of the members of this cast were refugees from totalitarian regimes, be they fascist or communist.  Several of them came to America, where one could be free, although ironically their castmate Wolfgang Kieling, who compellingly played the menacing Gromek (who likes to chew gum and talk at the same time about the days he spent living in New York City), decided to defect to East Germany after witnessing the Watts race riots at first hand while shooting Torn Curtain at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.  

Upon his defection Kieling denounced West Germany as a handmaiden of the the United States, which he vociferously condemned as the most dangerous menace to the world, committing egregious "crimes against the Negro and the people of Vietnam."  Still, he died in Hamburg, West Germany in 1986 (he was only 61), which leads me to conclude that he may not have been so crazy with life in East Germany either.

Certainly Torn Curtain presents a much different view of the world than Kieling's, one that would have been at home with Hitch's wartime films from the Forties: America as a beacon of liberty for beleaguered sufferers from shattered European nations.  No doubt that view held less currency in the deeply conflicted Sixties, but just ask the Ukrainians about it today, in our troubled times.


  1. Three years before Torn Curtain, in Charade Cary Grant was worried he was too old to act as romantic lead opposite Audrey Hepburn (six years older than Julie Andrews), so it isn't surprising he turned down Torn Curtain.
    The great unmade Hitchcock-Grant film would have been a version of Hamlet as a modern thriller with Grant in the title role. Even if it was a disaster (who would play Claudius and Gertrude?) it would surely have been a magnificent disaster.

    1. A really interesting review Curt . For me ,as a retired professional musician , Hitch's biggest " failure " was falling out ( manufactured by a studio wanting a more " hip " sound track ) with Bernard Herrmann. Think Vertigo /North by Northwest /and Psycho without those world class scores . I am sure that a Herrmann score could have just made that bit of a difference with some of those shortcomings which you mentioned.

    2. I'm glad you mentioned the Bernard Herrmann episode, because though this blog piece is 2500 words, I left out some things, like that! That's another thing the film gets faulted for and I have to say I have heard the opening credits theme Herrmann and it's very memorable. That discordant blaring: Da-dah, da-dah, da-da-dah! By the way, the opening credits are really compellingly filmed, with those fires and the distorted faces from the film.

      I heard it Addison score the other day and I don't recall it at all. The credits theme wasn't bad, just not as memorable. But I suppose, ironically, it was more "commercial," which was want the studio wanted. Addison had won the score Oscar for Tom Jones. I also saw that he wrote the score for A Bridge too Far, which I certainly remember, having seen that as a kid and long loving Elgar so much. And he wrote the theme for Murder She Wrote! Not surprised he won an Emmy for that. I see he also got an Oscar nomination for Sleuth, so he definitely contributed to the mystery genre like Herrmann.

      But Herrmann and Hitch seem a match made in Heaven--or somewhere else, perhaps. ;)

    3. I never heard of that one, Roger, maybe it would have been like that Ronald Colman film, A Double Life!

    4. I haven't seen A Double Like. It sounds good.
      Hitch first proposed Grant as Hamlet in the 1940s, when it was just about feasible, but he tried to persuade Grant again years later - when Grant was in his sixties and firmly retired.
      I'd think Hamlet is probably the most difficult Shakespeare tragedy to update Lear, MacBeth and Othello all have definite themes and strong plots, whereas Hamlet is about plots which don't come about. I wonder if Hitchcock or Grant had seen The Bad Sleep Well, which turns Hamlet into a noir.
      Max Beerbohm in his dramatic criticism referred to the ability of drama and actors to "illude" - to persuade us to accept something which is manifestly untrue. In his later films Grant actually does a good job of illuding us: the big challenge to the belief that he's a young romantic lead - as with the actors made to look younger in The Irishman - is in his movements.

  2. A slight error in your article, Curt, when you mention Martin Landau being pushed or falling down a stairway in Psycho....I think you meant to say Martin Balsam, playing the interestingly named character Arbogast who enters the Bates mansion and meets his death precipitately soon after! Thanks for your spirited and intelligent recap of Torn Curtain. You illustrate its defects and shortcomings very persuasively, along with its Hitchcockian virtues. You inspire me to watch it again.

    1. Whoops! Yeah, Landau would be North b Northwest lol. Both great actors! And thank you!!