Published on April 11th, 2014 | by Rob0
Torn Curtain: Hitchcock’s Most Underrated Film
Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th feature suffers from one of the worst critical reputations out of any movie in his entire career. Arriving as it does amid a string of critical and commercial failures, the 1966 Cold War thriller is generally dismissed along with the rest of the master director’s late period efforts as the product of irreversible creative decline. While it’s perhaps true that Torn Curtain is too imperfectly constructed to stand comparison with Hitchcock’s very best work, it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. It’s no ground breaker, but it is a highly enjoyable potboiler nonetheless, featuring one or two great scenes that rank with the most inspired in the entire Hitchcock canon.
Torn Curtain might loosely be described as Hitchcock’s attempt at a “realistic” James Bond movie, an ambition he’d harboured ever since the Bond flicks began stealing some of his thunder with the release of Dr. No in 1962. In a sense, though, Hitchcock had been making “realistic” Bonds since before Ian Fleming’s super-spy had even been imagined; as early as the mid-thirties, Hitchcock was making British espionage thrillers such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent.
In Torn Curtain, an American rocket scientist – Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) pretends to defect to East Germany in order to steal the technology behind a new anti-missile system. Complications arise when his fiancé and assistant – Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) decides to tag along for the adventure uninvited. Armstrong soon finds himself in a world of trouble as the East German authorities begin to suspect his true motivations. A fairly typical set-up for Hitchcock then, with the anti-missile technology functioning as one of his beloved MacGuffins. The story is only a little less far-fetched than your average Bond, but the “realism” comes from the conception of Armstrong as an ordinary professor rather than a suave super-spy, getting mixed up in a deadly game of espionage he is ill-equipped to deal with.
Torn Curtain was a troubled production right from the start. Hitchcock clashed with the studio over the casting, fell out with long-time collaborator Bernard Hermann over the score, and was forced to begin shooting before he was fully satisfied with the script. There’s no question that Hitchcock didn’t quite get to make the movie he wanted to, which might explain why the director himself was dismissive of the final product. Perhaps he was remiss in judging his own work so harshly. Hitchcock had similar feelings about Rebecca, which had been heavily influenced by the unwanted interference of producer David O. Selznick, but it ended up being his American breakthrough and is still highly regarded today.
If it’s true that a movie lives or dies by its casting, then Torn Curtain wasn’t born with much of a fighting chance. Hitchcock wanted his old standby Cary Grant for the lead, but Grant was getting rather too old for adventure movies by this point, and turned out to be unavailable in any case. The studio insisted on Paul Newman, the hot ticket actor of the day. Hitchcock acquiesced, but was never able to find much common ground with the younger star. When invited to dinner, Newman offended Hitchcock by turning down his carefully chosen offer of vintage wine, preferring instead to swig beer from a can. More pointedly, Newman had learned his craft in the recently voguish style of “method” acting, which Hitchcock had little sympathy or patience for. Allegedly, when Newman asked the director what his character’s “motivation” was, Hitchcock responded, “your salary”. On another occasion, Newman was fretting about how he should “relate” to co-star Julie Andrews in a certain scene. Hitchcock explained:
“Well Mr. Newman. I’ll tell you exactly what I have in mind here. Miss Andrews will come down the stairs with the package, d’you see, when you, if you’ll be so good, will glance just a little to the right of the camera to take in her arrival; whereupon my audience will say, `Hulloh! What’s this fellow looking at?’ And then I’ll cut away, d’you see, and show them what you’re looking at.” [Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, by Patrick McGilligan]
With director and star failing to establish a good working relationship, it’s hardly surprising that the performance is one of Newman’s least memorable. As an ordinary scientist – as opposed to dashing hero – Newman was never likely to fully convince. He appears uncertain of how to approach his role, with the result that he underplays it to the point of narcolepsy. This is a lead character with no discernable personality.
Co-star Julie Andrews doesn’t fare any better. About as far from the blonde sex bombs Hitchcock favoured for his heroines as one could imagine, Andrews had become a bankable box office attraction by appearing in such wholesome family entertainment as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Hitchcock wasn’t much convinced by Andrews, but he’d failed to transform his latest protégé, Tippi Hedren, into a star. His last two features had flopped with Hedren as the lead, and the studio insisted on an established name for Torn Curtain. Once again, Hitchcock submitted reluctantly to the studio pressure, but he had absolutely no idea what to do with Andrews. Indeed, her character turns out to be a veritable blank, notably failing to conjure up any romantic chemistry with Newman.
Hitchcock moaned about how much of the movie’s meagre production budget was eaten up by the salaries of his two stars, who he didn’t even want in the first place. In a letter to Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock writes:
“Having had comparatively lesser known stars in the last three pictures, I have now consented to please the whim of the ‘front office’ and to use two well-known players. It would interest you to know that this total of $1,500,000 is more than we have to pay for the cost of the rest of the picture.”
The budgetary limitations are occasionally evident on the screen, with some rather dubious backdrops on display in certain scenes. While Hitchcock might’ve gotten away with this in previous decades (1938’s The Lady Vanishes notoriously opens with a shot of a toy train station as a substitute for an actual aerial shot) by 1966 it gave the production a distinctly low rent mien.
But Torn Curtain is not done a total disservice by the lack of charisma displayed by its stars. For one thing, this is supposed to be a story about ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances. By downplaying the star power, the atmosphere of realism is more convincingly conveyed. For another, it gives some of the supporting players a chance to grab the spotlight. And the supporting cast is interesting, none more so than Wolfgang Kieling as the sinister East German secret service enforcer, Hermann Gromek, surely one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains. Kieling succeeds in investing the character with both chilling menace and sardonic charm.
Gromek is at the heart of Torn Curtain’s best scene; indeed, a scene that ranks as one of Hitchcock’s greatest, acknowledged as such even by naysayers of the film. Gromek has pursued Armstrong to a remote farm, where his duplicity is finally unveiled. With the aid of a sympathetic farmer’s wife, Armstrong must murder Gromek before he can alert the authorities. But Armstrong is no trained killer, merely a scientist caught up in a high stakes game that has now escalated way beyond his capacity to control. The resulting struggle is one of the most tense and vicious captured on celluloid, rendered all the more so by the messy unprofessionalism of the would-be assassins. The nightmarish scene begins to feel as if it will never end, as Gromek, stabbed, beaten with a shovel and gassed in an oven refuses to lie down and die, coming on relentlessly like a resurrected Rasputin.
It’s a brutal scene and one that did much to escalate the stakes of cinematic violence at the time, as was Hitchcock’s wont. But, as is very much the case with the infamous shower scene in Psycho, there is less actual blood and gore onscreen than the viewer feels there to be; a testament to Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematic illusion.
There’s more than one note being played in this scene. It’s not only horrific, but grotesquely funny. Seeing a man get repeatedly hit in the head with a shovel makes for great slapstick after all. But it’s also the epicentre of a startling character transformation, as Armstrong makes the soul rending switch from genteel scientist to ruthless assassin. He got a lot more than he bargained for when he tried to play at this secret agent game, and now that he’s gone this far, there can never be any turning back. The fact that – in an earlier scene – Armstrong has rebuffed Gromek’s attempts at friendship places the audience’s sympathy in a degree of doubt. Both men are trapped equally in a do or die situation, and it’s not necessarily Armstrong who emerges in the more flattering light.
It’s this scene that lingers in the memory as the rest of the movie fades away, and its influence has been felt in many a gritty, gnarly fight scene to follow. Fans of The Sopranos will be reminded of Tony’s murder of Ralph Cifaretto, another brutal and messy affair which takes to heart Hitchcock’s dictum that – when it comes down to it – human beings are actually rather difficult to kill.
But it would be a mistake to suggest – as many critics have done so – that Gromek’s murder is Torn Curtain’s only worthwhile scene. There are several other memorable moments. Armstrong’s duel of wits with rival scientist and East German counterpart, Gustav Lindt, for example, in which Armstrong incites Lindt’s vanity in an effort to get him to reveal the secret anti-missile formula. You wouldn’t think that two professors bickering over a blackboard would make for particularly suspenseful viewing, but the scene turns out to be a riveting exercise in psychology. There’s also Armstrong and Sherman’s attempted escape from East Berlin in a decoy bus, a taut and protracted sequence in which various devices of suspense are continually stacked on top of each other almost to the point of farce.
Finally, there’s Lila Kedrova’s memorable performance as Countess Kuchinska, a dotty old woman driven nearly mad by her obsessive desire to escape from behind the Iron Curtain; she manages to assist the escape of Armstrong and Sherman in a quite surprising way. It’s an eccentric, over the top performance, but it adds the necessary colour lacking from the two stars.
Another bone of contention during the production of Torn Curtain was over the film’s score. Bernard Herrmann had composed the music for the last eight Hitchcock movies and in doing so had created some of the most memorable and well known movie themes of all time. But by the mid-sixties, Herrmann’s trademark use of heavy, discordant brass instrumentation was rapidly going out of style. The studio wanted something more in line with the taste of contemporary audiences, perhaps a pop or jazz inflected score, and suggested Henry Mancini as composer. Hitchcock was open to accommodating new trends, but felt that Herrmann would be capable of delivering what was required. However, despite being given detailed instructions to the contrary, Herrmann ploughed ahead and delivered yet more of his typical dark, dissonant and brassy soundtrack music. Hitchcock, furious at having his instructions ignored, dismissed Herrmann from the movie. The two men never worked with each other again, or indeed ever managed to repair their relationship.
The score was eventually composed by John Addison. While lighter in tone than Herrmann’s effort, Addison’s score never really succeeds in capturing the beat / pop vibe sixties audiences were interested in either. The lack of a memorable Herrmann score is often used by critics as another stick to beat Torn Curtain with, but it’s not as if Hitchcock hadn’t made plenty of successful movies without Herrmann in the past. In the event, Addison’s score is serviceable rather than inspired, but it’s adequate to the film’s purposes.
When Torn Curtain was finally released it was to a lacklustre critical reception. Reviewers apparently felt that this sort of thing was becoming rather old hat for Hitchcock. It did, however, perform reasonably well at the box office, finishing as the 20th top grossing movie of the year, and returning a solid profit over its relatively modest production costs.
The truth is that in 1966, Torn Curtain must’ve appeared somewhat old fashioned. This is the same year in which Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up were released to massive success. Two very different movies, but both the work of European auteurs gate crashing the Hollywood party while thumbing their noses at the old traditions. Everywhere, the cinematic landscape was changing.
The first four James Bond movies had already been released and had raised the stakes for spectacular action set pieces. The influence of the French New Wave – with its on location sets, handheld shooting and rapid fire editing techniques – was already creeping into Hollywood; Hitchcock was an admirer, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his own work much. And Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove had appeared two years previously, irreverently lampooning the absurdist logic of Cold War politics.
Yet Torn Curtain is staid in its political conservatism. The notion that Armstrong might be a genuine defector is flirted with briefly in the early stages of the movie, but once it’s established that he’s working as a double agent, the movie raises no further questions. It’s simply assumed that the Western side is the “good” side and that all of Armstrong’s actions make perfect sense within that context. The prevailing ideology of the Cold War is never challenged. Bob Dylan might’ve been signing that “times are a-changin’”, but Hitchcock wasn’t listening.
Even in its depiction of sexuality, Torn Curtain appeared a bit frumpy. There is one early scene where the unmarried Armstrong and Andrews lounge around in bed together, which must still have appeared mildly scandalous in 1966. Incidentally, this was the only scene in which Hitchcock derived any enjoyment from Julie Andrews’ performance, as it gave him the opportunity to play against her wholesome image. But then a later scene in which Armstrong and Andrews reignite their romantic interest appears as chaste as anything to appear on film in decades long gone by. The irony being that Alfred Hitchcock – the director who had done more than any other to undermine Hollywood’s Code of Decency – was now beginning to appear rather tame.
It’s only when divorced from the context of the time it was released and viewed alongside Hitchcock’s body of work as a whole that it becomes possible to praise and enjoy Torn Curtain for what it is: essentially a lightweight but excitingly staged thriller along similar lines to North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was the sort of thing that Hitchcock knocked out time and again over the course of his career. Coming as it did hot on the heels of Hitchcock’s peak creative period of the mid-fifties and early-sixties (Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho etc) Torn Curtain can never be viewed as a ground-breaking masterwork. It’s just a lot of fun to watch.
Torn Curtain turned out to be pretty much the end of the line for Hitchcock. His career limped on for another 14 years, largely characterised by stalled projects, box office failures and steep creative decline. He did get to make one more good movie though: 1972’s Frenzy. Sadly, Hitchcock’s long suffering health finally failed him during the production of The Short Night. The movie was never made, and Hitchcock narrowly missed out on taking his directing career into an unparalleled seventh decade.
There’s one more intriguing tale left to tell about Torn Curtain. The ending as it appeared in the final movie is the standard Hollywood pap in which the plot is happily resolved. But Hitchcock originally wanted to do something quite different:
“There was an ending written for ‘Torn Curtain’, which wasn’t used, but I rather liked it. No one agreed with me except my colleague at home [his wife Alma]. Everyone told me that you couldn’t have a letdown ending after all that. Newman would have thrown the formula away. After what he has gone through, after everything we have endured with him, he just tosses it. It speaks to the futility of all, and it’s in keeping with the kind of naiveté of the character, who is no professional spy and who will certainly retire from that nefarious business.” [Its Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock – A Personal Biography, by Charlotte Chandler]
Hitchcock might’ve been better advised to follow through with his instincts there. Although personally, I’d have fancied him to go one step further still. Armstrong’s final escape is made by swimming to harbour from an East German freighter. So what if the formula turns into a sodden mass in his pocket, making it completely useless? Armstrong would’ve put himself through the ringer (and made a murderer out of himself) for nothing; a final twist of irony to rival the work of Hitchcock’s great French counterpart in suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot.