There is a kind of movie that isn’t really good but plays well on cable channels like TNT or FX. These movies are good for a lazy Saturday afternoon, neither great enough to drop everything for nor terrible enough to make you turn it off. For me, Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain falls into that category. Certainly, Hitchcock made other films that fans consider mediocre, but this 1966 movie is a straitlaced “dad thriller”. Torn Curtain reminded me of movies like The Bourne Legacy and Jack Reacher—easy enough to enjoy but you could watch it a dozen times and forget what happens with each rewatch.
Torn Curtain stars Paul Newman as an American rocket scientist, Michael Armstrong, who defects to East Germany. Followed by his determined assistant/fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews), Michael travels behind the Iron Curtain—actually as a double agent against East Germany—to learn how much the Soviet Union knows about anti-missiles. Michael is sent to talk to scientist Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) and then flee back to America.
As run of the mill as Torn Curtain is, there is one knockout scene that grabs your attention: the murder of East German officer Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) by Michael and the wife of one of his contacts, played by Carolyn Conwell (the contact is a farmer played by Mort Mills). Hitchcock stages the scene brutally, realistically, and without any music. It’s quite a shocking sequence that shows how difficult and grueling it can be to kill someone. Hitchcock created the sequence as a direct response to spy movies of the time where someone is assassinated too easily. The murder is aggressive and hard to watch, but it showcases Hitchcock’s creativity in building suspense.
There are other sequences that are effectively crafted, such as the scene on the decoy bus. But for the most part, Torn Curtain is a bit of a slog. Acclaimed novelist Brian Moore wrote the screenplay, but some of his structural decisions don’t work very well. The film is divided into three parts, with the first part from the point of view of Julie Andrews, which slows the pace since she’s not the protagonist. The third part features an extended scene with a Countess desperate to go to America, played by Lila Kedrova (with whom Hitchcock struck a friendship on set), and that grinds the film to a halt. Aside from a few clever moments here and there, Torn Curtain just doesn’t have that Hitchcockian flourish.
Hitchcock’s career was in a bit of a slump at the time. Marnie had disappointed critics and audiences in 1964, and his battle with Tippi Hedren took a toll on him. Hitchcock was forced to cast Julie Andrews and Paul Newman because they both were household names in 1966 (and he probably got a kick out of introducing these wholesome stars naked in bed). While Hitchcock, Andrews, and Newman got along, I don’t think Hitchcock liked working with the actors beyond professional courtesy. The performances are good because Newman and Andrews are both exceptional actors, but there’s no excitement or electricity between them.
Hitchcock also wasn’t working with any of his usual crew. In fact, he even fought with his longtime composer Bernard Herrmann over the score. Hitchcock reportedly wanted a jazz/pop score to keep up with cinematic trends. Herrmann, however, wrote the score how he wanted it, insisting that a more populist score wouldn’t suit Hitchcock. Hitchcock demanded he change the score, but Herrmann refused because he always had creative control over his music. Oscar winner John Addison (Tom Jones) replaced Herrmann, and his score is good but unmemorable.
Torn Curtain is a fine movie. It has its charms and a few really terrific sequences. I don’t really consider this to be an ambitious Hitchcock film. It is interesting to see the director afraid his best days are behind him and forced to work under circumstances he didn't like. Maybe Torn Curtain drags because Hitchcock was so unexcited making it, so unhappy—and the Gromek murder was the only part unique enough to jolt him awake. It’s a testament to Hitchcock that the film works despite the trouble behind the camera.
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