Posts Tagged ‘Torn Curtain’

Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as a master artist largely rests on the films he made in the 1950s and early 1960s. In these films, he manages to take the stuff of everyday life – taking a shower, catching a train, birdwatching – and imbue it with suspense and excitement. Unfortunately, the thing about Hitchcock’s later films is that they are not about everyday life, but the world of international espionage and intrigue, and here his great talent seems to be functioning in reverse: starting with a milieu which you might expect to be swimming with tension and exciting developments, somehow Hitchcock manages to tell stories which feel inherently dull and pedestrian, often in defiance of common sense and logic.


I’ve already written about Topaz, which is pretty hard going – and very nearly as bad is Torn Curtain from 1966, which at least has a slightly less laborious and convoluted narrative. The story gets under way aboard a cruise liner in Scandinavia, where a scientific congress is underway. Also aboard is top US boffin Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), who has another sort of congress on his mind – as the film opens he is upholding the finest values of academia, as we find him in bed with his assistant Sarah (Julie Andrews). She wants to talk about their wedding, he’s just interested in colliding neutrinos. They are clearly made for each other.

However, Armstrong receives a cryptic telegram, after which he starts acting highly suspiciously, and Sarah eventually finds him on a flight to East Berlin, where he seems to be intent on defecting to the Communist Bloc! Lawks! Paul Newman a commie traitor? Say it ain’t so!

It ain’t so. It transpires that Armstrong is intent on a bit of private spying to help the American effort, and is only pretending to defect so he can pick the brains of a top Soviet boffin before redefecting back to good ol’ Uncle US of Stateside. You’d think he might have told his girlfriend, but no, and so now he is stuck with having to look after her as well. It’s not even as if she does any singing in this film either. Well, as you might expect, Armstrong’s grasp of spy tradecraft is frankly not up to the task, and he is forced to kill his Soviet minder for the good of the mission. But can he get the information he needs before the communist authorities realise what has happened?

I’m kind of used to the idea of Hitchcock as the king of his own little world, getting everything he desired, but apparently this was not the case by 1966. Apparently in this instance Hitchcock did not get the stars he wanted, and in fact had both Newman and Andrews imposed on him by the studio (Andrews was straight off Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and was the biggest female movie star in the world at the time, but her limited availability as a result apparently added to the pressures on production). You can perhaps sense Hitchcock’s distaste at being treated this way, for both lead characters are oddly drab and colourless, interesting more because of what happens to them than for who they are. Instead Hitchcock opts to surrounded them with ‘colourful’ character turns, mostly by thickly-accented European performers who are seldom in more than a couple of scenes each, and the results are odd – it’s as if the film can’t quite settle on a focus, or wants to be a weird anthology or travelogue.

The movie does have one outstandingly memorable sequence, however; the one in which Armstrong’s minder Gromek is killed: this was made around the same time that Connery’s Bond was despatching goons in seconds flat, and in contrast it takes Newman and the young woman he is in league with absolutely ages to get rid of Gromek: they stab him, try to strangle him, hit him with a shovel, gas him… it goes on for minutes and is more or less played as black comedy, completely unlike the rest of the film.

Which is not to say that everything else is completely conventional. The film’s other big set piece, for want of a better description, is a fairly lengthy sequence in which Newman and Andrews travel from Leipzig to Berlin on a fake bus under the control of anti-communist rebels. Public transport has rarely taken on such a crucial role in a major spy movie. Will the authorities figure out the fake bus is not what it seems? Will they be able to stick to the posted bus timetable? Are there enough tickets in the ticket machine? Not even Alfred Hitchcock can make intercity bus travel genuinely suspenseful, it would seem.

He’s not helped much by some fairly primitive filming techniques: in the – um – bus chase and elsewhere, there’s a heavy reliance on back projection that probably had nobody convinced back in 1966, let alone today, while another key sequence takes place in a park. Rather than going out and actually filming in a park, this is realised by building an astonishingly fake-looking park on a soundstage and filming it there. The production values in this sequence are so low that they distract completely from what’s a turning point in the story.

The story doesn’t really convince as a realistic piece of espionage, but at the same time the story is so odd and low-key it hardly qualifies as a rip-roaring spy adventure either. Both stars seem a bit at sea, as well, and you almost get the sense that Hitchcock isn’t trying that hard either. Perhaps at this point the director was being swallowed up by his own legend – rather than being a subtle little in-joke, for instance, Hitchcock’s cameo is telegraphed by the soundtrack playing the theme tune from his TV show when he appears. It’s tempting to say that the rest of the film shows an equal lack of subtlety when it comes to achieving its objectives, but the problem is it’s often not quite clear exactly what those objectives are. A story certainly unfolds, but is it meant to be a romantic adventure, or have comic overtones, or be tense and gritty? Nobody involved seems to know or really seems that bothered. The result is a film which for the most part only very occasionally¬†lingers in the memory, and¬†for the wrong reasons.

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