The opening titles of ‘Torn Curtain’ are kind of weird and feel rather like cheap TV titles, dissolving light images and shots from the film rather randomly constructed over a theme that lacks the class of the great Bernard Herrmann music of past Alfred Hitchcock films. The soundtrack here is by John Addison who seems to have more experience as a conductor and TV composer – and it shows throughout the film with, at times, seemingly random music popping up*. It also at one point (the questioning of the Julie Andrews character) seems to be mixed a bit too loud and fights with the dialogue – very odd.
Our hero and heroine’s introduction (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews playing the scientists Professor Michael Armstrong and Sarah Sherman – work colleagues and soon to be married) is neat – aboard a frosty ship in Norway they are notably absent from the dining room, happier to pile up their coats and blankets and enjoy a romantic interlude – their director subverting any censorship problems by having only their canoodling faces visible.
The two embark on an Iron Curtain themed thriller which involves Michael pretending to defect but in reality playing double agent in order to steal a MacGuffin style maths formula that everyone is getting very heated about. Sarah throws a Spaniard into the works by following her fiancé on his mission – potentially jeopardizing the whole thing and their lives to boot.
As Sarah’s suspicions are raised (Michael lying to her regarding his flight destination and then basically dumping her over lunch) she follows him on the plane, Hitchcock pulls out a nice long shot that takes us from him to her, he then coming back and delivering her marching orders very directly – the screen then misting to suggest her tears. Hitchcock throughout shoots Julie Andrews in a slight soft focus which is a bit out of kilter with the rest of the film, but I suppose is a ‘here’s a lovely lady’ film convention.
The lunch has the usually expected suspect rear projection I have come to know and love (and is present elsewhere in the picture).
When Michael is taken aside at the airport he is introduced to the heavyweight baddie Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) and you know that sooner or later things are going to get nasty. He wears a leather coat and slyly chews gum – sure signifiers of inner nastitude. The director plants the plot point that Gromek’s lighter doesn’t work, a little bit of business that will come to the fore later. When they bring in Sarah we are treated to repeated static cuts – Michael to the left of frame, Sarah to the right, the authorities balanced across their shots: a nice neat editing sequence.
The greatest sequence in the film (ok, not that hard a thing to achieve) starts with Michael emerging from the hotel lift, the camera moving in a sleek crane shot to bring us to Gromek who then follows. Michael attempts to lose the leather clad strong arm and we have a neat match cut from a brochure to the real architecture of a tourist attraction/museum (reminding me of similar transitions in ‘Champagne’ and ‘The Skin Game’). Hitchcock nicely uses the sounds of the two mens’ footsteps to show that Gromek is keeping up with Michael. The scientist thinks he’s given him the shake but is caught up at a farmhouse where he is due to meet some other piece of the double agent jigsaw (the tractor driving ‘farmer’ played by Mort Mills). Gromek then appears and the build up to the fantastic fight scene has the bad guy jabbing Michael in quick cuts as he interrogates him about ‘pi’ – the symbol Michael has etched in the dirt with his foot – ‘a dirty little two bit organization for spying and escaping’. Gromek’s gum chewing is more prevalent and, being a hater of the sounds of other’s mastication, I wanted to see him stabbed/gassed/beaten to death.
The actual killing – Michael and the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell) going at him for ages – is worth the price of admission alone and, in a pretty average film, is just superb. As Michael grapples Gromek and tries to keep hold of him, Mrs. Farmer hunts around the kitchen for possible deadly implements with growing desperation**.
She stabs him with a large knife, then beats his legs with a shovel and finally powers up the gas oven to finish the poor bugger off – his hands clutching for air in a climactic high shot.
It’s the only case to say it in the film but: wow! The scene goes on for an age and is (blissfully) music free – and alarmingly violent. As mentioned in Week 16 this is a great example of showing how darned difficult it actually is to kill someone (the earlier example – from 1934’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ involving the knocking out of a dentist). Plus, this farmer’s wife is a lot more gung ho than Araminta from Week 6 (she wouldn’t put up with the ludicrous gurning of Churdles Ash). There’s a great composition just following this scene, Gromek’s motorsickle off to the left of frame, the road stretching into the distance.
There are all too few moments in ‘Torn Curtain’ that bear the stamp of the great director’s greatness. There’s a neat little trip up of Michael and as he plunges downstairs I was reminded of Arbogast toppling to his death in ‘Psycho’. Elsewhere Michael and Sarah go up a little hillock (a very obvious studio based hillock mind you) and we don’t get to hear what he says (nice play with sound and watching the actors from a distance without being parlay to their dialogue) but the scene ends with a big old theatrical kiss – the German guys not being able to see the haps but Hitchcock’s camera coming in for a close up of the snog action for our benefit. Thanks Hitch, I like to watch Butch Cassidy smooching Mary Poppins.
Another highlight scene is the long equation theft scene where Michael fools old Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) into giving him the actual formula. It goes on a while but then dawned on me just before the old Prof. got it that this was the core of the film – the gaining of the magical MacGuffin formula. As Prof. Lindt realizes, he slams the blackboard closed and calls the fuzz – but with a slammed door Michael is gone. There follows a pretty neat chase scene within the crowded building, Michael and Sarah slipping away on bicycles (as you do).
There’s much rear projection fun to be had in the ensuing bus chase scene – the two flee-ers on a false bus populated with anti Jerryites, but the real bus getting ever closer behind. This is pretty exciting stuff as the leading bus keeps getting delayed by a rather exaggerated amount of roadblocks and rogue mercenaries – and a doddery old lady who has to be virtually carried on board – all good fun and the pacey music for once actually helps it along. Eventually it’s only the old dear who gets nabbed, the police opening up with machine gunfire on the others with an admirable lack of hesitancy.
Hitchcock loves an eccentric old girl (see Miss Froy in ‘The Lady Vanishes’ or Joyce Grenfell in ‘Stage Fright’) and one pops up here in the shape of Lila Kedrova as Countess Kuchinska – but she seems so out of whack with the rest of the film that it’s just weird. Newman and Andrews are on this frantic escape mission and just keep looking at her and each other in mystification (I felt the same) – Newman in particular staring at her with complete wtf-ness?! on his face. Their style of acting is also a lot straighter and by the book than this ‘colourful’ (for that, read ‘irritating’) character. The scene goes on and on also and like many others in the film, needs a trim to be more effective. The café scene is then followed by another interminable sequence in a Post Office, the old girl constantly ‘bitte-ring’ for attention and then trying to stave off the authorities single handedly. I was glad to see the back of her…
The ballet scene is pretty exciting – the pair of them in the audience with cops starting to fill the place and rendering escape impossible, until Michael is inspired by the theatrical flames and yells ‘fire!’ The whole place goes batcrap crazy and they manage to slip away. The final scenes of them escaping in laundry baskets is all good and a novel route to freedom – the authorities blasting the boxes they think contain the two of them with machine gunfire.
‘Torn Curtain’ is ok, but only ok – and after the absolute stone cold gems of the previous years it is a major disappointment and signals a distinct decline in Hitchcock’s work. It feels small, it feels like a made for TV film trying to be something bigger. Newman and Andrews don’t really feel like Hitchcock stars, they play it too straight whereas Cary Grant and James Stewart had a lightness and humour that lifted their roles to fresh heights. The whole thing feels fairly static and pedestrian, it’s too long and scenes within it outstay their welcome substantially. At times it is – dare I say it – a little bit dull. There is some inventitude in parts but what should have been an escalating in excitement breakneck thriller comes across more as a rather weary tale with mere flashes of enthusiasm.
Mr. Hitchcock is seated in the lobby of the Hotel D’Ingleterra, with a toddler perched on his knee – about 8 minutes in.
*As an example, the scene where Michael speaks to the Farmer suddenly has suspenseful music under it which seems completely random to me – it only making sense when we see that Gromek has caught up to him.
**A device that lovers of ‘Pulp Fiction’ will be familiar with as Bruce Willis hunts around for a weapon in Zed’s store.
In the same way as ‘The Birds’ and ‘Marnie’ this Universal version (from the box set) is presented 4:3 but the film was originally shown 1.85:1 on its theatrical release. See Misc notes from before.