BluRay/DVD Reviews

REVISITING TORN CURTAIN

By • Mar 8th, 2013 •

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When I was first discovering Alfred Hitchcock films through books, two of his later films, THE BIRDS and FRENZY were considered masterworks. The three films made between these hits – MARNIE, TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ were brushed off as “weak” and “dull”. I noticed TORN CURTAIN had serious problems, but it was really quite an entertaining, sometimes suspenseful espionage film. Learning about its troubled production, I realized TORN CURTAIN came very close to being a major Hitchcock classic – equal to NORTH BY NORTHWEST or STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The film’s plot is simple – just as Hitchcock preferred – an American Professor, Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) announces he is defecting to Communist East Germany. Against his wishes, his fiancée/assistant Sarah (Julie Andrews) follows him. Armstrong’s abrasive guide, Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) discovers the truth: Armstrong is really an American spy, gathering some weapons secrets behind the iron curtain. Armstrong is forced to assist in killing Gromek at a secluded farmhouse. While a rattled Armstrong races to uncover the secret formula, the police find Gromek’s body, and learn of Armstrong’s involvement. Armstrong and Julie have only seconds to cross the border to Sweden, and to safety.

Hitchcock was unhappy with the casting forced upon him by Universal. Originally, he wanted to re-team his NORTH BY NORTHWEST leads – Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Universal insisted on the younger and more bankable Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Hitchcock and Newman began with a good working relationship that soon soured. Newman’s “method” acting style didn’t agree with Hitchcock (a problem Hitchcock had with Montgomery Clift years earlier on I CONFESS). In fact, as production progressed, Newman started giving his director written notes instructing him on how to make a good suspense movie like the old master – Alfred Hitchcock. Julie Andrews, fresh off of the mega-hit THE SOUND OF MUSIC, was much in demand and had a limited time-frame to work with Hitchcock. Production started before Hitchcock had a screenplay he approved of.

As completed, TORN CURTAIN has serious screenplay issues. Why go through such mangled venues as gathering cryptic codes, sneaking to farms just to simply uncover the name of a communist professor who has the secret formula? Major plot points after Gromek’s death come across in labored dialog-heavy scenes. When the sought after red professor finally gives Armstrong the secret formula, it’s in front of a blah blackboard with tons of math-peppered dialog. As the chase intensifies towards the third act of the film, everything stops dead for some flat comedic banter with an exiled countess (played by Lila Kedrova, who had just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for ZORBA THE GREEK)

TORN CURTAIN was Hitchcock’s dark spin on James Bond. Bond was a larger-than-life spy who sipped cocktails and bedded lovely ladies while dodging charming enemies. Here, our “spy” Armstrong, is thrown into uncomfortable, dangerous situations that he’s never seen in life. Paul Newman, to me, is too super-cool to be the ordinary everyman suffocating in international intrigue. Had Hitchcock gone with someone more down to earth, like Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck or Rod Taylor, we would be rooting for Armstrong more.

Hitchcock complained that the audience would be expecting his leading lady to burst out into song during the chase. With her awful, cold, school-marm outfits and disapproving expression, she looks like she’s about to give the bad guys an after-school talking to! Hitchcock shied away from brunettes, but somebody more sensual, like Sophia Loren, would have been just right!

Also, a major minus for the film is the music score. Originally, longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann scored the film. Hitchcock and Herrmann had a falling out and Herrmann was replaced by John Addison, who had recently provided the music for the hit film TOM JONES. Addison’s score is too light (as per Universal’s demands), often reminding us that this is a story with dull moments. Herrmann’s score, which exists, is menacing, punctuating the mystery that would have really propelled the first third of the film.

Despite it’s flaws, TORN CURTAIN has volumes going for it. Its most celebrated and studied scene – where Armstrong has to kill Gromek – is a welcome fright forty-five minutes into an already slow and talky narrative. Hitchcock often noted that in James Bond films, enemies are killed off quickly and cleanly. Hitchcock wanted to show that killing a man is slow, painful, and difficult. Gromek has to be stabbed, beaten with a shovel, strangled and gassed before dying. It’s curious that the knife in PYSCHO stays intact, but the TORN CURTAIN knife realistically snaps in Gromek’s chest! Also, Hitchcock should have gotten more mileage out of the colorful Gromek. As played by celebrated German character actor Wolfgang Kieling (who later did German dubbing for THE MUPPET SHOW) Gromek is a discomforting, always smiling presence, spouting old-movie clichés while intimidating Armstrong.

The pace quickens as Armstrong and Sarah escape on a bus filled with members of a spy ring. Like THE LADY VANISHES, it is a mode of transportation cluttered with European eccentrics, such as calm, disapproving identical twins, and a vile-tempered German lady who places a curse on Armstrong! After the tiring Lila Kedrova skit, we truly sense Armstrong is a rat aboard a sinking ship as he tries to escape the German police. He and Sarah duck into a theatre as the police close in. A temperamental ballerina on the stage depicting the fires of Hell spots Armstrong and calls the police. (The stage abounds with chilling Production Design by Hein Heckroth, who was the set decorator for Michael Powell’s THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMANN)

Critics of TORN CURTAIN say Hitchcock was behind the times, but his use of new editing techniques here show he’s fitting right into the mid 1960’s. Quentin Tarantino states TORN CURTAIN as one of his favorite Hitchcock films. Give the film some patience – have fun with it- because TORN CURTAIN really can be a Hitchcock treat.

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