The three-act structure is a basic tenet of screenwriting. Most films generally follow the template: setup, confrontation, and resolution. Torn Curtain is a movie where the three acts are clearly delineated through a shifting narrative focus. As Hitchcock himself said “…the picture is clearly divided into three sections. The story worked out very naturally in that way…”
So our examination of this problematic Hitchcock movie will attempt to follow the same structure. This blog entry will be the setup: how did this movie come to be? It will also introduce the confrontation: what went wrong in preproduction. A second entry will continue with the confrontation and onto the resolution, with a focus on the film itself and its aftermath.
After the release of Marnie in July of 1964, Alfred Hitchcock took some time choosing his next project. For the majority of his directing career, Hitchcock had worked on multiple projects at one time; while completing the filming of one movie he would already be involved in the writing of his next movie, and was often looking beyond that. Those days were over. Hitchcock, now sixty-five years old, was increasingly conscious of his health. He also seemed unsure of his next step. Several months passed, during which time Hitch screened some movies at home, read some books, but seemed no closer to choosing a prospective film. Two of the films he had screened and enjoyed were The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, and he actually talked to Richard Condon (the author of The Manchurian Candidate) and Rod Serling (who penned the screenplay for Seven Days in May). Whether Hitchcock hoped to work with these writers, or just wished to share his admiration is unknown, but nothing came of the discussions. One of the books Hitchcock read during this period was John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, one of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps. Several times since the success of Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps he had planned to film one of Buchan’s sequels, but it never happened.
Then suddenly, in November, he tried to start three different projects, almost simultaneously. This sudden creative burst could be interpreted in a couple of ways. In the first place, it is clear that he was firing on all cylinders, creatively speaking. But it also appears that the master of suspense was casting about, not sure which direction to proceed. The younger Hitchcock of the 1940’s and 50’s never vacillated to this degree.
One of Hitch’s three ideas was for a movie that could function as a sort of prequel to Shadow of a Doubt, detailing the exploits of a man who murders several wealthy widows. He brought in Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, and asked him to write a novel that Hitch could then turn into a movie. Bloch was intrigued, but the project was short lived, in part because of monetary disputes, also because Hitchcock simply felt no rapport with Bloch.
Hitchcock’s next idea involved a family of crooks that run a hotel as a cover for their criminal activities. This was a premise that Hitchcock had first thought of decades before.
His third idea involved an American spy. Hitchcock envisaged a movie as far removed from James Bond as possible; he felt that the new spy movies were outlandish, and also borrowed a little too freely from his own North by Northwest. He thought it was time to make a very realistic, down-to-earth story about a spy who defects to the Communist bloc.
Hitchcock jettisoned the first idea after the talks with Robert Bloch went nowhere, and proceeded with the other two ideas simultaneously. He actually approached famed writer Vladimir Nabokov about writing a treatment for these two ideas. Apparently they met in person, and had phone conversations as well. The specifics of these talks are unknown, but their correspondence by letter has survived. On November 19, 1964, Hitchcock wrote to Nabokov at his residence in Switzerland, sharing his two ideas for movies:
“Now the first idea I have been thinking about for some time is based upon a question that I do not think I have seen dealt with in motion picture or, as far as I know, in literature. It is the problem of the woman who is associated, either by marriage or engagement, to a defector…the type of story I’m looking for is an emotional, psychological one, expressed in terms of action and movement…”
Hitchcock then outlined his second idea: “I wondered what would happen if a young girl, having spent her life in a convent in Switzerland due to the fact that she had no home to go to and only had a widowed father, was suddenly released from college at the end of her term. She would be returned to her father, who would be the general manager of a large international hotel. The [father’s] family are a gang of crooks, using the hotel as a base of operations. Now into this setting comes our 19-year-old girl.”
Nabokov responded in a letter dated November 28, 1964. He said in part:
“I find both your ideas very interesting. The first would present many difficulties for me because I do not know enough about American security matters and methods…Your second idea is quite acceptable to me.” It’s interesting that Nabokov rejected the first idea, which would become Torn Curtain, in favor of the second.
Before Hitchcock received Nabokov’s reply, however, he was faced with a personal and professional tragedy. On the 22nd of November, George Tomasini, who had edited Hitchcock’s last nine movies, died suddenly of a heart attack while on a camping trip. Tomasini, an avid outdoorsman, was only 55 years old, and in apparent good health. Tomasini was a very important part of Hitchcock’s team, one of the most important collaborators of his entire career, and someone whose company he enjoyed. As Tomasini’s wife, actress Mary Brian explained many years after his death “Mr. Hitchcock wanted George to go with him on every location…because he liked his company, aside from any input that George could give him. Mr. Hitchcock always gave George first cut. He wanted to see his interpretation. Then they got down to the fine work.”
This was the first of many losses and setbacks that Hitchcock would face during the preparation and filming of Torn Curtain. In my next blog entry, we’ll take a look at how all of this loss impacted the final product.
By the end of the year, Hitchcock was in a bit of disarray. His creative spark had been briefly muted. After losing George Tomasini, he also lost Nabokov, who had backed out of both projects by Christmas. But in the first week of the new year Hitchcock forged ahead on both projects. He hired the Italian screenwriting duo of Age and Scarpelli to write the hotel story, tentatively titled “RRRR”. This project would eventually be scrapped, because, as Hitchcock rather bluntly stated “…Italians are very slipshod in matters of story construction. They just ramble on.”
Hitchcock brough novelist Brian Moore to Hollywood, to try and entice him into writing Torn Curtain. Moore had no interest in writing a screenplay, but was convinced by his lawyer to accept, because the money offered was too good to pass up. After Tomasini’s death, this was the second indication that Hitchcock was in trouble. Reluctant screenwriters do not make great movies. But Hitchcock forged ahead.
In the matter of casting, Universal wanted him to use Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Hitchcock admired Newman’s early work, and thought he would do well. He pushed back a little on Andrews, but the studio, and Hitchcock’s agent, said she was “great box-office.” Hitchcock agreed to both actors well before the first draft of the screenplay was ready. Their combined salaries (around $1.5 million) was more than the rest of the film’s budget. And this for a screenplay that had yet to be completed.
Brian Moore’s initial draft was submitted in April of 1965. Hitchcock cajoled him into writing a second and third draft, with additional rewrites, all done by the first week of August. Hitchcock asked Moore to do an additional “polish” on the screenplay. By this time, Moore was exhausted, and frustrated with the screenwriting process. He dropped out of the project, preferring to return to his novels. Further, he told Hitchcock that the screenplay needed a complete rewrite, not just a polish. At this point, Hitchcock’s production schedule was already locked in. Julie Andrews was only available for a limited window in the fall, so he had to proceed. So Hitchcock hired the British writing team of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who stayed on during production, often rewriting scenes only hours before they were shot.
Now Hitchcock would suffer another devastating loss. Julie Andrews was scheduled to shoot some test footage at Universal in September of 1965, with Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks. The following is a production memo from Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Roberts:
Friday September 17, Bob Burks “was terribly sick with nerves…and could not shoot the tests with Julie Andrews.”
“On Saturday Sep. 18, in the morning [Burks] called Mr. Hitchcock and it was decided that it would be too risky for him to do the film.”
Bob Burks had been the cinematographer on twelve Alfred Hitchcock movies, dating back to 1951’s Strangers on a Train. He was arguably the most important technical collaborator in Hitchcock’s entire career. And now he would be unable to shoot Torn Curtain, due to “nerves”. Apparently the last decade and a half of nearly non-stop filmmaking had caught up with him. Hitchcock was disappointed, but certainly did not express any ill will towards his long-time friend. Hitchcock merely hoped that after taking a breather, they could work together again on future Hitchcock movies. Unfortunately, they would never have that opportunity, because Burks and his wife would die in a house fire in 1968.
What had happened to Alfred Hitchcock? The man who had always been so sure of himself; the man who had worked with almost complete autonomy in the waning days of the studio system; the man who, as recently as 1959, could stand up to the studio heads at MGM and refuse to cut a scene from North by Northwest? Three years earlier, he could do no wrong. Now nothing seemed to be going right.
So, the setup: Alfred Hitchcock can’t decide on a topic for his movie. He devolops several ideas simultaneously, hoping to find one that sticks. And he proceeds with the last idea standing.
The beginning of the confrontation: He had leading actors he wasn’t altogether pleased with; a screenplay that was not ready to be shot; a shooting schedule that was locked in; and was missing two vital members of his collaborative team in Tomasini and Burks.
This is where we leave Hitchcock as he steps before the cameras on October 18, 1965 to begin principle photography on Torn Curtain. To be continued…