TORN CURTAIN (1966) – Universal Pictures – Rating: ★★ 1/2
Color – 128 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjorg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Mort Mills (Farmer/Pi).
Directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Brian Moore
Cinematographer: John F. Warren
Editor: Bud Hoffman
Original Music: John Addison
Torn Curtain begins with one Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite techniques: a brief montage of images, with no dialogue, that perfectly sets the scene. Hitchcock used this type of wordless opening montage in numerous films, including Sabotage, Dial M For Murder, and Rear Window. So three minutes into the movie, we know we are on a ship that is hosting an assembly of scientists; we know the ship is freezing cold; and we know a certain pair are missing from breakfast, because they are in bed together. And these of course are the stars, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), and his assistant and fiancee Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). This set-up is quite good; Hitchcock is on familiar ground. Unfortunately, the movie soon begins to labor under the weight of its own plot.
Of the film’s structure, Hitchcock said “…the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view…”, meaning that the audience is seeing things as Julie Andrews’ character sees them. After a solid set-up, we learn that Michael is keeping something from Sarah. Michael receives a mysterious telegram on the ship. Later, in Copenhagen, he receives a book that contains a coded message. He then tells Sarah that he must leave Copenhagen that night, alone. He is terse, uncommunicative, and dismissive. Later Sarah learns that he has a plane ticket to East Berlin, to which she utters the almost laughingly trite line “East Berlin…but that’s behind the Iron Curtain.” Oh, brother! Screenwriter Keith Waterhouse later called this “an immortally bad line” and despite his and his partner’s pleading “…Hitchcock steadfastly refused to modify the line, not even to the extent of getting rid of the superfluous ‘but’ and its hesitant dash.”
She buys a ticket on the same plane, without Michael knowing about it, and follows him to East Berlin, where he announces his intentions to defect to the communist bloc and share his knowledge of American rocketry. It is abundantly clear to the audience at this point that Newman’s character can’t be a real defector. I’m not sure which is more implausible: that his fiancee and confidante would not be able to see this, or that he would keep such a secret from the most important person in his life, especially now that she is in jeopardy. This lapse in logic causes this portion of the film to suffer. Fortunately though, the middle third of the movie may be the most solid. It shifts to Paul Newman’s point of view.
First, the couple has a discussion in an East Berlin hotel room. This is shot from a distance, all in one take; the staging is rather like that of a play, and makes the viewer feel like an interloper in the characters’ private lives. It is gorgeously shot, as described by Hitchcock:
“There was one very effective sequence in the film that I purposely played entirely in long shot. It took place in that East Berlin hotel room where we had the evening sun shining in – just a faint yellow shaft of warm sunlight; the rest was that awful heavy brown, a mood effect. That sequence represents very close coordination between the visual conceptions of the production designer and the cameraman. The lighting, and the color of the light, work in relationship to the somber tones of the room.”
Professor Armstrong has been assigned a security detail named Gromek, played by the German actor Wolfgang Kieling. Gromek is the most interesting character in the movie; he makes the most of every moment he is on screen. Armstrong wants to give Gromek the slip; he leaves his hotel with the German agent in pursuit. Armstrong goes to an art museum, where we see a silent chase through vast rooms displaying works of art, the only sound the clopping of shoes on the tiled floor. These scenes were filmed by shooting the actors walking, while most of the walls and works of art were added in later as a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock. These shots hold up very well today; overall the sequence is quite good.
Armstrong exits out a side door and takes a taxi to a farm in the countryside, where he meets with an American agent (played by Mort Mills) nicknamed Pi. Unfortunately, he was followed by Gromek, and is trapped in the small farmhouse with Gromek and the wife of the agent. Here follows the best sequence in the movie. Now Gromek knows that Armstrong is a double agent, so Gromek must be killed. But it must be done quietly, because the taxi driver is outside the window. Hitchcock describes the sequence:
“In doing that long killing scene, my first thought again was to avoid the cliche. In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly. They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not. And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man.”
After Gromek is killed, Armstrong knows is time is limited. The final third of the film focuses on Armstrong meeing with a German scientist in Leipzig to pry some information from him; then on his and Sarah’s attempt to escape East Germany and get to Sweden and safety. This last section of the film is inconsistent. While the first third of the film was marred by implausible plot points, it is technical details that help to weaken the final third. There is a scene in which Armstrong finally tells Sarah that he is not really defecting, that he is a double agent working for America. This scene is shot on a hilltop, and we don’t hear the dialogue. Hitchcock used this effective technique in a few movies; when the audience already has the knowledge that the character doesn’t, he lets the expository dialogue play out of earshot; we more or less know what is being said. Unfortunately, this otherwise well-constructed sequence is marred by set design. It is painfully obvious that this “hillside” was shot on a soundstage. Had he chosen to shoot this scene at an exterior location, it would have been one of the most powerful, moving scenes in the movie. Julie Andrews is quite good here. For most of his career Hitchcock was the master of special effects and trick shots; he was an innovator even in the silent film days. How could he let a shot like this stand? Did the artificiality not bother him? It tends to take the audience out of the film.
After this the couple are secreted away on a bus to meet a contact in East Berlin. The bus is a fake city bus, running just moments ahead of the real bus, and the passengers all Germans with anti-communist sentiment, risking their lives. This sequence should have been one of the highlights of the movie; it is certainly written and structured in a way designed to build tension over several minutes. Unfortunately, the tension is lessened again for a technical reason. The bus is so obviously on a soundstage, with screens outside the windows projecting images of passing countryside and vehicles. Hitchcock explains: “I’m not happy with the technical quality of the transparencies for that scene. For economy reasons I had the background plates shot by German cameramen, but we should have sent an American crew over.”
Again, how did Hitchcock let this slip by? Shouldn’t he have looked at the footage sooner, while there was time to shoot replacement film? The clearly artificial quality of these shots deflates the tension from what would have been a great sequence.
Later the couple meet a bizarre lady who calls herself Countess Kuchinska (played by Lila Kedrova, who had recently won an Oscar for her role in Zorba the Greek). Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Kedrova, and the sequence is somewhat effective but longer than it needed to be. Eventually our couple are sent to a ballet, from which they will be secreted out of the country on a ship bound for Sweden. They find themselves trapped in a crowded room, another favorite Hitchcock motif used in several movies, from The 39 Steps to Saboteur to North by Northwest. They just manage to evade capture and make it to Sweden. We leave them as we found them, snuggled under a blanket.
Performance: Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are both solid in their own way, but lack a strong screen chemistry. At times they seem to be characters visiting one another from different movies. Early in production, Newman sent Alfred Hitchcock a three-page memo outlining some ideas and concerns he had about the script. This was really off-putting to Hitchcock, who never replied to the memo, and had a very reserved relationship with the actor. Many of the supporting characters, most of them European actors, were quite good, adding some needed life and vibrancy to the movie.
A lost scene (Gromek’s brother): Alfred Hitchcock shot a sequence for the movie which would have occured shortly after the killing of Gromek. Professor Armstrong stops at a German canteen and meets a man who looks a lot like the man he just killed. This man is Gromek’s brother, and the part is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the same actor who played Gromek. He asks Armstrong to deliver some sausage to his brother, which he proceeds to cut with a knife very like the one that Gromek was stabbed with. This scene, rife with Hitchcock’s typical dark humor, sounds fantastic. Hitchcock said of it: “It’s quite effective. In fact, very good. I dropped it from the final film because the film was too long…the actor who played Gromek was very good. I had him completely transformed for the brother’s role.” Once again, Hitchcock’s judgment went awry; he cut a scene which by his own admission was “very good” because the film was “too long”? Why not cut a sequence that was not “very good”? The Countess Kuchinska sequence definitely could have been trimmed.
Farewell, Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock began this movie having lost two of his most important collaborators, editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Bob Burks. He would lose another one during post production. Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the film score for seven Hitchcock movies, was hired to score this film as well. Hitchcock told Herrmann he wanted something different, explaining in a telegram “This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater it is young vigorous and demanding.” It seems to me that Hitchcock should have heeded his own advice; nonetheless, Herrmann promised to deliver the type of score that Hitchcock was asking for. But when it came time to hear it, Hitchcock didn’t like it at all. Herrmann stormed off; he later claimed he quit, while Hitchcock claimed he was fired. Whatever the reason, one of the greatest parternships between film composer and director was ended; they would never speak again.
Recurring players: Because Hitchcock recruited many European actors for this movie, he did not employ many people that he had previously worked with. William Yetter, Sr. had also been an extra in Foreign Correspondent. And Mort Mills, who plays the agent named Pi, had earlier appeared in Psycho as the highway patrolman who follows Marion Crane early in the movie.
Where’s Hitch? Alfred Hitchcock wrote a memo detailing his cameo for this movie: “I should be seen sitting in an armchair in the lounge with a nine month old baby on my knee and I’m looking around rather impatiently for the mother to come back. This impatience could be underscored by shifting the baby from one knee to the other, and then with the free hand, surreptitiously wiping the thigh.” This is exactly how the cameo was shot, and begins at about the 8:18 mark, early in the movie.
The resolution: Alfred Hitchcock began shooting this film with a screenplay that was not up to his usual standards. Everybody recognized this (Paul Newman later said “We all knew we had a loser on our hands”), but they soldiered on. Despite the flaws in the screenplay, the film could have been better than it is. Hitchcock could have recognized and corrected some of the technical faults in the picture. He could have trimmed a couple of overlong sequences, and left intact a scene that by his own admission was “very good.” How could Hitchcock be so right in some instances, and so very wrong in others? It would make more sense if the whole film was a disaster; it most certainly is not. This film is ultimately a mix of a few very good moments, and many forgettable ones. Losing so many important collaborators had to impact him; he was reeling from numerous losses. The film made a meager profit, but not enough to label it a success, especially considering the director and the two stars. The reviews were harsh; some suggested that Hitchcock had lost his touch. Unfortunately for Hitch, things would get worse before they got better.
Definitive edition: Universal’s 2012 blu-ray is the best looking and sounding version of this movie available. John Warren’s cinematography looks quite good. The blu-ray contains a 32 minute documentary called “Torn Curtain Rising”, which is rather poor. Unlike most of the other documentaries on the Universal Hitchcock movies, this one features no interviews with cast or crew members. I have heard Julie Andrews discuss this movie many times, as recently as last year; surely she would have participated if asked? Instead we get some bland narrator taking us through the film and offering an apologist’s view of its faults and strengths. Also included are 14 minutes of Bernard Herrmann’s musical cues, which he wrote before leaving the project to be replaced by John Addison. Again, Universal dropped the ball here. Herrmann scored much more of the movie than 14 minutes. Why not include all of his cues, which I personally feel are better suited to the material than Addison’s. Also included are production photographs and the theatrical trailer.