TORN CURTAIN: Deconstruction of a scene (the killing of Gromek)

Torn Curtain may be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most problematic and frustrating films.  It is a film of moments, a few of them quite good, and perhaps the greatest moment is the Gromek murder sequence.   Here is Hitchcock to set the scene:

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 though it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man.

This sequence runs around 8 minutes and 8 seconds in length, and is made up of 138 pieces of film, which averages out to an editorial cut every 3.5 seconds.   I have seen this sequence many times, and thought I knew it very well, but it was only upon studying it frame by frame that I realized how much Hitchcock relies on quick cutting and montage here.  This sequence is similar in that regard to the shower scene in Psycho and the attic attack in The Birds, although this sequence runs much longer.

Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) enters the small house, looking very happy that he has caught Professor Armstrong (Paul Newman), who is looking for another way out.

There is some standard back and forth cutting here, as Gromek begins to question Anderson.  Then Anderson and the woman (Carolyn Conwell) move to the center of the room, with the supporting beam between them.    

There is some more back and forth cutting, then Gromek calls Anderson to the door.  Gromek shows him the pi symbol drawn in the dirt.  Hitchcock does something very interesting with the cutting here.  As Gromek is interrogating Anderson, trying to provoke him, he reaches out his hand and pokes at Anderson’s midriff.   This is shown in a couple of very fast (< 1 second) insert shots, almost like blows.

Gromek closes the door, and Newman moves back to the center of the room.  As Gromek moves to the phone  to call in and report there is more back and forth cutting here, with the shots averaging 3 seconds or so.  After Gromek dials the phone, the pot of soup is hurled, landing just above the phone.  Hitchcock here inserts an extremely fast, almost subliminal close up of the the pot passing Gromek’s head.  I had to slow the image down to 1/8 speed to be sure it was an editorial cut and not a zoom.  It is a seamlessly inserted cut on movement, which then returns to the medium shot of the pots contents all over the phone and the wall.  

Then Hitchcock gives us this interesting image, the only such image in the sequence.  Why does he pull back like this, besides the fact that the composition of the shot is beautiful, almost like a painting?  I think it is to show us the lay of the land, before the confrontation begins in earnest.

Gromek goes for his gun, which flies across the room as Anderson grapples for it.  The woman grabs it.  Unfortunately she cannot use it, because the taxi driver outside the window would certainly hear.  Anderson has Gromek in a chokehold, which we observe from a high angle.

Hitchcock employs his subjective point of view, as he often did, by giving us shots from the woman’s POV.  She observes the taxi driver out the window, then searches for a quiet weapon.   She sees the knife in the kitchen drawer.

Then Hitchcock places the camera in front of her, and slowly tracks as she crosses the room, holding the knife out.

There is more cutting back and forth here between the woman and the struggling men.  She is hesitant, not wanting to injure Anderson.  Gromek continues to talk (“She’s gonna cut your fingers off”).

Finally she stabs Gromek.  Just at the instant of the blade landing, it snaps off.  And here Hitchcock inserts another one of those very fast, almost subliminal close ups before returning to the medium shot.

Gromek continues to stuggle with the tip of the blade embedded in his neck.  Now Hitchcock returns to the subjective point of view as the woman looks around for another weapon.  She sees the shovel, and grabs it.

The next series of shots are done in montage, about 8 shots in less than 10 seconds.   First a close up of the shovel hitting Gromek’s knee, then a close up of his face in pain.  This repeats four times.  Until Gromek finally slumps to the floor.

Gromek just won’t quit.  He smiles as he begins to rise again.  Once again the woman scans the room, and her eyes stop on the oven.  We get a close up of her hands  turning on the gas jets, then she and Anderson begin to grapple with Gromek.

Then comes a fascinating sequence of shots, from mostly from Gromek’s point of view.   As the other two are sliding Gromek across the floor towards the stove, we get a close-up of Anderson’s face, then Gromek’s head on the ground, the a close-up of the woman, and finally a shot of the open oven.  This same four-shot sequence repeats two more times, with the oven getting closer each time it repeats.  We see a total of 12 shots in 28 seconds.  

We next get a one-second shot of Gromek’s head going in the oven.  Then we cut to an overhead shot of Gromek in the oven.  After all the rapid cutting, Hitchcock holds this shot for 41 seconds without a cut.  We see Gromek’s hands flailing, then finally falling limply to his side, indicating his death.

The final cut of the sequence begins with a close up of the gas jets being turned off.  But Hitchcock does not cut away from this.  Instead he keeps one continuous take, as the two survivors move away from the stove, recovering from their ordeal.  This shot is the longest in the sequence, at around 50 seconds.  Why does Hitchcock end with this long take?  It allows both the characters and the audience to catch their breath.

As in many of Hitchcock’s signature scenes, he employed all three of his favorite camera techniques here:  montage, the long take, and the subjective point of view.   The sequence was carefully storyboarded before shooting, and when you break it down, you can see how each individual piece of film is integral to the story that Hitchcock is telling.

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TORN CURTAIN (1966) – Prelude to a movie (The setup)

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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:

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Hitchcock and Nabokov? An intriguing partnership that never came to fruition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.

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George Tomasini, superb film editor.

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.”

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Alfred Hitchcock and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Burks prepare a shot on the set of “North by Northwest.”

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…