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.
There is some standard back and forth cutting here, as Gromek begins to question Armstrong. Then Armstrong 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 Armstrong 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 Armstrong, trying to provoke him, he reaches out his hand and pokes at Armstrong’s midriff. This is shown in a couple of very fast (< 1 second) insert shots, almost like blows.
Gromek closes the door, and Armstrong 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, a pot of soup is hurled at his head, 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 Armstrong grapples for it. The woman grabs it. Unfortunately she cannot use it, because the taxi driver outside the window would certainly hear. Armstrong 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.
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. 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 Armstrong begin to grapple with Gromek.
Then comes a fascinating sequence of shots, 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 Armstrong’s face, then Gromek’s head on the ground, then 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.