Alfred Hitchcock Enters the Cold War with “Torn Curtain”

27 02 2011

“From the moment when [Paul] Newman tells Julie Andrews, “You go back to New York; I’ll go back to Sweden,” the public cannot fully believe him because we’ve allowed them to see other cues to his strange behavior. Nevertheless, all that had to be accurately worked out because you’ve got to be fair to the audience who will be seeing the film more than once. The picture’s got to be able to stand up to a double check.” – Alfred Hitchcock

In 1966, Alfred Hitchcock directed his fiftieth picture, “Torn Curtain,” a cold-war drama starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. The film, a labyrinth of plot twists and fake outs, presented Hitch with numerous challenges from all sides, and yet, for the most part, he was able to accomplish his goals and deliver a picture that entertains and even thrills.

Newman plays Professor Michael Armstrong, a physicist who’s on a cruise to Sweden with his assistant/fiance, Sarah Sherman, played by Andrews. Although the ship’s heating is not working, the couple is keeping warm in Armstrong’s bed, but when a cable is delivered to the room, Armstrong begins acting strangely, much to Sarah’s confusion. In Copenhagen, at a scientific conference, Armstrong skips out on a speech he was to deliver, telling Sherman that he has to fly to Oslo. She learns from a hotel employee that he is in fact going to East Berlin, and decides to follow him. En route, and under the suspicious gaze of their fellow passengers, the couple argues about Armstrong’s mission. Sherman believes that he plans to defect, while Armstrong is furious that she followed him.

Hitchcock shows the rift between Andrews and Newman with the shape of the room, which splits the image, and by putting her in light and him in shadow.

In Communist territory, Armstrong meets several contacts who grill him on his intentions; satisfied that he’s left the U.S. because funding for his missile project was cut, he meets another contact on a farm. This man is a representative of a spy group called Pi, who has pledged to help Armstrong escape to the West again after his real mission is complete. But Armstrong’s East German handler, a man named Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), tracks his charge to the farmhouse. Gromek intends to bring Armstrong back to Berlin, but Armstrong and the farmer’s wife kill him so Armstrong can escape. The scene is violent, harrowing and purposefully drawn out; Hitchcock wanted his film to contrast the other spy films of the day, like the James Bond movies, by showing how difficult it can be to kill a person.

Armstrong returns to Berlin on his own, continuing the vetting process that will clear him to meet with the man he’s after, Professor Lindt. Sherman, still in the dark, can’t understand why Armstrong is willing to betray the U.S. He pulls her aside and explains that he’s only doing it to get a formula from Lindt that will enable him to finish his project, and so, Sherman rejoins his cause.

In a classroom at the university, Armstrong tricks Lindt into giving away the formula – the movie’s McGuffin – by pretending to make mistakes in his own work. But after revealing the secret, Lindt hears the announcement that anyone seeing Armstrong is to detain him. Lindt picks up a phone to call the authorities, telling Armstrong not to leave the room, but of course Armstrong is gone before the old professor can finish dialing the phone.

With the help of a sympathetic doctor, Armstrong and Sherman try to escape Berlin. First, they go to a ballet where they are to meet a contact, but they are spotted in the audience by the prima ballerina, who had seen them fighting on the airplane earlier. Armstrong starts a panic by yelling “fire,” then leads Sherman to a door where they meet their contact, Mr. Jacobi, who brings them to a garage where they board a bus full of Pi operatives. The bus is to take them to another contact, but they are first attacked in the countryside by soldiers turned highwaymen; they’re rescued by something even more dangerous: a police escort. In a country where travel is strictly controlled, the police are fully aware of the bus schedule, so when the real bus scheduled to run at that time shows up on the road behind the Pi agents, it’s only a matter of time before the police figure out that one of the vehicles is a fake. The inexorable chase ends in a city, where the Pi agents scatter; only an old woman who boarded the bus unaware of what was going on is caught.

In this city, Armstrong and Sherman are accosted by a colorful, exiled Polish countess who promises to help them get out of the country if they will sponsor her for asylum in the U.S. She gets them to their next contact, who puts them in baskets on a ship heading for Sweden. But the ballerina is on this ship, too, and when she sees someone wishing the baskets good luck, she calls for help. The baskets were just a red herring, though – Armstrong and Sherman had already gotten out and swam to shore, out from behind the Iron Curtain at last. The movie ends as it began, with Armstrong and Sherman trying to stay warm under a blanket.

Although the ballerina represents one of the more implausible bits from “Torn Curtain” – she seems to be everywhere Armstrong and Sherman go, and even manages to recognize them while she’s onstage in the middle of a performance – one could also see her as a comic, even absurd, element of the movie.

That same absurdity is seen in the ineffectiveness of the East German police, who continually let Armstrong get away and do whatever he wants. In reality, Armstrong would have been under continuous armed guard, and quite probably imprisoned, before he could ever meet with a top scientist, but this is not reality – it is Hitchcock’s world of cinematic fantasy. Like “The 39 Steps,” like “The Lady Vanishes,” like “North by Northwest,” the film is not meant to be realistic or even, necessarily, entirely believable.

This is a good thing, because Paul Newman is not at all convincing as a nuclear physicist. He’s earthy and brash, and an odd fit for the role. Hitchcock, after making two movies with very little star power, was pushed into casting Newman and Julie Andrews in the movie, and he had problems with both. Hitchcock didn’t particularly like them for the roles, and he never warmed up to either. Andrews simply did not appeal to him – one might imagine that she reminded him of the British actresses of his early days, whose reserved manner kept them from revealing their real personalities on camera.

Newman offended Hitchcock by continually criticizing the script and questioning his role. Unfortunately, the script was not fully developed when the film started shooting to accommodate Andrews’ schedule; even Hitch was not satisfied with it, and it lacks the sparkle of his usual work. (The Italian screenwriters Age and Scarpelli, writers of “Big Deal on Madonna Street” and Hitchcock’s collaborators on the unproduced film “R.R.R.R.”, had complaints about the script that reflected Newman’s own concerns.) The dullness of the dialogue is at odds with Hitchcock’s directing, which keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a light touch that suggests comedy. “Torn Curtain” was written by Brian Moore, based on an idea from Hitchcock himself.

Andrews’s presence created another issue for the director. Universal Studio executives from had asked for a pop music score, and even hoped that the movie would feature a song for Julie Andrews to sing; after all, she had just won an Academy Award for “Mary Poppins,” and had been introduced to the world in “The Sound of Music.” After granting composer Bernard Herrmann carte blanche for the past ten years, Hitchcock approached him this time with those requests, and while Herrmann agreed to them at first, he instead created his normal, dramatic, dark score – and no pop song. The score may have been brilliant, but it was not what Hitchcock wanted, and so he was fired. Hitch then brought in a new composer, John Addison, to quickly score the film. The result veers from innocuous to, at times, almost silly-sounding; Addison even accents Hitchcock’s cameo with a few notes from the theme song to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” calling altogether too much attention to it. Herrmann, meanwhile, would never work with Hitchcock again.

With two lead actors whom Hitchcock did not particularly like, the director instead turned his attention to some of his secondary characters. “Torn Curtain” is populated by European actors, two of whom really stand out. Lila Kedrova, playing Countess Kuchinska in a rainbow of colors, hams it up as she demands a quid pro quo for her help, while Wolfgang Kieling plays Hermann Gromek like a modern Peter Lorre, smiling and turning on the charm while showing off his command of American slang.

The film was shot on location as well as on sets in Hollywood. While touring Europe to shoot the exteriors that would give the film its feeling of authenticity, Hitchcock also recorded street sounds; it’s a trick he used in “Rear Window,” and it pays off here, too, adding an extra dimension to the illusions of the film.

“Torn Curtain” includes several typical Hitchcock set pieces, like the chase in the East Berlin museum, the scene at the opera house, and the chase on the bus. Despite the deficiencies of the script and the odd casting, Hitchcock still builds tension like no one else.

The critics were not kind to “Torn Curtain” when it was released. Like “Marnie,” the movie was out of step with its competition; audiences wanted the slick espionage of “James Bond,” but Hitch delivered something grittier, yet no more believable, than Bond.

Hitch had even tougher competition than 007 at the time. His own movies were being shown on television and rereleased in theaters. “Torn Curtain” could not measure up to earlier triumphs like “Notorious” or “Strangers on a Train,” to name just two. While “Torn Curtain” has its merits, it lacks the polish and the style of many of Hitchcock’s films from earlier years – and, of course, audiences and critics generally remembered the best of his work, forgetting lesser thrillers like “Young and Innocent,” to pick a movie that might be closer to the quality level of “Torn Curtain.” Still, “Torn Curtain” boasted two very hot stars in Newman and Andrews, and the movie was a hit.

With this trailer, Hitchcock at last gets away from presenting the movie himself, as he had for “Psycho,” “The Birds” and “Marnie.” Instead, we get a trailer that emphasizes the action and the breathless pace of “Torn Curtain.”

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4 responses

27 02 2011
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Excellent blog post! I especially appreciated your explanation of the falling-out between Hitchcock and Herrmann. Although TORN CURTAIN is flawed (though I bet some enterprising filmmaker could tighten it up into a stellar remake that even Hitchcock would approve of), some of its set pieces are classics in and of themselves, like the farmhouse murder (and does the farm woman look like Liv Ullmann, or what?) and the escape from the ballet. It’s ironic as hell that director Mark Robson’s suspenseful and sprightly adaptation of Irving Wallace’s THE PRIZE starring Paul Newman came off more like a great Hitchcock thriller than Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN. Of course, that might be due to NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s screenwriter Ernest Lehman coming on board, tipping his hat considerably to NxNW, especially with the nudist meeting scene that was clearly inspired by NxNW’s auction scene! 🙂

7 03 2012
Hal

It’s ironic that – as with the later Topaz – Torn Curtain was conceived by Hitchcock as a “serious” Bond movie because, as you point out, the film is not any more “real” in its depiction of espionage than Dr No. There is further irony in the fact that the Bond films owed elements to Hitchcock something of which he was well aware. It’s a shame that Torn Curtain resembles some of the stodgier Cold War films of the 50s and 60s rather than Hitchcock’s better works, even Topaz illustrates that all sides in the conflict are capable of ruthless soul-destroying acts (much like in Le Carre’s novels or indeed Hitch’s Notorious or even the lighter North by Northwest).
There’s one comment I’d have to disagree with you on and that is on AH’s disappointment with Julie Andrews, I don’t think it was because she reminded him of the English actresses from his early years who couldn’t bring a spark to the screen, after all Madeleine Carroll was really the first Hitchcock Blonde, while Margaret Lockwood had plenty of spark and Hitchcock was fond of Nova Pilbeam. No, I think Julie Andrews disappointed him because she was just wrong for the role and didn’t appeal to him. Doris Day had the advantage of being able to sing Que Sera Sera and to be playing a mother, Julie was meant to be sexier and intense but she didn’t have that in her for AH’s tastes. Well, that’s my take!

7 03 2012
adamphilips

I do agree that Julie Andrews was wrong for the role, but my suggestion was based on Hitchcock’s preference for naturalness in acting, which was a little hard to find not in his earlier movies but in the early days of British cinema, according to his own comments.

7 03 2012
Hal

Ah. He did like actors to, in some way, be themselves in certain roles, didn’t he? He wanted Madeleine Caroll to bring something of herself to her 39 Steps character with fantastic results, as she could then play not just the ice queen but also the freer warmer side as well. It’s interesting that she was paired with future Hitch favourite Cary Grant in Topper a few years later in which she was able to show off her quirky comic talents.
Luckily A. H. had tastes that encompassed naturalness and more heightened performance styles, I think part of what made him great is that no one can pin him down something always eludes those who’d try to but that’s where the interest and fun lies. Well done on your many posts.

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