Film, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #48: Torn Curtain

April 5, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) doesn’t quite live up to the director’s previous masterpieces — it came out on the heels of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, tough acts to follow! — but it’s a colorful and engaging international thriller with some memorable moments.

Dr. Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is a nuclear scientist on his way to Denmark to deliver a speech at a conference.  He’s accompanied by his assistant and fiance Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews).  In Copenhagen, however, Michael starts acting strangely, and Sarah realizes something is amiss — especially when Michael, who works with the U.S. government, tells her he’s been called away to Sweden and doesn’t want her to come with him.  Their argument leads Sarah to investigate, only to find that Michael isn’t going to Sweden, but to East Berlin.  She follows him there, shocked to discover that he’s offered himself up to the communists as a defector.  What follows is a twisty adventure behind the Iron Curtain as Sarah eventually uncovers the motives for Michael’s mysterious behavior.

It’s easy to look at Torn Curtain and see it as the beginning of Hitchcock’s decline from his classic period — it’s a flawed film for sure, unevenly paced, generally good but not as consistently riveting as his best work.  Newman isn’t a perfect fit for Hitchcock:  too naturalistic an actor for Hitchcock’s meticulous, shot-by-shot direction, perhaps.  By comparison, Andrews is effective, clearly responsive and onboard.  The pair is out of sync, less a problem of romantic chemistry than acting approach; it does hurt the film a little.  Additionally, the script depends heavily on an awkward-to-execute, late turn involving two scientists arguing over formulas on a chalkboard.  And all forward momentum comes to a screeching, lengthy halt late in the proceedings, when the heroes stumble into the path of the Countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova), whose overlong scenes needlessly delay the exciting climax.

But the film has its moments, and it’s filled with classic Hitchcockian elements.  The famous farmhouse killing, during which Armstrong and a farmer’s wife are forced to kill an East German security officer, is pure Hitchcock: slowly mounting suspense, pure visual story-telling, an uncomfortable collision of the comic and the horrific.  And Michael and Sarah’s flight from Leipzig on a bus filled with pro-western sympathizers is a fun, memorable setpiece.  The supporting cast is effective without being outstanding; most noteworthy is Wolfgang Kieling’s memorable villain, the slangy, laid back Gromek.  Though marred at times by clunky rearscreen projection, the film generally has a colorful, eye-catching look with great location scenery.  All told, Torn Curtain is no masterpiece, but it’s an enjoyable old-school thriller.

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  • Bill Mikulak April 5, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Torn Curtain harkens back to political spy films in Hitchcock’s past like Foreign Correspondent. Maybe this break from more personal suspense stories took its toll. Hitchcock takes on the Cold War like he did World War II – they can overwhelm even a focused stylist like him.

    • Chris East April 5, 2011 at 10:36 pm

      Yeah, Torn Curtain kind of lacks the human element — I think that’s where the Newman-Andrews disconnect is kind of an issue.

      Haven’t seen Foreign Correspondent in a LONG time…hardly remember it! I’ll have to add it back into my queue. (There was a time when I watched pretty much nothing but Hitchcock.)