Film Review - Torn Curtain (1966)
In the mid1960s, after a golden period in which he directed a string of very powerful and memorable thrillers including 'North By Northwest', then 'Psycho' and then 'The Birds', Alfred Hitchcock was under pressure to maintain these high standards against competition from a new breed of up and coming directors. Some critics were beginning to label the style of the 'master of suspense' as a bit old fashioned. It was in this atmosphere 'Torn Curtain' was released in 1966. Almost inevitably it was received unfavourably by some critics. When comparing this story of spying and intrigue behind the Iron Curtain to the likes of the classic 'Psycho', some labelled it as a bit 'ordinary'. I would argue that if this is not Hitchcock at his best, it remains a highly enjoyable romantic thriller, and with at least two set piece action sequences which are every bit as memorable as the finest Hitchcock ever directed.
The fundamental question at the start of this movie relates to the motivations of Paul Newman's character when he defects to Eastern Europe. This happens after 20 minutes, and it's only another 20 minutes before his true intentions are revealed. This is not a major twist in the story, and will be revealed on this page because it is difficult to discuss the film in any depth without providing this information. However, one key scene will be labelled on this page as a plot spoiler and highlighted in bold.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
'Torn Curtain' opens on a cruise boat carrying a group of international scientists from Osterfjord Norway to a physics conference in Denmark. Some of these scientists are having lunch in the ship's dining room in near freezing conditions (the heating system has broken down). But the table reserved for Professor Michael Armstrong and his assistant Sarah Sherman is vacant, because Michael and Sarah (who also happens to be his fiancée) are keeping themselves warm under the covers in Armstrong's cabin. Eventually the ship docks, and the delegates are transferred to the Hotel d'Inglaterre in Copenhagen. All seems pretty mundane - it is after all, just a bunch of scientists at a conference.
But something strange is going on, of which Sarah Sherman is only gradually made aware. On board ship Michael Armstrong was asked to sign for a telegram relating to a package he is to collect from a Copenhagen bookshop. But in the presence of Sarah he denies all knowledge of it - he is keeping something secret. Then we learn that despite their apparent love, Michael never wanted Sarah on this trip in the first place. Why? Then Sarah catches sight of Michael buying a ticket, supposedly for a business flight to Stockholm, and when she questions him about this, he becomes reticent and guarded. He refuses her permission to accompany him. And then, most disturbingly of all, Sarah discovers that the ticket is not to Stockholm in free Sweden after all - it is actually for a flight to East Berlin - behind the Communist Iron Curtain. She decides to book herself on to the same flight ...
On arrival in East Berlin, she finally learns the awful truth - Michael has 'defected' to the East to work for the Communists in the development of an anti-missile missile. But has he really? Sarah's confusion and inner turmoil over this dramatic turn of events in her life with Michael is traumatic. She stays with him overnight to try to decide what to do. Throughout most of these early scenes, it is Sarah's take on events and her puzzlement at Michael's behaviour that we focus upon - we know that she is innocent of anything, but what exactly is her fiancé up to? Are his motives really so sinister, or is he merely trying to preserve Sarah's innocence by concealing the truth from her?
Next morning Michael takes a bus ride out of the city, closely pursued by his East German secret policeman minder, Hermann Gromek. But Michael has business which he doesn't want Gromek to see. He tries to shake him off in a local museum, before heading off in a taxi for a rendezvous at a country farmhouse. At this stage we learn the truth. Far from being a traitor, Armstrong has really come to East Germany not to reveal secrets, but to uncover information which exists only in the mind of the top East German Professor, Gustav Lindt - a mission put into serious jeopardy when Gromek also arrives at the farmhouse; he has not been thrown off the scent, and now he also knows the truth about Michael's defection. Michael is now in serious trouble, and even if he can escape the clutches of Gromek, it will be imperative that he completes his mission as quickly as possible - time is of the essence.
From here on the pace quickens as Sarah learns about her fiancè's true motives, and Michael makes one desperate effort to acquire the vital information he has come for. All the time, following his encounter with Gromek at the farm-house, the security net is closing in on him, and now he and Sarah have to get out of this country, and it seems the only transport they has at their disposal is a bus.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Alfred Hitchcock
WRITER / SCREENPLAY :
- Brian Moore (screenplay)
- Willis Hall, Keith Waterhouse (contributors)
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1966
RUNNING TIME : 128 minutes
GENRE : Thriller
GUIDENCE : One graphically realistic and violent fight
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None
KEY CAST AND CHARACTERS
Considerable press criticism of the casting greeted the release of this movie. Paul Newman plays Professor Michael Armstrong. For drama, for action sequences, for wry humour, Paul Newman is fine; one of the best. But Newman portraying an academic just doesn't quite work. Still, this isn't really a film about physicists - it's a film about espionage and intrigue and tension and fear and a little romance.
Most of the casting criticism however, was not directed at Newman. Rather, it was his co-star Julie Andrews who bore the brunt. I'm not sure that was her fault. Rather it was because fresh from the success of 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Sound of Music', she was in danger of becoming typecast, and as Hitchcock himself said:
'The trouble was that everyone sat and watched the film expecting her to sing'.
I think Julie Andrews is perfectly acceptable in the role of Sarah Sherman, and captures the dilemmas and confusions of her character very well.
The great character here however, is Hermann Gromek, as played by Wolfgang Keiling. He's an East German secret policeman. He's not the typical dour, stone-cold Communist of many films. He has a personality, with a history of life in New York City which he likes to reminisce about. And he smiles a lot. Yet at times the smile seems more like a smirk, and the reminiscences have an air of scorn about them. Leather coated. constantly chewing, and with a supercilious expression on his face, he's a man who says nothing unpleasant, but his eyes are cold and you know instantly this is a man to be wary of. A great performance.
Russian French actress Lila Kedrova's portrayal of Countess Kuchinska is eccentric and could be humorous, but Hitchcock intended her to act as symbolic of all those ordinary people desperate to escape from the Communist bloc, yet who were unable to do so. As such, the Countess becomes an ultimately tragic figure.
The idea of 'Torn Curtain' was inspired by the defections of British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean (who was married) to the Soviet Union. Hitchcock wondered how MacLean's wife might have reacted to the turmoil of knowing that the man she loved was a traitor.
The opening title credits run over a split screen of fire from a rocket, and images of the faces and conflicting emotions in the film. Originally, the titles were to be set against a backdrop of chemical equations on a blackboard - the equations that Armstrong is trying to steal.
The musical score was the subject of review during the making of the movie. Long time musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann was originally employed to write the score, but Hitch was dissatisfied with his work on this film and replaced him with John Addison.
- I think Hitchcock got it absolutely right. Herrmann's unfinished score was dramatic, but lacked subtlety. Addison's opening music creates a great atmosphere of suspense and is reprised to memorable effect during the bus ride sequence. Certainly the decision to play the farmhouse scene with Gromek without music was the right one. Neither composer's score was used, as both seem like distractions from this wonderfully tense set piece.
Hitchcock's customary cameo appearance comes early in the movie with him sitting in a hotel lobby, somewhat uncomfortably babysitting a little child, and is easy to spot, played out to a few bars from Hitchcock's well known television series which was airing at the time.
If Alfred Hitchcock is considered the 'master of suspense' he was also one of the great masters of the 'set piece' - carefully orchestrated sequences of action which form the dramatic highlights of a movie, and which usually stay longest in the memory (the crop duster scene in 'North by Northwest', the carousel in 'Strangers on a Train' and the shower scene in 'Psycho' are obvious examples). There are several set pieces of pure Hitchcockian drama in this film - albeit carried off with varying degrees of success. Two, I think, merit attention in this section.
(Plot Spoiler) The first is the fight scene between Michael Armstrong and Hermann Gromek which is one of the most memorable one-on-one fight scenes in the history of the movies. It's not action packed, and it's not particularly bloody, What it is, is a brutally realistic portrayal of what it might really be like for an ordinary person to try to kill another human being. The fight begins with a crashing bowl of rice flung at Gromek and smashed against the wall as he attempts to phone his bosses. Armstrong then tackles the secret policeman with his bare hands. We recognise here that Michael Armstrong - albeit played by Paul Newman - is not a glamorous film star hero who can defeat any bad guy in a one-to-one fight - he is scientist, and he is just an amateur spy. Gromek, the professional, is more than a match for him. Fortunately for Armstrong, he has an ally in the 'farmer's wife'. She and he use everything at their disposal to try to subdue the German, including a kitchen knife, a garden spade and a gas cooker, towards which they slowly drag their adversary. And all the time Gromek's hands are grasped around Armstrong's neck. And the death of Gromek is revealed only in the convulsed shudder of Gromek's hands as they loosen their grip.
This, I think has moments reminiscent of the shower scene in 'Psycho' - the Bates-esque grasp of the knife in the woman's raised hand as she approaches Gromek, the twice uttered cry of 'blood!' as she handles Michael's blood-soaked coat, and the attempts to wash away the blood from his hands and clean up the room after the crime. Like the shower scene, it's also a turning point in the movie. Michael Armstrong has received a shocking reality check. He is no longer playing games of deception and hide-and-seek with a secret policeman - he's playing games of murder, and he's passed the point at which he could have turned back from this world. The stakes are now life itself.
The second great sequence in this movie is the bus ride. Michael and Sarah are on a bus supposedly on a conventional public run. But this is a bus owned and run by an underground escape organisation. Circumstances lead to a couple of motorcycle policemen unwittingly escorting the bus to safeguard the 'passengers' against violent army deserters operating in the area. This means that the bus driver now has to keep stopping to pick up genuine passengers, in order to prevent the policemen from becoming suspicious. But this is a bus which shouldn't be running, and all the time the real bus is closing in on them from behind. And sooner or later the police escort are going to see this second genuine bus and know that something is wrong.
There are no stand-out quotes, I would suggest, though Gromek's quirky reminiscences about pizzas and hot dogs and other facets of American life are all enjoyable.
As for key moments, one could put oneself in the shoes of Sarah Sherman at a time when she is confused and distraught at Michael's behaviour. She arrives at East Berlin's airport probably fearing the worst, and that is exactly what she hears, from the officials who greet him:
'The Vice-Minister wishes to welcome to the German Democratic Republic a distinguished American nuclear scientist, Professor Michael Armstrong. Professor Armstrong has decided to live and work for peace in the peoples' democracies.'
Soon after, we learn the truth from an agent posing as a farmer in a field:
'Well Professor Armstrong, how does it feel to play the part of a dirty defector? I saw you on TV in town last night; you put on a good act.'
Two issues have been identified by critics as negatives with this movie. One is the casting of Julie Andrews - as discussed above, I actually feel this is less of a problem. Neither Newman nor Andrews are ideal, but both are acceptable leads.
The other issue is the script. Neither Hitchcock himself, not Paul Newman (who suggested many amendments) were entirely happy with the script which was prepared in some haste to fit in with a window of opportunity in the schedules of both Newman and Andrews. After a long introduction to Michael Armstrong's 'defection', once he and Sarah arrive in East Germany everything proceeds all too quickly. Armstrong's intention is to spend weeks or even months in the City of Leipzig - in the event, the constraints of the story mean that he has to uncover top secret information and escape from East Germany all within an unfeasible couple of days.
Not all of Hitchcock's set piece sequences work so well as the two mentioned in 'Favourite Scenes'. If the flaw in this movie is the rushed way in which Michael Armstrong has to complete a seemingly complicated mission, then that flaw is at its most obvious in the scene featuring the caricature of an irascible scientist, Professor Gustav Lindt. It is an understandable problem - nuclear equations are incredibly complicated and difficult to explain, and indeed in this case were relating to discoveries and procedures which didn't even exist. What follows is a slightly ludicrous sequence of Armstrong and Lindt taking turns at scribbling a few indecipherable equations on to a blackboard amidst much brow-creased puzzling and pondering and gesticulating, but with no significant dialogue. Somewhat unbelievably, in less than five minutes Armstrong is fully apprised with all that Lindt has discovered in all his years of research.
Then there is a ballet performance in a theatre, so reminiscent of the auction scene in 'North by Northwest', in that Michael and Sarah are in the audience and they become aware that their pursuers have entered the theatre and are slowly gathering around them. However, Armstrong's way of escaping from a seemingly impossible situation is neither as clever, as humorous, nor even I would suggest as believable as the way Cary Grant's character evades the thugs in 'North by Northwest'. He simply shouts 'fire!' and this apparently is enough to create pandemonium - he and Sarah attempt to escape in the ensuing chaos.
IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM ...
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
The storyline of 'Torn Curtain' is taut and gripping, without being heavy going. It is enjoyably escapist, whilst the main actors - though not entirely credible as a couple of romantically entwined scientists - are personable leads who fit well into the light breezy atmosphere. And if Director Alfred Hitchcock's greatest talent was the set piece where tension, fear, shocks and surprises all come together in a memorable piece of cinema, then 'Torn Curtain' doesn't disappoint with two of the best sequences he ever directed.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Undoubtedly reviews of 'Torn Curtain' were lukewarm at best, but it may be they could never have been as favourable as they would have been had the same film been directed by someone other than Alfred Hitchcock. The trouble is, Hitchcock set the bar so high that expectations for all his work were correspondingly high. Many felt that 'Torn Curtain' failed to reach these expectations. I disagree. I think it is one of the most underrated of Hitchcock's movies.
If you must, then put aside the fact that this is a Hitchcock movie, and watch it for everything else it is - one of the most enjoyable of all mystery thrillers.
SOME OF MY OTHER MYSTERY AND THRILLER FILM REVIEWS.....
- Rear Window (1954)
A Hitchcock thriller set almost entirely in just one apartment room, with bored, incapacitated James Stewart idly watching his neighbours through the rear window. It's innocuous enough - until he begins to suspect one neighbour just may be a murderer
- Eye of the Needle
Henry Faber is a heartless German agent who will stop at nothing to complete his mission .... until, that is, he meets Lucy - someone who finds his heart; someone he cannot despatch with his usual ruthless efficiency.
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