U.S. rocket scientist Michael Armstrong and his assistant/fiancée Sarah Sherman are attending a convention in Copenhagen. Michael is acting very suspiciously and Sarah follows him to East Germany when he apparently tries to defect to the other side.
Paul Newman ... Professor Michael Armstrong
Julie Andrews ... Sarah Sherman
Lila Kedrova ... Countess Kuchinska
Hansjörg Felmy ... Heinrich Gerhard (as Hansjoerg Felmy)
Tamara Toumanova ... Ballerina
Ludwig Donath ... Professor Gustav Lindt
Wolfgang Kieling ... Hermann Gromek
Günter Strack ... Professor Karl Manfred
David Opatoshu ... Mr. Jacobi
Gisela Fischer ... Dr. Koska
Mort Mills ... Farmer
Carolyn Conwell ... Farmer's Wife
Arthur Gould-Porter ... Freddy
Gloria Gorvin ... Fräulein
Hitchcock made a few clunkers in his day, but this isn't one of them, despite its reputation. I don't know if I could get away with saying it's one of Hitchcock's ten best features, but I found it to be easily one of his top ten most entertaining. I enjoyed watching Torn Curtain a lot more than some of his established classics, like Notorious and the Birds, even if it's not quite as psychologically complex as those films.
The main thing about Torn Curtain is the photography. It's full of pretty pictures--one of the most beautifully filmed of all Hitchcock's films, with lots bold swaths of primary colors and attractive and constantly changing locations--some scenes look like they were shot on location, while others are wonderfully artificial studio creations, and they're blended together perfectly. Another cool thing about Torn Curtain is that it's constantly on the move. It never stagnates. The pacing is deliberate, but engaging. It's well-plotted and suspenseful.
It's full of fantastic little directorial touches, like the scene where Paul Newman ducks into a bathroom to read his secret spy message. Hitchcock never shows us the room. He keeps the camera tight on Paul Newman, so we can't tell who or what might be in that room with us, just out of frame. It's totally simple, but it creates a highly effective feeling of uneasiness and paranoia. This movie also features one of the strangest and best-filmed death scenes I've ever seen. Hitchcock was still on top of his game here.
Most of the bad reviews for Torn Curtain seem to focus on the acting. I don't know why.
A lot of people bash Julie Andrews just for being Julie Andrews, and that hardly seems fair. Typecasting sucks. And while I wouldn't say she turned in one of the most memorable and overpowering performances of all time, her role didn't call for that. Torn Curtain wasn't a complex character study, it was a plot-based thriller. And Julie Andrews was perfectly adequate for that, even pretty good when she was given a chance to be.
Paul Newman was perfect. He wasn't his usual charming self here. He was grim and tight-lipped and stiff--as would be appropriate for a scientist feeling out of his league, playing a spy in a hostile country, having to pretend to be a traitor--a role which he found objectionable--all with his girlfriend annoyingly tagging along and complicating everything.
I understand that Paul Newman found working for Hitchcock objectionable. It makes me wonder if Hitch deliberately made life unpleasant for Paul just to get this kind of tooth-gritting performance from him. Whatever, Hitch and Paul were both great.
If MARNIE was the Director's first out-right failure in more ways than one -- it didn't make money, it was reviled by critics who failed to read into the story, and tensions between he and Tippi Hedren came to a standstill -- TORN CURTAIN didn't help. The story of a double agent and his involvement on both side of the political wall was too convoluted and too unfocused to create any real tension, any suspense, and according to accounts, Hitchcock became totally uninterested with the product. So did I on viewing this.
The introductory setup is good. Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) defects to East Germany and his girlfriend (Julie Andrews) follows. There he meets Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who has been sent to do away with him. Their encounter leads to one of the most excruciating murder sequences committed to celluloid, and this is by far the best part of the movie. From there on, the plot meanders and it's as if Hitchcock had decided to go on autopilot and let matters resolve themselves, most notably in a lousy theatre sequence in which Armstrong, in an escape sequence, yells "Fire!" into a room full of non-English speakers.
That it could have been better is obvious, but I believe Hitchcock had succumbed to the times and was in his short Cold War transition in which some of his technique shows but his choice of actors and story fails. Newman and Andrews have zero chemistry together and Andrews at times doesn't seem to know why the hell she's in this movie anyway. Lila Kedrova sticks out as a sore thumb -- why would a countess of all people be panhandling for American sponsors when her diplomatic status would have her able to come to the US with no problem? A complete distraction. Snippets of the theatre sequence are interesting, as when ballerina Tamara Toumanova whirls around in dance and spots Newmann hiding among the crowd: in photographic freeze-frames she pinpoints him out.
Other than that this is a fairly routine effort, like the many routine efforts directors sometimes do when they're either in an unsettled period or want to buy themselves out of their contract with a studio. Hitchcock would do one more Cold War themed film, the disastrous TOPAZ, before returning to almost full form (and his English roots) in FRENZY.
The first time I watched "Torn Curtain," I grew bored and turned it off before it was over. I've watched it in its entirety more than once since then. It's difficult not to conclude that the master director's age was beginning to take its toll by 1966. It could have been a great film except for some major flaws.
First, the main characters. Newman and Andrews look distinctly ill-at-ease and their acting is wooden. There is very nearly no chemistry between them, and viewers are not really drawn into their somewhat implausible situation. Both actors are compelling in other films, but for some reason not in this one.
Second, Hitchcock would have done better to keep his villains' identity less specific. In "The Lady Vanishes", "The Thirty-nine Steps," and "North by Northwest," the identity of the foreign agents is left deliberately vague and thus little plausibility need be attached to their actions. Here they are East German communists, of which we know rather a lot.
Third, there are inconsistencies in the plot. At one point Newman and Andrews are forced to go out into an open space to avoid being overheard. But in another scene a pro-western spy communicates confidential information to Newman in a hospital room, seemingly oblivious to the possibility of wiretaps.
Finally, there's John Addison's score, which seems to have been written quite independently of the film's action. A suspenseful scene is inappropriately matched with cheerful, melodic music. Everyone knows, of course, that Hitch's longtime musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, wrote a mostly complete score for the film, but the two had a falling out on the set and Herrmann was dismissed. Another example of poor judgement on Hitchcock's part. Herrmann's score would have immeasurably improved a mediocre film. (Look at "Obsession" nearly a decade later.) With all the recent film restorations, I would love to see someone redo "Torn Curtain" and put in as much of Herrmann's score as the composer was able to finish. (But perhaps there would be copyright problems.) Had Herrmann's score been used, the murder sequence in the farmhouse might have become as famous as the shower scene in "Psycho."
As I was watching the protagonists flee through the East German landscape in their efforts to reach the west, I found myself thinking that, if they had only waited another twenty-three years, the wall would have come down anyway and they could simply have walked out! That's how much their plight gripped me.
Too bad Hitchcock had to create this film in 1966. The spy vs. spy craze was at its height with super-spy James Bond played by ebullient Sean Connery at the top of the movie ladder. Dozens of Cold War espionage thrillers were marketed that year. Even non-spy films touched on espionage from time to time. Adding to the spy mill in 1966 were several espionage television series including the classic spy spoof show "Get Smart," created by the comedic giants Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. So to most movie goers of the day "Torn Curtain" was just another film capitalizing on the spy vs. spy trend. "Torn Curtain," however, is one of Hitchcock's best with two scenes that are among his most intense, the almost endless killing of communist agent Hermann Gromek, played with skill by Wolfgang Kieling, and the bus getaway that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The crying fire in a crowded theater is exciting but predictable--the viewer is just waiting for Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) to jump from his seat and yell.
Lovely Julie Andrews has a juicy role as Dr. Sarah Louise Sherman, the soon to be Mrs. Armstrong if the good professor doesn't run away and leave her. When my wife watched this movie for the first time, she asked in a surprising tone of voice, "Is that really Paul Newman and Julie Andrews together?" This unlikely combination works. It works better than the movies Newman made with his wife, Joanne Woodward. The role of Dr. Sherman is also somewhat unique in that she is unwittingly involved in espionage without her knowledge, following her fiancée to Communist East Germany without knowing that he is on an extremely dangerous assignment which only a nuclear scientist can carry out.
Hitchcock's film making was beginning to taper off in the twilight of his years. But the masterful hand was still orchestrating film techniques highly original and creative. Lesser directors would have used just anyone to play the small but significant part of the prima donna Countess Kuchinska. Instead Hitchcock searched and found just the right person with the right face and attitude for the role. Lila Kedrova was chosen because she could actually sing opera and because her face and mannerisms stand out in a crowd. In her first appearance when she is getting off the plane, she becomes agitated because Professor Armstrong is receiving all the attention from the press. Hitchcock zooms the camera in for a closeup of her face with its distinctive features. It's well over an hour later that Countess Kuchinska reappears. This reappearance is crucial for the development of the film. Because of Hitchcock's methods, the viewer automatically recognizes the Countess, instantly remembering that she had been upset with Professor Armstrong because of all the attention taken away from her and showered on the professor. She definitely has an ax to grind.
Though it has not received much attention compared with many other Hitchcock films, "Torn Curtain" is among his best and should be savored by all. Even though political conditions have flip flopped since 1966 and there is no longer a communist East Germany, this Cold War delicacy is worth a bite. Oh, and watch the somewhat hidden ironic humor at the beginning where there's a room full of top scientists during the Cold War and the heat doesn't work.
* Director Cameo: [Alfred Hitchcock] early in the film sitting in a hotel lobby with a baby on his knee.
* The scene where Gromek is killed was written to show how difficult it really can be to kill a man.
* Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall did extensive (uncredited) rewrites on the script.
* 'Herrmann, Bernard' wrote the original score, but Universal Pictures executives convinced Hitchcock that they needed a more upbeat score. Hitchcock and Herrmann had a major disagreement, the score was dropped and they never worked together again.
* The Swedish actor Jan Malmsjö (who had a small uncredited role as photographer in the final scenes in Helsingborg harbour and customs) found that a lot of signs were not written in correct Swedish so he helped the film crew to correct them.
* In the shot in which Alfred Hitchcock's cameo occurs, the music briefly changes to "Funeral March of a Marionette" by Charles Gounod, which is best known as the main theme for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (1955).
* In the Book "Its only a movie", Hitchcock said like this about Torn Curtain's ending - "THERE WAS AN ENDING written for Torn Curtain", Hitchcock said "which wasn't used , but I rather liked it. No one agreed with me except my colleague at home (Alma). Everyone told me that you couldn't have a letdown ending after all that. "Newman would have thrown the formula away. After what he has gone through, after everything we have endured with him, he just tosses it. It speaks to the futility of all, and its in keeping with the kind of naivete of the character, who is no professional spy and who will certainly retire from that nefarious business."
* According to the Book "Its only a movie", Brian Moore was chosen to write the screenplay, but shooting began before Hitchcock was satisfied with the script, dictated by the limited availability of Julie Andrews.
* Hitchcock wanted to cast Eva Marie Saint for the leading female role. But the studio forced him to cast Julie Andrews.
* According to the book "Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock", Hitchcock was unsatisfied with Brian Moore's Screenplay. So Hitchcock brought in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to do a rewrite job on it. Their contribution to the Screenplay was considerable enough for Hitchcock to feel strongly that they should receive screen credit. But Brian Moore disputed this, and an adjudication by the Screenwriters Guild gave him sole credit, to Hitchcock's irritation.
* Was reportedly one of Alfred Hitchcock's most unhappy directing jobs.
*SPOILER: A scene showing actor Wolfgang Kieling, who played Gromek, also playing Gromek's brother was cut. In it he shows Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), who has just killed Gromek, a picture of Gromek's three children. It was believed that this would have shifted the audience's sympathy away from Newman to the dead man. Unfortunately, a close-up of the brother cutting a sausage with a knife similar to the one used in the murder, a characteristically Hitchcockian shot, was also lost.