Torn Curtain (1966): Hitchcock’s Muted Cold War Thriller, Starring Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Lila Kedrova

Though one of Hitchcock’s weaker films artistically, Torn Curtain received a lot of publicity, due to the fact that it was his 50th feature, and also due to the casting of Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, then at the height of their respective careers.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Torn Curtain
Torn curtain.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The espionage thriller Torn Curtain is worth examining for the place that it occupies in the director’s glorious career and for its attempt to come to terms with changes in the film industry and in film audiences’ demographics and tastes.

Despite its star cast, Julie Andrews, right after winning the Oscar for Mary Poppins and appearing in The Sound of Music, and the handsomer Newman, a top box-office star for a decade, the film fails to work on any level, suffering from many flaws, including the lack of chemistry between the stars.

Released after “Marnie” and before “Topaz,” “Torn Curtain” was Hitchcock’s attempted response to the James Bond movies that dominated the international market in the 1960s.

Paul Newman as “Dry” Scientist

Newman had scored big in the detective thriller “Harper,” but in “Torn Curtain,” he is miscast as a scientist, a part that doesn’t utilize his overt sex appeal, good looks, and charming personality. (Newman himself disliked the picture.)

The story, based on Brian Moore’s routine scenario, is dull, unnecessarily convoluted, and overlong, overextending its welcome by at least 20 minutes.

Newman plays Professor Michael Armstrong, a brilliant U.S. atomic scientist who passes himself off as a defector to East Germany in order to learn a secret anti-missile formula.  The formula is owned by a Leipzig scientist to whom Armstrong intends to make a bee-line despite the Red agents in East Germany.

The picture opens on a cruise ship in a Norwegian fjord where Armstrong is bundled in bed under covers with his fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Andrews).

The ship’s heating system is being repaired, so the couple has to keep close intimately, though the scene lacks any erotic appeal.

Though in love, Michael is not at liberty to tell Sarah of his iron curtain mission.

Cut to the East German border, after a few cloak-and-dagger forays in intervening cities, with Sarah tagging along after Michael and determined to believe in his patriotism and integrity despite the sinister evidence to the contrary.

Once in East Germany, Michael and Sarah run a gauntlet of Red agents, including one that he murders in a farmer’s house.

In Leipzig, Michael tricks the professor (Ludwig Donath) into revealing the anti-missile formula by luring him into a contest-of-intellects debate which elicits the information he needs via blackboard diagrams chalked up by the professor and which Michael memorizes.

The only good performance in the film is given by Lila Kedrova (Oscar winner the previous year for Zorba the Greek), as Countess Kuchinska.  She plays an, elderly woman who offers to help Michael and Sarah to get out of the country, if they will aid her in obtaining a U.S. visa.

Ballet Performance

Racing to the border, the pair is detoured to a ballet performance, attended by some of Soviet agents.

When panic breaks out in the hall and the CIA sneak Michael and Sarah to a dressing room, hiding them in costume-baskets. The baskets are then loaded onto a ship, but the Red operative on board demands that the baskets be examined.

When CIA agents fail to comply, the baskets, hanging on cranes in mid-air, are riddled with bullets, but they are, of course, the wrong ones. Michael and Sarah had already escaped from the ship by swimming to land.

Shivering in a blanket in a waiting room, they refuse to be photographed and pull the blanket up over their heads.

Wearily but contentedly, they bundle together, just as they had done in the first scene.

Cute and Soft Closure

Two men approach them on the pavement, and one, the “farmer” gives them tickets to the ballet; the plan is to travel in the luggage of the troupe to Sweden that evening. While attending the ballet, they are spotted and reported to the police by the lead ballerina (Tamara Toumanova), who flew to East Berlin on the same airplane as Armstrong.

Armstrong and Sherman escape through the crowd by shouting “fire.” They hide in two crates of costumes, and are ferried across the Baltic Sea to Sweden on a freighter. The ballerina, desperate to reveal the fugitives’ hiding place, identifies the wrong crates, which are machine-gunned while they are dangling over the pier. Meanwhile, Armstrong and Sherman have escaped by jumping overboard and swimming to a Swedish dock.

This is yet another Hitchcock film marked by symmetry: The tale starts aboard a ship and ends up there, which represents significant locus of the domestic and political action.

There are stories that Newman and Hitchcock did not get along during the shoot. Hitchcock expected Newman to perform less literally and adopt a tongue-in-cheek approach to his character, a la Cary Grant.  For his part, Newman felt that Hitchcock did no draw on his strengths as an actor, and did not offer him any useful guidance.

In the end, neither Newman nor Andrews (who has just made Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, which made her the world’s great box-office star) bring much of personality or charisma to their admittedly poorly written roles.

A Kiss Is Just A Kiss

The Hitchcockian signature kiss is manifest, usually shot in close-up, but since Andrews always lacked sex appeal, and there is not chemistry between her and Newman, it’s just a kiss, without the additional baggage of staple kisses in other Hitchcock films, such as Notorious, or Rear Window, or Vertigo.

With few exceptions, the usually knowing and subtle Hitchcock touches are also muted. Did he lose interest in the story? in working with his otherwise  boma fide stars?

Making things worse was the look of the picture, which lacked the dazzling visual style and thrilling effects of a typical Hitchcock thriller.

Violent Choking

One of the few memorable scenes in Torn Curtain is an act of ultra violence, in which Michael and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell) kill in cold blood a Soviet soldier by stabbing, choking, and finally dumping him in the kitchen stove.

Along with the rape and strangling scene in the 1972 Frenzy, this scene is the most graphically violent in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, as if it was set out to demonstrate the filmmaker’s long held thesis that it’s really “difficult” to kill a human being by strangulation.

Despite mixed reviews, Torn Curtain was a moderate success at the box-office, earning $13 million against its $3 million budget.


Paul Newman as Professor Michael Armstrong
Julie Andrews as Sarah Sherman
Lila Kedrova as Countess Kuchinska
Hansjörg Felmy as Heinrich Gerhard
Tamara Toumanova as Ballerina
Wolfgang Kieling as Hermann Gromek
Ludwig Donath as Professor Gustav Lindt
Günter Strack as Professor Karl Manfred
David Opatoshu as Mr. Jacobi
Gisela Fischer as Dr. Koska
Mort Mills as Farmer
Carolyn Conwell as Farmer’s Wife
Arthur Gould-Porter as Freddy, the Bookseller
Gloria Gorvin as Fräulein Mann


Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Screenplay by Brian Moore, based on his story.
Art Director, Frank Arrige.
Photographed by John F. Warren.
Unit Production Manager, Jack Carrick.
Pictorial Designs, Albert Whitlock.
Sound, Waldon O. Watson and William Russell.
Andrews’ costumes, Edith Head.
Production designer, Hein Heckroth.
Music by John Addison.
Set Decorations, George Milo.
Film Editor, Bud Hoffman.
Makeup Supervision, Jack Barron.
Costume Supervisor, Grady Hunt.
Hair styles for Miss Andrews, Hal Saunders.
Hair Stylist, Lorraine Roberson.
Assistant Director, Donald Baer.

Production and distribution: Universal Pictures

Release date: July 14, 1966 (US)

Running time: 128 minutes


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