Torn Curtain (1966): Hitchcock Cold War Tale, Starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews

Though one of Hitchcock’s weaker and less commercially successful films, Torn Curtain received a lot of publicity, due to the fact that it was his 5oth feature and due to the casting of Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, then at the height of their respective careers.

The espionage thriller 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, the film fails to work on any level due to many flaws, including the lack of chemistry between the stars.

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

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 antimissile 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 bundle intimately, though the scene lacks any erotic appeal.

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 by Lila Kedrova (Oscar winner the previous year for “Zorba the Greek”), as Countess Kuchinska, who offers to help Michael and Sarah to get out of the country, if they will aid her in obtaining a U.S. visa.

Racing to the border, the pair is detoured to a ballet performance, full of Soviet agents. 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 on a ship, but the Red operative on board demands that the baskets being 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 escape from the ship by swimming to land.

Bundled 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 did in the first scene.  Thus, this is yet another Hitchcock film marked by symmetry: The tale starts and ends aboard a ship, which is a significant locus of  both 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 characters, a la Cary Grant. For his part, Newman felt that Hitchcock did no draw on his strengths as an actor.

Neither Newman nor Andrews bring much to their roles, and the usually knowing Hitchcock touches are muted. Making things worse was the look of the picture, which lacked the dazzling visual style and dazzling effects of a typical Hitchcock work.

One of the few memorable scenes is violent one, in which Michael and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell) murder a Soviet soldier by stabbing, choking, and finally gas 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 set out to demonstrate his thesis that it’s really “difficult “to kill a human being.

Cast

Paul Newman
Julie Andrews
Lila Kedrova
Hansjoerg Felmy
Tamara Toumanova
Wolfgang Kieling
Gunter Strack
Ludwig Donath
David Opatoshu
Gisela Fischer
Mort Mills
Carolyn Conwell
Arthur Gould-Porter
Gloria Garvin

 

Credits

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.
Technicolor.

Running time: 126 Minutes.

 

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