By 1966, Alfred Hitchcock had been working in film for 40 years and he was most certainly one of the few filmmakers, maybe the only one, still working regularly whose career stretched back to the silent era. Unfortunately, the director’s stubborn adherence to his old school ways, particularly his aversion to filming on location, had begun to catch up with him.
To make matters worse, Marnie had proven to be the final collaboration between Hitch and three key collaborators, including composer Bernard Herrmann. The two others, including editor George Tomasini, died while Torn Curtain was being prepared. Herrmann did write a partial score for the film but was fired and replaced when Hitchcock was dissatisfied with his work so far.
Additionally, the steadfastly traditional director was about to go toe-to-toe with one of the fastest rising of the new breed of method actors, Paul Newman. The disconnect between the two men and their respective schools of thought is probably one of the things that serves to drag Torn Curtain down. Newman apparently wrote a long, detailed memo outlining what he saw was wrong with the script, including the title. Ironically, from what I know about it, his complaints were dead on. A more contemporary director probably would have at least entertained Newman’s suggestions, but Hitchcock’s dismissive rejection probably hurt the film, damaging his relationship with his star and preventing him from making improvements in the film’s problematic script.
The story of Torn Curtain certainly could have made an excellent movie, with its de-glamorized view of espionage and violence, but the scripts lacks both the narrative drive and the humor that distinguished Hitchcock’s best work a decade earlier.
As the film opens, Newman’s character, American physicist Michael Armstrong is on his way to a meeting of scientists in Denmark with his assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). Despite their obvious physical affection for each other, Sarah has the feeling that Michael did not want her along on this trip. He does little to dissuade her from this and eventually drops the other shoe. He’s going on the Sweden because they have promised the finish the anti-missile defense system that the U.S. government cancelled out from under him. She wants to join him but he insists that she return to America. They part angry but Sarah is determined to follow Michael wherever he goes.
Her attempt to join him hits a bump when she discovers that Michael is not scheduled to fly on to Sweden but is booked aboard a Romanian airline to East Berlin. Confused, she books a seat on the same flight. He is less than pleased to see her on the plane, however, and angrily tells her to go home after they land. When they do reach Berlin, the rude shocks just pile up when she realizes that the man she loves is really defecting to East Germany.
But Michael has barely unpacked when attempts to slip away from his likable East German “handler“, Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), in the film’s first genuinely suspenseful scene, a nearly silent chase through an art museum. Making his way to a farm outside the city, he meets the farmer (Mort Mills) in the middle of his field. The man, who has a strangely American-sounding accent, apparently Michael’s CIA contact. The defection is a ruse to gain access to an East German scientist named Lindt (Ludwig Donath), who has apparently solved the problems that caused Michael’s missile project to to be cancelled.
Unfortunately, Gromek has trailed the American to the farm and figured out that he is not what claims to be. In order to keep the mission secret, Michael and the farmer’s “wife” (Carolyn Conwell), are forced to kill the East German, in the film’s other virtuoso scene. This particular sequence, which was Hitchcock’s response to the neat and bloodless killings found in other spy movies, was meant to show just how hard it really was to kill someone. Indeed, Michael and the wife have to use practically every tool and appliance in her kitchen to finally dispatch Gromek.
After Michael returns to Berlin and then goes on to Leipzig, the search for the missing Gromek acts as a ticking clock shadowing his attempts to reach Lindt and then trick him into revealing what he knows.
Part of the problem with Torn Curtain is that neither of the main characters do much to engage the audience in their situation. Paul Newman plays Michael like a man perpetually waiting for a root canal. The role of Sarah is almost completely passive, following Michael wherever he goes but then doing little but waiting around when she gets there. Only when she is finally clued into what he is really doing in East Germany does she take any kind of positive action, effectively charming Lindt into giving Michael access to his work over the objections of the state security forces. Hitchcock was supposedly unhappy with Julie Andrews’ performance but frankly I can’t see another actress doing any better with what is basically a nothing role.
While the artificiality of Hitchcock’s stagebound shooting style is less glaring than it was in Marnie, there are still too many “outdoor” scenes are so obviously shot indoors that it undermines the illusion of reality, particularly the scene in which Michael and the farmer ride on the tractor, discussing his mission in Leipzig.
As the first film of the last stage of Hitchcock’s long career, Torn Curtain gets things off to a less than promising start. The Master would go on to do better work than this before he was through but his best days were behind him. Another negative was the plot’s basic similarity to a much superior film from just the year earlier, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.
Trivia: The actor who plays the taxi driver is Peter Lorre, Jr. This person is no relation to the great character actor, however, but simply took the name to capitalize on his obvious physical resemblance, much to the displeasure of the real Peter Lorre and his estate.