This is a continuation of the series of random film reviews I offer, based on what I’ve watched this year. Last night I had the pleasure of sitting down to one of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser known masterpieces, Torn Curtain.
Alfred Hitchcock is, of course, considered one of the most brilliant directors of all time. He is constantly ranked alongside Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, all the great auteurs of film; and its tough to argue that distinction. His films have shaped the suspense and horror genres more than any one man. With his signature and unmistakable style, his films were always tense, exciting, twisted, and often humorous.
The reasons why Torn Curtain is not usually considered in the same league as, say, North By Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too much, is more a matter of the expectations and limitations placed on Hitchcock, rather than the film itself. This was Hitchcock’s 50th Film. And as a milestone, critics and fans wanted something ultimately unreachable, a masterwork to end all masterworks. Hitchcock was never like that. He was a man who simply wanted to entertain despite the pressures always put upon him. On top of that, Hitchcock was never fully satisfied with either the script or the actors, basically compromising himself at the behest of the film studios. He even changed composers from long time companion Bernard Herrmann, to John Addison, at the insistence of the that damn studio. Why the executives always think they’re the filmmakers, I’ll never know.
Now let’s talk about Paul Newman. The legendary actor, who passed away late last year, is nothing short of an institution. He has embodied some of my favorite roles of all time, including Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy. Newman is one of the most charismatic and lovable actors in the history of Hollywood, and America for that matter. For my money, the man could do no wrong.
It is documented that Newman and Hitchcock were at odds often during the filming of Torn Curtain. They were of two different worlds, the young and the experienced. Hitchcock was beginning to look a bit old fashioned by 1966, and Newman, who was already an international star, came from the new schools of film. Whatever the behind the scenes drama, Newman gives a stellar and utterly engrossing performance as Michael Armstrong. Along with Newman was Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins herself, as his fiancee and assistant, Sarah Sherman. Both actors are convincing and well suited to their parts, with both giving unusually sober and tense performances. Newman especially, as the everyman caught up in espionage and deceit, plays his cool exterior with a vulnerable and frightened undertone, entirely appropriate to the part.
Torn Curtain contains something for every fan of Hitchcock. You have suspense, in Newman and Andrew’s increasingly impossible escape from East Germany. You have intrigue, as Newman publicly defects only to secretly double cross the Commies. You have scant bits of humor, like the fake bus full of Communist dissenters forced to pick up the old woman at the bus stop under police escort. “The real bus is right behind us! Uh oh she’s got all these bags, but we have to keep going! Get her on the bus! Get her on the bus!” And she’s thinking how nice everyone is to help her, albeit a little overzealous.
The most memorable scene is clearly the murder on the farm. Newman is found out as a double agent by the man sent to follow him, Gromek. As Gromek confronts Newman and the German woman accomplice it’s clear he has to die. But Newman is no killer, he doesn’t have any gun or training, and Gromek is the assassin here. Whats he going to do? “Get the kitchen knife! Get the shovel! Turn on the gas stove!” The following scene of the fight and his (Gromek’s) death are so intense, so unbearably suspenseful, it’s hard not look away in cringing agony. “Oh no, the knife blade broke off. Oh no, Gromek’s choking Newman. Drag him to the stove, drag damn you. Jesus, this is taking too long, the cabbie right outside is going to hear!” That’s the other brilliant aspect of this scene, almost total silence, just the banging of shovels on shins and the sliding of heels across dusty floors. Amazing.
The film is full of these classic Hitchcock moments. The suspense in the bus is so drawn out you can hardly stand it. The final climax at the ballet, where the ballerina recognizes the “dirty American spies” and the German agents are blocking every escape, it really is too much. This is edge of your seat stuff all the way through.
Another common complaint about this film is the lack of humor. To which I only have to say, “They’re in Communist East Berlin. Since when did Germans have a sense of humor?” Even at that Gromek is pretty funny, using American expressions like Big Deal and Hot Dog. The guy’s a cut-up! He’s a real Gasser! OK enough puns.
Torn Curtain is certainly not the most memorable film in Hitchcock’s cannon, but it serves as an exciting and dramatic step forward in the spy thriller genre, something Hitchcock was constantly improving on as he went. If you are a fan of Hitchcock, don’t miss this one. And if you just want to get lost in Newman’s blue eyes, watch it again. So dreamy. We love ya Paul.