Under the pretense of attending a conference in Copenhagen, Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist, defects to East Germany. His fiancée and assistant, Sarah (Julie Andrews)–confused by his suspicious activities in Denmark–follows Michael behind the Iron Curtain. He tries to persuade her to return to the U.S. It is only when Sarah refuses that Michael reveals his true intent: to steal information about an atomic formula from a Communist scientist and somehow escape.
Alfred Hitchcock hatched the idea for Torn Curtain after reading about the defection of two British diplomats. In Hitchcock, François Truffaut‘s superb book of interviews with the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock said that he began to wonder what the wife of one of the diplomats thought of the defection. The premise of a wife questioning her husband’s true motives can be seen as a variation of Suspicion. The difference is that Torn Curtain dispenses with this plot in the film’s first third. All that is left is the quest for the MacGuffin (the secret formula) and the escape. This is familiar Hitchcock territory, but it comes off as uninspired and weary in Torn Curtain. The result is a suspense film that generates very little suspense.
In Truffaut’s book, he writes that “Hitchcock was never the same after Marnie, and that its failure cost him a considerable amount of self-confidence.” That lack of confidence is magnified in Torn Curtain, in which the studio influenced the director’s decisions on the cast and music.
By the mid-1960s, most of Hitchcock’s favorite stars–James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant–had either retired from show business or moved on to different roles (i.e., instead of romantic leads, Stewart begin playing fathers). Hitchcock had also failed to create new stars, the most famous example being Tippi Hedren, whom he once envisioned as one of his classic “blondes” (personally, I think Hedren’s performance in Marnie is widely under-appreciated). According to some sources, Hitchcock wanted North by Northwest leads Grant and Eve Marie Saint to reunite for Torn Curtain. However, Grant felt he was too old for the part and the studio nixed Saint for the same reason. In the end, the studio convinced Hitch to cast two hot, young talents in Newman and Andrews.
Unfortunately, neither seems comfortable in their roles and, as is apparent in their opening scene in bed, they dearly lack chemistry. Hitchcock implies to Truffaut that Newman’s “method acting” approach hindered him in key scenes. Certainly, Newman desperately wants to make us understand Armstrong’s motivations, a serious approach at odds with a movie composed of a thin framework (e.g., Armstrong undertakes this incredible mission on his own without the government’s sanction). Andrews tries hard as Sarah, but the script makes her character extremely naive (the audience is always ahead of her) and she is relegated to an accessory in the final the final two-thirds of the film.
Sadly, Hitchcock was also convinced to jettison the original soundtrack composed by long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for what was considered a more commercial, upbeat one by John Addison. I find Addison’s title theme to be almost playful, more appropriate for a black comedy. In contrast, the Herrmann theme is punctuated and more disturbing.
Yet, despite its flaws, there are flashes of the typical Hitchcock brilliance in Torn Curtain. The film’s most famous scene is the death of Gromek, an amusing but dangerous enemy agent played by Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek confirms that Michael is a spy after following him to a rural farmhouse, Michael and the farmer’s wife are forced to murder him. It’s a lengthy, brutal struggle involving kitchen utensils and ending with Michael forcing Gromek’s head into an oven as the gas is turned on. Earlier in the film, there’s a visually stunning scene–reminiscent of Vertigo–in which Gromek trails Michael through the streets and buildings of East Berlin.
Hitchcock left a scene with Gromek’s brother on the editing room floor, a decision based solely on the film’s running time (a too-long 128 minutes). Truffaut’s book contains a description of the omitted scene: Michael visits a factory where the dead Gromek’s brother (also played by Kieling) is a foreman. Gromek’s brother picks a kitchen knife (like the one used in the farmhouse fight), cuts off a piece of sausage, and tells Michael: “My brother loves this kind of sausage. Would you be kind enough to give it to him in Leipzig?” It sounds like a classic Hitchcock gag, similar to one from Young and Innocent.
It’s interesting to speculate what Torn Curtain might have been with a better script, more compatible actors, and perhaps a more engaged Hitchcock. Unfortunately, all that remains is a misfire with just enough interest to make one depressed over the reality that it isn’t a very good film.