After Alfred Hitchcock made Marnie, he worked on three projects he wound up dropping for various reasons. MCA/Universal was beginning to meddle in what author Ken Mogg refers to as “an annoying, corporate way” and the director was looking for a way to make a splash with what would become his 50th motion picture. Enter Torn Curtain.
This 1966 political thriller is notable for a number of reasons. For one, Hitch was uncomfortable with the casting of Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. For another, the filmmaker lobbied hard to have frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann produce a “popular” score for Torn Curtain only to part ways with him (permanently) after things didn’t pull together to Hitch’s satisfaction.
Based on the real life story of two British diplomats who defected, the feature opens with scientists and fiancées Michael Armstrong (Newman) and Sarah Sherman (Andrews) in bed together on a cruise to Copenhagen. They are to attend a conference, but it turns out that Armstrong has something else up his sleeve. He eventually meets up with East German contacts and heads to East Berlin.
Sherman, against Armstrong’s wishes, follows him and discovers that her fiancée is defecting to the “other side.” But now that she’s also in East Berlin, she has no choice but to stick it out. As the film’s perspective shifts, the audience is informed about Armstrong’s real motivations behind the Iron Curtain and the plot, as one might expect, thickens.
Hitchcock is very concerned with the concept of elongating things in Torn Curtain. The movie’s most famous scene, the killing of Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) on a farm, is a clear indication of this process. Here, Hitch wanted to illustrate just how long it takes to kill someone. The sequence is laborious and tense, played without musical accompaniment and with the services of one Carolyn Conwell.
“In doing that long killing scene,” Hitchcock explains in his interview with François Truffaut, “my first thought was to avoid the cliché. In every picture, somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly. They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not.”
Hitch’s pragmatic expressions take hold further in Torn Curtain, like when the Polish countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) takes them for coffee and asks them to be her sponsors. Under normal circumstances, this section of dialogue would be quite quick. But in this film, it plays like a Quentin Tarantino scene. The conversation is a matter of convenience, as the protagonists are simply just looking for the post office.
Oddly, it appears that Hitch had to actually compress the scene on the bus while still preserving the illusion of it being a very long, very tense trip. The characters are on their way to presumed safety once more, with some technicalities and bad guys getting in the way. The action is subdued, but Hitchcock still tries to make the audience believe something could happen at any moment.
Unfortunately, Torn Curtain lacks the lean pull of the filmmaker’s better pictures. It is strenuous at times and lacks the central personalities necessary to have viewers caring about the scientists. Hitch’s desire to stretch the recipe, so to speak, inhibits any natural strain and the scanty thrills come too little too late.
And it does seem that the director is rougher here. “I always feel comfortable about a project when I can tell the story in a very simple way from beginning to end,” he says. There were exceptions – and exceptions Hitch was pleased with, like Marnie – but for the most part the method holds true. His movements toward “pure cinema” require clarity of narrative.
That’s what makes Torn Curtain such a tricky picture. Hitchcock is still technically sound and there are some neat shots here, like the freeze-frames on the ballerina in the dénouement, but the larger construct wavers more often than not. As a result, the steam is let off quite early on and the tension struggles to mount.