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Torn Curtain (1966)

October 10th, 2007 · 7 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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On a cruise ship off the coast of Norway, an association of physicists holds a convention. Two of the attending scientists from the “U.S. Interspace Committee” – Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) and Dr. Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) – warm themselves in bed. The couple is engaged, but Sarah becomes suspicious of her fiance’s travel plans, and follows him from Copenhagen to East Berlin.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Armstrong turns himself over to the East German authorities, where he announces his intention to defect, and to work with the noted Dr. Gustav Lindt on a defensive nuclear weapon system that the U.S. cut his funding for. Sarah calls her fiance a traitor, but instead of returning home, she chooses to stick around and work alongside him.

A Stasi officer named Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) shadows Armstrong, who sneaks away to the Museum of East Berlin and eludes his tail. The professor ends up at a farm, where he meets his contact, an American spy posing as a farmer. Armstrong reveals to the audience that he’s not a defector, but has come to steal a secret from the mind of Dr. Lindt. Gromek intercepts the professor at the farm, where the farmer’s wife helps Armstrong dispose of him.

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Now at Karl Marx University, Armstrong is unable to gain access to Lindt because he’s been marked a security risk following Gromek’s disappearance. He has to reveal the truth to Sarah and use her to help him on his mission. After tricking Lindt into sharing his secret propulsion formula on a chalkboard, the couple races to West Berlin. An exiled Polish countess (Lila Kedrova) and a traveling Czech ballet both figure into their escape.

Production history 
A fan of the James Bond series, director Alfred Hitchcock nevertheless felt its makers had mimicked his work, North By Northwest in particular. He felt the only way to compete with 007 would be to make a spy thriller that was realistic. In November 1964, he wrote to Vladimir Nabokov about writing a political thriller based on British defectors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. The author of Lolita responded that he wasn’t familiar enough with that milieu and passed.

Irish novelist and screenwriter Brian Moore wasn’t interested in writing for Hitchcock at all, but needed the money. While he worked on a script with the director through the spring and summer of 1965, Hitchcock made overtures to Cary Grant about starring in the project. The 61-year-old Grant had decided to retire as soon as he completed Walk, Don’t Run and turned the director down.

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Hitchcock’s agent Lew Wasserman suggested two of the decade’s newest stars – Paul Newman and Julie Andrews – for the leads. Their fees made it impossible to shoot the film in Europe, but Hitchcock had plenty of experience making movies on soundstages. Shooting commenced on the Universal lot in November 1965.

Neither Moore nor Hitchcock ended up being satisfied with the script for Torn Curtain. The writer felt that it was implausible, with cardboard characters. The director insisted that if the story were too plausible, it would bore audiences. Hitchcock imported British scribes Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall to polish the dialogue on set. Nobody seemed to care for the shooting script either, and production did not go smoothly.

Upon its release in the summer of 1966, Hitchcock’s attempt to beat 007 at the box office and stay relevant to a youth audience was almost universally panned by critics. It opened well, but quickly faded from sight, ending up an even bigger commercial failure than Marnie. While that picture is now adorned with praise, many critics nominate Torn Curtain as a candidate for the worst film in Hitchcock’s career in Hollywood.

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No matter what type of movie you’re in the mood for – gritty espionage drama, popcorn action thriller, Hitchcock shocker, colorful travelogue – this movie is a failure. The script is muddled and dumb, the actors woefully miscast and the production values considerably lower than the Bond franchise, or any decent thriller of the day. Other than the picture staying in focus, nothing about Torn Curtain turned out right.

Anyone reading this could probably write a better script about physicists defecting to East Berlin than the one that was shot. Hitchcock lamented how difficult it was to find good writers, but his decision to make a crowd pleasing romp really diminished his prospects. The hero is a cheeseball, arguably the least resourceful professor since the one marooned on Gilligan’s Island. The casting is a scratch as well, with neither Newman or Andrews believable as physicists, or as lovers.

Torn Curtain does qualify as a speed bump in Hitchcock’s filmography due to the three-minute sequence where Newman tussles with Wolfgang Kieling in the farmhouse. Demonstrating how hard it is to kill a man, the scene was storyboarded and edited with the technical flourish and sinister glee Hitchcock was lauded for. It’s a contrast to the rest of the movie, which you can speed past without missing a thing.

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Terrence Brady at Dial H For Hitchcock says, “Torn Curtain is a lightweight espionage thriller that has some tense, memorable moments but as a whole seems to flounder.”

“For sheer entertainment value you could do much worse than Torn Curtain. Unlike most filmmakers, at his worst Hitchcock still stands miles above most mediocre Hollywood drivel,” writes Patrick Naugle at DVD Verdict.

Dan Jardine at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Torn Curtain begins as a promising political thriller, but winds up as a slightly disappointing effort, a minor chord in the master’s cinematic concerto.”

“I can take you – how do you say – one arm tied behind my back?” View a classic fight scene between Paul Newman & Carolyn Conwell and Wolfgang Kieling.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Interrogation · Museums and galleries · Paranoia

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hedwig // Oct 11, 2007 at 4:52 am

    As a physicist (in training), I so wanted to like this film…but you’re right, this is a failure on all accounts, the only interesting scene being the extended, messy murder of Gromek. The plot is also a mess, and the only question I was pondering all through the film was: how can too such pretty people have so little chemistry?

  • 2 Chuck // Oct 11, 2007 at 10:30 am

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never seen Torn Curtain, and I own the damn thing in a Hitchcock set I got a few years back. I’m kind of afraid of sitting through it, no one’s ever said anything much good about it. But its Hitch, and after all the good he’s brough I guess I should sit through it once.

  • 3 Megan // Oct 11, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    I am fatally handicapped by the fact that I cannot watch Julie Andrews in anything but Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music. The indoctrination was just too strong, and I could never in a thousand years believe in a romance with Paul Newman. One of the reasons why I’ve never seen Torn Curtain!

  • 4 Damian // Oct 11, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Well,… at least it’s still better than Topaz.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 11, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Hedwig: I sincerely hope that if Universal announces a remake of this film, they contact you to write the script. Reading your blog, I have no doubt whatsoever you could write a damn good one.

    Chuck: I can think of far worse movies to have to sit through. Sandra Bullock does not appear anywhere in Torn Curtain, however.

    Megan: I can’t watch Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews in them. I thought she acquitted herself nicely as Dudley Moore’s girlfriend in 10, even if I could not imagine her having sex with anybody, much less sex with Dudley Moore.

    Damian: Now you have made the night I devote to Topaz truly one to dread. Thanks, man!

  • 6 Sajid A. latheef // Nov 1, 2007 at 10:15 am

    The common criticism about this film is accurate.It bores the audience except for the now famous murder-scene.Paul Newman and Julie Andrews fail miserably.Wolfgang Kieling as the menacing Gromek is excellent.Another interesting sequence is the encounter with Countess Kuchinska, played by Lila Kedrova.

  • 7 Angela Adams // Aug 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    As a true Julie Andrews fan, I saw this film and now own the DVD ONLY because of Dame Andrews. She advised her family and friends not to see it. The only good thing about her as Sarah Sherman is her hair style and the bed scene at the very beginning.

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