Torn Curtain boasts a scene, about forty minutes in, that is every bit as proficient and startling as the Psycho shower scene. Unfortunately, in contrast to Psycho, the rest of the movie is a dog: a bog-standard Cold War spy affair, complete with miscast leads, a frequently flagrant disregard for verisimilitude and a rote and at times entirely inappropriate score. In the latter department, it seems studio interference led to Hitchcock rejecting Bernard Herrmann’s contribution and thus their falling out. He had also lost his regular cinematographer and editor. No sooner had Hitch reinvented himself for a new generation, first Marnie and then Torn Curtain show him wildly out of touch with the prevailing trends, both in terms of subject matter and moviemaking. Apart from that scene.
Because the farmhouse scene is a masterpiece, and masterclass in suspense. Based on Hitch’s premise that “I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man” – in contrast to the typical movie where “somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly” – we find Paul Newman’s novice spy in a life and death struggle with East German minder Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), the former aided by Carolyn Conwell’s farmer’s wife. Well, I say aided. Conwell does all the proactive death-dealing.
Conscious that using Gromek’s gun will alert the taxi driver outside, she sets about resolving the situation by sticking a kitchen knife in Gromek’s neck – which, in an extraordinarily conceived moment, breaks off at the handle – before beating his shins with a shovel until he collapses on the kitchen floor. And then she leads the charge in dragging him to the nearby gas oven (Hitch denied any conscious Holocaust reference).
In this regard, it’s curious that, given the charges of misogyny against Marnie, Torn Curtain offers a series of competent heroines, from the farmer’s wife, to Gisela Fischer’s Doctor Koska, to Lila Kedrova’s slightly more self-seeking Countess Kuchinska. The latter nevertheless knocks a pursuing guard down some steps, enabling our protagonists’ escape. There are also a few hissable female roles – Tamara Toumanova’s Ballerina, revisited periodically for “comic” effect that falls decidedly flat and Gloria Gorvin’s bus passenger/rebel who wants to throw them off a bus – but they’re less noteworthy. Certainly, Conwell’s scene is the picture’s centrepiece, and her role is at the centre of that centrepiece.
Also crucial to the scene’s success is Kieling’s performance as Gromek. I’d further suggest his is the picture’s standout turn. Introduced as an affable – if overtalkative towards Newman’s more taciturn defector Professor Armstrong – security officer keen to display his knowledge and experience of the US, Gromek is at first more a mild irritant than a threat. His presence takes on a more sinister hue when we realise he is tailing Armstrong wherever he goes. At the farm, where Armstrong meets with his contact, Gromek reveals he has the goods on the scientist’s true purpose in being there (Armstrong is only pretending to defect in order to procure vital secrets from Ludwig Donath’s Professor Lindt).
It’s at this point the struggle begins, Kieling offering a superb display of mocking confidence as he informs Armstrong he has no chance as he is a professional: “Okay, you had your fun. Now we stop the games”. Just before he gets knifed, that is (there’s something of Get Carter to Gromek, except that he isn’t our protagonist).
Kieling was set to feature in an additional scene, one shot by Hitchcock but left on the cutting room floor, some say at Newman’s behest. In this, he played Gromek’s brother, surfacing at a factory Armstrong and his fiancée Sarah Sherman (Andrews) visit. We see him slicing a sausage with a very similar knife to the one that killed his sibling. Hitch claimed to have cut it because he was unhappy with Newman’s performance and because he worried about the moment where the brother shows a picture of Gromek’s children: that it would elicit too much sympathy and turn the audience against Armstrong. He insisted the scene was very good, though. It sounds to me as if it highlights the picture’s uneasy, indecisive mid-ground. On the one hand, brutal realism. On the other, a reliance on absurd coincidence.
Armstrong: He’s got the key to a puzzle in his head, and I’ve got to get the key.
If the rest of the movie had been even half as good as the farmhouse sequence, Torn Curtain would be regarded as something of a late-period Hitchcock classic, but attempts to defend the film come across as half-hearted at best. There are a couple of other decent scenes worth mentioning. Armstrong’s attempts to persuade Lindt to admit his knowledge are persuasively depicted, as the former attempts to conceal his lack of understanding while the latter quickly perceives the same (“You are not going to work with me, professor, if that is the extent of your knowledge”). And it’s an achievement that the scene revolves around chalking incomprehensible formulae on a blackboard and still carries an air of tension.
Later, an escape by bus is delivered through flagrant processing work even Hitch had cause to complain about – so it must have been bad – but it works pretty well despite the obvious artifice. Again, though, the problem is that Hitch is sloppily marrying the realism of the modern spy genre – the location heavy The Ipcress File came the same year, and really shows up the director as out to pasture – with the antiquated approach that was increasingly falling into disfavour and being rejected by audiences.
It doesn’t help that the cinematography from John F Warren – a veteran of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – is utterly bland and incapable of disguising the joins, be it fake backgrounds or studio hills (there’s a caveat: this link shows that, for all the creakiness of many of Hitch’s choices, there’s some first-class Albert Whitlock matte work involved). There’s also a decent piece of suspense at the ballet – designed by The Red Shoes’ Hein Heckroth – as the Stasi file in searching for them.
Too much of the picture is a slog, unfortunately. The premise itself is a slender one, based on a double bluff few wouldn’t have figured out before Mort Mills’ woeful exposition dump preceding the kitchen massacre. No sooner has Armstrong arrived than he’s exposed and has to leave. Which I suppose has the benefit of avoiding dwelling on how shonky his plan is in the first place.
Hitch’s initial idea was based on the wife’s reaction in the cases of Burgess and Maclean (well, Maclean at any rate). That rather floundered with the studio-mandated casting of Andrews (over the likes Eva Marie Saint and Samantha Eggar) and Newman (Hitch wanted Cary Grant, and it appears was also interested in working with Anthony Perkins again; the latter would have been interesting). No one believes Newman is a physicist, just as no one believes Andrews is being anyone but Andrews (“I did not have to act…” in the picture, she admitted). A star such as Doris Day turned out to be a surprisingly good choice in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Andrews is outright awful. Worse, there’s zero chemistry with Newman, one of the reasons Hitch elected to focus more on the likes of Hansjorg Felmy as Gerhard, Gromek, Koska, And Countes Kuchinska.
Only a few such scenes leave an impression because the screenplay – from Brian Moore, embellished by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse – isn’t up to par; indeed, Hitch was forced to enter production before he was ready in order to secure Andrews. You know, Andrews, who makes the early scenes interminable.
Structurally, Torn Curtain never comes together. The third act suspense of the couple’s flight is insufficiently sustained. Mainly, though, you need to care about the characters to make this work. You rather wish Armstrong had been able to ditch Sherman at the outset. Newman’s fine – enough – but he isn’t really in his element either. The attempts at humour are mostly lame, and at more than two hours the picture is noticeably overlong.
Sherman: East Berlin? But that’s behind the Iron Curtain.
Hitch had initially intended for Armstrong to throw the formula away, Snake Plissken style, but he was persuaded to reconsider. The wicker-basket escape comes across as lame apologia, and one can only hope the vital formula became irretrievably soggy in the process. Hitch’s MacGuffin stands out more egregiously here – just as it did in Foreign Correspondent – due to the attempts at realistic action and the method approach of the lead. Armstrong is not only a physicist, he’s also a rocket scientist with ICOP (the US Interspace Committee – so says his badge). He’s attempting to develop a successful missile defence – Gamma 5 – before the Soviets get there first (“Is that the anti-missile missile? The one that’s supposed to make nuclear defence obsolete?”). You know, the kind of thing that, at the time – who knows, perhaps it still does, despite claims and budgets otherwise – rivalled Dr Strangelove’s Doomsday Device or Reagan’s Star Wars for plausibility.
Lindt: You come to me from the United States, and I don’t care if you came from the Moon! I tell you what you say is rubbish!
Speaking of Kubrick, it’s notable that (Michael, not Neil) Armstrong is staying in Room 237 on the M/S Meteor – the same number that’s such a shocker in The Shining. One can, of course, overstate any apparent connection or synchronicity, but it’s easy to see why – if you work from the premise that The Shining represents, among a myriad of other things, an exposé of Kubrick’s filming of the Moon landings – you’d want to link it all back to Torn Curtain. (Although, posts here brings Kubrick’s themes back to terror at nuclear war, per Dr. Strangelove, which requires us to believe the nuclear programmes are exactly as they are presented to us, and further that Kubrick really was as terrified of nuclear Armageddon as he professed to be, while apparently being so informed and up to speed about every other conspiratorial area going). Could it be that, if there is a connection, it’s a simple as it all being lies?* Armstrong, whom we first see in Room 237, is all about selling a lie, a lie based on Hitch’s MacGuffin, and Kubrick’s Room 237 is all about fears and lies actualised on a personal level.
All of which is interesting – or really reaching, depending on where you’re coming from – but it doesn’t help any if one is attempting to reassess Torn Curtain’s quality overall (in contrast to Newman, I think it’s a great title). It’s a picture that shows Hitchcock still had it, but that his instincts overall appeared increasingly diluted and off-beam. Notably, however, it would be in returning to the grimmer mechanics of the best scene here that the director returned to something of his old form (Frenzy).
*Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response). The concomitant threat of mutually assured destruction is another matter, however, since one does not necessarily follow on from the other.