Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for this new installment, let’s begin with 1966′s Torn Curtain!
As a general rule, even Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser efforts are more interesting than most other movies. Even when the famously controlling director expressed displeasure with the results, his films were never less than master classes in formalism. Torn Curtain is a prime example of a movie that even Hitchcock himself criticized afterwards. This was his fiftieth movie and yet his much gained clout didn’t stop the problems: He experienced plenty of studio interference — he was forced to accept Paul Newman and Julie Andrews as his stars, and because of Andrews’ packed schedule, Hitchcock bemoaningly had to start production with an unfinished and undercooked script (something that saw Newman and Hitchcock continually butted heads about throughout production). But once the film finally hit the silver screen, it was thrusted into a mixed-negative response — with many critics raising questions if Hitch was now out-of-touch with the time (a response that sadly hasn’t much changed with now over a half-a-century passed). And while the film assuredly has some weaknesses (in particularly the film’s final twentyish minutes), the film still remains a bold and challenging work, one that flies in the face of the conventional spy thrillers of its day. And now with much retrospect, even shines in comparison to many of the spy thrillers of our current age.
The film focuses on a classic Hitchcockian protagonist, a man possessing a dangerous secret. That man is Dr. Michael Armstrong (Newman), an esteemed American physicist and rocket scientist heading to a conference in Copenhagen with his fiancée Sarah Sherman (Andrews), only to receive a mysterious radiogram en route. Soon, and with brusque indifference, he blows off Sarah, and secretly boards a flight to East Berlin, where it’s revealed he had been in communication with the Communist government and intends to defect. However, Sarah has followed him there, where in short order we learn that Michael is executing a secret plan to steal information about a new rocket system known only by the top East Berlin scientist. But as Sarah learns the truth, the race is on to obtain the classified intel and flee the country before the Germans learn they’ve been had.
What Torn Curtain does get acclaim and notoriety for (and rightly so) is a bravura scene that arrives around the forty-five-minute mark. Armstrong has been trying to slip his East Berlin security agent, Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), and sneaks off to a farm outside the city to meet with his underground contact. Unfortunately, Gromek shows up and surprises Armstrong, who’s inside the house with a German woman aiding his cause. Threats are made, and soon Armstrong is fighting to silence Gromek before he can tell and alert the East Berlin security forces of Armstrong’s deceit. Hitchcock has said that he staged the sequence as a rebuke to how easy many of the spy thrillers of the time made killing a man look. The scene is entirely about struggle, it goes on and on. First, Armstrong chokes Gromek. When that fails, the German woman stabs him the chest, but the knife breaks-off in him. Yet still, once again, Gromek rises. In the brutally protracted scene, Gromek is slowly, achingly dragged across the floor, until his head is placed in the oven, and he’s gassed, his body twitching and kicking for a good minute more.
It’s an entirely unpleasant yet near-masterful sequence, that as well doubles nicely as a shorthand for Hitchcock’s take on Cold War intrigue. It shows there’s nothing fun or glamorous about the violence taking place behind closed doors during this era of an international game of red rover. Yet still with the mixed-bag script, the film as well sharply parallels the central couple’s relationship with the Cold War itself; making the film a superb look at mutual distrust while still having plenty of escape thrills throughout. That is until it turns the film veers onto a clumsy track. Most of the film’s early tension derives from the lovers who treat their relationship like some sort of shady foreign policy, but then the film’s first misstep comes at around the halfway point: When the couple finally get on the same page and take the film’s mystery and tension and deflate just about everything, for a bit at least.
Yet the film does pick up again, with the intrigue that ensues bringing some primetime Hitchcock, while still being decidedly more surface-level than some; with the climactic scene intuitively wringing high tension from two people simply writing math equations onto a chalkboard. Yes, there’s the massive error in pacing judgment (seen in the quick introduction and drop of the hyperactive Countess Kuchinska character). And yes, following that there’s the introduction to a plenty of plot holes that push the film out of its gruelingly grounded sensibilities. But outside of its limp home stretch, Torn Curtain is easily one of the most underrated Hitchcock projects; one that brings a desire to challenge the mores of its other contemporary films; to outpace and go further than a more simple crowd-pleasing popcorn entertainment. And it’s exactly those ambitions that deserve some re-evaluation.
Where to Watch: VOD