Thursday, August 16, 2012

Torn Curtain (1966)

The mid to late 60’s weren’t exactly the best of times for Alfred Hitchcock in terms of critical response and box office recipes. In all honestly, a part of me feels that after the success he had with Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), a lot of critics were just waiting to pounce on him for something, and they’d soon get their chance. From 1964 to 1969, Hitchcock would helm three films, Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969), films that to this day seem to divide fans and always seem to spark up interesting debates. For whatever reason audiences and critics just didn’t seem to take to 1964’s psychosexual puzzle Marnie (which I consider to be a misunderstood masterpiece, although it seems time has been much kinder to that film than the others Hitchcock made during this period) so Hitchcock would again try something different with 1966’s Torn Curtain, a return to the espionage genre, a field in which he had found great successes in the past. Although Torn Curtain was a significantly more successful film than Marnie financially, his highest grossing film since Psycho in fact, critics still ravaged the film. The timing of the films release couldn’t have done it any favors with the press. At the time the market was flooded with spy films, what with the Cold War in full swing and the James Bond films being worldwide blockbusters, perhaps people thought that Torn Curtain was just one spy film to many, regardless of who the director was, which is interesting when you consider how many of the espionage films of that era blatantly ripped off elements from Hitchcock’s previous work. Whatever the case may be, I’ve always been under the impression that the film got the red headed step child treatment upon it’s initial release, and it still does. It’s a film that I’ll always consider one of Hitchcock’s most underappreciated and unfairly tarnished works, and one that I’ve always be quick to defend ever since I first saw it.

While attending a scientific conference in Copenhagen, renowned American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) begins to act strangely after his assistant/fiancé  Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) receives a message that was meant for him. When she asks him about his suspicious behavior, he tells her that he must fly to Stockholm, and that she should return home. Although upset, she agrees, but upon making an inquiry about his flight to Stockholm, she discovers that he’s not flying to Sweden, but to East Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain. Unbeknownst to him (and much to his dismay when he finds out), she hops on his plane and follows him to Berlin, where he publicly announces his defection to the east, citing his disappointment in the American government after the cancellation of his missile research project. In reality, he isn’t defecting at all, it’s a ruse in order for him to obtain top secret scientific information from Germany’s leading scientist for the American government and plans are in order for his escape with the help of an underground network known as Pi. His plan, and the Pi network are put in serious jeopardy when he is found out after his government appointed shadow Hermann Gromek follows him to the home of a contact in Pi (The Farmer), resulting in Armstrong and the farmers wife murdering Gromek, and Armstrong’s loyalty being questioned later on due to Gromek’s mysterious “disappearance”. While meeting with a top German scientist, it’s announced via loud speaker that searches are being conducted for Armstrong and Sarah for questioning, forcing Armstrong to hastily memorize as much information as possible and make a daring and dangerous escape with Sarah, facing obstacles at every turn.

Of the three films Hitchcock made during his so called “down period” ( a term which I completely disagree with, by the way) Torn Curtain seems to be the one that gets the most mud slung it’s way (even more so than Topaz) and honestly, I just don’t get it. I know this writing will hardly change anyone’s opinion of the film, but I will say to it’s detractors that it deserves a serious reassessment. Judging from all the negative reviews I’ve read of the film over the years, the number one issue that the majority of the films opponents bring up is the casting, claming that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were miscast and didn’t fit their roles at all. I happen to disagree (shocking I know). The classic Hitchcock theme of someone getting involved over their head in a serious situation is applied in this film, and while I’ll grant you that Newman’s character isn’t exactly an “everyman” in the traditional sense like a lot of Hitchcock protagonists had been in previous films on account of being a well known scientist, the general idea remains the same. I bring up that motif because Newman has that everyman quality about him, although his likeability isn’t instant. His character of Armstrong comes off as a bit of a selfish jerk in the beginning, the way he goes about handling his situation, keeping Sarah in the dark about the whole thing, yet it quickly becomes apparent that he is a good man, he knows full well the dangers of what he’s doing yet he feels it’s the right thing to do, so he becomes easy to root for. As for Andrews, were people expecting her to break out into song or something? You’re watching the wrong film. She’s easily the most sympathetic and likable person in the film. We instantly feel for Sarah, as she has yet to find out what the audience already knows, and Andrew’s handles the emotional material quite well. I’ve also never agreed with the claims that Newman and Andrews have no chemistry together, especially when you consider that their scenes together in the early parts of the film are supposed to come off as a bit awkward, what with Sarah questioning him about his odd behavior and him dancing around the issue of why he really wants her to go back home, plus the tension between the two after she follows him to Berlin and him finally telling her the truth about what’s really going on. As is the case with most Hitchcock films, it doesn’t take that long to become fully invested in the characters, and as the film moves forward and the more threatened they become, the more you’ll care about them and fear for their safety, making the events in the later part of the film all the more engaging and nerve wracking.

If Torn Curtain is remembered for one thing, without question it’s the murder of Gromek. Even the films naysayer’s have to accept defeat when it comes to this particular scene and admit it’s brilliance. Hitchcock deliberately made the scene as long and drawn out as possible, wanting to prove to the audience that killing a man isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies, it takes a bit more work, and indeed we see Armstrong and the farmer’s wife’s struggle in completing the act, as a knife, a shovel, and finally a gas oven are put to use. The fact that there is no music during the scene makes it even more excruciating to watch. We hear nothing but the noises of Gromek and Armstrong wrestling about the room, the sound knife breaking off in Gromek’s chest after he’s been stabbed and of course the noise of the oven. Even with the visceral nature of the scene, Hitchcock still found a way to inject some humor into it, with Gromek making the sly remark “Tell the cookie she should put that down, she’s going to cut your fingers off” after noticing the farmer’s wife coming at him with a knife. Hands down it’s the best moment of the film, just a masterfully constructed sequence, one that’s more than deserving to stand alongside scenes such as the finale of Saboteur (1942) on the statue of liberty, the Mt. Rushmore scene from North By Northwest (1959) and the shower scene from Psycho, amongst other iconic Hitchcock moments. The brief exchange between Armstrong and Gromek before the murder is smothered in tension, and speaking of intense, the second half of the film couldn’t get anymore. With a film like this there is always a sense of danger hovering above every scene given the subject matter, as it’s always a possibility that Armstrong’s cover could be blown at any moment. This is especially the case when Sarah is being interrogated, and keep in mind this is before Michael has told her the truth, so there’s always that element to keep us on edge, but it’s when the two try to make their escape when Hitchcock really lets us have it. Almost immediately after getting out of one dangerous situation, they’re yanked right into another. From their almost unbaringly tense ride on the supposed “safe” bus run by Pi, where along with being followed by the military they face other hang up’s such as belligerent passengers and checkpoints, to the scene in the theatre, (which is pure Hitchcock through and through) and the finale involving a very creative use of prop crates of all things, we barley get any breathing room, Hitchcock is in full control. Like any good spy movie, there’s plenty of intrigue to go around in terms of the inner workings of the Pi network, can this or that person be fully trusted, who is this or that person really working for and other things of that nature, so the suspense certainly isn’t in short supply.

Torn Curtain seemed to get the short end of the stick even before the film went into production. Numerous re-writes had to be done to the script and even when filming began things didn’t get any easier. It’s been said that both Newman and Andrew’s high salaries ate into the films budget, plus it’s well known that Hitchcock and Newman didn’t get along all that great. Newman was a method actor which drove Hitchcock crazy, and the two had many disagreements over the script, as Newman would later put it “"I think Hitch and I could have really hit it off, but the script kept getting in the way”. Throwing another wrench into the proceedings was the fact that longtime Hitchcock collaborator   Bernard Herrmann, who’s score for the film was written before filming ceased, left the project when the music he composed for the film wasn’t upbeat or “pop” enough to Universal’s liking, and they’re were no opportunities for Julie Andrews to possibly sing in the film. (I realize that the studio heads were thinking economics here, wanting to make whatever aspect of the film as commercially appealing as possible, but come on. A “pop” score for an intense spy thriller? The genius of Hollywood at work folks). Hitchcock replaced Herrmann with John Addison who rewrote the score (I love the film’s main theme by the way). Even with all the hassles that went into getting the film made, I still say it deserves far more credit that it gets. Am I saying it’s one of Hitchcock’s all time greatest films? No, but it’s nowhere near what it’s reputation would have you believe. If anything it’s a prime example of Hitchcock’s persistence as a filmmaker. Even with all the elements seemingly working against him, he was still able to deliver an incredibly gripping film that’s more than worthy your time that holds up well on repeated viewings (dated politics aside, but that goes without saying), one that I’ll continue to stick up for.

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