Sunday, March 25, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock, 1966
Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Lila Kedrova, Hansjörg Felmy, Wolfgang Kieling

I think Torn Curtain is the only Hitchcock film I actually dislike. This somewhat flaccid Cold War thriller has a few excellent moments, but largely fails thanks to the two leads, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, who are not only miscast but have zero on-screen chemistry. But the worst of Hitchcock is still better than most of the drivel available today.

At a scientific conference on a cruise ship in Europe, physicist Michael Armstrong flies to East Berlin and defects. His fiancée Sarah is distraught, but stubbornly follows him, despite the many risks. It is soon obvious that Armstrong's defection is covering up his real reason for being in East Germany. He is a counterspy hoping to steal certain missile formulas from their most brilliant scientist, Lindt. When Armstrong attempts to make contact with his escape network, Pi, he is followed by a Stasi agent, Gromek, whom he must brutally kill to keep the organization safe.

Gromek's disappearance eventually sheds suspicion on Armstrong when he is in Leipzig at the University and Sarah is interrogated. Armstrong is forced to tell Sarah the truth after he acquires the information from Lindt and they go on the run. This involves a terrifying bus trip and hiding in a theater full of Stasi agents until they are able to stow away in the prop containers of a Czech ballet troupe. They are fingered by an angry ballerina, but are able to safely escape to Swedish waters in the nick of time.

As I said, there are some great scenes and overall the film is fairly entertaining, but I can't stress how bad the two leads are, despite the fact that they are both accomplished actors. North by Northwest's Eva Marie Saint was supposed to star, but Hitchcock bowed to studio pressure and brought on Julie Andrews, who is entirely too police, too nice, and too British for the role. She also has some of the worst dialogue in the script. When she has to share the screen with Paul Newman, there is simply no way to believe they are lovers. Despite a steamy opening scene, their interactions are cold and businesslike. Newman supposedly argued a great deal with Hitchcock on set and insisted on using method acting, which Hitchcock despised. He was another star pressed on Hitchcock by the studio.

Another major obstacle is the script by Brian Moore, which was disliked so much by Hitchcock and Universal that it went through many uncredited re-writes. Part of the problem with Torn Curtain and many of his later films is that they depart from his earlier mystery/thriller formula. A third of the way into the film, we learn that Armstrong is a counter agent, not a defector. The rest of the film is predictable. He steals the formula and regains Sarah's trust. Despite some suspenseful setbacks, they escape the Iron Curtain. The script is dry, unemotional, and thoroughly un-sexy. It lacks surprise and, most unfortunately, any of the trademark black humor that so benefits Hitchcock's greatest films. I think an attempt to bring in humor was the introduction of a tedious side plot with a Polish Countess and the conclusion with the angry ballerina who is determined to get revenge on Armstrong because he unwittingly wounded her pride early in the film.

Another major issue is the removal of Hitchcock's greatest musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann. Whether Herrmann quit or was fired is unclear, but the studio pressured Hitchcock to have a poppier, jazzier score with a theme song, possibly one for Andrews to sing. He refused and was replaced by John Addison, who churns out a very milquetoast score. Hermann's terrifying, if somewhat dramatic score is fantastic and it's interesting to see how it would have reshaped the film.

Though in subsequent years Torn Curtain has received a poor critical response, it did very well in the box office and does have some entertaining moments. There's a particularly horrifying scene where the Stasi agent, Gromek, is killed agonizingly slowly and with painstaking detail (arguably ripped off from Fritz Lang). I expected more from Hitchcock's fiftieth feature film, but check it out for yourself. There's a single disc DVD from Universal and it also appears in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection box set. Included is a short documentary, Torn Curtain Rising, that details the film's difficult production history.


  1. While I don't dislike this film as much as most, it isn't a favorite.
    Julie Andrews is almost unbearable.

    I just saw you have a ton of other Hitchcock reviews up. Pardon me while I over-comment.

  2. The more comments the merrier. I generally love Cold War films and oddly absolutely love TOPAZ, so I took it personally that the two leads were so bad.