Friday, March 04, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Torn Curtain (1966)

A particular scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain came up in reference to a project I’m working on. I’d seen the sequence in question several times – it’s one of those signature Hitchcock moments that is regularly excerpted and studied – but never in context, because Torn Curtain is one of the Hitchcock films that I’d missed. I set out to rectify that at once. And because I never do anything in half-measures, desperately crave structure, and need something to stave off the crippling ennui that attacks at the end of every weekend, I decided to devote Sunday evenings to Hitchcock films that are new to me, along with some that I want to revisit.

Torn Curtain finds Hitch working with a script credited to the brilliant novelist Brian Moore and indirectly inspired by l’affair Guy Burgess. Physicist Paul Newman arrives for a conference in Copenhagen with his assistant/fiancée Julie Andrews but then takes an unannounced detour to Berlin, where he defects. A flummoxed Andrews follows him, but of course our all-American boy isn’t really switching sides. He’s simply taking a brief foray behind the Iron Curtain to see what the Reds know about missile defense. It’s a deeply flawed premise: Newman’s harebrained scheme is without government sanction, aided only by a poorly-defined civilian intelligence network. And it’s all so Newman can steal information from the Russians that he can’t figure out on his own. Not exactly the strongest position to put our protagonist in.

The script is a series of set pieces, the best of them the one I already knew. At a secret meeting with his contact Newman is surprised by his Stasi handler and must take drastic action to keep his ruse alive. Done without music, it’s a lengthy, grueling sequence meant to demonstrate how physically difficult it is to kill someone. Hitchcock at his best, this passage makes Torn Curtain worthwhile all by itself.

The other set pieces are good ideas in theory – a slow-motion chase involving a bogus bus operated by the intelligence network, a bit with Lily Kedrova as an exiled Polish noblewoman who may or may not aid Newman and Andrews in their escape to the West – but muddled in execution. The climax cleverly pays off a running gag about a prima ballerina, but is too reminiscent of the ending of The Man Who Knew Too Much. That the stars have little chemistry doesn’t help matters. Both leads were forced on Hitchcock by the studio. In addition, he had a falling out with longtime collaborator Bernard Herrmann that ended their relationship.

It was a troubled production, and the seams show. Aside from one episode of brilliance Torn Curtain is a misfire. It’s utterly impersonal yet thoroughly competent. Even when Hitchcock’s heart wasn’t in his work and he clearly feared losing his way, he was still able to bring his talent to bear. Which makes Torn Curtain thrilling in a completely different way.