Week 17: Torn Curtain (1966), Realism, and Steven Spielberg

Disclaimer: This essay discusses spoilers for Torn Curtain. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

tc.posterRemember how in Week 8 I talked about how weird it is for Hitchcock to be doing a spy picture? It turns out I should have started with Torn Curtain, a better film that shares many of the same flaws as Topaz, albeit with some significant differences.

The biggest difference is star power; where Topaz employed no-name actors that came cheap, Torn Curtain stars two of the biggest stars of 1966 or any era: Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. The film comes at a critical time for both of actors;  Newman would follow Torn Curtain with the gritty Hombre and the rebellious counter-culture classic Cool Hand Luke, cementing his status as an iconoclastic leading man. Meanwhile Andrews, coming off the worldwide blockbuster success of The Sound of Music (1965), was one of the biggest stars in the world.

How can this lose??

Yet Hitchcock fought against casting both of them; legend has it that he balked at their prices, but he also was trying anything to woo Cary Grant into doing the film and he wouldn’t have been cheap either (instead, Grant shot the limp Walk, Don’t Run in Japan and then retired from acting). Hitchcock didn’t feel an affinity with this new breed of movie stars. All his old favorites were dead or too old to play leading roles; his relationship with Tippi Hedren, who had starred in The Birds and Marnie, had fallen apart. It’s alleged that Hitchcock was sexually inappropriate and possessive of Hedren, which might be true but also flies in the face of what is otherwise a kind of coy asexuality in all his other relationships. But regardless, they would not work together again.

So Paul Newman clearly struggles through the film, with Hitchcock maintaining a set of screenwriters on set to deal with his endless method questions about why he should look here or say that or act that way. In a way, Hitchcock gave his performers tremendous freedom in how to say a line, convey a look, or comport themselves; they simply had to start a scene at point A and end precisely at point B while looking at point C. For Newman this was too analytical and he chafed at the restrictions.

Hitchcock & Newman, seen here struggling to connect with each other.

It’s harder to say why Julie Andrews is so flat in the film. She’s certainly capable of enormous charisma, as evidenced in her long and storied film career. Yet here she’s dressed in drab earth tones, given an unflattering haircut, and walks stiffly through most of her lines. It’s likely that both Andrews & Newman realized the script was a dud and just moved through the production as quickly and easily as possible.

Hitchcock and Andrews, seen here struggling to connect.

And it’s a shame about the screenplay, because the elements of Torn Curtain are ingenious, stemming from Hitchcock wondering what happens to a man’s wife when he decides to defect to the Soviet Union? In this scenario Paul Newman plays a scientist engaged to his assistant Julie Andrews as they’re traveling to a conference in Europe. After some suspicious dealings (we’ll come back to this), Newman defects to East Germany with Andrews following him, despite his demanding that she go home. As Newman juggles trying to find out a secret formula and convincing Andrews to leave, the East Germans find out the truth: that he’s actually a double agent, leading to an excellent escape “behind the Iron Curtain.”

That’s the bones of the story, but Hitchcock is more interested in playing with perception and how the story is seen; as described to Truffaut, the movie breaks down into three sections: the first part is seen from Andrews’ point of view as she struggles to understand what’s happening, the second part is seen from Newman as tries to make contact with a spy ring and uncover the formula, and the final escape from East Germany unites the couple. It’s a classic Hitchcock scenario, where danger brings the couple closer together even as they’re running for their lives.

The trouble is that, for one of the first times in his career since the 1930s, Hitchcock stumbles. And I mean really stumbles, not in the sense of trying an experiment to see how it works, but making what seems like a lazy decision. After a clevel opening shipboard scene where everyone is making attempts to hold a conference despite the heat being broken in the dead of winter, Hitchcock tips his hand. Newman receives a strange telegram, looks shifty about it, and says it’s not for him; then once Andrews is gone, he replies to the telegram. Later, we see him get a rare book and decode a secret message, all things Andrews never sees. So while Andrews thinks he’s just defecting to East Germany for no reason, we the audience know better.

Revealing this information so early in the game cripples our identification with Andrews, which is a shame because this is some of the better stuff in the film. A scene where he catches her following him on the plane and belligerently tells her to take the first plane home is shocking because of Newman’s cruelty; yet we know he’s play-acting so it loses its sting. Even better is a scene in East Germany where Andrews watches through a throng of reporters, newsreel cameras whirring, as Newman speaks at a press conference announcing his defection. But again, the impact is lost because we know something is up with Newman.

Newman announces his defection at an East German press conference

Now, who the hell am I to second guess Hitchcock? I get that. But so much of Hitchcock’s career is about point of view, about controlling who we relate to and how, that this is a bizarre mistake. Hitchcock reportedly agonized over this issue in Vertigo, dealing when when and where Kim Novak’s character should reveal her identity. And the second third of Torn Curtain works extremely well, as Newman meets an agent in a spy ring that’s helping him and they discuss why he defected, with the great line that it “takes a scientist to pick a scientist’s brain.”

The second third also contains the film’s most rightfully famous sequence. Newman is assigned a bodyguard/handler when he gets to East Germany, the menacingly friendly Gromek. Newman ditches him to go to a farmhouse and meet with the leader of this spy ring, but Gromek follows him and confronts Newman and a woman from the spy ring in a small farm house. Gromek realizes Newman is a double agent, dials the phone to turn them in, and the woman throws a pot of boiling rice on him. Reality sets in: this isn’t a James Bond/Hollywood style fight where a bad guy is quickly disposed of.

Hitchcock deliberately sets out to show how difficult it is, both physically and psychologically, to kill someone else even when it means saving your own life. It’s a brutal, slow fight as Newman holds onto Gromek while the woman stabs him, but the knife blade breaks off. She beats him with a shovel, but he’s still alive and taunting them. Finally the two manage to shove him into an open oven where she’s turned on the gas. This is Newman’s best acting in the film, and it’s clear that he relishes this challenge. It’s hard to imagine Cary Grant playing this scene at all, let alone as well as Newman.

The end of the brutal fight scene.

For much of the movie, it seems like Newman and Hitchcock are at odds. Yet here they’re in concert, as Newman wordlessly sells the anguish of the killing and his shocked, paralyzed state afterwards. It’s a powerful sequence and even though Gromek is fundamentally unlikable, we feel queasy about his death and unhappy with Newman for going to such lengths to save himself.

The third act of the film, unfortunately, falls prey to one of the main problems with Topaz: the issue of passivity. Hitchcock’s desire to make a more realistic James Bond film undoubtedly led him to include scenes of teams of people working together, all to try and get the now-discovered Newman and Andrews out of the country. But other characters bear the brunt of the work, most of whom we have just met. The woman in the farmhouse helps kill Gromek and we never see her again. There are busloads of people risking their lives for the America couple, a Polish countess risking her life to help them find their contact, a stage manager also risking his life to help them onboard a ship. Time and time again, Newman and Andrews do nothing but get shuttled from location to location, which doesn’t make for great entertainment. Is it more realistic? Perhaps. But it’s a tedious mess that Hitchcock never recovers from, effectively blunting the end of the film. Newman does get them out of a jam by literally yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, but that’s his only proactive moment (also, why would an East German audience in 1966 respond to a shout in English, but that’s neither here nor there).

Newman and Andrews letting someone else do all the work for them.

The sound design in the film is one of the most effective elements, playing into Hitchcock’s desire for realism. I’ve already mentioned the whirring cameras providing an unsettling background to Newman’s press conference; there’s also a great scene where Newman tries to loose Gromek in a museum, their footsteps chasing each other through the marble hallways, creating an abstract soundscape of footfalls that predates Lee Marvin’s famous rhythmic walk in Point Blank (1967). Through the rest of the film, the sound design amplifies small details: other conversations in a hotel lobby, the rustling and murmurs in a post office, or the cacophony of a loud coffee shop.

You could argue that the better version of this film is actually Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the excellent 2015 film about Tom Hanks journeying to East Germany to negotiate for the trade of a Soviet agent for a downed U2 pilot. I’m willing to bet Spielberg rewatched Torn Curtain before making Bridge of Spies, even though he probably didn’t need to. Spielberg is an unabashed fan of classic Hollywood, one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker. When he was just 19 or 20 years old he somehow snuck onto the Universal lot to watch Hitchcock shoot this film before thrown out.

He’s no Paul Newman but he’ll have to do.

These are the kind of stories that made me love Steven Spielberg. Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa: these are gigantic, intimidating figures of cinema who offer few gateways into their personal lives and are not concerned with relatability. Yet Spielberg always seems so goldarned excited; excited about a new film, excited to talk about old films, just excited! It’s absolutely charming to me that he still shows up interviews in a leather bomber jacket and a baseball cap, like he’s trying to dress for the part of “cool film director.” It’s okay, Steve. You won.

Come on, how do you not love this guy?

And sure, there is Spielberg the Behemoth. The co-founder of Dreamworks studio, one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, I’d say definitely the most powerful filmmaker alive. Spielberg the Industry. The guy who produced a ton of bad movies, indulged every good and bad idea he ever had, and even said ON RECORD good things about Michael Bay’s Transformers.

But for me he still cuts a relatable figure. He’s always eager to talk about influences and classic Hollywood, and that love of film history shows in his own work. As a kid, I was impressed because he grew up in Phoenix, just a few hours from where I lived! Plus the 1-2 punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List IN THE SAME YEAR. And hey, did you know he asked his pal George Lucas to oversee the production on Jurassic Park for him, because he was busy with Schindler’s List?! Can you imagine?!

Ironically, I don’t love him for Schindler’s List or much of his awards-bait work (As I recall, Schindler’s List is great but he does kind of steal the girl in the red dress imagery from Kurosawa’s spectacular crime drama High and Low). As I do with Hitchcock, I love Spielberg the entertainer. Because here’s the secret about Steven Spielberg: the reason he’s made so much money, had so many hits, and created so many cultural touchstones? He’s a really fucking good director.

This is what perfection looks like.

Look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think for a moment about the truck chase in that movie. You’ve got Indiana Jones chasing a convoy of cars and trucks on horseback, then jumping onto the truck, throwing guys out the back, getting tossed out the front window, crawling underneath the truck between the wheels, and then back again. Yet in every second of that sequence, you know where the characters are and what’s at stake. Where Indy is, and how many Nazis are still on the truck. How close the truck is to the ravine, how far Indy is from being rammed by the other car, even how big those pieces of gravel are that spray up into his face (I believe this chase was inspired by a similar stagecoach chase in Michael Curtiz’s Virginia City (1940), another classic film that Spielberg draws inspiration from).

Now think of a current action film. Jurassic World. The Dark Knight. Any of the Transformers movies. Do any of the action sequences you can think of approach that kind of clarity? Or is it a lot of impressive CGI stunts and fast cuts?

This might sound like faint praise for Spielberg, but it isn’t. This is the very language of filmmaking, handling spatial relationships in a linear fashion that makes sense to the viewer, and no one, but no one, handles this better than Spielberg. He’s blessed with an intuitive and all-compassing gift for filmmaking that still leaves me in awe.

I’m sure part of my love for him is discovering Spielberg at exactly the right time. Was seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989 when I was thirteen a seminal experience? Did I try to find a leather bomber jacket & fedora just like Indy’s, and then have my senior photo for high school taken in that coat & hat? YES, YES, and YES.

Twins! Who can possibly tell us apart?! (I’m on the right)

Meanwhile Torn Curtain has a lousy reputation. Hitchcock was unhappy with the script and hoped to add some lightness and comedy on set his stars, but then found himself bored by them. Even his conceived strategy of shooting, painting everything in the “Iron Curtain” of the film in monotones and grays, is baffling, as it results in a grim color palette that’s unpleasant to look at. And to accommodate the salary demands of Newman & Andrews, the budget had to cut extensively, resulting in the film being shot entirely in Universal studios, with unconvincing rear projection. The movie even broke up one of Hitchcock’s greatest artistic partnerships, his work with composer Bernard Hermann.

Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann in happier times.

Universal executives wanted a light, jazzy score to appeal to younger audiences, maybe even with a song for Julie Andrews. Having learned how a song can help a film from his experience with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Hitch was happy to oblige, and directed Hermann (living in London during an acrimonious divorce) to create a Nouvelle Vogue beat-inspired score. What Hermann instead delivered was staccato brass, sharp woodwinds, and heavy tension: in short, the kind of work he’s known for, but not what Hitchcock wanted. The pair had words (accounts vary on what was said), and never spoke again. Composer John Addison turns in a dull score that clumsily draws attention to Hitchcock’s cameo in the film (in a hotel lobby with a toddler on his knee) by playing a few bars of Charles Gonoud’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” better known to millions as the theme song to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.

Yet despite it all, I don’t totally hate Torn Curtain. It’s a mess, but it has its charms, and it hints at what could have been an exceptional film. The murder of Gromek, Andrews watching Newman at the press conference and realizing she doesn’t know who he is at all, and the film’s innovative sound design are all unique and compelling moments in a less-than-compelling film.

Perhaps the film’s biggest legacy is in its MacGuffin, the secret formula that Newman is trying to find out (in an almost-gream scene where he trades blackboard equations with an East German professor). The formula is part of a defensive missile system that would shoot down incoming missiles, thereby protecting a country from nuclear war. According to Frances Fitzgerald’s book Way Out There in Blue, an avid viewer of this film was Ronald Reagan, who couldn’t stop talking about the idea after a screening. Is it possible that a throwaway reference in a lesser Hitchcock picture inspired the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) boondoggle that cost more than $200 billion with little to no results? What a legacy for such a little-liked film.

Reagan introducing the Strategic Defense Initiative, 100% not inspired by a mid-level Hitchcock film.

Torn Curtain is available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.

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