Unloved Hitchcock 1: TORN CURTAIN (1966)
Torn Curtain travels a road that Hitchcock himself laid. For fans, its familiarities to Secret Agent, The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much are audible. Less so North By Northwest but the link is still there.
It’s a longer film than Hitchcock was used to and in parts it does drag but the photography, score and shots are quintessentially Hitchcockian. The opening scene is an exemplar on how to tell a story sans script. To top this, Torn Curtain contains in my view Hitch’s greatest murder sequence – the death of East German security official Hermann Gromek. It’s a jaw-dropping piece of cinema conducted in a slow and elaborate manner with no score. Hitchcock wanted to show just how difficult it is to actually kill another human-being and does it perfectly.
The film also contains a ‘museum chase’ which clearly inspired De Palma’s classic set-piece in Dressed To Kill. Newman is trying to evade Gromek and attempts to lose him in a museum, the camera tracks a nervous Newman throughout – we never see Gromek – with only following footsteps serving as a soundtrack from room to room. There is one more golden scene to my mind. Standing at opposite ends of a dreary East Berlin hotel suite, Newman and Andrews debate the morality of defection in front of a static camera. It’s the use of colour which makes this shot so effective; drab greys and browns contrasting with the bright beauty of the film’s earlier images of more luxurious hotels in the West.
It’s true that Newman and Andrews are not typical Hitchcock leads but Newman gives an assured and understated performance perfectly matching the bookish physicist he plays. To be fair, Andrews refrains from bursting into song and for that we can be thankful. Indeed, she plays the tortured love-interest quite well.
As is usual, bit part character actors feature heavily. Wolfgang Kieling plays Gromek’s character as a straight-laced homage to Peter Lorre and Lila Kodova is wonderful as an ex-aristocrat determined to leave East Germany in search of better quality coffee. The quirky Professor Lindt – holder of the fabled MacGuffin in this film – is perhaps most interesting from a theoretical perspective. I can’t help wondering whether Hitchcock is using Torn Curtain as a veiled metaphor for his feelings of how younger film-makers had borrowed, even stolen, from his visual style. Once piece of Lindt’s dialogue (said to Newman at the climax) sums this up “You know nothing….I’ve told you everything”.
Of course, Torn Curtain’s critics are not without reason. There are things that simply don’t work and the film is doggedly old-fashioned. Predictably plotted with a tagged on happy ending, it feels more like a 40s spy romp. Even by the mid 60s, audiences were becoming accustomed to the breaking of plot conventions but Hitchcock stays well clear of such trickery here. The script is relatively weak in comparison to other thrillers and plays out in a run-of-the-mill manner. These drawbacks however are not sufficient to quash the film’s qualities.
Whilst Torn Curtain shouldn’t be considered one of Hitchcock’s best works, it has a strong case to be one of his most under-rated. Certainly not just for completists, it’s essential viewing for anyone with an interest in how to film a suspense movie. I’ve referred in the past to the “athletic dynamism” of Hitchcock’s greatest thrillers, and whilst this attribute is lacking in Torn Curtain, the director’s unique touch is still laden throughout. Hitchcock himself under-estimated this one.
Hotdog Rating: 7/10