Skip to main content

Look mister, why can’t you leave this intelligence work to us professionals?

Torn Curtain
(1965)

(SPOILERS) Torn Curtain boasts a scene, about forty minutes in, that is every bit as proficient and startling as the Psycho shower scene. Unfortunately, in contrast to Psycho, the rest of the movie is a dog: a bog-standard Cold War spy affair, complete with miscast leads, a frequently flagrant disregard for verisimilitude and a rote and at times entirely inappropriate score. In the latter department, it seems studio interference led to Hitchcock rejecting Bernard Herrmann’s contribution and thus their falling out. He had also lost his regular cinematographer and editor. No sooner had Hitch reinvented himself for a new generation, first Marnie and then Torn Curtain show him wildly out of touch with the prevailing trends, both in terms of subject matter and moviemaking. Apart from that scene.

Because the farmhouse scene is a masterpiece, and masterclass in suspense. Based on Hitch’s premise that “I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man” – in contrast to the typical movie where “somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly” – we find Paul Newman’s novice spy in a life and death struggle with East German minder Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), the former aided by Carolyn Conwell’s farmer’s wife. Well, I say aided. Conwell does all the proactive death-dealing.

Conscious that using Gromek’s gun will alert the taxi driver outside, she sets about resolving the situation by sticking a kitchen knife in Gromek’s neck – which, in an extraordinarily conceived moment, breaks off at the handle – before beating his shins with a shovel until he collapses on the kitchen floor. And then she leads the charge in dragging him to the nearby gas oven (Hitch denied any conscious Holocaust reference). In this regard, it’s curious that, given the charges of misogyny against Marnie, Torn Curtain offers a series of competent heroines, from the farmer’s wife, to Gisela Fischer’s Doctor Koska, to Lila Kedrova’s slightly more self-seeking Countess Kuchinska. The latter nevertheless knocks a pursuing guard down some steps, enabling our protagonists’ escape. There are also a few hissable female roles – Tamara Toumanova’s Ballerina, revisited periodically for “comic” effect that falls decidedly flat and Gloria Gorvin’s bus passenger/rebel who wants to throw them off a bus – but they’re less noteworthy. Certainly, Conwell’s scene is the picture’s centrepiece, and her role is at the centre of that centrepiece.

Also crucial to the scene’s success is Kieling’s performance as Gromek. I’d further suggest his is the picture’s standout turn. Introduced as an affable – if overtalkative towards Newman’s more taciturn defector Professor Armstrong – security officer keen to display his knowledge and experience of the US, Gromek is at first more a mild irritant than a threat. His presence takes on a more sinister hue when we realise he is tailing Armstrong wherever he goes. At the farm, where Armstrong meets with his contact, Gromek reveals he has the goods on the scientist’s true purpose in being there (Armstrong is only pretending to defect in order to procure vital secrets from Ludwig Donath’s Professor Lindt). It’s at this point the struggle begins, Kieling offering a superb display of mocking confidence as he informs Armstrong he has no chance as he is a professional: “Okay, you had your fun. Now we stop the games”. Just before he gets knifed, that is (there’s something of Get Carter to Gromek, except that he isn’t our protagonist).

Kieling was set to feature in an additional scene, one shot by Hitchcock but left on the cutting room floor, some say at Newman’s behest. In this, he played Gromek’s brother, surfacing at a factory Armstrong and his fiancée Sarah Sherman (Andrews) visit. We see him slicing a sausage with a very similar knife to the one that killed his sibling. Hitch claimed to have cut it because he was unhappy with Newman’s performance and because he worried about the moment where the brother shows a picture of Gromek’s children: that it would elicit too much sympathy and turn the audience against Armstrong. He insisted the scene was very good, though. It sounds to me as if it highlights the picture’s uneasy, indecisive mid-ground. On the one hand, brutal realism. On the other, a reliance on absurd coincidence.

Armstrong: He’s got the key to a puzzle in his head, and I’ve got to get the key.

If the rest of the movie had been even half as good as the farmhouse sequence, Torn Curtain would be regarded as something of a late-period Hitchcock classic, but attempts to defend the film come across as half-hearted at best. There are a couple of other decent scenes worth mentioning. Armstrong’s attempts to persuade Lindt to admit his knowledge are persuasively depicted, as the former attempts to conceal his lack of understanding while the latter quickly perceives the same (“You are not going to work with me professor if that is the extent of your knowledge”). And it’s an achievement that the scene revolves around chalking incomprehensible formulae on a blackboard and still carries an air of tension.

Later, an escape by bus is delivered through flagrant processing work even Hitch had cause to complain about – so it must have been bad – but it works pretty well despite the obvious artifice. Again, though, the problem is that Hitch is sloppily marrying the realism of the modern spy genre – the location heavy The Ipcress File came the same year, and really shows up the director as out to pasture – with the antiquated approach that was increasingly falling into disfavour and being rejected by audiences. It doesn’t help that the cinematography from John F Warren – a veteran of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – is utterly bland and incapable of disguising the joins, be it fake backgrounds or studio hills (there’s a caveat: this link shows that, for all the creakiness of many of Hitch’s choices, there’s some first-class Albert Whitlock matte work involved). There’s also a decent piece of suspense at the ballet – designed by The Red Shoes’ Hein Heckroth – as the Stasi file in searching for them.

Too much of the picture is a slog, unfortunately. The premise itself is a slender one, based on a double bluff few wouldn’t have figured out before Mort Mills’ woeful exposition dump preceding the kitchen massacre. No sooner has Armstrong arrived than he’s exposed and has to leave. Which I suppose has the benefit of avoiding dwelling on how shonky his plan is in the first place.

Hitch’s initial idea was based on the wife’s reaction in the cases of Burgess and Maclean (well, Maclean at any rate). That rather floundered with the studio-mandated casting of Andrews (over the likes Eva Marie Saint and Samantha Eggar) and Newman (Hitch wanted Cary Grant, and it appears was also interested in working with Anthony Perkins again; the latter would have been interesting). No one believes Newman is a physicist, just as no one believes Andrews is being anyone but Andrews (“I did not have to act...” in the picture, she admitted). A star such as Doris Day turned out to be a surprisingly good choice in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Andrews is outright awful. Worse, there’s zero chemistry with Newman, one of the reasons Hitch elected to focus more on the likes of Hansjorg Felmy as Gerhard, Gromek, Koska, And Countes Kuchinska.

Only a few such scenes leave an impression because the screenplay – from Brian Moore, embellished by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse – isn’t up to par; indeed, Hitch was forced to enter production before he was ready in order to secure Andrews. You know, Andrews who makes the early scenes interminable. Structurally, Torn Curtain never comes together. The third act suspense of the couple’s flight is insufficiently sustained. Mainly, though, you need to care about the characters to make this work. You rather wish Armstrong had been able to ditch Sherman at the outset. Newman’s fine – enough – but he isn’t really in his element either. The attempts at humour are mostly lame, and at more than two hours the picture is noticeably overlong.

Sherman: East Berlin? But that’s behind the Iron Curtain.

Hitch had initially intended for Armstrong to throw the formula away, Snake Plissken style, but he was persuaded to reconsider. The wicker-basket escape comes across as lame apologia, and one can only hope the vital formula became irretrievably soggy in the process. Hitch’s MacGuffin stands out more egregiously here – just as it did in Foreign Correspondent – due to the attempts at realistic action and the method approach of the lead. Armstrong is not only a physicist, he’s also a rocket scientist with ICOP (the US Interspace Committee – so says his badge). He’s attempting to develop a successful missile defence – Gamma 5 – before the Soviets get there first (“Is that the anti-missile missile? The one that’s supposed to make nuclear defence obsolete?”). You know, the kind of thing that, at the time – who knows, perhaps it still is, despite claims and budgets otherwise – rivalled Dr Strangelove’s Doomsday Device or Reagan’s Star Wars for plausibility.

Lindt: You come to me from the United States, and I don’t care if you came from the Moon! I tell you what you say is rubbish!

Speaking of Kubrick, it’s notable that (Michael, not Neil) Armstrong is staying in Room 237 on the M/S Meteor – the same number that’s such a shocker in The Shining. One can, of course, overstate any apparent connection or synchronicity, but it’s easy to see why – if you work from the premise that The Shining represents, among a myriad of other things, an exposé of Kubrick’s filming of the Moon landings – you’d want to link it all back to Torn Curtain. (Although, posts here brings Kubrick’s themes back to terror at nuclear war, per Dr. Strangelove, which requires us to believe the nuclear programmes are exactly as they are presented to us, and further that Kubrick really was as terrified of nuclear Armageddon as he professed to be, while apparently being so informed and up to speed about every other conspiratorial area going). Could it be that, if there is a connection, it’s a simple as it all being lies? Armstrong, whom we first see in Room 237, is all about selling a lie, a lie based on Hitch’s MacGuffin, and Kubrick’s Room 237 is all about fears and lies actualised on a personal level.

All of which is interesting – or really reaching, depending on where you’re coming from – but it doesn’t help any if one is attempting to reassess Torn Curtain’s quality overall (in contrast to Newman, I think it’s a great title). It’s a picture that shows Hitchcock still had it, but that his instincts overall appeared increasingly diluted and off-beam. Notably, however, it would be in returning to the grimmer mechanics of the best scene here that the director returned to something of his old form (Frenzy).



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.