Torn Curtain; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; 1966
Well, it's finally happened. About three quarters into Hitch's 1966 Cold War espionage thriller, I wondered, what's the point? And that's the first time I've felt that way about a film from the Master of Suspense (although I've only made it about half-way through his filmography and still haven't gotten to his last couple pictures or most of his early British ones), and I was just left cold.
Even the films that I haven't been crazy about, like The 39 Steps and To Catch a Thief, have at least warranted from me the opinion that because of how deeply and meticulously he worked, they would be worthy of revisiting and analysis. But, every great and/or controversial director has that one Achille's heel, that one (perhaps two) picture that is just so dreadfully devoid of any reason for being made, that it does not warrant any intricate probing into its inner workings because the director clearly wasn't delving all that much to begin with. For Spike Lee, it's Summer of Sam (did we REALLY have to see the "devil" speaking through the dog with those horrendous special effects?); for Gus van Sant, it was the completely unnecessary pestilent assault on our senses with the shot for shot remake of Hitch's own Psycho.
I think it's safe to say that Torn Curtain is Hitchcock's Summer of Sam. With a convoluted plot and odd casting that does the story no justice, I just can't get excited about it. I have always loved Julie Andrews, and like most people, she will forever be Maria/Mary Poppins to me. She is the epitome of class, talent, and charm. But when it comes to va-va-voom...well, I'm sure she'd be the first to admit that she was never meant to be cast as a smoldering leading lady. And normally, Newman (playing some sort of nuclear physicist who gets himself tangled up in affairs behind the Iron Curtain) has enough sex appeal for both himself and his leading lady. And yet, all the fire that oozes from those steely blue eyes could not be enough to ignite even the slightest spark of chemistry between him and Andrews. Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, they ain't.
But forget the complete wall that's divided between the two stars; the romance and sex are usually secondary in a Hitchcock film anyway, the icing on the cake, shall we say. The suspense is virtually nonexistent. Michael (Newman) poses as a traitor to the U.S. by flying to East Berlin and claiming that he will work with the scientists there to help counteract the threat of nuclear weapons. In reality, he is looking to work with esteemed Professor Lindt to deceive him into revealing how much information the Germans have on the nuclear bomb. Of course, this being a spy movie, the Germans are suspicious of him from the beginning and several misadventures and one death occurs before Michael gets what he's after. No sooner does Lindt mistakenly reveal his secrets than Michael and Sarah (Andrews) have to high tail it out of there and get across the border and out of harm's way, which makes up for the last 40 minutes or so of the film. The problem is, once Michael gets that information, the story devolves into a typical "will they or won't they make it" chase (there was never any question in my mind that they wouldn't make it), with no element of thrill or excitement; it falls far below Hitchcock's technical and storytelling prowess.
I will say that the single murder scene, in which a German security officer who is in charge of following Michael around, is killed inside a farmhouse with the help of the farmer's wife, is the one interesting moment in a dull, otherwise lifeless film. If there is one thing that the director could do right, it was murder. I've read in a few sources that his relationship with long-time musical collaborator Bernard Hermann was virtually over by the time this picture was made. As he had rightfully insisted for the shower scene in Psycho, Hermann insisted on underscoring the 10 minute struggle and subsequent death. This time, the director didn't relent, and I think he was correct on this one. With the musical silence that accompanies the scene, and only the distinct sound of choking, physical struggle, and beating, it provided the one moment that made the film fleetingly interesting. The quick editing as the violence ensues are meticulously planned. The aerial shot of Michael's face as the officer dies slowly beneath him from the fumes in the gas stove is a clever last shot of the impassioned battle between the three characters.
If only Hitchcock had spent as much time developing the rest of the film as he did with that sequence; perhaps Torn Curtain would not be so banal.