Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
An American scientist publicly defects to East Germany as part of a cloak and dagger mission to find the solution for a formula resin and then figuring out a plan to escape back to the West.
Alfred Hitchcock never really worked with big stars, or at least he never worked with big stars he wasn’t familiar with. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant were making their second movies with Hitchcock when they appeared together in Notorious (1946). Grace Kelly and James Stewart had appeared in one Hitchcock movie apiece before appearing together in Rear Window (1954). Grant and Kelly had two Hitchcock movies under their belts before making To Catch a Thief (1955). So things were different when Hitchcock cast Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain (1966).
Many things are different about Torn Curtain. For one, the movie has aged severely since 1990. The phrase “torn curtain” obviously refers to the Iron Curtain, which was the largest symbol of the Cold War. It no longer has any significance now that the war is over. It is also different because the two major stars, Newman and Andrews, had long, distinguished careers, but this movie is rarely mentioned as being a part of it even though they appeared in a movie directed by the world’s most popular director at this point. Perhaps the reason why this movie is not mentioned is because it is not that great. It received lukewarm reactions from audiences and critics when released and has only gotten worse since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Our story begins on a boat filled with nuclear physicists. One of them, Michael Armstrong, played by Newman, is actually a spy for the U.S. government. His assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman, played by Andrews, has no idea of his real work. So she is very surprised when she finds out her husband has decided to defect to East Germany.
He does his best to lose her, she does her best to follow him and the two end up in an East German airport. Michael is celebrated by the East Germans as he is a symbol of people in the west getting fed up with democracy and coming over to their side.
Michael confesses to Sarah the real reason why he has defected. This scene is interesting, not only for the information gained, but because it occurs in a large hotel room in which the only lighting Hitchcock used seemed to come from natural places i.e. windows and lamps. Typically movies use light sources from off-screen, but act as if they are coming from on-screen. In this movie Hitch tried to keep all the light used coming from natural sources. It works to various degrees, but is most pronounced in this scene.
Adventures ensue as Michael has the task of trying to learn a secret formula from the East German scientist Dr. Lindt.
Michael is forced to murder Gromek, a taxi driver who brings Michael to a farm in which he has been instructed by the U.S. government to make contact with. Gromek gets some ideas as to why Michael is really in East Germany and Michael must kill him. Unlike other Hitchcock murders, this one is not short and pretty. It is long and hard. It was an attempt at Hitchcock to capture more realism, since killing someone is not as easy as it typically looks in the movies.
Michael meets Dr. Lindt and is able to trick him into giving him the formula. From here the suspense is ratcheted up as Michael and Sarah make a daring escape back to the west. They are the ones who create a sort of tear in the Iron Curtain by acquiring the formula.
The suspense in their escape is well done, but it should have been as each situation the coupe finds themselves in seems to have been taken from another Hitchcock movie. There is a bus ride with interesting characters that echoes similar trips in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Saboteur (1942). The couple ends up in a theatre, surrounded by bad guys. This is similar to The 39 Steps (1935), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and (1956) and Stage Freight (1950). Of course Michael and Sarah get out of each situation in a different way than in previous Hitchcock movies. In the theater they shout “fire!” and everyone promptly moves towards the exits. Even the final escape for the couple, from a Scandinavian ship, seemed like a rehash from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935). Michael and Sarah end up in the icy water, forced to swim ashore to the free west instead of being removed from the ship while hiding in boxes like the Marx Brothers were.
Torn Curtain probably wasn’t a bad movie when it was released. It is long and does rehash some familiar territory for Hitchcock, but the formula was effective and created suspense. It does lag in some parts, but Newman and Andrews give good performances. For today’s audience though, the movie can be hard to watch as the premise behind it has no relevance in the world of today.