Torn Curtain (1966)

 ★★★☆☆ 

Paul Newman and Julie Andrews star in this classic tale of international espionage set behind the Iron Curtain. Newman plays world-famous scientist Michael Armstrong, who goes to an international congress of physics in Copenhagen with his fiancée/assistant Sarah Sherman (Andrews). While there, she mistakenly picks up a message meant for him and discovers that he is defecting to East Germany. Or is he? As Armstrong goes undercover to glean top-secret information, the couple are swept up in a heart-pounding chase by enemy agents in this action-packed Cold War thriller.

Torn Curtain is not a bad film, but it’s definitely a compromised and a messy one to begin with. There’s an interesting documentary on the disc that suggests there were some problems with casting, the script was rushed and Bernard Herrmann was fired(!). Following the deaths of other long time collaborators, cinematographer Robert Burkes and editor George Tomasini, clearly this was a difficult period following the failure of Marnie.

Still, like I say, it is not a bad film and it has some marvellous sequences. It’s really just the confused first act that struggles. Paul Newman, excellent as always, is clearly hiding something from his wife, Julie Andrews. It asks a lot of the viewer to keep up with shifting emotions when the usual claustrophobic attention to one characters point of view is missing. It seems to switch between the two when we are supposed to be in Julie’s shoes and her character is short-changed because of it (imagine if Psycho kept cutting away from Marion to see what other characters were up to). By the time she, and us, are in on the plot though, the film has found its feet and picks up pace. Once both Newman and Andrews are properly together and dealing with the situation, it’s a properly exciting suspense thriller. Julie Andrews proves to be typecast when it comes to trying to escape Germans! Otherwise she does well in a fairly underwritten role.

There are many stand-out moments, like Newman dealing with Ludwig Donath’s professor, frustrating him into revealing the MucGuffin out of pride! The murder of Gromek is also absolutely superb. That isn’t a spoiler (well I don’t think so! What is in a Hitchcock film?), but it’s an incredible moment that has to be mentioned as Hitch shows us just how tough it is to take a life. Gromek is a great character as well, smoothly played by Wolfgang Keiling. All the supporting characters are memorable actually (there’s literally a bus full of them!) and there’s a cute running joke with a snubbed ballerina. She becomes very important during the climax at a theatre. Once again, Hitch plays with the idea of a sequence played with an audience and it is brilliant.

Repeat viewings might smooth out the problems with the film (understanding what Newman’s Professor is trying to do adds a great deal of gravitas to his cold treatment of his fiancé) , but the overall problem is that there isn’t a solid, intriguing hook of a premise like usual. It was clearly rushed, because I really believe it could have been polished into something marvellous. As the documentary suggests, what if Herrmann could have completed his work at least? John Addison is an able replacement, but Herrmann created scores that wove into the fabric of the film.

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