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I always try to give a movie a chance, but I just ended up asking what the hell pi was about.
After a string of kinda boring films (yeah I said it). Torn Curtain actually surprised me by being quite good. US Physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) travels to Copenhagen with his fiancee and assistant Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). There at a conference Michael receives a message and suddenly tells Sarah that's he's leaving. Turns out Michael is actually heading to East Berlin, but Sarah surprises him by being on the same flight. She soon finds out that Michael is defecting to East Berlin. Shocked by this all (as well as the viewers should be) Sarah then realizes it's all a ruse. Michael is working for the US Government to gain the trust of an East Berlin Scientist Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) in order to gain his knowledge of anti-missile systems. Together with Sarah, Michael has to gain the intelligence he needs and successfully escape East Berlin. So, definitely I think what works here is that Paul Newman is great in this role. He's very confident and his screen presence is great. I will say though Julie Andrews as Sarah is just miscast, or poorly written. She doesn't have a ton to say in this one and just is kind of along for the ride. She truthfully could have been left behind in Copenhagen and the movie might have flowed a bit better. For the most part the film's pacing is slow, but it does have a solid second half (especially the escape from East Berlin). It's well done and while this will probably still be a bit "slow" for most I found myself enjoying this one a lot more than I thought I would.
I would have to put Torn Curtain easily within the top 3 most underrated Hitchcock films. Sure, it's clearly got its problems. It's a shame that ole Hitch insisted on so many back lit studio shots instead of location shooting; they haven't aged well and are a constant distraction from a pretty riveting story. Then there's the painfully obvious lack of chemistry between the two stars, Paul Newman, and a badly miscast Julie Andrews. During the romantic scenes, I couldn't help the feeling that Newman was making out with Mary Poppins. Andrews was a terrific actor and does her best, but it's a stark reminder that with acting, casting is everything. That being said, Newman is compelling. Legend has it Hitch and him clashed; Newman preferring method improvising and Hitch wanting it all by the book. But Paul gets it done. Serious, brooding, and devoid of his usual affable wisecracks, he blends well with the overall dreary atmosphere of one of Hitchcock's most austere films. The writing is pretty solid; the climactic scene with Newman and the German professor being a highlight of tight, clever writing. The second climactic scene set during a Tchaikovsky ballet is also riveting. Also, the score by John Addison is not bad, considering it wasn't written by Bernard Hermann, which is a pretty high compliment.
Hitchcock makes you feel trapped in Cold War era East Berlin.
Alfred Hitchcock's espionage thriller Torn Curtain (1966) is a riveting spy caper that sees double agent Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) having to escape from East Berlin during The Cold War era alongside his devoted fiancee Sarah (Julie Andrews). I found Hitchcock delightfully entertaining as he keeps uncovering new ways for Germans to turn in our heroes and confound their plans. The audience gets to see 1960's Norway, Germany, and Sweden in all their cold appeal. Torn Curtain is one of Hitchcock's most underrated and under-seen films.
Paul Newman is excellent in one of his most serious displays of acting. Gone is his usual fast talking and joke making persona, instead we get a smart scientist trying to help his country, while struggling to inform his wife of his double-cross. Torn Curtain allows Newman to be dramatic and serious with a stern and dour look on his face as he must undergo immense pressure and interrogation from German forces.
Julie Andrews is amazing as the first half of Torn Curtain is from her perspective. You feel so bad for her having to deal with an uncertain husband that is lying to her. Andrews is perfect at demonstrating the hurt her character feels and a doubt about his motives. I liked her a lot, especially next to this more eloquent Paul Newman.
Torn Curtain takes Brian Moore's script filled with political intrigue and scientific jargon and elevates it with Hitchcock's fearsome directing. He brings an intense focus to this narrative. Hitchcock removes any experimental editing and many of his more tender and intimate close-up shots instead opting for far wide still shots that let you see an entire area for perspective. You get to witness this as Paul Newman walks through the German museum of art or the farm field. You feel cold and isolated like the characters. You can easily see there is no one around to help our heroes.
Furthermore, it's an interesting choice as Hitchcock only allows for the occasional close-up shot for a sudden surprising reaction. This is done with nuance when the German scientist Professor Gustav Lindt, played by the quirky and commanding Ludwig Donath, slowly realizes that Armstrong has betrayed Germany as he stares in confusion at his chalkboard. It's a genuinely great moment from Torn Curtain.
Lila Kedrova has a fantastic cameo as the quirky and likable Countess attempting to flee East Germany for America. Her small supporting role is unforgettable and charming with a sad resolution. Likewise, Carolyn Conwell is lovely and gripping as the Farmer's wife and spy contact that must do the unthinkable in order to save Paul Newman.
Additionally, Wolfgang Kieling is so threatening and charming as Gromek the German officer. Lastly, Tamara Toumanova is fun as the excited celebrity ballerina and two time informant on the protagonists.
I also really loved the romantic and enthralling score from John Addison. Notably, Bernard Herrmann was supposed to have scored Torn Curtain, but Hitchcock removed his compositions and ended their friendship and working relationship right there forevermore. Addison does a formidable job as he pounds you with stunning energy during the suspense scenes and chase sequences.
Better than Topaz! Actually, the negative reputation for Torn Curtain seems pretty unwarranted to me. Here we have a textbook Hitchcock film wherein the Master uses all of his favourite techniques to build suspense and generally succeeds. Paul Newman is an American nuclear scientist who defects to East Germany. The first third of the film explores his relationship with his fiancÃ (C)e/assistant Julie Andrews, who he has neglected to tell his intentions. Newman does act suspiciously but since he is the hero we soon find out that he is really a double agent, seeking to secure a formula (the MacGuffin) from an East German scientist. The rest of the film takes place behind the Iron Curtain where Newman (acting very sullenly) and Andrews (basically given nothing to do) must "woo" the scientist, get the formula, and escape back to the West. Of course, there are many roadblocks along the way (literal and metaphorical). This is the film where Hitchcock famously wanted to show that (unlike in the James Bond films) it is actually hard to kill a man â" resulting in a very protracted fight/death scene which is an incredible setpiece. Hitch's dry sense of humour may be subdued but it isn't absent. Pictorially, the film often looks great with a sly mix of studio sets, painted backdrops, and location shooting; for example, the museum scenes show the director toying with the audience's perspective as Newman crosses from room to room. All told, this isn't one of Hitch's best but it has strong family relations to a number of his earlier films (the setpiece scene in the theatre evokes both The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much). Worth a look if you are a fan.
Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are both likeable, but there isn't any chemistry between them in Torn Curtain. This plot is also lacking a catalyst to compel it into greatness. Everything seems so casual and calm that it undercuts any suspense Hitchcock is trying to build. Nevertheless, it features some interesting side characters and moments that will stay with me for a while.
One of Hitchcock's finest, most memorable muder/death scenes is shown here. But, the rest of the film, while nearly convoluted, makes for quite a thrill.
The title Torn Curtain is as much about a torn relationship as it is about a man penetrating the Iron Curtain between East and West Berlin. The followup film, Topaz, will feature a spy who outright commits infidelity, as does his wife. But in this film, the betrayal is nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong's work as a spy under the guise of a defector to the German Democratic Republic blah blah blah, lying to his fiancée Sarah Sherman of his whereabouts. During the period which Sherman first finds out what's going on, up until he reveals what his real mission is, there is an absolute coldness, a total absent of affection between them. Armstrong gets involved with a resistance organization called Pi, a network spread throughout East Berlin. More clever than Topaz's outright sex, there seems to be this metaphorical kind of sex happening each time Armstrong encounters a helper, before explaining to Sarah what's happening. First is the brutal murder of Gromeck - watch the way he and the farmer's wife are framed after they've killed, panting heavily beside one another, fixing their clothes. Next is his encounter with Dr. Koska, which almost looks like they're about to get down and dirty and she repeatedly feels him, holds him close, all in the line of duty, but not without a certain sensual feeling the viewer gets. All the while, Armstrong is cold (during a Cold War) to Sherman, their relationship seems to be fallen apart. They have to resolve their conflict as much as they have to resolve this situation in East Berlin; the former will prove much easier, perhaps too easy as she bends quickly with the truth. Quite frankly this is the most problematic part of the film, something about their relationship is too quickly resolved and easily forgiven. He showed no affection or concern for her, which is awfully callous given the risk she took to be with him. Newman showed no other layer beneath the anger he had towards her, and I was a little disappointed with that. I almost thought this wasn't going to actually work between them, but it forces itself to be romantic where it needn't. I wouldn't have minded if their relationship was a little more fucked up. They start off under bedsheets, they end under a sheet, the curtain of their relationship, which they mildly kept up to avoid unwanted attention before colleagues.
There are a few textbook Hitchcock scenes to note in this film. First is the killing of Gromek, which I first remember seeing a decade ago before finally seeing the film. I was so captivated by this scene I happened to turn the TV too that I messaged my friend and told him he had to see it. It's completely violent, showing the difficulty of killing another human being in it's entirety. It's necessary to experience this with Armstrong as opposed to the impressionist style of Norman Bates. Whereas Bates is a regular killer who can't even see his own crimes, Newman is fully aware of this thing he is doing because he has to to protect his own life, and yet never thought he could be a murderer. For Armstrong, this is going to be more difficult. We are completely aware of this feeling as it pertains to the farmer's wife as well, that terrific low angle shot of her approaching Gromek with the knife, scared as a human being would be, not so aggressive as a movie character is - the anticipation of penetrating a large butcher knife into a human, what that would feel like if it were us. Then the shots to his legs with the shovel, picking this man apart, fully destabilizing him before finally shoving his head into a a hot oven. From here we just wait. Gromek desperately clings on to Armstrong's neck, neither he nor the farmer's wife could successfully peel those hands away, but the paralyzing oven weakens his grip until he finally lets go. And we wait more, until he falls limp. It's a disturbing notion. Armstrong cannot believe the blood on his hands, reacting as any human would in his best performing of the film.
Next is the bus scene, so subtle and yet painstakingly suspenseful. It's entirely situational, the script takes care of most of it. Hitchcock plays it out as it's written, never resorting to anything too fancy or campy to get in the way. In that regard, it's some of his best suspense. I often feel that in films like Psycho or Dial M For Murder, we see the suspense more than we feel it - we see the overt noir photography, the camera pacing, the conspicuous performances, we hear the ominous score. It's wonderful to take in, but I can't say that I actually feel from it what I get when we see the bus scene. The couple get into a Pi-operated bus that is disguised as a regular public transport on it's way to West Berlin, but because they are late, there is the added concern of the actual bus on this route catching up. All kinds of obstacles pop up to make us sweat, and an obnoxious passenger fuels the anxiety with her constant accusations that their being late will get everyone in trouble. First they are stopped at a checkpoint where troops get on the bus looking for Armstrong and Sherman - how are they going to get out of this one? It's pretty impossible, but Hitchcock uses some clever framing to obscure them from view by blocking them with other passengers ala Austin Powers -- the investigating soldier gives up near the back, lucky. Some humor alleviates the tension as they soar past someone at the bus stop; they're not stopping for her, they laugh. Next is a hold up, people who want money. The second bus is getting closer, they tediously move around the bus collecting change. Finally, more military arrive, but not to check the bus again, rather to provide security escort. Now they have to appear as an actual bus service and cannot fly past people waiting, so they pick up an old lady who is rushed into the bus. The other bus is getting closer, until finally it catches up, and they have to run for it. It's a formula anyone should borrow from in a suspense exercise, and I will certainly keep it in my pocket.
The theater and the baskets are also pretty great, but the baskets has one of those twists I don't buy. Sometimes twists are too twisty and unnecessary, playing it straight would be more valuable. At the end of The Killing, it's very straightforward, filled with suspense, Sterling Hayden's suitcase falls off the cart, and there's nothing left by imprisonment for him, caught. I just finished watching The Score after Curtain, which borrows influence from Killing - it's all great, except for the stupid twist where we're to suppose Nick let all this extra time go by, knowing he carried a false scepter, only to finally hand it over to Brian... then we learn it was a fake, and he was that well prepared ahead of time. The whole thing feels like it was written for twist sake, but there's no way to really buy it. I felt that scene was modeled after the baskets, where the Pi helper was clever enough to not only switch baskets, but also wish luck to the ones being carried away; he had to be absolutely certain the rat ballerina would have her hawkeye on, otherwise it was extremely risky and pointless. Lucky for him she did, called it out, the troops hastily shot at the baskets, but Armstrong and Sherman had already swam away - the whole thing was a diversion. It's a fairly implausible twist, but Hitchcock always preached that when the audience is under a certain grip, they're willing to buy anything. I say that only works sometimes, depending how implausible. The theater scene is great because they are totally trapped, yet again forcing: how are they going to get out of this? They would have to apparate to get out of there. Armstrong throws out a clever diversion, calling "fire!" Then escaping through the crowd, itself an strenuous, challenging act that threatens being caught.
Quite an enjoyable Hitchcockian experience.