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Hitchapalooza 1: Lower The Curtain April 1, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Movies.
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As I slowly make my way through the stack of Hitchcock DVDs I snagged some time back at a yardsale, I watched Torn Curtain for the first time and came away with what seems to be the same mixed feelings that most reviewers of this film wind up with. The basic plot of this Cold War thriller involves nuclear scientist Paul Newman taking it upon himself to gather some Russkie secrets via a false defection to the East Germans, leaving girlfriend Julie Andrews in the dark about it all which (of course) involves her in his eventual attempt to get back out. The basic idea for the movie is fine, and despite the presence of a few masterful Hitchcockian set-pieces, the movie doesn’t quite all come together.

One problem is the casting, and Hitchcock’s reaction to it – Newman’s performance is so low key he seems to be sleepwalking through the movie. Contrast this with the purposeful quirkiness given to his commie counterpart scientist played by Ludwig Donath and it only magnifies how Newman’s character has nearly no personality. Think of the possibilities for character development for someone who is supposed to be a young hotshot math genius scientist who takes it upon themselves to become a spy – where is the humor? The odd combination of recklessness, ego and self-deprecation that we’ve seen in earlier Hitchcock protagonists like Cary Grant in the superior North By Northwest? The character is basically trying to pull off a big con, so why can’t he act more like a con artist? We need more Henry Gondorff, Paul! None of that is here, partly due to the role being underwritten and also being under directed. The studio cast Newman and Julie Andrews over Hitchcock’s reluctance, and neither of them are very good here. There is no chemistry between them, and the romantic overtones seem as artificial as the over-use of rather obvious rear projections and stage sets that look like stage sets. Andrews made this film coming off an Oscar for Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but she gets little to do here besides passively tag along with Newman in disbelief before the truth is revealed and it becomes a dual escape of me-push-pull-you. Hitchcock wanted Eva Marie Saint for the role and the studio insisted on Andrews, whose schedule also forced the film into production before Hitchcock was happy with the script. Andrews is a decent actress, but she’s given nothing to work with here. It’s like the pre-production problems drained Hitchcock of any passion he may have had for this film, and the result is on the screen.

Hitchcock was coming off a flop, Marnie, one of his weaker films to be sure, a personal disappointment to him and a major disappointment to his studio that wanted another Psycho or The Birds. So, he was not in the position to call the shots. His longtime director of photography died, and a money dispute with Bernard Hermann led to fifty minutes of Hermann music scored for Torn Curtain rejected, and (perfectly adequate) music by John Addison added instead. No wonder he seems off his game on this one. Supposedly it was one of his unhappiest shoots, and it clearly affected the product.

On the plus side, there are some portions of the film that are wonderfully done – the murder scene is deliberately dragged out (with some dark humor as well) to show how difficult it is to actually kill someone, and what an ugly business it is – in order for Newman to realize the dirty business of actually being a spy, which Hitchcock considered to be the main theme of the film. When Newman must escape from slowly gathering East German security forces, he and Andrews must escape through a mobbing crowd, and in a wonderful visual, Hitchcock has them literally pulled away from each other by the currents of the crowd as if they are caught in opposing rip tides. Earlier in the film, Newman loses a German security agent following him through an eerily empty museum and all we hear are the footsteps of each man as one pursues the other. Newman & Andrews’ escape from commieland has some nicely done suspense, but unfortunately bogs down with some bad pacing: first, an awful interlude of supposed comic relief with Lila Kedrova as an eccentric blackmailer who sounds like Yakov Smirnoff’s senile yenta grandmother babbling on and on and on about going to America while Newman and Andrews stare at her blankly like a pair of department store mannequins for seemingly endless screen time, and second, a plot hole bigger than a Berlin bomb crater when Newman & Andrews, despite being on the run from the police and instantly recognizable because of his exposure in the media, are given a rendezvous meeting point in a public place surrounded by people. It make NO sense at all, except to set up that crowd bit I mentioned earlier.

A frustratingly flawed film, to be sure. I could only recommend it to longtime Hitchcock fans looking to complete their viewing checklist like myself, I guess.

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