Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain (1966) ** ½
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock.
Written by: Brian Moore.
Starring: Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Louise Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjörg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Günter Strack (Professor Karl Manfred), David Opatoshu (Mr. Jacobi), Gisela Fischer (Dr. Koska),  Mort Mills (Farmer), Carolyn Conwell (Farmer's Wife).

Can one magnificent 20 minute sequence redeem an otherwise dull two hour movie? I ask that question at the beginning of this review for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, because for the most part, I think the film is a rare miss for the master filmmaker. Yet at around the halfway point of the film, there is sequence of pure visual genius. Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American nuclear scientist who we have just seen defect to East Germany, ditches his “bodyguard” (Wolfgang Kieling), and makes his way to a small farm in the German countryside. He draws the symbol for Pi on the ground, and the woman who answers the door, points him to a field, where he has a conversation, much of it in code, with the “farmer”. Then just as he is about to leave, his bodyguard indeed shows up at the farm. He knows why Armstrong has come here – that he isn’t really a defector – and intends to turn him in. What follows is one of the most memorable, and brilliantly realized murder scenes in Hitchcock’s career – and easily the most protracted. Considering how many people have died in Hitchcock movies, that is saying something. This sequence – from the moment Newman leaves for the farm until the moment he leaves it – is spellbinding and absolutely brilliant. The rest of movie is not.

The first half of Torn Curtain is pretty dull by Hitchcock standards. It involves Newman’s Professor Armstrong and his fiancée Sarah (Julie Andrews) on a boat to Berlin, and what happens when they get there. Armstrong is being secretive, and it is mentioned several times that he tried to convince Sarah to stay home. When they finally get to GermanyWest Germany – he tells her he needs to fly to Sweden for a while, and she should go home. But she digs deeper, and finds he is not going to Sweden – but to East Germany. She follows, and is soon swept up right alongside him as he defects – something she did not know about. This throws her whole view out of whack. Could the man she loves really be a traitor? And could he possibly be right.

The problem with this part of the movie is that Newman and Andrews have zero chemistry together. This whole part of the movie harkens back to earlier Hitchcock movies like Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), where a wife mistrusts her husband. Yet those movies, the leads had chemistry, you could feel the conflicting emotions of love and mistrust in the women, and the men were convincing aloof – you couldn’t get a read on them. Perhaps it was because apparently Newman did not get along with Hitchcock, but he isn’t suspicious here, just dull. Andrews tries hard, I guess, but she doesn’t have much to work with. You’re stuck wondering how these two got together in the first place. It doesn’t really get much better after the murder at the center of the movie either. What follows is a lengthy sequence where Newman and Andrews have to flee East Germany – in the slowest, dullest, least suspenseful “chase” sequence ever.

Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors – perhaps ranking just behind Martin Scorsese as my favorite ever. Torn Curtain was his 50th feature, and he ended up making three more after it. Remarkably, there are few duds in his filmography – and almost none after coming to America in 1940 (his earliest British films can be hit or miss at times). Torn Curtain ultimately has to rank as one of his duds. Because he is such a talented filmmaker, there are isolated moments in the film that look and sound brilliant – and the murder setpiece at the middle of the movie is truly one of his most memorable in any film. And yet for the most part I was bored by Torn Curtain – and I’m almost never bored by Hitchcock. When you make as many films as Hitchcock did, they can’t all be great.

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