Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain is a late thriller from Alfred Hitchcock, and it represents an unfortunate step back from the increasingly complex, psychologically dense films he'd been making in the late 50s and early 60s. Rather than capturing the apocalyptic atmosphere of The Birds or the penetrative character studies of Marnie and Vertigo, Torn Curtain is more of a throwback to the kind of relentlessly plot-based potboilers Hitch was always capable of churning out. Even in that respect, though, the film falls short of the standard set by the director's best thrillers. Excepting a handful of typically Hithcockian moments, mostly in the film's first half, this is a singularly dull, joyless movie from a man whose previous films were anything but.

This story hinges on a somewhat flimsier premise than is usual for Hitchcock. Michael (Paul Newman) is an American scientist trying to develop a device to counteract nuclear warheads, but he has reached a snag in the project and it is put on hold by the American government. As a result, he publicly defects to Communist East Germany, where he promises to help the Germans develop this defensive weapon instead, while his innocent fiancée Sarah (Julie Andrews) is mortified, reluctantly following him only in order to find out what's going on. Of course, the problem with this scenario should be clear from the beginning, mainly because it's instantly obvious what's really going on here. Paul Newman playing a genuine defector to the Soviets? In a 1966 Hollywood film? At the height of the Cold War? Yeah, sure. Thankfully, Hitch seems to realize that his premise won't be fooling anyone, and though he wastes a good half-hour at the beginning of the film planting the false leads to make the audience think the impossible, he soon enough comes clean. Michael, as it turns out, is not a no-good Commie, but a patriot who simply wants to get close enough to the German scientist Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to discover the last crucial formula he needs to complete his weapon — for the United States, of course.

What's interesting here is that Hitchcock's infamous "MacGuffin" is, in this film, simply an abstract idea. There is no physical prize that Michael is racing for, no secret documents he seeks to ferret out of the country. The object he's seeking can only be described as a thought, a thought that quite possibly only exists within the unique brain of Professor Lindt, the ingenious nuclear scientist who has, Michael believes, solved the problem that he himself cannot manage to solve. Considering the limitations of actually showing this struggle in a visual medium, Hitchcock comes up with a brilliant solution, consisting of a surprisingly taut sequence in which the characters simply write mathematical formulas on blackboards, with Michael slowly pushing the professor into revealing the secret. As MacGuffins go, it's all faintly ridiculous, a far cry from the famous wine cellar of Notorious or the cigarette lighter from Strangers on a Train. Just two men, scribbling on a blackboard; that Hitchcock manages to extract such drama from it at all is remarkable, even if the whole thing falls apart on close scrutiny.

It's equally interesting that Michael is depicted as needing Lindt at all, considering the film's over-the-top Cold War politics. After all, is the American scientist really admitting that he is simply incapable of figuring out what the Soviets have perfected with seemingly little effort? Lindt treats Michael as if he's a child who understands nothing, which raises the whole question of how Michael ever got so far in his research project to begin with. These plot holes and deficiencies mar the film, but not as much as the more serious structural problems with the film as a whole. This is a curiously limp affair from the normally rigid Hitchcock, stretching out to two long, plodding hours that drag in a way his films seldom do. This is especially true after the blackboard sequence. Once Michael gets the formula from Lindt, he makes his getaway along with Sarah, but what should've been a taut, suspenseful series of tight escapes, racing against time and the East German police, is instead numbing and dull. For a seemingly endless amount of time, Hitchcock traps his two protagonists in a fake bus operated by an underground German organization, slowly making its rounds towards Berlin against a patently fake rear projection background. This is not even the interesting artificiality of Marnie, which utilized rear projection and painted backgrounds in fascinating ways, but the sheer uncinematic laziness of a director who's run out of visual ideas: a startling idea to apply to Hitchcock. The obstacles placed in the couple's path — a roadblock, a robbery by army deserters, a shrill woman on the bus who doesn't want to help the Americans — seem contrived and half-hearted, as do the escapes that Hitchcock manufactures for them. It's a Hitchcock chase sequence with all the energy drained from it.

Things get even worse when the couple arrives in Berlin and falls in with the Polish Countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova), who provides the film's worst extended sequence by far, as well as some of the worst melodramatic, stereotypical acting I've ever seen. Her tearjerking portrayal of a desperate emigrant seeking entry into the United States seems bluntly intended as a bit of pro-capitalist propaganda and nothing more. This is made even more clear by the way she insults virtually every aspect of Communist society she can think to mention: the people are "ignorant," the coffee is awful, the cigarettes are only half-filled with tobacco. Hitchcock takes a strange stance in relation to this ridiculous character, half seeming to mock her — superficially, for her heavy accent and overstated makeup — even as he accentuates the heartbreak she feels because she can't get to America. The Americans, of course, pity her, agreeing to help. The fact that this pointless and offensive scene comes as a long interruption of the film's escape sequence only makes it more unbearable, as even the negligible tension of the bus ride was preferable to this static nonsense.

Once this diversion is over, things pick up again, but the remainder of the film still holds little of interest. There's a workmanlike suspense scene in a theater that recalls numerous similar scenes, in theaters and crowded rooms, in previous Hitchcock films from Saboteur to The Man Who Knew Too Much. Derivative as it is, this sequence is nevertheless handled beautifully, with Hitchcock systematically switching camera angles around Michael and Sarah, who are sitting in the middle of a row in the theater, unaware that around them German soldiers are filing into the theater to apprehend them. Hitch cuts between several different angles on the couple, showing the various entryways around the theater each filling with soldiers in turn, occasionally panning away from the couple to reveal more soldiers entering behind them. This is a typical Hitchcock suspense scene, and even as a retread of previous highlights, it's a welcome relief from the otherwise uninterrupted tedium around it.

Fortunately, the film is not a total loss, even if its second act is largely a bore. There are many characteristically Hitchcockian sequences in the film's first half, into which it seems the great director poured most of his enthusiasm for this particular project. Best of all, and perhaps the sequence that stands out in memory the most, is an all-too-brief sequence at a museum where Michael attempts to shake the East German agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who has been tailing him. Shot within the rigidly geometric confines of a cavernous building, created almost entirely with matte paintings, this is a highly idiosyncratic chase sequence in which the two men are never in the same shot together. Each of them seems entirely alone walking among the massive pillars of this multi-leveled maze, and after a while Gromek is not even seen at all; Michael only hears his footsteps reverberating in the empty chambers. Hitchcock keeps his camera at skewed but static angles that accentuate the deep space around Michael. One memorable shot simultaneously peers down a staircase and into the long space of the room above these descending stairs; a single image seems to encompass multiple spaces. In fact, there are several shots here in which the frame encompasses multiple levels of the museum at once, in impressive geometric compositions that often seem to rival M.C. Escher with their warped sense of perspective. Coupled with a sound design that emphasizes each of Gromek's heavy, echoing footfalls, these distinctive visuals make this an unforgettable scene of suspense.

Almost as unforgettable is the agonizing, shockingly brutal sequence in which Michael, together with a woman (Carolyn Conwell) from the democratic underground, attempts to kill Gromek once the agent discovers Michael's status as a double agent. This is a remarkably violent and realistic scene for the normally reserved Hitchcock, as well as an incredibly physical one. This murder is not an easy affair, not a simple matter of a gunshot and a spurt of blood. Rather, Gromek is violently stabbed, strangled, battered with a shovel and a metal pan, and finally shoved into an oven headfirst with the gas on, and held there until he dies. Hitchcock presents this entire sequence in a frantic montage, cutting from a haunting closeup of Conwell's face, a knife held in front of her, to closeups on Gromek's shoulder with the knife blade sticking out of it, or to the agent's fingers tightening their grip around Michael's neck. The final part of the scene, as Michael and the woman hold Gromek's head in the oven, is filmed from above, a long sustained shot of the two struggling people, with only Gromek's hands visible, flailing in the air at first and finally coming to a rest. This is a scene that makes one sit up and take notice, the kind of moment that signals a film where mortality will not be taken lightly, where each life snuffed out comes with a cost and where the brutality of murder, even necessary murder in the service of a "good" cause, is considered worthy of contemplation. Unfortunately, the film never follows up on this scene, which as a result is curiously divorced from the rest of the film. Gromek's murder has narrative consequences, triggering the flight from the authorities in the second half, but there are no moral consequences, and there is no deeper consideration of the issues inevitably raised by this scene's fearless inquiry into the truth of violence.

This failure to follow up on the implications of this scene is mirrored in the failure to follow through on the distinctive Hitchcockian visual style of the film's first half. There are many striking and attention-getting shots here, not only during the museum chase and Gromek's murder, but for instance in a scene where the German scientists interrogate Michael and Sarah to learn what they know about their country's nuclear secrets. Hitch films this by alternating between closeups of the two Americans and an alarming deep-focus shot of their interrogators which reveals five grim panelists sitting at the bottom of a tiered room, at the top of which sits a single bearded figure: Professor Lindt, it turns out. This shot has the kind of wry, subtle humor that Hitch was justly famous for, and it's particularly funny since the scene is edited as though it's an intimate conversation between two parties, with 180-degree cuts from closeups of Sarah's earnest face, with this impassive panel as the reverse shot. The second half of the film largely abandons this kind of visual subtlety, opting instead for the cheesy rear projection of the overlong bus sequence, or the claustrophobic talking heads montage in the couple's conversation with the annoyingly eccentric Countess. Torn Curtain winds up being half a Hitchcock thriller, the other half having been allowed to simply flutter away into nothingness, all its interesting threads and ideas dropped, its mechanical plot grinding to a halt as though something were stuck in the gears.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Gromek's murder is the only thing of interest in this total failure. It shows Hitch trying to up the ante of "shock" post Psycho -- a notion he works through far more interestingly in the rape-strangulation in Frenzy.

As you may know Bernard Herrmann wrote a superb score for the film that Hitchcock passed on in favor of something cheaper. Many years later the great Elmer Bernstein recorded Herrman's score.

Ed Howard said...

Yea the excerpts from Hermann's score sound great, and would have been much better than the bland score that's on it now. Although I must say that the murder does play out much better in silence, as it does in the final film, than with Hermann's score accompanying it.

The other notable omission from the film is the absence of a scene where Gromek's brother shows Michael a photo of the dead man's three children. Hitchcock was afraid this would reduce sympathy for the hero, but of course the character is such a cipher anyway, and played with such disinterest by Newman, that no one could possibly care about him in the first place. That scene at least would have followed through on the troubling mood of that farmhouse sequence, further calling into question the hero's moral correctness.

Anonymous said...

In Who the Devil Made It, Hitchcock makes it pretty clear that he had no sympathy for Newman's character at all or the choices he made in the film-- he and Bogdanovich go so far as to side with the scientist he tricks!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment. It's interesting that Hitchcock would feel that way, since so little of that comes through in the film. Certainly my reaction to Newman's character was fairly negative as well, and there are at least some hints of Hitchcockian irony about the way he manipulates the professor, but the film otherwise doesn't do much to critique or undermine this guy. Hitch even cut the one scene he was planning to put in which would've drawn sympathy away from Newman.

Anonymous said...

While I'm partial to a lot of the material in Topaz, I agree with you Ed that Torn Curtain just fades into nothingness in terms of Hitchcock's body of work. The fight scene at the farmhouse is a standout, but the movie fails in every other conceivable aspect, namely the lame script and the tragic casting.

I'm just happy Clint Eastwood has gotten better as a director as he goes through his 70s, proving that age doesn't necessarily mean you can no longer do great work behind the camera.

Ed Howard said...

I don't think age prevents directors from doing good work. Rivette is 80 and making some of the best films of his career. Ditto Godard, who has continued to push himself and make amazing films well into his late 70s. Bunuel completely revitalized his career when he was in his 70s, making the films that today he is best remembered for. Hitchcock was something of a special case, going through a lot of career and personal disappointments at that time in his life: the critical and public reception of his last two films, the loss of several creative partnerships, the absence of any of his distinctive "Hitchcock blondes" from his life and work at that time. It's obvious that he just wasn't fully engaged by this film on any level, beyond the few scenes that stand out.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you mentioned the museum scene. It was wonderful and I loved how he told the story with sound. Ok, I agree that there are many weak points to this film, but scenes like the museum and the emotionally exhausting murder scene still have the stunning touches of Hitchcock's masterful storytelling. The film winds up for me as being a series of wonderful Hitchcock vignettes tossed into a strange sack...still so much better than the TV series...