Hitchcock reviews Dial H for Hitchcock. Film reviews by Terrence Brady

Torn Curtain was Hitchcock’s 50th film (released in 1966) yet one of his lesser known outings, despite the casting of American heartthrob Paul Newman and the multi-talented Julie Andrews.

The plot is your standard Cold War scenario. Newman plays Michael Armstrong, a physicist who defects to East Germany with plans to hand over Western secrets to the communists. Andrews is Sarah Sherman, Newman’s assistant and lover, who is unaware of his intentions and stubbornly tags along with him into the Soviet bloc. Newman’s real purpose behind "enemy lines" is that he’s acting as a counterspy, and he’s to return to the West with information on antimissile defense technology. His mission is to "pick the brains" of a famous German scientist (Ludwig Donath) but when his plans are discovered, he and Andrews must flee for their lives before the communists can capture them.

Sounds more like a "Bond" flick (which were growing in popularity at the time) than a typical Hitchcock film. While Torn Curtain may not be up to the level of his greatest, it is a film in which the suspense is maintained, the pacing is brisk, and there’s a few prime sequences that reflect the director at his best. One example would be the Museum of East Berlin sequence where Newman attempts to elude his "assigned" American-slang-toting bodyguard, Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling). The museum is devoid of people and all we hear are the loudly echoing footsteps of the two men as they walk through the large, cavernous rooms. Very eerie.

Later, Kieling catches up to Newman in a brutal, nightmarish farmhouse scene in which Newman (with the assistance of a terrified farm woman) has to kill him quietly, so as not to alert the taxi driver waiting outside. The sequence, written to show how difficult it really can be to kill a man, shows the stabbing, beating, and finally dragging of the struggling German into the waiting mouth of an oven where they proceed to "gas him."

Other notably scenes are when Newman and Andrews are stuck in a crowded theater as German soldiers close in on them. It appears like their escape is about to come to an end when Newman gets the idea of shouting "Fire!" and they escape in the frenzy that follows. The scene where Newman swindles a mathematical formula out of the German scientist is quite innovative and suspenseful, though there are many scenes that seem off the spine. The cafe scene with Lila Kedrova (as an eccentric Polish countess who seeks the fleeing couple’s help to sponsor her journey to America) would be an example of such.

Torn Curtain is a lightweight espionage thriller that has some tense, memorable moments but as a whole seems to flounder. Hitch’s casting of Newman as the cold and manipulative Armstrong works to a degree, though Newman has had better efforts elsewhere. The original score was written by Bernard Herrmann but Universal Pictures executives convinced Hitch they needed a more upbeat score. Hitch and Herrmann had a major disagreement, the score was dropped and they never worked together.

RATING: 5.5 (of 10). Not your average Hitch film but still entertaining nonetheless.

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