“You tell them! You tell them! You’re the one who sold out!”
This week sees the release of The Courier, a spy thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a script for once NOT based on a John La Carre novel. Set during the Cold War, the film sees Cumberbatch playing a seasoned spy who attempts to put an end to the Cuban missile crisis while trying to keep up his disguise as an ordinary businessman.
Maybe it’s because the whole affair has been over for years, but there are few sub-genres that are both as fun and involving as Cold War thrillers. Virtually any of the films made from La Carre’s works prove this to be true in some fashion. Similarly, non-La Carre entires such as Goldfinger and The Hunt for Red October proved that the Cold War era lent itself to captivating cinema no matter whose name was on the writing credits. Another instance where this proved to be the case came from the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. For his 50th film, Hitchcock gathered some stars and the ripe Cold War setting of East Berlin to bring to the screen the vastly underrated Torn Curtain.
In Torn Curtain, Paul Newman plays Michael Armstrong, an American physics professor who has come to Copenhagen with his assistant/fiance Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) to give a speech at a conference. When Sarah begins to notice that Michael’s actions have gotten mysterious, she becomes worried, especially when he tells her the speech is off because he’s been called out of the country on an urgent matter and she should return back to the states. Sarah soon follows Michael as he makes his way behind the iron curtain to East Berlin, where she quickly discovers the man she loves has defected. Little does Sarah know however, that Michael is a spy sent to East Germany in order to retrieve a secret formula and escape back across…if he can.
One of the reasons Torn Curtain’s reputation isn’t as strong as that of other solid Hitchcock offerings like Strangers on a Train or The Man Who Knew too Much may have had to do with this silly idea that the film doesn’t actually feel like it came from the same filmmaker. And yet, practically everything about Torn Curtain symbolizes what audiences loved about the director’s films. There’s the American everyman hero, the beautiful blonde who is more daring than the average woman of the day and the romance they both share. In fact, Torn Curtain opens with the two leads in bed for one of the most playful and genuine scenes of romance in any Hitchcock movie. Plenty of side characters are also on hand in order to move the story along while making an impression that’s hard to forget, including Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling-Michael’s guide in East Berlin who doesn’t trust him for a minute) and the Countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) who practically steals the show in her brief scenes as an adorable blackmailer. Like any solid Hitchcock title, there are also a few laughs sprinkled throughout Torn Curtain. The recurring joke of the narcissistic ballerina whom no reporter cares about and the old woman with the groceries who nearly thwarts Michael and Sarah’s escape ease the tension with well-executed laugs. There’s a reason Hitchcock recycled such tropes for various films; not only were they storytelling elements he himself was drawn to, but the director also firmly believed in their strength and knew how they all worked.
Of course it’s the suspense which draws an audience to a Hitchcock film and Torn Curtain is blessed enough to have plenty, all of which not only rings as textbook to the director, but helps make the film stand out in its own right. The slow-moving chase scene in which Gromek is following Michael through an empty museum feels incredibly tense thanks the two men’s footsteps operating as the only sound in the sequence. Meanwhile, the former character’s killing has become the movie’s most recognizable scene as Hitchcock all but does away with the cinematic notion of just how easy it is to kill someone by having Michael and his contact, a seemingly mild-mannered farm wife (Carolyn Conwell) try desperately to get rid of the enemy without being found out, eventually settling on putting his head into the gas oven. The scene in the ballet where Michael and Sarah attempt to buy some time while waiting for their next contact is itself a great time filler that offers up momentary tension. But it’s the extended bus sequence which remains the standout moment in Torn Curtain. Everything about it works in terms of cinematic suspense. The crushing element of time, the unease of the couple’s fellow passengers and the unexpected presence of the police. It’s the point in the film when any aficionado so in love with the director’s work can watch it and say: “That’s true Hitchcock!”
Even though Newman had issues with the script which he was never able to overcome and Andrews was only cast because of how much of a hot commodity she was at the time, the two stars make perfect Hitchcock protagonists. Newman gives Michael enough drive and uncertainty while making the role his own with his brand of intensity. Andrews matches him with a curiosity, desperation and the kind of camera-ready magic which the best Hitchcock leading ladies possessed. While it’s safe to say that neither actor is up there with the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren in terms of the charisma they could muster for the master, the energy brought by both Newman and Andrews is what makes Torn Curtain work so well.
Although critics weren’t the kindest to Torn Curtain, the film did manage to be enough of a hit for the director to rebound from the failure of Marnie. For many, the strength of Torn Curtain, from an ideological point of view at least, is the way Hitchcock focused more on the personal than in the political. In this case, the film becomes less about the secrets and the spying than about the choice to defect mixed with the romantic motivations at the heart of such a decision. In many ways, Torn Curtain could be called the last Hitchcock film. It was the last time the director used such high-profile stars, shot almost exclusively on location at his home studio, used Bernard Herrmann as his composer (Hitchcock fired him in post-production) and made a film which blended the dreamy Hollywood look with effective, potent suspense. Afterwards, Hitchcock made his offering in the international cinema genre with Topaz, returned to his British roots for the exquisite Frenzy and proved he could hold onto his artistic sensibilities while making a film in keeping with the new Hollywood of the 1970s with Family Plot. It never mattered the actors, script, genre or era; Hitch was always Hitch.