7/15/09

Hitch on the Hump: Torn Curtain (1966)

Alfred Hitchcock was a director who knew what he wanted. He wanted scripts to be just to his liking. He wanted actors to show up and do their jobs. He wanted a score to say just what it should. Unfortunately, 1966’s Torn Curtain accomplished very little of this for the very particular director. Some of Hitch’s frustrations with the film come through on the screen, but he still managed to craft an espionage story that neither reflected his earlier forays into the genre or those of his peers. Torn Curtain is a spy story that reflects neither the glamour nor the intrigue, but rather casts its gaze on the human toll that covert activities can have on the people involved.

As the film opens, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) and his fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) are on route to a physics conference in Copenhagen. Michael did not want his wife-to-be to accompany him, but she insisted and was puzzled why her beau would not want her along. Once they arrive in Copenhagen, she remains baffled by his furtive nature as she sees him obtain plane tickets and secret away with a mysterious book that he has ordered. When he tells her that he has to make a trip to Stockholm, Sweden, she follows him and discovers that his destination lies behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. To her surprise, Armstrong, a nuclear physicist who had recently been spurned by the U.S. government, has plans to defect to the socialist nation and give them his work on a missile defense system. It soon becomes clear there is more to Armstrong’s plan, and the couple is soon deeply lodged in a plan to steal away an important formula from the Germans.

The idea for the film first came to Hitchcock when he learned of two British diplomats, Burgess and McLean, who defected to the Soviets in 1951 after years of feeding the Russians sensitive information. What fascinated Hitchcock was not the defection itself, but rather “What did Mrs. McLean think of the whole thing?” The script was originally written by Brian Moore, an Irish novelist who specialized in thrillers, and he had quite the opinion on communists. In WWII, Moore saw action in Italy, France, and a two year stint in Poland where he discovered that “Communism there was a totalitarian society.” His script was rejected by Hitchcock who brought in screenwriters Hall and Waterhouse to doctor the script. They did extensive rewrites on the script and Hitchcock felt it changed enough to give the two screen credit, but Moore disagreed and the Screenwriter’s guild backed him up giving Moore sole screen credit much to Hitchcock’s dismay.

It would not be the last time Hitchcock was to be dismayed by a part of his film. He originally intended the leads in the film to be played by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who he had previously worked with in North by Northwest. Grant bowed out of the part stating that he was on the brink of retirement and too old for the role. The studio forced Andrews on Hitch, and the casting rushed the production into starting before he script was completely polished due to Andrews’s limited availability.

Paul Newman was quite the established actor by 1966 with the films The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963) already in his résumé, but his most iconic roles in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke and the classic 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid still lay ahead of him. Newman was fully in the throes of being a “Method” actor in the mid-60’s and it proved to be quite the irritant to Hitchcock who was used to the older school of actors like James Stewart and Cary Grant who were more natural actors. Newman often wanted to consult the director on his character’s motivations which Hitchcock simply replied, “your salary is your motivation.” In the Truffaut interviews Hitchcock stated, “he [Newman] found it hard to give me one of those neutral looks I needed to cut from his point of view”. Newman himself found the filming of Torn Curtain to be a challenge, and later stated that “I think Hitch and I could have really hit it off, but the script kept getting in the way.” Although Newman’s performance is typically solid, there are moments in the film where it seems apparent that the direction and the actor were going different places with the scenes.

On the other hand, I feel that Julie Andrews was terribly miscast as the suspicious fiancée who later becomes a partner in Armstrong’s plot. Before Torn Curtain, Andrews had come to a great degree of success in a couple of family oriented pictures, The Sound of Music (1965) and the classic 1964 Mary Poppins. While I am no big fan of the adventures of the Von Trapp family, Mary Poppins is a childhood favorite of mine. Andrews never returned to the thriller genre, and it was probably for the best. Audiences at the time had quite the problem with Andrews in the “racy” scenes included in Torn Curtain, but while I find Andrews to be no stunning beauty, it is hard to believe that these rather tame scenes contributed to the film’s poor reception. Andrews was a poor substitute for the type of women who usually dominated Hitchcock’s films. Rather than look concerned or scared, Andrews spends most of the film with a look that reads more confused than anything.

The first third of the film is shot primarily from her point of view, and Hitchcock even admitted that it was the weakest part of the film stating by the time that the fiancée learns of Armstrong’s destination behind the Iron Curtain “the audience is already ahead of us.” However he wanted to open the film with some sense of mystery to avoid the film devolving into a James Bond style “man who has been given a mission” film. Instead moving that plot point into the middle part of the film. Hitchcock felt the film worked naturally in thirds with the plot taking a “natural geographical course.” Before filming began, Hitchcock took the same journey himself going from Copenhagen, to East Berlin, to Leipzig, back to East Berlin, and finally to Sweden.

If the film has one other performance worth mentioning, it comes from Wolfgang Keiling as Armstrong’s “escort” Gromek. The veteran German actor gave Gromek the perfect kind of beneath the surface menace needed for the part, but as good as his acting is, his death is the standout scene in the movie. Hitch wanted the scene to demonstrate “it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man.” For the time, it does unfold in brutal manner with Newman and his accomplice having to dispatch Gromak by using anything in his surroundings including a kettle full of soup, a shovel, and when all else has failed, a gas oven. Gromak’s final moments with his hands and fingers waving in the air before he subsides make the scene impact with a realism rarely seen in mainstream film of the mid-60’s, and it gives Torn Curtain a cinematic moment of brutality in what is otherwise a subdued film. The scene also gets a great strength from the lack of any musical accompaniment. With only the grunts of the struggle between the two men to punctuate the scene, it gives the moment a dramatic tension that an overwrought piece of music could have proved detrimental.

Torn Curtain would also mark the last collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. The film was completely scored, and both Universal Pictures and Hitchcock felt that they wanted something more upbeat with pop and jazz influences. It seems that Universal even had some hopes that Herrmann would write a song for star Julie Andrews. While Herrmann deferred from writing a song, he did acquiesce and revise his score, but even then it was not the liking of the studio or the director. Herrmann and Hitchcock would never work together again after the director brought in John Addison to rescore the film.

Addison was very popular at the time having scored the hit film Tom Jones (1963), and he would go on to work for many years with his most recognizable composition probably being the theme to the series Murder She Wrote. To me Addison’s score was fine, but I find it hard to believe that Hermann, who has written so many memorable scores, would have done a lesser job. After hearing some of the rejected tracks I do think I would have changed the film considerably. Considering the best moment in the film is devoid of music, perhaps even Hitch knew that he still didn’t have the proper music for his film. (Down below you can check out the death of Gromak scene with Herrmann's score intact. )

Instead of working with frequent collaborator Robert Burks, Hitchcock chose cinematographer John F. Warren for Torn Curtain. Warren and Hitch had worked together on two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955, and the vast majority of Warren’s credits are from television although they do include 1958’s The Colossus of New York and the 1957 film Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Considering he had little film experience, I rather liked the framing of many of his shots. Both the scenes of Armstrong slipping his “escort” in a museum and the filming of a ballet could be put up there with any of the well shot footage in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

Hitchcock considered the film a major change in his style and described it by saying, “The lighting projected against big white surfaces. We shot the whole film through a grey gauze. The actors kept on asking, “Where are the lights?” We almost achieved the ideal, you know, shooting with natural lights.” The film does have a very naturalistic tone which suits the tale of real people caught up in an extraordinary situation. However, the film suffers from some very clunky shots of rear projection, and some of the locales looked a bit too much like sets to create the proper realistic illusion. I know some of it is the product of its time, but the two hour film could have been cut down quite a bit and some of those lesser portions are what needed to be trimmed.

As usual, Hitchcock delivers a film that encapsulates some original ideas and has a flavor that is unlike most espionage films. The film overstays its welcome with too long a running time, and the troubled production shines through in spots. Torn Curtain has moments of inspired filmmaking contained in it, but stacked up against his catalog, Hitchcock did not deliver another classic. Instead, Torn Curtain is no more than an average film. If you’re interested in seeing the majority of Alfred’s films, as I am, then it’s worth taking a look at. Otherwise, Hitchcock has done spy stories elsewhere in his career which are better, and more entertaining, films.

Bugg Rating



Here's a little bonus with a selection from Herrmann's rejected score. I chose to show the clip of the death of Gromak because it changes the tone of of the scene so much. The silence is what really sold that part of the film, but Herrmann's score is not without it's charms.

3 comments:

  1. Wow, you've gone all spy on me. Two films in a row! Whoohooo!

    Yep, I think you nailed Torn Curtain. It's a very disappointing film.

    Cheers
    D.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm a hardcore Bernard Herrmann fan, and the rejected Torn Curtain score is one of his masterpieces; I've listened to the full album (Herrmann wrote music for the film with the exception of the last ten minutes) so many times the music is chiseled into my frontal lobe.

    I once met one of the french horn players who was playing in the orchestra at the recording session. According to him, the orchestra had recorded four cues on the first day when Hitchcock interrupted the session for a heated argument with Herrmann. Herrmann stormed out, and that was that. No more was recorded until Elmer Bernstein's "Film Music Collection" recording in the 1970s.

    What's amazing is that the entire orchestra applauded after the performance of the piece called "The Corridor," which is a demonic bit where the sixteen french horns and nine trombones play off each other in a furious fight. They were that impressed.

    Although I think Herrmann's music is astonishing, it may very well have been too much for the shaky film to handle. It's dark and furious, there is not one moment where it makes any sort of commercial concession. Hitchcock apparently knew the film was weak, Universal knew it was, and he thought maybe the idea of a more "commercial sound" would solve the problem. Herrmann, and notoriously tempermental figure, never compromised on anything. If you didn't like the way he wanted to score the film, he wouldn't do your film. So when Hitchcock requested "a theme song," Herrmann ignored him and threw at the film an orchestra with the bonkers line-up of 16 french horns, 9 trombones, cellos and bases, 12 flutes, and a triple-sized percussion section. This means no high strings and no high brass, and a creepy sound of twelve flutes jabbin' and stabbin'. It's a flat-out weird orchestra, and it's savage. But Herrmann was a huge innovator and loved the ways the orchestra could be manipulated.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the comment David. I have been quite in the mood for a little subterfuge lately.

    Now Ryan, that's what I call a comment. Really interesting stuff you said there. I really enjoy Hermann's score's myself, but it might be better that he didn't have to be that closely associated with this clunky film. Thanks so much for sharing all these great facts!

    ReplyDelete

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