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TORN CURTAIN (director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriter: Brian Moore; cinematographer: John F. Warren; editor: Bud Hoffman; music: John Addison; cast: Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Dr. Sarah Louise Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Polish Countess Kuchinska), Hansjoerg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Günter Strack (Professor Karl Manfred), Gisela Fischer (Dr. Koska), Carolyn Conwell (Farm Woman); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Universal; 1966)
“Can be viewed as a vastly underrated work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th film is a Cold War romantic-spy story inspired by a real incident; it aims at making the spy story more realistic (showing how difficult it’s to kill someone in its piece de resistance farm scene kitchen murder) rather than cartoonish like the popular but unbelievable James Bond thrillers. Torn Curtain turns out to be more about domestic trust than a tough Cold War yarn, which displeased many critics and the public as they both evidently expected more of a thriller with Bond-like touches of light comedy. It’s flawed by its plodding pace, its banal politics, Paul Newman’s wooden performance, its overlong 128-minute length, and too many rambling scenes that break down due to the director’s shoddy handling of details (something that’s an anathema to the usual Hitchcock concern about the finer points). Though only relegated to be a minor film in the master’s oeuvre, it still has his magical touches in a few splendidly chilling scenes and can be viewed as a vastly underrated work that holds up when viewed at the end of the Cold War for its sharply-observed humanitarian point of view (real people were murdered by spies, even those who were on the side of the so-called good guys were murderers, and did it not in a Hollywood septic way).

Paul Newman plays Michael Armstrong, a gifted American physicist engaged to his gritty science assistant Dr. Sarah Louise Sherman (Julie Andrews). While attending a science convention in Copenhagen, Denmark, Armstrong defects to East Berlin, claiming he’s disappointed Washington canceled his pet project on nuclear defense and hopes to work with the commies to develop a defense system to make nuclear war passé. Sarah, not knowing he’s playing a double-agent game to pump Eastern bloc scientist Professor Gustav Lindt for info on the missing piece of the puzzle to the nuclear problem he’s working on, surprises him by showing up in East Berlin and making it more difficult for him to operate.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

When Armstrong secretly treks to a country farmhouse to make contact with those inside East Germany who are willing to help him, he’s detected by his annoyingly clever heavy-handed assigned security guard watchdog Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) and has no choice, with the help of the farm woman (Carolyn Conwell), to kill him in a bitter struggle involving a pummeling, strangulation, knifing and suffocation in a gas oven (mindful of the way the Nazis did things) that’s well filmed and as unpleasantly memorable as any murder scene in a Hitchcock film (that includes the shower scene in Psycho, though one can argue he improved the murder scene even more in his 1972 Frenzy). Gromek’s disappearance means Armstrong must act fast to get his mission accomplished. It results in an unconvincing scene where he picks Lindt’s brain while tossing around mathematical equations on a blackboard and getting the commie scientist all worked up that he’s not up to snuff so that in his vainness he lets out the formula to show he’s a genius. Armstrong then lets a relieved Sarah in on his secret mission and the two try to escape the country with the help of an organization called Pi operating inside East Germany, who take them to their next contact via a fake bus. When detected watching a ballerina performance (Tamara Toumanova, real-life ballerina) Armstrong shouts out fire in the crowded theater causing hysteria even though there was no smoke or fire detected, and the two lovers escape by boat to return to the American way of life.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”