The Movie Waffler Hitchcock in Reverse - <i>Torn Curtain</i> (1966) | The Movie Waffler

Hitchcock in Reverse - Torn Curtain (1966)

An American spy fakes a defection to East Germany in order to steal a secret formula.

Review by Eric Hillis

Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Lila Kedrova, Wolfgang Kieling

Engaged couple Newman and Andrews are attending a scientific conference in Copenhagen when, out of the blue, he informs her he must fly to Sweden, forbidding her from accompanying him. When she discovers her fiancé is actually headed behind the Iron Curtain to East Germany, Andrews follows him only to discover he has defected. Secretly, however, Newman is a spy who plans to steal a formula relating to anti-missile rockets. Andrews agrees to also defect to be with Newman, who hasn’t divulged his secret to her.
The initial premise of Torn Curtain came from Hitch himself, inspired by the defection of the British diplomats, Burgess and MacLean, to Soviet Russia. “What did Mrs MacLean think of the whole thing?” was the question he wished to examine. It may have begun as a clever premise but by the time production began, Hitch realized he had a turkey on his hands. Saddled with a dull, talky script and a lead actor whose “method” style was anathema to Hitch, the director found himself struggling to inject any life into the story.
The film gets off to an interesting start as we see things from Andrews’ point of view, unaware what her fiancé is really up to. Once the plot moves to East Germany it develops into a film that resembles a James Bond movie with the action set-pieces and gags removed; in other words, a tough slog.
Torn Curtain is, however, worth seeing for one standout scene alone. Newman is assigned a bodyguard, played menacingly by Kieling, who he manages to slip away from in order to rendezvous with a contact at a farm. After receiving instructions from the farmer, Newman finds himself in a farmhouse with the man’s wife as Kieling unexpectedly shows up. With Kieling’s suspicions aroused, Newman and the woman attempt to kill him, quietly so as not to alert the taxi driver waiting outside. The scene is one of the most gruesome in cinema history as a variety of farmhouse implements (a bowl of soup, a bread knife, and a shovel) are employed to take out Kieling who proves extremely difficult to kill. Eventually a gas oven nastily proves his undoing. The scene is masterfully shot and edited and is unaccompanied by music which lends it an extra level of realism. By having two characters who don’t speak each other’s language, Hitch is able to play the scene in a purely visual manner.
After the poor performance of Marnie, the Universal heads were beginning to put pressure on Hitch to play by their terms. They wanted to appeal to a younger market and insisted the movie should have a jazzy, modern score. When composer Bernard Herrmann delivered a more traditional score, Hitch fired him, ending arguably the greatest relationship between a film-maker and a composer the cinema has ever known. His replacement was John Addison, who delivered a score more satisfying to the studio but unremarkable when compared to the Herrmann score which can be found as an extra on DVD/Blu-ray releases of the film, (Herrmann’s opening theme is particularly impressive).
Torn Curtain was the first in a line of troublesome Hollywood productions for Hitch, marred by studio interference and a desire to keep up with trends. Were it not for a brief return to his native London for Frenzy, it would have been the beginning of a sad demise.

The Cameo
Eight minutes in, Hitch can be seen sitting in a hotel lobby. The child on his knee is actually Julie Andrews' daughter. Just to ensure you don't miss it, the scene is accompanied cheesily by the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents