Throwback Review | Torn Curtain | 1966
|Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, and Lila Kedrova in Alfred Hitchcock's TORN CURTAIN.
Hitchcock always seems to be at his best when there's a kind of tension between the absolute control he exudes over his films, and his own obsessions. Cinema served as a kind of exorcism for Hitch, a playground to explore his own inner demons and desires, something that often clashed with the precision of his filmmaking - see Vertigo or Psycho. Sometimes that tension would tilt more toward one side or the other (as in Marnie), but that touch of madness is always where Hitchcock's genius lie.
In Torn Curtain, Hitchcock almost seems disinterested in the subject at hand, and that sense of indifference bleeds over to his lead actors - Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, two towering talents who seem lost in this talky Cold War spy thriller. Newman stars as Michael Armstrong an American double agent, assigned defect to East Germany in order to steal secrets about a possible missile defense system, and then return to the United States to marry his faithful assistant, Sarah Sherman (Andrews). The mission is complicated, however, when Sarah discovers that he's lied about where he's going, and decides to follow him, ending up with him behind the Iron Curtain and unable to understand the true nature of his mission, as letting her in on the secret could tip off the ever watchful Stasi and compromise the job.
There's a lot of inherent tension in the material which Hitchcock strangely leaves untouched. Michael must keep up the appearance that he's defected to East Germany. Sarah sees him as a traitor, before deciding to support her fiancé above all. Hitchcock, and by extension the actors, do little with this conflict - in fact there seems to be very little conflict there at all. It's almost as if the struggles of an otherwise healthy couple hold no interest for Hitchcock, and the layers of lies under which Newman is forced to operate are never really explored beyond the more conventional spy thriller elements.
Those spy thriller elements, however, are where Torn Curtain really excels. Hitchcock delivers some crackerjack scenes - a prolonged struggle that results in the painfully drawn out death of a Stasi officer lets Hitchcock really explore the ugly nature of violence, while the climactic escape from East Berlin features some classic Hitchcock suspense. An encounter with a helpful countess (Lila Kedrova) hopeful for a sponsorship to America also provides some much needed pathos that the protagonists are never really able to provide. These moments offer flashes of the director's genius, but ultimately don't add up to a satisfying whole.