Nearly done, old boy…
My inhalations and exhalations sound like the sand whirling around in a hula hoop, my chest is constricted as if there are elastic bands wrapped round my lungs, my head has the thickness of lagging and throbs like a Rick Baker bladder effect, while my nose… it’s simply better not to touch upon my nose.
I have a cold.
Which may not have been a bad way to finally watch TORN CURTAIN, one of those Hitchcock films that had always politely resisted my attempts to watch it. Fiona, too, would drift off within minutes of its starting. Having finally obtained a widescreen copy (Universal, worthless organization that they are, having issued all Hitch’s 1:1.88 movies in 1:1.33 ratio) we determined to give it a fair whack.
It’s not that bad: the right aspect ratio immediately sharpens up the filmmaking, which appeared lackadaisical when pan-and-scanned. Hitch’s mise-en-scene is as crisp and thoughtful as ever, and is sometimes inspired — whenever Julie Andrews isn’t around, he seems to perk up. But Andrews is a massive problem — you simply cannot watch this film without somebody saying, about three minutes in, “She really has no sex appeal at all, does she?” I remember trying to watch the film with my Dad, decades back, and him saying that, and now Fiona said it. “Or warmth,” she added, damningly.
“She’s perceived as being warm in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, isn’t she?” I ask. But then, Andrews’ big roles are both nannies, rather than mothers, which may be significant. She offers professional care. It’s her main quality as an actor. And I bet she can create warmth on stage. But in this movie, Paul Newman must be sexy enough for two: in fact, that’s easy for him, but Julie is like a damp rug thrown upon his smoldering embers.
Welcome to the cinematic world of Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s former agent and now studio head at Universal, who basically cast this film, pressing Hitch to take two big box office stars. But of course, Andrews was only a hot property in a particular type of family film. The audience for gritty espionage thrillers surely would have been put off by her presence. How do you solve a problem like Julie Andrews?
Nifty opening montage of name-tags to introduce our protags in the sack, Hitch trying to sex up Julie’s image, which is like strapping a dildo to Mickey Mouse. Edith Head lets the side down with a horrible outfit for our heroine. “It’s not even green. What is that colour? Mustard?” asks Fiona. I liken it to baby shit.
Hitchcock’s cameo is nice, but Richard Addison’s rather quaint score offends me by quoting Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, AKA the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Here’s my problem with it: in an interview, Elmer Bernstein once noted that in 1930s Hollywood scoring, if you saw a French ship, the soundtrack would be Max Steiner’s version of La Marseillaise. “An intellectual idea.” The man who undercut all that corn, scoring only the emotion of the scene, was Bernard Herrmann.
Here I should correct one of the few serious errors in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. McGilligan imagines Herrmann playing Hitch a recording of his score for TORN CURTAIN, and Hitch stopping the recording partway through, followed by the argument which ended the two great artists’ collaboration forever.
The truth is more dreadful and dramatic — it was at the recording session that the bust-up took place, before a full orchestra. Hitch didn’t switch off a tape player, he cancelled the score midway, even though Herrmann argued that as the orchestra was already paid for, they might as well complete the recording and Hitch could think about it. Instead, Hitch fired his composer in the most public and humiliating manner.
The seeds were sewn by Universal, who seem to have pressured Hitch to record a more popular kind of score, perhaps with a song for Julie Andrews (which at any rate they never got). Hitch telegrammed Herrmann early on to warn that the modern audience was “young vigorous and demanding” and that successful European filmmakers had “sought to introduce a beat and a rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of said audience”. This slightly vague concern was answered by Herrmann with assurances that he could produce something suitable. Perhaps unable to grasp what Hitch was driving at, the composer trusted in his talent to come through. And his score is excellent — you can see the scenes he recorded as extras on the DVD.
John Addison’s music at times seems appropriate for a 1930s-set caper, and insofar as it shows a coherent musical strategy, it would seem to be striving to lighten the picture’s tone. This was probably Hitch’s trouble with Herrmann’s music: he had made a glum, monochromatic film, and Herrmann had produced a dour, unmelodic score to go with it. All through preparing the project, Hitch had tried to inject some lightness, but his subject (cold war armaments and espionage), his settings (Helsinki, East Berlin, Leipzig), his writer (Brian Moore, author of the tragic The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) and his mismatched stars had deferred any lilt or zing to the last possible stage of post-production.
Moore himself hadn’t wanted to write a film, but was persuaded by his lawyer that he needed the money. Hitchcock pitched him an original story, Moore developed it into an outline, introducing the idea of the painful, drawn-out murder, which Hitch then acted out with relish (I would love to see film of this impromptu performance, but none was taken). All the while Moore was aghast at what he saw as Hitchcock’s lack of character insight. Moore only really invested himself in the character played, like a demented elf, by Lila Kedrova, a Polish émigré hoping to escape to America. Her character, and that of Gromek the security man killed by Newman, are the only really living people in the film.
It is worth mentioning Newman’s cab driver, though — Peter Lorre Jnr. No relation to the real Lorre, this was a semi-crazed fan who changed his name in honour of his hero, and was sued by the original. I wonder if Hitch knew he’d hired a fake?
The scene where Gromek stalks Newman through an art gallery is the first striking set-piece, although the development of Newman’s defection and Andrews’ following him to East Berlin are interesting enough. Since Hitch’s two stars between them cost more than half his budget and dictated his shooting schedule, the film was almost entirely shot in California, mainly on the Universal lot (it shows), and so the gallery is a series of Albert Whitlock matte paintings. Only the floors were built. They’re very beautiful, and since the whole scene is composed of these artificial settings, they don’t pop out as distractingly fake. It’s like a chase through a virtual reality. Later, some of Hein Heckroth’s phony Leipzig exteriors will look like cast-offs from OH… ROSALINDA!!!! and not in a good way.
Ah, Gromek! How I long for an entire film detailing your brief period in New York (“corner of 88th Street”) which you recall so nostaligically. Gromek is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the German voice of Bert from Sesame Street. We must thank the IMDb for its little nougats. Gromek, with his black motorcycle and crappy East German cigarette lighter, is wildly endearing and formidably sinister, and although his murder is the highlight of the film, I do wish it came an hour later so we could enjoy him for longer.
The skirmish starts when the farmer;s wife (Carolyn Conwell, another great character, actually) interrupts Herr Gromek’s phone call with a sloppily-aimed bowl of rice pudding. He tries to get his lighter to work. Newman tries to strangle him. Years later, Hitch’s summary of the scene’s premise, “It’s very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time… to kill a man,” became the slogan for the Coen brothers’ BLOOD SIMPLE. The farmer’s wife takes up a carving knife, which memorably breaks in Gromek’s chest — for some reason, that detail is nastier than all the successful stabbing in PSYCHO. The shovel to the knees is next — ouch — then the long haul to the gas oven, with Gromek gamely strangling our hero all the way. His head stuffed within, Gromek’s chubby little hands begin to flicker and dance, like fleshy butterflies, then lie still.
Note that, as Dan Auiler discovered, Hitchcock’s original notes requested music for this scene, which Herrman duly provided, and very powerful it is. The scene is still a stand-out with no score, but one wonders what else Herrman might have done for the plodding thriller. At any rate, the silence augments the risk of discovery that prevents our heroes using a gun to off Gromek.
Newman picks up the dead man’s lighter, which now sparks into flame on the first try. He leaves the farmer’s wife to bury the body and the motorcycle. We rather wish she’d entombed him astride it, like Nicky Henson in PSYCHOMANIA.
By contrast with the effulgent Gromek, Professor Lindt is rather a stock figure, a bearded physicist with a brusque manner. Professor Littleoldman! And here the film reaches its fatal flaw, one Moore and Hitchcock apparently missed, and script polishers Ted Willis and Keith Waterhouse (BILLY LIAR) weren’t authorized to address. After the incredibly long and uninteresting diagrams on a blackboard scene, in which case the need for a simple MacGuffin becomes blindingly obvious, Newman and Andrews must flee back to the west. Their lovers’ misunderstanding resolved, and the secret information now secured, they have basically won. Of course, apprehension would still mean utter defeat, so we expect a further climax of suspense, but instead we get a long journey back to Berlin by bicycle and bus, then Kedrova and a long wait in a post office, which is not as exciting in this film as it would be in real life, and a trip to the ballet, where at last Hein Heckroth can do what he does so well.
This is why the film seems so overstuffed. It should be called BURST CUSHION. The third act is practically half the film, and the suspense sequences don’t quite come off (Herrmann would have helped immeasurably), so it’s not only structurally malformed but ineffective on a scene-by-scene basis, apart from the incidental pleasures.
The prima ballerina looked familiar until I realized I knew her from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The subliminal freeze-frames Hitch pulls on her pirouettes are amazing — he must be reprinting the last frame of each shot just two or three times. I’ve no idea why nobody seems to have copied this striking effect.
The ballet, Tchaikovsky’s treatment of a character featured in Dante’s Inferno, climaxes the story’s metaphorical arc, which Peter Conrad in The Hitchcock Murders rightly describes as Dantean: Newman embarks on a journey into the underworld, in this case, the Eastern Block. Even the refugee/spy organisation’s name, π, suggests the circle of Hell. Newman’s quest, to steal missile secrets, is Promethean, and the film’s opening titles, a montage of anguished faces amid blue and red clouds of smoke, seem like an analog of Hell.
Conrad notes that the film begins and ends with its characters huddled under blankets, but doesn’t quite make the obvious point that the film could thus be read as a shared nightmare. Hitchcock may have aimed to make “a realistic Bond,” but realism was never his preferred mode, and it seems more profitable to judge the film, with its grey-filtered, shadowless monochrome (shot using reflected light), for its successful expressionism rather than its doubtful authenticity.
Conrad is also excited to see Hitchcock following Paul Newman into the gents’ lav to decode his secret message onto a square of toilet paper. Sometimes a critic’s work is done for him.
Hitch originally toyed with the idea of Newman discarding the formula he’d worked so hard to get, an idea only Alma liked. It wouldn’t have made sense, but it connects to Hitchcock’s consistent portrayal of espionage, in all his films, as a dirty business with a horrible cost. But the whole idea of Newman as amateur spy is unconvincing, as is the anti-missile missile plot — though it’s been suggested that it inspired Ronald Reagan’s expensive and unworkable Star Wars defense scheme.
TORN CURTAIN isn’t terrible, although it could at least be shorter (Hitch had just lost his usual editor), but we should recall that Hitch really wanted to make MARY ROSE, scripted by Jay Presson Allen and ready to go, a deeply personal film, a departure from his normal turf, and a fascinating story. It’s Universal who are to blame for this film, as they are to blame for TOPAZ, when Hitch wanted to make KALEIDOSCOPE / FRENZY. Their poor decisions, made with a view to protecting the Hitchcock brand, soured much of the last stages of his career, and his friendship with MCA-Universal boss Lew Wasserman prevented Hitchcock from fighting for his most promising subjects. In the meantime, years were wasted. As we shall see, Universal were very kind and considerate to Hitch during his last years, but in a way their concern was damaging to Hitchcock the risk-taking artist. At the end of TORN CURTAIN, the Universal logo appears ghost-like over an extreme close-up of a blanket, possibly wet.