Torn Curtain: North by North Leipzig
After the disappointment of Topaz, I was dreading this, a film seemingly even more reviled than that particular misadventure. As luck would have it, though, Torn Curtain is in a completely different league. The reviews may have been a bit muted, but I thoroughly enjoyed what is essentially a European North by Northwest, featuring a double agent, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), who, along with his girlfriend Sarah (Julie Andrews), finds himself on the run from the East German authorities from whom he has been tasked to procure vital information about an anti-missile defence system.
I’ll begin by stating what doesn’t work with this film. Yes, it’s true that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are incredibly miscast (especially the former, who is never convincing as a brilliant nuclear scientist). Hitchcock made it known to them in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to be making the film, and the hostility on the set permeates throughout their performances. It’s also true that, like Topaz, Torn Curtain features another disappointing score (Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann had a massive falling-out during the scoring process, with the two never working together again, with the replacement score by John Addison coming across as bland and, again, too light-hearted). Furthermore, there’s very little new on offer here, with the script (originally penned by Brian Moore but redone by ghost-writers after Hitchcock threw most of his work out) cobbling together various ideas from other films in Hitchcock’s career, ranging from the “two lovers on the run” theme of The 39 Steps to the “spy manipulates girlfriend for the greater good” motif of Notorious.
Are these problems? Absolutely, but they don’t stop Torn Curtain from being an immensely enjoyable film. Newman actually makes a reasonably effective hero provided he’s not trying to pass himself off as a scientist, and, while the plot is nothing new, it didn’t bore me for a minute. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I was riveted throughout, and, in the run-up towards the climax, it all becomes incredibly tense and exciting. It may play like something of a greatest hits package, in much the same vein as Argento’s Non Ho Sonno, but by and large Hitchcock is reusing material that was successful for a reason, and continues to work the second time round. It also has Lila Kedrova (who I knew for her role in Massimo Dallamano’s The Cursed Medallion) hamming it up something rotten, which is definitely a good thing. The most acclaimed moment, however, and rightly so, is a sequence in which Armstrong and a peasant woman find themselves forced to murder Armstrong’s “minder”, Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling). Memorable for showing just how difficult it is to kill a man (stabbing him and bludgeoning him with a shovel don’t work, so they eventually have to push his head inside an oven and gas him), it shows that, even if he wasn’t having the time of his life making this lower-tier effort, Hitchcock was still able to rise to the occasion and deliver something truly imaginative.