Thursday 12 July 2012

Movie Review: Torn Curtain (1966)

A cold war military espionage thriller, Torn Curtain succeeds in creating and exploiting plenty of enjoyable tension. It is also the only Alfred Hitchcock film to feature 1960s era superstars like Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. With Hitchcock reportedly ill at ease directing a method actor, Torn Curtain benefits from a Newman performance in which he never appears relaxed, and his agitation helps to propel the drama.

Professor Michael Armstrong (Newman), an American rocket scientist, plans his defection to communist Eastern Europe while attending a conference in Copenhagen. Complications arise when his fiancee Sarah Sherman (Andrews) boards the same plane to East Berlin, and decides to join him behind the Iron Curtain. Armstrong claims to be disgruntled by the US military's cancellation of the rocket program that he was working on, and appears eager to join the esteemed East German physics researchers at the University in Leipzig.

Armstrong's real motive, however, is to steal the latest East German anti-missile science secrets and return to the US as quickly as possible. Visiting a remote farmhouse to connect with the underground network that will aid his escape, Armstrong has a messy encounter with Gromek, an East German secret service agent. Suspicions are quickly raised, and Armstrong and Sherman have a very limited opportunity to steal the valuable military intelligence and flee, a frantic journey which includes a nerve wracking bus ride from Leipzig to Berlin and an equally nail-biting escape from a ballet theatre.

Hitchcock directs Torn Curtain with the pace of a spiral turning in on itself, the first half hour languid in the build-up to the defection, the action picking up and becoming unrelenting once the drama moves behind the curtain. The final half hour is breathless, Michael and Sarah just half a step ahead of the East German police and special agents as they throw their fate into the hands of the underground network to tear through the curtain and return to the west.

The locations standing in for Eastern Europe (mostly in Denmark, West Germany and the Universal Studios back lot) are grand, bleak, and threatening, Hitchcock finding the balance between a closed society's desire for achievement and its obsession with state security.

The highlights include a memorable struggle of brutality between Gromek and Armstrong (incongruously helped by the farmer's wife); and later a battle of old fashioned wits between the East German Professor Lindt, with Amstrong goading him into revealing the secrets of the Soviet Bloc's missile technology. Newman is fittingly grim as he carries the weight of shifting betrayals.

In a performance mainly composed of solidarity, Andrews is primarily reactive, first astounded that her fiance is apparently a traitor, then standing by her man and helping him try to achieve a seemingly impossible mission.

The supporting cast of mainly European character actors carries a large load with grace, and Hitchcock reportedly turned his attention to working with them once the relationship with Newman and Andrews soured. The standouts include Hansjorg Felmy as the head of East German security and Gunter Strack as the professor who helps to engineer the defection. Ludwig Donath has a short but memorable turn as Professor Lindt, an East German Einstein-type with a yappy attitude, while Wolfgang Kieling says few words but leaves a lasting impression as Gromek the goon.

Torn Curtain may lack the shock value and innovation of Hitchcock's most celebrated works, but it remains a robust thriller with a tight narrative and a satisfying dose of thoughtful excitement.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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