Sat 17 Dec 2011
TORN CURTAIN. Universal, 1966. Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova, Wolfgang Kieling, Ludwig Donath, David Opatoshu, Gisela Fischer, Carolyn Conwell, Gloria Gorvin. Original music: John Addison. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.
This is generally considered to be one of director Hitchcock’s lesser successes, and I think I’d go along with that, but not necessarily for the same failures that other moviegoers (and critics) have seen.
My wife and I watched this the other evening on one of the Cinemax channels for the first time since it was first released. The funny thing is she didn’t remember it at all, and the scene I remembered, I only thought I did. This is the one in which Paul Newman (as a bogus turncoat physicist) is trying to obtain a secret formula from his counterpart in East Germany (Ludwig Donath) standing together at a blackboard in a deserted classroom.
You might call this dueling with chalk and erasers. At the time I thought the scene was hilarious, being a math student at the University of Michigan myself.
Erasing parts of equations and replacing them with bits and pieces of others: sines, cosines, vectors and tensors? It was fun to see at the time, and it was fun to see the other night.
What I didn’t remember was that this scene took place in such a small room. I remembered it happening in the large lecture room across the hall, and it’s funny what kind of tricks you mind plays on you. I have a feeling now that half the things that I remember happening to me over the years never happened the way I remember them, and it’s a eerie feeling, I can tell you.
Playing opposite Newman is another huge star at the time, Julie Andrews. She’s his assistant and bewildered fiancée who with great determination — and most definitely against his wishes — follows him on this grandly noble act of undercover academic espionage.
It is obvious that chaps like Newman who find themselves in capers like this really, really ought to tell their fiancées what it is that they’re doing. All that petty deceptions do — and the petty deceptions those deceptions require — is to make only bigger messes of everything, including escapes, when the time comes.
The script, then, it what I found to be the problem. Too much silly rigmarole in making contacts, et cetera, too little planning, too little communication, and I didn’t believe a word of it. Paul Newman is also too brooding – method acting? – and too self-centered.
If I were about to get married to someone who looked like Julie Andrews, I would do almost anything to make sure I didn’t mess it up. She acts like she cares for him; there’s no chemistry at all in return, no lights in his eyes the other way around.
Two big stars, then, not quite compatible, whose combined salaries left too little in the budget for a decent story, better matte shots, and less reliance on phony looking rear projection.
Which is not to say that Mr. Hitchcock lost his touch completely in making this film. Newman finds himself shocked at his first attempt at killing a man (Wolfgang Kieling, as the East German agent who discovers his double-dealing duplicity), a killing that is not at all easy – the scene that everyone agrees upon as being the standout, and the one most remembered, in the entire movie. It’s a dandy, all right, no doubt about it. This is the kind of scene you watch a Hitchcock movie for.
On the other hand, I liked Lila Kedrova’s performance as the expatriate Polish Countess Kuchinska even more, although a number of commenters on IMDB thought it one of the worst aspects of the film.
What dunderheads! (Figuratively speaking, of course.) Needing a sponsor to make her way out of East Germany and on to America, and having recognized Newman and Andrews as spies on the run, she is torn between coyly requesting and silently pleading for them to help — trying desperately to keep her emotions from showing on her face and not succeeding.
Newman (as is his wont throughout the movie) is stolidly not impressed by this small petty form of blackmail. It is Julie Andrews’ character who is won over. Good for her! This is the scene that I will remember now until the time I shall see the movie again.