The film stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Briefly, Newman is Michael Armstrong, a world-famous scientist and Andrews is his fiancée and assistant, Sarah Sherman. They’re attending an international congress of physics in Copenhagen. Sarah discovers that Michael is defecting to East Germany and follows her heart and him.
Occasionally, I confuse this film with Newman’s other movie set in Scandinavia, The Prize (1963), based on Irving Wallace’s novel. (Wallace’s literary autopsy of writing this novel, over a period of sixteen years, makes fascinating reading: The Writing of One Novel.)
From the critics’ viewpoint, Torn Curtain wasn’t great Hitchcock; yet, at the box office, it did well. It was filmed at the height of the first Cold War (as opposed to the new one that seems to be just blossoming…)
The movie was broken into three acts; classic film narration. The first act was from the viewpoint of Sarah. The second act was Michael’s POV. And the third act covered both their viewpoints, as appropriate.
Switching the POV works here. We’re involved in Sarah’s puzzlement and heartache as Michael defects.
All of the trademark Hitchcock elements are present. Mystery and puzzlement revolving round the protagonist, Michael. Is Newman playing against the usual heroic type, actually being a traitor to his character’s country? Suspense mounts as revelations explain Michael’s purpose – combined with the oppressive regime of East Germany that meant that paranoia was a normal way of life at the time. We see Sarah and Michael arguing, but are not privy to their words – a standard technique Hitchcock employed in his films. The ‘ticking clock’ is used in the form of an underground group’s escape route being compromised. Seemingly irrelevant characters at the outset prove to be crucial at the denouement. The Hitchcock McGuffin is a formula that Michael needs to obtain…
There’s a prologue and epilogue – both have Sarah and Michael under a blanket – which neatly bookends the story. The fact that the pair were not married caused concern on moral grounds in certain religious and secular quarters. How times have changed…
The fight with and murder of an East German agent is a deliberately prolonged scene. Hitchcock intended making it grim and difficult, eschewing the usual spy characters who kill so easily, unlike in real life. To make such an observation, Hitchcock might not have seen From Russia With Love (1963); there’s nothing easy about the death of Red Grant on the Orient Express. The realism makes for uncomfortable viewing, certainly.
The studio insisted on using the stars Newman and Andrews. Julie Andrews was only available for the film for a few months, so the pace of the filming was rushed – moreso when Hitchcock decided that the original screenplay (by novelist Brian Moore) needed beefing up and hired Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to inject more life into it (both uncredited).
Overall, the pace is slow in sections, but there are plenty of occasions where the suspense is cranked up by Hitchcock. And the supporting actors perform brilliantly. Worth viewing.