Monday, November 28, 2005

TORN CURTAIN (1966) - Alfred Hitchcock

Why does everyone refer to Hitchcock’s last five films as the period of his “decline”? I’m talking about Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot. Even in the Dial H for Hitchcock doc these films were quickly glossed over or even poo-pooed by the likes of DePalma.
Now I’ve seen four of those five films and, with the exception of Topaz, I can safely say these are all very good films, all with moments of brilliance rivaling his more famous set pieces (the North by Northwest corn field, the Psycho shower scene etc.) For instance, the red ink blot dropping onto Marnie’s sleeve played as a moment of red screen horror. The potato truck scene in Frenzy. The whole plot of Family Plot.
Same goes for Torn Curtain. While it may be a little slow moving, the work of an older director, it has moments of sheer brilliance. Paul Newman plays an American nuclear scientist during the Cold War who appears to be defecting to East Germany in order to assist them in creating an anti-nuke device that the profiteers in the States have no interest in funding. As it turns out, Newman is really on a spy mission to gather the last remaining data he needs to finish his invention from a top ranking German scientist, the theory being that only a fellow scientist will be able to extract this information.
The wrinkle is that Newman’s fiancée (Julie Andrews) insists on defecting to East Germany with him once she realizes what’s going on. This is a problem at first but later becomes a blessing once the East Germans start to suspect that Newman’s intentions are more nefarious than they originally suspected, and he uses her to their distraction.
Yes, it’s another of Hitchcock’s international couple on the run movies. And admittedly they do run a lot slower than in North by Northwest or Notorious. But I didn’t mind the slower pace around given that our lead characters are academics rather than dyed-in-the-wool spies. Plus, there’s those two great set pieces. The first involves Newman having to kill his German bodyguard at an old farmhouse with the help of a farmer’s wife. As Newman and the bodyguard struggle, the farmer’s wife goes through about various improvised weapons (can’t use a gun because the driver outside will hear the shot) including a butcher knife, a shovel, and finally the gas oven in order to kill this guy. It’s a wonderfully macabre scene about the physical difficulty of killing a person in the unplanned heat of the moment.
The second set piece is brilliant in that it is all played out in looks, glances, and markings on a chalk board. Newman and the German scientist go to head to head in a battle of the minds writing out of their equations, one-upping the other until the German suddenly realizes that Newman wasn’t trying to win but using the German’s competitiveness to get him to reveal the BIG EQUATION. It’s a great piece of academic and psychological spy work, as if Jason Bourne suddenly lapsed into Good Will Hunting mode.

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