Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies coming to theaters soon, we recommend a few more Cold War spy movies.
As a general rule, even Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser efforts are more interesting than most other movies. (Though, to be fair, you rarely see that argument being made in defense of, say, Family Plot.) Even when the famously controlling director expressed displeasure with the results, his films were never less than master classes in formalism. Torn Curtain is a prime example of a movie Hitchcock himself criticized afterwards, complaining about studio interference (he was forced to accept Paul Newman and Julie Andrews as his stars) and bemoaning a script he felt was undercooked, one which ended up being revised daily throughout shooting. Yet despite some weaknesses, the film remains a bold and challenging work, one that flies in the face of the conventional spy thrillers of its day.
The story features a classic Hitchcockian protagonist, a man possessing a dangerous secret. Dr. Michael Armstrong (Newman) is an esteemed American physicist and rocket scientist heading to a conference in Copenhagen with his fiancée Sarah Sherman (Andrews), only to receive a mysterious radiogram en route. Soon, and with brusque indifference, he blows off Sarah, and secretly boards a flight to East Berlin, where it’s revealed he had been in communication with the Communist government and intends to defect. However, Sarah has followed him there, where in short order we learn that Michael is executing a secret plan to steal information about a new rocket system known only by the top East Berlin scientist. But as Sarah learns the truth, the race is on to obtain the classified intel and flee the country before the Germans learn they’ve been had.
What Torn Curtain does gets acclaim for (and rightly so) is a bravura scene that arrives around 45 minutes in. Armstrong has been trying to slip his East Berlin security agent, Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), and sneaks off to a farm outside the city to meet with his underground contact. Unfortunately, Gromek shows up and surprises Armstrong, who’s inside the house with a German woman aiding his cause. Threats are made, and soon Armstrong is fighting to silence Gromek before he can call and alert the East Berlin security forces of Armstrong’s perfidy. Hitchcock explicitly said the scene was meant as a rejoinder to how easy many of the spy thrillers of the time made killing look. And so the struggle goes on. And on. And on. First, Armstrong chokes Gromek. When that fails, the woman stabs him in the chest. Again, Gromek rises. In a brutally protracted scene, Gromek is slowly, achingly dragged across the floor, until his head is placed in the oven, and he’s gassed, his body twitching and kicking for a good minute more.
It’s an unpleasant scene, but it doubles nicely as a shorthand for Hitchcock’s take on Cold War intrigue. It shows there’s nothing fun or glamorous about the violence taking place behind closed doors during this era of an international game of red rover. Even the story of the Countess Kuchinska, the closest this film has to comic relief, ends in tears, as she sits on the stairs of a Berlin cafe watching the Americans abandon her to her fate. This time around, it seems, Hitchcock’s desire to challenge the mores of contemporary film outpaced his interest in crowd-pleasing popcorn entertainment.
Availability: Torn Curtain is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.