Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Movie Review: Torn Curtain

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1966.

One of life's great pleasures is discovering an art which moves you. What great pleasure there is in finding an artist whose view of the world is somehow your own. Perhaps his humor strikes your funny bone or he can conjure your demons before you. Maybe his style sweeps you off your feet. Picture after picture, you grow more enamored until you wonder whether you are in love with the art or merely your expectations. Perhaps, you fear, you have crossed the line from connoisseur, student, or enthusiast to outright fanatic. It is reassuring, then, to find yourself less than fond of a dear director's movie, as reassuring of your critical faculty as it is disappointing to your expectations of the director. Every enthusiast has this experience, in which I found myself while watching Hitchcock's Torn Curtain.

To call this Cold War thriller flawed would suggest that otherwise it is fundamentally sound, which it is not. Yes, the opening is quality Hitchcock. A ruminative, portentous opening shot opens up onto a research ship pulling into center frame. On the ship, bound for a scientific conference in Copenhagen, we find Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) and Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews), lovebirds and partners in science. Their introduction is classic Hitchcock, and finding them noodling under the covers in intimate, post-coital coziness not only contrasts the frigid outside but sets up the inevitable subversion: is Michael what he appears or does the mounting evidence of his prevarication and misdirection add up to betrayal and espionage against America?

Hitchcock handles this ambiguity well, misdirecting us and Sarah with secret telegrams, missed packages, furtive looks, and conspicuous lies. When Michael publicly defects, then, we are left to wonder only whether he is playing the double agent, really working to steal secrets for America, or the true fraud. Alas this delicious tension abates a mere forty-five minutes into the film when Michael meets another agent who reveals the ruse to us. The subsequent scene, a nail-biter in which Michael and another agent need to double-team an ex-Gestapo hired to tail him, is the last with any palpable tension. Shortly thereafter all the tension deflates when Michael breaks down and tells Sarah the truth that he is out to steal missile secrets from an East German Scientist.

This, aside from Torn Curtain's inability to maintain tension throughout, is the film's greatest flaw. How can we root for Michael when his cause is to steal Russian secrets because he and his American team couldn't figure out the equations themselves? What a tepid premise. Worse still is the much-awaited confrontation between Michael and his East-German counterpart, Dr. Lindt, from who he must extract the secret. Hitchcock teases us well and since we're not particularly rooting for the thieving Michael, we grow to like Lindt, who candidly bucks the party regulations and taunts the higher-ups. When Michael is unable casually to get the better of the doctor when Lindt is tipsy at dinner, we grow curious to see if and how Michael will pry his secrets.

Alas, this too does not pay off, for Michael outwits the doctor in the most preposterous way: by writing just enough of the incomplete and incorrect equations on the chalkboard so that Lindt, in frustration, corrects the mistakes and in doing so, reveals the answer. The brilliant astrophysicist, who last night was too clever to be tricked even when drunk, is duped the next day like Elmer Fudd. Compounding the ridiculousness of the scene are the hammy histrionics of the prolific Ludwig Donath, which at first amused but now aggravate the silliness of the absurd duel of witlessness.

Even the finale is marred by enervating flaws, for when Michael and Sarah make their escape, their means is not at all ripe for ramping up the tension. They flee the city with the help of an anti- communist ring, which operates a taxi that, hiding plain sight, makes its run out of the city just ahead of the official bus. Michael and Sarah, of course, run into trouble when the regular bus turns up just a moment behind theirs. This sounds at first blush to be full of potential tension: will they get away in time? Will the other bus turn up too soon? What we find though, seemingly what Hitchcock found, is that there are only so many ways to stop or speed up a bus driving through Germany, and they all more or less feel the same. Only so many checkpoints and little old ladies can hold up the bus before we tire. It's a relief of the wrong kind when they finally get off the stupid thing.

At this point–well I don't know what to make of the flamboyant Polish countess who promises to lead them out to their agent if they sponsor her visa. Her flashy, flowery outfit and exaggerated manners add some energy to the flagging movie, and we want to ask questions about welcoming oppressed foreigners, but we're too bored and there is nothing specific enough to get our attention.

Had the movie maintained its tension and our interest, though, the finale would be brilliant, for all the drama, all of the globe-trotting and political conniving, the double-crosses and intrigue, the super-weapons and fate of the free world, would come down to the hilarious, darkly comic moment of waiting in the post office. I would gladly have watched and praised that movie and endured further speculation about my fanboy status rather than have seen Paul Newman riding a bus and taking espionage cues from Bugs Bunny.

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