*. Torn Curtain was Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie, and as you might expect that was both a cause for celebration and an obvious entry point for critics to pile on. When an older, established artist puts out work this dull the reviews write themselves (or at least they did, before today’s cult of idol-worship took over). And so Richard Schickel: “Hitchcock is tired to the point where what once seemed a highly personal style is now repetitions of past triumphs.” Or Bosley Crowther: “In these times, with James Bonds cutting capers and pallid spies coming in out of the cold, Mr. Hitchcock will have to give us something a good bit brighter to keep us amused.”
*. The reference to Bond is particularly telling. Hitchcock had been doing spy pictures for decades, but, with North by Northwest, he’s often credited with having made the proto-Bond film. Now, only five years later, he’d been surpassed at his own game.
*. So yes, Hitch was old, and not in good health. I think everyone could feel it. Though he was trying to keep up. He’d asked Bernard Herrmann for a more “pop” score to appeal to a younger generation of moviegoers. Herrmann’s response (related in Patrick McGilligan’s Hitchcock bio) says a lot: “Look Hitch,” Herrmann told him, “you can’t out-jump your own shadow. And you don’t make pop pictures. What do you want from me? I don’t write pop music.”
*. You can’t out-jump your own shadow. Ouch. Words no one wants to hear. So Herrmann and Hitch fell out. But there were more pressing problems, starting with the cast and the script.
*. Nobody liked the script, including the screenwriters. The matter of who would get a credit later had to go to arbitration, though none of the parties involved, including Brian Moore who ended up “winning,” had wanted their name on the project. Pauline Kael: “Brian Moore is credited with the original screenplay, but probably his friends don’t mention it.” You know you’re in big trouble when.
*. Then there were the leads. Hitchcock had wanted to remain in his comfort zone, recasting Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint from North by Northwest. But Grant knew he was too old and the studio thought Saint too old. One begins to detect a pattern.
*. Though there was no direct conflict, Hitch didn’t get along with Paul Newman, who was more of a Method type actor. His bigger problem came with trying to find or create some chemistry between Newman and co-star Julie Andrews. This was never going to happen, in part because of Newman and Andrews but also because there’s nothing there in the script. Indeed, it doesn’t seem as though Armstrong is that interested in Sarah.
*. Why anyone thought Julie Andrews, coming right off Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, was right for the part is beyond me. Because she was a hot property she was only available for a short amount of time, leading to a rush to get the film in production. Also, along with Paul Newman, she was very expensive. The high cost led, in turn, to a need to cut corners in production, meaning lots of studio work.
*. The studio work, matte paintings, and process shots received a critical drubbing for being old-fashioned, and this was deserved. The set for the park (yes, it’s a set, for a park) where Armstrong finally tells Sarah what’s going on looks like it might have been left over from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
*. It’s curious that most of the difficulty people had with the script concerned the dialogue. Maybe they were just used to the absurdity of Hitchcock’s plots. Armstrong is . . . what? A freelance spy? And he didn’t bother to tell his fiancée? In fact he took her along with him on the trip he was going to “defect” on?
*. Nor is the structure of the story any better. Why did they have to include all that crap about the Countess (Lila Kedrova, fresh off winning an Oscar in Zorba the Greek)? That whole subplot was just awful, and didn’t set anything interesting up. As for the set-piece scenes, even the one that gets the most praise, the struggle in the farmhouse, plays awkward to me, and winds up on a ridiculous note. Hitchcock wanted to show audiences how hard it is to actually kill someone. This is not, in itself, entertaining.
*. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what other chunks of the story are doing in here as well. Take the business with the bookstore. That seems an awfully convoluted, and dangerous, way to pass on a simple message. Couldn’t they have just sent another telegram?
*. There you have it. Most critics try to salvage what they can even from bad Hitchcock but I don’t see the need to bother. There’s nothing here that he hadn’t done better before, and nothing I liked on its own. Perhaps his age and health did contribute something to the generally listless feel to the proceedings, but I don’t think Hitchcock was washed up. I think he’d been to this particular well too many times though, and wasn’t inspired by a project that seemed fated to be a disappointment anyway. Even the title is a lame joke (Newman didn’t like it), and the opening credits play like a poor man’s Bond title sequence. Again that comparison, unavoidable and invidious. But this really was a movie too late for its time.