Sunday 2 May 2021

Alfred Hitchcock's Old Fashioned Thriller - Ken Mogg considers TORN CURTAIN (USA, 1966)

"...inferno images...", Torn Curtain title

Torn Curtain 
is a remarkably rich film, yet one cannot escape, at the end, a certain sense of emptiness.

-      Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited

Michael stared through a red haze.  Mr Gromek was a family man; Mr Gromek was loved; Mr Gromek had – had had – four kids, three girls and a boy.

-      Richard Wormser, Torn Curtain (the novelisation)


TORN CURTAIN ENDED UP as a film of compromises.  Hitchcock’s personal assistant of many years, Peggy Robertson, had held out great hopes for it but disliked the end-result.  By the finish, it has skillfully steered its way to a resolution in which American scientist and spy Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) and his assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) manage to elude the East German police and escape to neutral Sweden; also, the film’s two hours have included Hitchcock’s usual rich medley of incident – but Armstrong’s spying mission, motivated by self-interest, lacks the audience-appeal the story needed.  Mind, the film does contain things that were ahead of their time, such as the idea of an anti-missile missile: not so different from President Reagan’s idea of a ‘Strategic Defence Initiative’ (SDI) which he announced in 1983.  (From what I hear, the technology needed for it is just now becoming available.)

Paul Newman, Julie Andrews

Equally, the story was predicated on an idea that Hitchcock said came to him when he read about the two Russian spies (part of the ‘Cambridge Five’), Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had recently fled from England.  ‘I asked myself what Mrs Maclean thought about it all.’  (Incorrectly, people supposed that she had known nothing of her husband’s espionage activity.)  In Torn Curtain we do indeed see the early scenes from the point of view of Sarah, who is puzzled by Armstrong’s behaviour, especially when he tells her that he has to fly to East Berlin. The two of them are in Copenhagen, Denmark, ostensibly for Michael to address a congress of physicists.  Now Sarah is shocked.  ‘But that’s behind the Iron Curtain!’ she exclaims.  In turn, Michael is startled when Sarah decides to accompany him on the flight, despite his having forbidden her to join him.  He will be glad of her presence later, however.      

I have always admired the credits sequence of Torn Curtain.  Robin Wood sees it as presenting us with inferno images: ‘to the left of the screen, flame; to the right, dense smoke, from which faces anxious, distraught, or tormented emerge and then disappear  - faces we are to see later in the film.  Only the faces of the lovers are calm and happy, and then only for the moment when they are shown together.’  But, note, we see considerable strain on Armstrong’s face a couple of times, as well as on others.  (There is even the face of a helmeted fireman, from a scene presumably cut from the finished film.  He, too, is looking concerned.  He would have added to the inferno/fire connotations which are in the film in any case.)  The whole sequence is accompanied by John Addison’s ‘overture’ which starts out with a premonitory rumble and then modulates into an almost tuneful and rhythmic, if ominous, lilt.  Combined with the imagery of fire, which the smoke threatens to smother, the sequence intimates human resistance but its always-imminent defeat.  The fiercely-burning flame was shot by a second unit at the Rocketdyne rocket-engine works in California.  In sum, the fierce flame is like a symbol of the life-force (Schopenhauer’s Will?) with its inevitable suffering (as observed by that same German philosopher).  Never let it be said that Hitchcock’s films are about ‘nothing’, or nothing important!

The mission

Michael’s specific mission is to make contact with the Communist professor, Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) - who has discovered a mathematical formula apropos the propulsion of anti-missile missiles - and to win his confidence, then trick him into disclosing the formula.  Not a particularly noble task on Michael’s part, and one which will have cost several lives before it is accomplished.  (Note, incidentally, that the film never uses the word ‘Communist’, nor the phrase ‘Cold War’, which would have meant descending into cliché, something which Hitchcock always avoided.)  Effectively, the formula is the film’s MacGuffin, a brilliant storytelling concept invented long ago by Hitchcock’s friend Angus MacPhail back in England. One reason to call it ‘brilliant’ is its built-in acknowledgement that stories are only constructs, exploiting childish instincts (cf novelist E.M. Forster’s lament, ‘Yes, oh dear yes, a novel must tell a story!’) but with a corollary in the real world: all meaning is ‘artificial’, subjective.  (That’s another Schopenhauerian/Kantian idea.)  In keeping with such a perspective, Hitchcock had wanted to end the film with a disillusioned Armstrong burning the formula.  The film’s ‘happy ending’ was thus one of its compromises – a big one.   

Lila Kedrova            

Late in the film, Michael and Sarah are helped by an exiled Polish countess, the Countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova, fresh from starring in the international success, Michael Cacoyannis’s  Zorba the Greek– Hitchcock’s film gives her third billing after Newman and Andrews).  She, too, is a lively character.  In Richard Wormser’s novelisation of Torn Curtain, based on Brian Moore’s screenplay, she says, ‘I am an old woman. But there is la vie left in me.  Lots of la vie.’  The film doesn’t spell it out.  She just suddenly appears, as often happens in life, and Hitchcock gives her a colourful scarf to suggest her considerable spirit.  Further, he makes her a little more appealing than in the novelisation, where she sounds like a woman who is almost butch, and an annoyance.  There, she is ‘a huge woman … [wearing] a man’s corduroy jacket with a matching short skirt, a man’s hat and several strings of bright glass beads, as though she were embarking on a trading expedition with nineteenth-century Indians.’  This was typical of Hitchcock.  He likewise ‘humanised’ Mr Jacobi, the spokesman of the escape-organisation called ‘Pi’, into someone who is wise and quick-thinking.  The casting of David Opatoshu was crucial.  In the novel, Jacobi is said to have ‘the smile of a used-car salesman or a butcher with a faulty scale’.  


I’m also reminded of Gromek’s (Wolfgang Kieling) life-force visibly leaving him when he is gassed (in a gas-oven) in a pivotal scene in a farmhouse.  (Gromek is one of several East German ‘minders’ assigned to watch Armstrong’s every move by Heinrich Gerhard, Chief of Security.)  As he loses consciousness, Gromek’s hands flap feebly, then are still. It’s as if he were now anaesthetised (cf the dentist scene in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much).  The scene is pivotal for several reasons.  The protracted killing of Gromek, with the help of the farmer’s wife, a member of Pi, brings home to Armstrong just how serious his spying mission is.  As Hitchcock said: ‘I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult … and takes a very long time, to kill a man.’  I’ll come back to those words.  Gromek’s killing also reminds Armstrong of just how dependent he is on the help (including unwilling help!) of others - up to and beyond when he meets his intellectual match in fellow-physicist  Professor Lindt, whom he has to trick into parting with the prized formula.  Paul Newman, a good actor, shows on his face more than once how stunned Armstrong is at developments, before he manages to flee back home with Sarah.  (They couldn’t have done it without the help of Pi, not to mention the Countess Kuchinska and several others.)  Lindt, sensing that Armstrong is his junior and/or inferior, bids him ‘Learn!’

"....Learn!..." Ludwig Donath, Paul Newman

The scene with Lindt is another protracted one.  At one point, when Michael poses him a leading question, the German seems to take an eternity before finally answering with a chuckle.  Earlier at a ‘faculty interrogation’, Sarah, still ignorant of Michael’s spying mission, refuses to answer the faculty board’s questions – but first she waits (with the camera on her) for fully thirty seconds before she tells her questioners, ‘I have nothing to say.’  Such scenes are very much part of the film’s style.  Late in the film they include the bus journey from Leipzig back to Berlin – the bus is a ‘double’ (of a real bus) that is run by Pi, complete with several passengers, members of Pi, provided to help disguise Michael and Sarah among them; and that scene is followed by one at the Friedrichstrasse post office, where the Americans wait anxiously for their next contact, ‘Herr Albert’ (there are several false alerts before finally Albert appears and identifies himself).  Paradoxically, the bus scene involved some sleight of hand by Hitchcock. It was indeed designed to give the impression of a long journey, but as Hitchcock told Truffaut, in fact he had to compress events in it.

David Opatashu, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman
The bus journey


Much of Torn Curtain is built around a succession of characters – characters in a double sense.  They are each memorable for their idiosyncracies: for example, the twittering Countess, who is not above a little blackmail if it will persuade Michael and Sarah to ‘sponsor’ her to live in America.  We can’t help feeling sorry for her in her current plight: exile in a not particularly supportive, or congenial, East Germany.  And then there’s Professor Lindt.  In his case, he holds a secure research position at Leipzig University, and is clearly a charming old fellow with special privileges. ‘See, no guards!’ he observes to Armstrong as he invites him to enter his secluded laboratory.  By the same token, Lindt is – justifiably – a proud man. I’m reminded of a passage in a new book about Professor Stephen Hawking, the crippled Oxford wunderkind with his distinctive voice synthesiser.  It now appears that Hawking was shamelessly arrogant and often heedless of what others might think.  Lindt, too, rates himself at the very top.  (Hitchcock even films him at the faculty interrogation, sitting apart and several rows higher than the others!)  When Armstrong (deliberately?) riles him and tells him that he must have misunderstood his own formula, Lindt boils over.  ‘Misunderstood?  I, Lindt? Rubbish!’ he says.(1)

Wolfgang Kieling, Paul Newman
The killing of Gromek

Another interesting character had to be cut from the film, apparently for reasons of the film’s length.  I mean Gromek’s twin brother whom Michael encounters in the canteen of a workers’ factory.  The brother is another ‘double’, like the ‘twin’ buses and like two of the bus’s passengers.  These various twins function as part of the film’s Vague Symbolism, reminding us – at some level – that ‘life’ is vast and full of surprises.  Michael of course had not expected to re-encounter the man he and the farmer’s wife had killed.  Yet, in effect, here he is, and informing Michael what a fine family-man Gromek is! Certainly Michael had not expected to hear that.  Somehow he had imagined Gromek as an eccentric loner, and was probably conveniently telling himself that this made the killing less grave.  Worse, as the brother cordially carves Michael a slice of German sausage, Michael can’t help noticing that the knife he uses is a replica - the ‘double’ – of the murder weapon that had helped despatch Gromek before he was gassed.  Reportedly, Hitchcock was pleased with the factory scene, and only omitted it reluctantly, at the last minute.

Romantic inconsistency

At Leipzig, Sarah describes Michael as ‘combining mathematical logic with romantic inconsistency’.  You might say that that description is Hitchcock’s very own ‘secret formula’! He did indeed meticulously work out his films on paper, down to the smallest detail, before he set foot on the soundstage to realise his pre-planning.  Nonetheless, he always remained alert for any last-minute refinements that would further ‘improve’ his film.  (Making Psycho, he readily accepted Tony Perkins’s suggestion that Norman Bates should chew candy, like the overgrown kid he is.) There was always the unexpected, you could say. Hitchcock’s formula is both personal  and a general rule of 'life'. 

All along, of course, Michael has been dependent on his assistant and eventual fiancée, Sarah. Although at first he tries hard to dissuade her to come with him to East Berlin – indeed he conceals from her his intention of going there until the last minute – it’s quite a different matter later.  Here is Robin Wood:

When the relationship is cemented by the removal of pretence and deceit, Sarah more than “protects”: she saves Michael at exactly the moment when all seems lost, she proves herself indispensable to the success of his quest, for example, by agreeing to talk with Lindt, by dancing with Karl [the first of Armstrong’s ‘minders’, who attaches himself to Michael on the ship at the start] while Michael manipulates Lindt into arranging a private meeting, by persuading Michael to help the Countess [Kuchinska], by drawing him, in the theatre, to the right door at the right moment.

"...the glaring East German ballerina..."
Tamara Toumanova

The above-mentioned theatre scene is another fine scene in itself.  Michael and Sarah must attend (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear!) a ballet performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Fantasy, Francesca da Rimini, whose libretto is based on a section of Dante’s Inferno.  Perfect for the film’s symbolism!  Suddenly this place of temporary refuge for the two Americans becomes a place of potential entrapment when Gerhard arrives in person and armed soldiers enter at every door and even surface in the orchestra pit.  Row by row, the searching Gerhard draws nearer to Michael and Sarah.  Keeping his wits about him, but feeling momentarily helpless, Michael glances desperately at the stage, where a simulated fire of red and yellow streamers is burning.  Inspired, he rises in his seat, pointing vaguely around him, and shouts ‘Fire!’ – to immediate effect.  The audience promptly rushes for the exits, impeding Gerhard and his soldiers.  While this is happening, Michael and Sarah make their way towards their backstage contact, an aging stagehand, and summon him by beating on – of course - the theatre’s red fire-door!  The stagehand immediately opens the door, and Michael and Sarah are able to squeeze through, which is then somehow closed in Gerhard’s face. The scene, you feel, was one that Hitchcock had filed away long ago – he once told an interviewer that he had an entire filing-cabinet of good ideas, waiting to be used.  Of course, panic in a crowded theatre had historical precedents, going back at least as far as one occasion at London’s Surrey Gardens Music Hall in 1856.  (See “Shouting fire in a crowded theater”, an entry in Wikepedia.)  Hitchcock would surely have known of it – London music halls were a major interest of his, especially when he was growing up, and for a while he would attend them regularly.

Moral messiness

One doesn’t have to accept critic Robin Wood’s master-concept for Torn Curtain, that it is forever undermining Armstrong by implying the moral messiness of his actions (e.g., by exposing others to injury in the theatre, or by making Lindt such a ‘delightful old gentleman’ that it seems a shame to trick him).  On the other hand, Wood thinks that the film ‘[discourages] us (unsuccessfuly) from feeling [Armstrong] to be as nasty as he in fact is’.  Don’t audiences take a film’s characters pretty much as they find them? In any case, looking at the film objectively, I think Hitchcock deserves praise for another insight: he surely saw, like Carl Jung writing in 1964, that the world had become ‘dissociated like a neurotic, with the Iron Curtain marking the symbolic line of division’, and that the human cost was high.  The glaring East German ballerina’s hostility in her onstage role effectively reminds us of that cost.  The film ends with Michael and Sarah retreating under a large grey blanket in front of a modest stove/heater.  May we conclude that the message is: all you need is love?  Well, no, but love may still be our best hope.          


1.   Robin Wood makes the point that, ‘at the moment of Michael’s triumph, when the Professor exclaims: “You told me nothing!” our sympathies are at least as much with him as with the film’s hero.’  Lindt loses nothing in our eyes by being vulnerable to the trickery of a supposed colleague from the other side.  For his part, Hitchcock is simply being a good observer, one given to realpolitik. 


Editor's Note: This is the eighth essay by Hitchcock scholar Ken Mogg to have been published on Film Alert 101.

The other essays can be found if you click on these links.

Under Capricorn 

The Man Who Knew Too Much


Vertigo's Cinema Sources

Hitchcock's Methods

I Confess


About the author

Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story(1999, revised 2008) covers every film 'in loving detail'  (Bill Krohn, Cahiers du Cinéma). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War ((Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on "Hitchcock's Literary Influences" for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock(Wiley Blackwell 2011, pb 2014), and an essay on "The Cutting Room" in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012). Ken has also written "Psycho Considerations" (2020), on the hitchcockmaster website if you click here    

Ken Mogg's email address is


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.