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When Alfred Hitchcock began his 50th feature film, Torn Curtain (1966), he should have been at the pinnacle of his career. After four decades as a director his films were still popular, French critics were proclaiming him a great artist, some American critics were beginning to agree, and intelligent career management by his agent Lew Wasserman (and later head of Universal Pictures) had made him a very rich man.
However, as Hitchcock began putting the ideas together for Torn Curtain, he felt very insecure. The Birds (1963), although popular, was nowhere near as big a hit as Psycho (1960) and his next film, Marnie (1964), had been a critical and box-office disaster. Fearing he might be losing his touch, Hitchcock allowed the Universal Pictures front office to make more and more demands to ensure that Torn Curtain would be a popular hit.
The idea behind the movie was a sound one. After the 1951 defection of the English spies Burgess and MacLean, Hitchcock wondered, "what must Mrs. MacLean have thought?" As a result, a spy adventure that centered on the reaction of the spy's bewildered fiancbegan to take shape in his mind. Fifteen years later, at the height of the James Bond boom, seemed the perfect time to bring this story to the screen. Copying the adventures of agent 007, however, held no interest for Hitchcock. He wanted to reveal the dark side of spying: "The theme deals with 'average man' feeling what it's like to be a spy, and what a dirty business it is. He gets involved in a murder, he cheats an old professor, et cetera. The theme, really, is that spying is a despicable business. But, unlike other yarns that indicate this, I bring it home to an individual. In other words, the audience can identify themselves with him, with 'average man,' and feel what a nasty and unpleasant business the whole thing is. A spy is a hero in his own country, but he's a villain in enemy country." (from Who the Devil Made It?: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (Ballantine) by Peter Bogdanovich).
Hitchcock commissioned novelist Brian Moore to write a screenplay but by September 1965, after several drafts and further doctoring by the screenwriting team of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, the script was clearly not up to the usual Hitchcock standards. Instead of shelving the project or doing further re-writes, the picture was rushed into production because Universal was putting pressure on Hitchcock to use then top stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, and Andrews' availability ended in early 1966. Hitchcock was unhappy with the choices but went along with Universal's wishes. Newman particularly irritated Hitchcock, behaving in a manner Hitchcock considered boorish at a private dinner at Hitchcock's home and sending the director a three-page memo detailing script problems.
The big name stars also caused financial headaches. Since their salaries ate up so much of the film's budget, Universal skimped elsewhere, hiring an inferior German team that shot poor background plates for a key scene. Universal's pressure also caused Hitchcock to lose one of the key people that had made his movies of the late 1950's and 1960's so popular. At this time, the vogue at the studios was for pop music soundtracks instead of orchestral scores. Hitchcock still wanted to use Bernard Herrmann who had written the great scores for Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho. Hitchcock telegraphed the composer, asking him to write a more "pop" score for Torn Curtain and Herrmann seemed to agree. When the score was finished, however, Hitchcock was shocked to discover that Herrmann had written one of his heaviest orchestral scores. "You don't make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don't write pop music," Herrmann announced. Hitchcock had no choice but to fire him (he was replaced by John Addison), marking the end of their professional collaboration.
For all the troubles behind the scenes, Torn Curtain does have one key scene that stands out as one of Hitchcock's greatest. "People are killed so easily in movies," Hitchcock said. "The whole idea was not only to show how difficult it is to kill a man, but to point up to the character what espionage entails: you're involved in killing!" This horrifying scene, as Newman's scientist and a farmwife slowly and awkwardly murder an East German agent, is as disturbing and powerful as anything in Psycho.
Critics did not hold Torn Curtain in very high esteem at the time of its release. Were the compromises the studio introduced a waste? From Universal's point-of-view, certainly not. The movie was Hitchcock's biggest hit after Psycho, earning $7 million dollars domestically and much more overseas. For Hitchcock, however, it only seemed to confirm that he should bend to the will of the studio even on important artistic decisions. As Bernard Herrmann said, "Universal made him very rich, and they never let Hitchcock forget it."
Director/Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Brian Moore
Cinematography: John F. Warren
Art Direction: Frank Arrigo
Music: John Addison
Editing: Bud Hoffman
Cast: Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjoerg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek)
C-128m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady