Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'Torn Curtain' is a Cold War thriller that still works

Torn Curtain (1966)
Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Gunther Strack, Wolfgang Keiling, Ludwig Donath and Tamara Touronova
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Dr. Sarah Sherman (Andrews) discovers her fiance, disaffected American nuclear physist Professor Michael Armstrong (Newman) is hiding something from her, she decides to trail him on a mystery flight to East Berlin. There, she learns is about to defect to East Germany during a showy media conference. But, there is more to Armstrong's defection than mere treason to his country, and Sherman unwittingly puts both herself and him in mortal danger.

"Torn Curtain" is a thriller that turns from spy movie to escape/persuit film fairly early in the story--far earlier than is typical in these sorts of films.

From beginning to end, this film breaks with the conventions of the Cold War spy movies, particularly those made in the 1960s. The lead "spy" is not flashy and he probably has never touched a gun in his life--Armstrong is about as low-key as he could possibly be. Similarly, while the East German secret police are menacing and definately oppressive, none of them are overtly as flamboyantly evil.

The film features the usual good acting, fast-paced story, and skilled use of visual story-telling elements that we expect from a Hitchcock movie, but the production design leaves a little to be desired. Specifically, I wish some more effort had gone into the matte paitings that transport Paul Newman from a Universal soundstage to an art museum in East Berlin; the paintings are obvious and almost embarrasingly bad.

"Torn Curtain" isn't as ignored as some of Hitchcock's early films, but it is one that deserves more attention than it gets. It's a well-done, low-key thriller that fans of Hitchcock should see. Fans of Julie Andrews should seek it out as well, as she's better here than in anything else I've seen her in. (Yes, even "Mary Poppins".)

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