I recently listened to Alec Baldwin’s podcast interview of Julie Andrews and thought I misheard when she mentions working on a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The effect was only heightened when she mentioned that her co-star was Paul Newman. Although I could do the math and realize the careers of these three legends would overlap, the younger stars seemed to come from a different era. Julie Andrews especially seemed a million miles from the ubiquitous icy blondes of Hitchcock’s later movies.
The movie is 1966’s Torn Curtain. The plot is driven by a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin: a suspense story where we don’t fully understand (or even care about) the objective over which everyone’s fighting. In this case it’s a formula for some sort of anti-missile defense rocket, something called the Gamma Five (umm, sure Hitch, whatever you say).
There’s a rare alchemy needed to cast famous stars in dramatic roles. Do it right and the stardom melts into the character. Hitchcock can pull it off. We love watching a surprisingly complex Cary Grant in North by Northwest, partly because so much of his later comedic acting had becoming self-referential (he was almost always playing Cary Grant playing a character). Somehow Hitchcock used Grant’s familiarity to turn him into a quick-witted modern Everyman with whom the audience could identify.
But the magic doesn’t work in Torn Curtain. From the moment I heard Andrews’ familiar chirpy clipped voice from under the bedcovers I wondered why Mary Poppins was engaging in post-coital pillow talk with The Hustler. I could not muster enough belief suspension to see Paul Newman as a brilliant math nerd and I certainly couldn’t imagine him as a lover to prim and fussy Julie Andrews.
The story revolves around personal and national betrayal and defection but we never really understood why Newman’s Michael Armstrong would defect or why (as we later learn) he has gone into a kind of freelance espionage behind the Iron Curtain. The defection of practically perfect Julie Andrews, who as Sarah Sherman we now know to be particularly determined and loyal, feels even more inexplicable. As I watched the movie bounce aimlessly from one close call to another my mind drifted away to imagine the Hollywood board room where some mogul or another must have strong-armed Hitchcock to cast two up and coming stars for roles which they didn’t really fit.
Then the plot. It meanders. But even more damningly, it focused on the wrong lead. Newman’s Michael Armstrong is predictably linear in his objectives. The most interesting plot turns all come from his assistant/fiancée, Andrews’ Sarah Sherman. She is full of pluck and intelligence. It’s Sherman who insists on coming along on the initial cruise to Copenhagen and it’s her sharp eyes that spot the mysterious actions that tip off the coming betrayals. She notices Armstrong’s tickets, picks up the mysterious book, ferrets out the true destination, and then has the chutzpah to board an East Berlin flight to follow her lying and erratic boyfriend. Her tenacious improvisation reminded me more of Grant in North by Northwest than anything Newman did.
There are some intriguing scenes. The struggle with Gromek in the farmhouse is fascinating in its length and has the kind of brilliantly bizarre camera angles that could only come from Hitchcock. The theater scene was legitimately nail-biting (though I found myself imagining Cary Grant ’s face as he realized how hopeless their escape had become). One of the most mesmerizing scenes was the bus chase — will they have to stop for a passenger?!? It’s the the kind of Hitchcock twist we all love.
- The basic plot was Hitchcock’s idea, inspired by husband/wife defectors Donald and Melinda Maclean and In the fall of 1964, Hitchcock unsuccessfully asked Vladimir Nabokov to write the screenplay.
- The original focus was on the female lead (I was right!) The first screenplay was written by Brian Moore, a screenwriter known for strong female characters. After Hitchcock critiqued the script and hired new writers, Moore accused him of having “a profound ignorance of human motivation.”
- For casting, Hitchcock had originally wanted to reunite North by Northwest’s Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Grant told him he was too old; Hitchcock then approached Anthony Perkins. But…
- Lew Wassermann was the Hollywood exec who insisted on bankable stars. Hitchcock didn’t feel they were right for the roles and he begrudged their astronomical salaries and constrained schedules. How is it that Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t secured total control over his projects at the point in his career?
- The actors and directors were indeed from different eras: Newman’s method acting didn’t fit Hitchcock’s old school directing style. Hitchcock used his casts as chess pieces and expected the directing and editing to drive his films. When Newman pressed the director for Armstrong’s motivation, Hitchcock reportedly replied “motivation is your salary” (can’t you just hear him saying that in his famously arch tone?)
- Hitchcock didn’t like the way the movie was unfolding and shifted the attention to Newman’s character part-way through. It’s always a bad idea to tinker with something so fundamental so late in the game.
I think Julie Andrews could have stepped up to the challenge of acting as the main protagonist. If Hitchcock had treated her as the Cary Grant “Everyman” character — and made Newman stand in as the dumb blonde! — it would have brilliantly turned Hitchcock on his head. As it is, this movie rates a middling “meh” rating, more interesting for what it could have been than for what it was.