So here we are with another riveting instalment of the Shelf of Shame, an irregular series of posts about me finally getting around to watching discs that have stood gathering dust on the shelf for far too long. Something tells me that over the coming weeks/months I may be making ever-deeper incursions into this particular territory.
Hey, I’m trying to take something positive from this Covid-19 thing…
So today’s post is regards a disc I bought back in 2013- Torn Curtain, one of a number of unwatched flicks in a Hitchcock box (one of which is Family Plot, a film whose reputation has not escaped me and will linger on that shelf of shame somewhat longer still….). Torn Curtain dates from 1966 (hey, its as old as me (but I like to think I’ve aged better)) and is regarded, perhaps wisely as latter-day, lesser Hitchcock. Its like comparing the Ridley Scott of Alien or Blade Runner fame to the Ridley Scott of Alien Covenant, er, fame, or the Steven Spielberg of Jaws or Raiders fame to the Spielberg of, er, The Post, er, fame. I mean, no-one can be expected to churn out classics forever, Billy Wilder didn’t manage it so its hardly surprising that Hitchcock couldn’t, either. Partly it would seem to be a case of the changing times finally leaving Hitchcock behind- Torn Curtain really feels like it would seem an old film even back in 1966 when it first came out, and the fifty-odd years since haven’t helped, either. Which is a little odd when one considers that Pyscho, which really was something of a shocker and a game-changer, dates just six years before, which might suggest HItchcock still had greatness in him, but Torn Curtain certainly doesn’t prove it.
If anything, the film suggests that perhaps Hitchcock was tired of such thrillers (it was his fiftieth film): the staging of sequences (barring one long murder scene that clearly intrigued him) seems perfunctory and uninspired, the characters don’t really engage and the music score feels ill-judged. The latter point is interesting, because this was the last time Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann would work together, the two allegedly falling out with each other over Hermann’s rejected score, and it cannot be over-stated how important Hermann’s scores were to some of Hitchcock’s best movies. Ironically, Hitchcock dropping Hermann’s score suggests he was looking for something different, as if he knew he had to break the mould, so to speak, of what his films were supposed to look and sound like; concious, perhaps, that the times were indeed a changing and he had to try change with them. Or maybe it was just their personalities finally winning out over their professional relationship.
While I suppose I enjoyed the film, its weaknesses are all too evident and I really can’t imagine me ever really returning to it. Paul Newman is quite good as the American scientist Michael Armstrong defecting to the Iron Curtain, but the film undermines him throughout, as the script never really convinces that he’s a despicable cad betraying his country. Julie Andrews suffers from a terribly under-written part as his assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman, torn between the love for her man and her love for her country, coming across as rather weak and vapid with little to really do. Maybe its me looking at this from a modern-day perspective, but a bit more anger and fire from her once she realises he is defecting would have helped raise the tension no end; instead when she realises what he is really doing (pretending to defect in order to contact a Russian scientist who has info he needs) her blind faith in her lover is limply rewarded. It just doesn’t, any of it, feel real, something absolutely damaged by the lack of chemistry between Newman and Andrews. Newman lacks any of the charm of Hitchcock’s past leading men and Andrews is perhaps oddly too pure, lacking any of the fire and passion her character needs. With such ill-judged (some might suggest disastrous) casting the film was doomed from the start, and likely Hitchcock knew it, explaining how the film seems an example of directorial boredom (other than, again, that lengthy murder scene).
Considering James Bond was all the rage when this film came out only exemplifies how dated it likely seemed, even in 1966. Newman is handsome, Andrews is beautiful, but its hard to raise tension from a bus route when Sean Connery has been battling the agents of SPECTRE in Dr No’s lair or escaping Goldfinger’s fiendish laser device. Instead Torn Curtain feels like a film clearly lost and out of time even when it came out over half a century ago.