Torn Blanket features spoilers for both Torn Curtain and Secret Agent (1936).
opens with a credits sequence that would fit right in on Twin Peaks. Okay, it
doesn’t have quite the same degree of subtlety as David Lynch (which is to say that
it doesn’t have the same degree of subtlety as Tim Robbins in a white man’s afro with a
mutant baby; make of that what you will), but it does have similar intentions:
mixing the familiar with the surreal. Familiar not only because of the typical,
good-natured thriller opening music that is one part suspense, and nine parts
uplifting orchestral noodling, but also because of the television-style snippets
of scenes from the film that we are about to watch, as if we have already seen
And it’s surreal because those snippets are being drowned in billowing, colourful smoke and the chosen snippets are not of character introductions and memorable moments from the film, but expressions of fear and agony; despair and horror—it takes comfortable, familiar television-style opening credits, and turns them into something else entirely; something fantastical that is immediately brought back to reality with a droll, soundstage-filmed scene in which a seemingly harmless foreigner complains about the cold, only to be rebuked: why don’t the scientists themselves help to fix the heating? The whole scene is slow, and far from cold. The sailors are white sugar of the earth gentleman, and the foreigner is put well in his place.
But then the ice in champagne glasses must be cracked by spoons to be subsequently imbibed in close-ups that wander from glass to nametags; more scientists—mostly suspicious ones: a Hebrew university? Talk about a school for the true rulers of the world, am I right? And it’s just the sort of thing that Jewish film execs would have forced poor old Britcock to include in his film; just to rub it in our faces! Oh the humanity: yes, the humanity; once again the atmosphere changes, moving from the cold to body warmth in the form of extreme close-ups of Paul Newman sucking on Julie Andrews’ lips instead of his own tongue.
So close is the camera that, rather than voyeurs, we are almost participants; but this too is broken as Paul Newman and Julie Andrews’ trust being broken is foreshadowed when Paul Newman receives a message from a porter addressed to Paul Newman, only to send it away; claiming that it was not addressed to Paul Newman! Perhaps he is just desperate to return to bed and finally take off his underpants and warm himself up properly, or perhaps he is hiding something from his human heater? Obviously he is; we have seen the letter, but she has not: an important distinction. The suspicion is soon confirmed in the next scene; in that same dry soundstage where moments ago we had just seen a foreigner put in his place. Oh, and Paul Newman’s handwriting; or his hand double’s...phwoar! Not so much the writing, but the penile desperation in the fingers as he, whoever he is, frantically scribbles his messages.
I digress: I may simply be recounting the events of the opening of the film, but it’s important to do so because it’s a structure that continues throughout the film; one that is always shifting, not only in narrative tone, but also in literal setting. The most obvious; most grotesque of any of Hitchcock’s green screens are on display here—but only in the scenes in which someone is being deceived, as if during the scene some of the characters are under the impression that this grotesque imitation of reality is genuine, meanwhile those of us who know it is false (characters included), can see it for what it is: a deliberately obvious soundstage which breaks the fourth wall and gives Torn Curtain a fairytale feel.
We see it when Paul Newman lies to Julie Andrews in an outdoor cafe (an indoor soundstage; the first shot of which is far more convincing than the following ones as the lie unfolds): we’re aware only that he is lying, but not exactly why he is, so that in effect he is pulling the wool over both our eyes; not just Julie Andrews’. Later in the film as Paul Newman finally reveals to Julie Andrews his diabolical plan, we are in on the joke with him completely; the naive Germans watching the plastic grass and trees with eager interest: he must be talking her around, right? Of course he is—just as sure as the plastic grass is real.
There is one exception to this rule (keen observers may also point to the previously mentioned heating scene, but Paul Newman is just as taken aback by the message as Julie Andrews is by the porter and so his lie is hardly believable; the porter doesn’t accept it, and thus the lie is visible to all. In fact, it introduces us to his lies. And the tractor scene which features arguably Hitchcock's worst ever green screen simply foreshadows Wolfgang Kieling's arrival, the apparent safety of the tractor ride only an illusion). It is an argument between Paul Newman and Julie Andrews which takes place in a convincingly constructed hotel room; but it is mostly filmed in a single wide shot, with both actors putting on their best stage presences—not playing to the camera, but to each other; to the walls; to the furniture, but never the camera. It's a sense of theatre (thus rendering cinematic untruths obvious by the inclusion of a [sound]stage) that once again lets the audience know that what is going on is not real: we know he is lying.
But the best illustration of this is in the ballet scene: with Ze Germans closing in, Paul Newman sees a fake fire burning on the stage as part of the performance, thus unsubtly giving him the idea to scream out fire! (It’s close enough in German to be a plausibly effective escape plan.) The fire isn’t real, but we, just like Paul Newman, are allowed in on the trick by the very fact that there is a fake fire burning on stage; unfortunately the audience is not, and scramble for the exits—or any door in sight—in a suffocating crush worthy of English football stadium design circa the 1980s. And thus the fake fire becomes real for the krauts.
The music-less murder scene that is nothing less than a ballet to silence rightly steals most of the plaudits; but the pushing audience moves as an ocean before the camera, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews desperately swimming against the current as they're carried out to sea, their cut throatedness perfectly illustrated as they make an escape by swimming backstage, only to lock the door behind them—sure, there was no real fire, but the people behind won’t stop pushing those in front; those in front already half asphyxiated by those pushing from behind.
There’s two points here: the first is the merciless nature of espionage, and the second is the silence. Let’s begin with the second by way of the script: it’s dry and boring; a collection of what sounds like lines from an initial draft—the structure of the film completed successfully, but the tone-giving dialogue still full of placeholder sayings and boring banter. Paul Newman struggled with it off screen, but his power means that he can plough through it on. Not so Julie Andrews whose verbal skills lie in precisely illustrating clever, witty dialogue, or bursting into song—not in making bad dialogue sound good through sheer determination as Paul Newman can, and the music only helps to make this seem all the more absurd. As she’s walking through the streets of picturesque Copenhagen by way of Universal Studios and chatting with our foreign—German—friend who has previously been put in his place, the music follows her along in a colourful, uplifting serenade just begging her to burst into song. Sadly she never obliges; Ave Maria!
At first it’s jarring; in fact, it sounds downright stupid, and it’s not too long before one yearns for the far darker score composed by long time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann before his dismissal from the film; but once you accept the fantasy of the whole affair, it makes sense: it’s so fanciful because at this stage she is still little more than Mary Poppins’ scientist's assistant sister—ignorant and innocent; if not wily. Her accompaniment changes in tone aptly once she is more clued in, and who wouldn’t fire someone stupid enough to compose music for the murder scene? Okay, so too did John Addison, but Bernard Hermman’s repugnant, by the number’s music for the scene in question—combined with his score for the rest of the film—make it seem as if he had missed the point entirely. His music might have been darker and far more conventional for a Hitchcock thriller; but this isn’t a Hitchcock thriller: this is a Hitchcock social commentary; albeit a watered down one when compared to some of his early English works.
In fact (and to return to the much anticipated first point), at times it seems as if Torn Curtain is little more than a dumbed down version of Secret Agent. Two romantic leads are drawn into the seedy world of spies; the difference being that here one of them is drawn in involuntarily, and both are ignorant of what being a spy actually entails: becoming a liar, a murderer, and a bastard; and for what purpose? In the original ending of Torn Curtain the whole objective of Paul Newman’s struggles was voluntarily burnt, but perhaps it would be making the point a little too obviously (in the David Lynchian sense). Ending instead with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews hiding under their blankets (or is that curtain?) just as they had begun the film—the outside world ignored—says the same thing, but with more sophistication and humour (ala David Lynch).
Of course the similarities don’t end there: Wolfgang Kieling is, to take nothing away from his excellent performance, nothing more than an pale imitation of Peter Lorre in Secret Agent: a seemingly grotesque foreigner (those dirty, dirty foreigners), sex-maniac, chocolate-loving, jealous spy who insists on being referred to as The General. Wolfgang Kieling’s Gromek is a far more grounded character—perhaps a more believable one—but the influence is plain to see: friendly and seemingly pathetic, but beneath it all dangerous. And It’s due to the genius (and drunken, drugged-upness) of Peter Lorre’s performance, and the great depth of Secret Agent that, by the end of it, The General is a far more sympathetic character than the two heroes of the film; and it is him that is punished! Well, that’s how we always want it, isn't it?
Ouch, that’s how you drive a point home. In Torn Curtain it would have been driven home thus: by Wolfgang Kieling’s brother (played by Wolfgang Kieling) giving Paul Newman a sausage destined for his brother’s lips. Yikes. As heavy handed as that sounds, it could hardly reach the heady heights of Lila Kedrova. Hot off the heels of Zorba the Greek and seemingly shoehorned into the film—just as Julie Andrews was—for the purpose of marketing. Oh, but what heavy handedness it is! She is pathetic, brutal, and hilarious all at once. She’s completely over the top, hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow, and at the same time crushingly tragic. It’s an exceptional performance, and the fact that it doesn’t seem to fit the narrative pacing makes it feel somehow right: remember that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews may as well have fallen down the rabbit hole as much as caught a plane to East Berlin! We are watching a fantasy.
In fact, the whole film comes across as the West’s (not of Germany, but the world) stereotyped view of East Germany; or perhaps just Hitchcock’s. The escape sequence is a tour of Western imagination: noble people smugglers (unlike those pesky Arab ones we have these days) selflessly ferrying people to safety one way or another; no matter the cost to themselves. It’s a fantasy that not only reinforces the West’s collective pitying of the poor East German people—their backs broken—but also the inherent goodness of all humanity. Even the East German villains. None of them are any less desperate than Lila Kedrova’s character; despite outward appearances. It’s a disparately subtle way for her to add depth to the film, and gives the actions of the villains far more believability: communism (and espionage) makes bastards of us all.
The fantasy continues until the whole plan is almost upset by a real, live person on the East-bound bus who realises that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews’ presence could upset their whole people smuggling scheme, and desperately wants off. Meanwhile the rest of the people on board act as a sitcom audience, laughing at the military police escort they’ve been given whenever the laugh sign flashes. And we laugh with them because Hitchcock knows how to squeeze a laugh out of us even in the worst of circumstances: a broken knife is treated objectively and thus—given the context—is hilarious; is confronting. Just as the military police escort is desperate, absurd, and hilarious all at once; and once again we have been made an important part in the illustration of the fantasy inherent in the whole affair; a touch of reality making it real.
In fact, the joke is on us: murder is hard, and so too is people smuggling; despite what we’re willing to believe. And spying is a nasty, mean business for arseholes; and those that aren’t arseholes to begin with are arseholes after spying out other arseholes. And we’re the ones that want to watch these arseholes as if they’re something else. Err, I probably could have put that better, but if Matt Stone and Trey Parker can boil down (and support) American colonialism with simple sexual politics, why can’t I inspect a few colons? It’s only fair!
Rectums aside, Torn Curtain is far from being one of Hitchcock’s technical masterpieces, but nor is it one of his flops (most of which have something of genuine brilliance in them); however, it is certainly one of his most unique and endearing and—dare I say it—one of his most avant-garde and art house films. His most severe flaws are used here to a purpose: to create atmosphere without detracting from it, and the audience is implicated in the actions of the film far more explicitly than in any other of his works. And at no time more so than in the ballet scene as the running joke Ballerina sees Paul Newman in the audience acting as little more than a proxy for us: watching the performance like a fool; his life in immediate danger. And although it is she that sees him, it is her face that is frozen in the unreal realm of photography at the end of every spinning close-up: Paul Newman moving in real time in the audience; just as we are, too.