ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Cold Age War: Newman Vs. Everybody Else
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Hitchcock's Torn Curtain was his 50th film and as it represents the beginning of the end of the master's streak of brilliance, we tend to dismiss it. I'd say that's a bad idea. I'd say Hitch was at that level so brilliant that even making mistakes he's making them so far ahead of us cinematically that we almost want to say, "You go on ahead in that direction, Hitch, we'll wait here." And then when he comes back, at first a small dot on the vast flat horizon, then getting larger and larger as he comes, we run with alongside him to Frenzy or wherever he goes next (deftly avoiding the long and dull Topaz.
I say we've rested enough; it's time to retrace his mad fat man steps back across the expanse and marvel at the great bounding distances he was able to make. He may not have made another North by Northwest, but he did all right.

The use of vanishing points and horizon lines that was so celebrated in North By Northwest and Vertigo becomes so prevalent in Torn Curtain as to be unnoticed. It is the only Hitchcock film with Paul Newman as its star and it's clear for Hitchcock this film is all about fear of aging and that Newman represents for Hitchcock the spectre of blue-eyed death. If Robin Wood was able to note that Hitchcock’s Vertigo was “about the terror and anticipation of death," (1), you can imagine four films and years later, that fear has only grown in its magnitude. Newman has a mix of confidence and concern as he gets in way over his head as the American scientist posing as a defector to get close to an East German physics professor. The professor is a double dose of the kindly teacher in Spellbound who shelters Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, witty and easily seduced by the finer things in life. Here though, the young hero is even more dangerous than a somnambulistic Peck with a razor. Peck was at least of Hitchcock's generation, give or take, but Newman is of the young new method kids. And he's got steely blue eyes. Just as Henry Fonda's eyes are unholy blue as the angel of death in Once Upon a Time in the West, so too are Paul Newman's baby blues lit with unholy icy fire – he doesn’t have to sleepwalk with a knife in his hand to scare the professor. Instead he just eats an apple.

Where the picture is clearly less attuned to the times is in the romance between Newman and Andrews. This romance is actually very modern, in its portrayal of a girl who follows her man against his wishes wherever he may go due to a co-dependent obsession which she’s convinced is true love. Here Hitch seems to have retained only a flickering spark in the area of romance; one suspects his age rather than a sudden burst of decorum to be at fault. The characters forget for whole scenes they are supposed to be madly in love. We hope that Newman isn't bored in the role, but is using his method acting skills to convey a deep ambivalence about the whole marriage promise. He likes having his sexual partner and assistant all rolled up in Julie Andrews, and he can tap the keg of caring and compassion when she pumps it long and hard enough for him, and what red blooded man wouldn't want such a fine British lass to pretend to care for? But the minute she's gone, Newman's whole body shrugs her off and he goes back to conveying poker faced terror as he maneuvers and ducks and dodges along his spy-laden path. I think he's perfect in the role; he implicitly understands the complexity of being a player so used to feigning sincerity to get women to sleep with him that he no longer knows if he is being sincere or not. What is sincerity but the acting of it, after all? And what more perfect role for a method man like Newman than this blue-eyed liar descending into hell to steal the one thing the poor East Germans have that he does not – “wisdom” an endearingly humorless working class sincerity?

The most discussed/remembered scene of this under-admired film is the painful, near-silent killing of Gromek—the East German agent assigned to guard Newman, who tails him to a remote farmhouse. A pretty, Liv Ullman-esque older woman has to ally with Paul Newman to kill Gromek, whom we have come to like. He's not intrinsically a bad guy, talking to them in English, doing his job and feeling very relaxed in his own skin. Robin Wood notes that the film shows that Grodik clearly wants to die-- one form of escape from the hell of Eastern Europe, which is also the hell Hitchcock sees as getting old. Praphrasing Wood, America represents youth, as embodied in Paul Newman's blue eyes. Newman is not only selling Andrews on the idea of love, but the East Germans on the idea of death. Thus the film is about persuasion. When we see the Polish Countess bat her eyes and squirm the only reason we can assume a master like Hitchcock would let the scene go on so long is to mirror the previous scene before the tension on the bus, the one with the professor, where Newman essentially seduces the old man to give up his flower, the bit of knowledge that Newman is lacking as a callow youth. Once Newman has it, he runs out of there like a no-good cousin out of the old folks home after he finally got Aunt Esther to sign over her house.

To continue this metaphor, the countess is the equivalent of Aunt Esther coming back like the return of the repressed to convince the cousin to let her move in with him. This weird old woman is played by Lila Kedrova, who'd win an Oscar the following year for her work in Zorba the Greek; here she hams it up royally with these big sad eyes, conveying tragedy and misery with every step. At first we have no idea what she wants, but they accept her since she brings them to a coffee shop where they are now not as conspicuous because of her drab presence. A former aristocrat who’s wilting under the drab equality of communism, Kedrova starts out by melting our hearts and then grows annoying. Is Hitch letting this scene drag on because he’s making a point about the elderly? The reasoning behind our shunting them out of the way may, in the end, have a much more practical purpose than “we stole their secret and are scared of death” – it may be that they are just unable to stop prattling.

The tell on Hitch's poker face here is that all the East Germans are such darned characters-- older and real and charming, and desperate, while Newman and Andrews are total ciphers. All Newman has is quickness; he depends on the slowness of East German communications to see him through (and it is a little slow, but it is nonstop and not asleep). When we finally get to the chalkboard scene with the East German professor we already like the old guy more than Newman, yet we need that secret! Newman can only get him to give up his magic secret through sneaky American tricks playing off the very eccentricity which makes him endearing. In other words, his warmth is his death warrant.
Newman keeps giving the professor information he already has, never wanting to share any of his secrets... but the old man can't resist filling in the blanks, not sure what it is Newman doesn't know. Once Newman finds out the secret, he's off and running. The shocked professor freaks out, betrayed totally by someone he thought was his friend. Let the Cold age war begin. The old man can only shake his fist at empty air as the blue-eyed devil gets off with this youth, formula, and source of heat.

Just at the start of the movie we know what we are in for. Hitchcock's Catholic moral sense is not going to hold him back from flexing his muscles now that there's a little bit of room to wiggle with relaxed censorship codes. He opens from a cruise ship off Norway where everyone is chilling out with a broken heater (the "cold" war, get it? It wasn't a total cliche then, so don't get judgmental, this is ENTERTAINMENT!) Cutting from the old dudes in thrir blue DiCaprio-esque Titanic death shudders, Hitchcock puts Newman and Andrews not just in steamy close up for long minutes of exposition, but to do it in the beginning of the film! And they’re not married! She’s his assistant!

The only time he remembers is for a great romantic kiss that he gives Newman behind some trees while all the suspicious Russians are down the hill watching them. The next day they're scheduled to scram via the Underground railroad, but instead of showing the romantic night Newman and Julie Andrews spend, Newman puts Andrews to bed and stays up all night drinking until the professor has to go get ready for his hair appointment. Miraculously he stays unguarded. Of course there are other things, such as the entire East German ballet audience understanding "Fire!"

But patriotism isn't the point here of course except at a cursory glance. What's going on is that Hitch packs East Berlin with a rich assortment of interesting people who are all older than he his, and then he ducks out on them right as HIS OWN death arrives, and leaves them to take the presumed brunt. Hitch was 67 and obese; back then there was no such thing as viagra; you do the math.

What's fascinating about analyzing something as richly complex as cinema, its biggest pleasure in this particular case, is the realization that as one moves up the artistic ladder, one can dramatize one's unconscious motives in such a detailed, focused and intelligent way that even your hang-ups and obsessions become true art. When Hitchcock films a spy story it is really a story about getting older, losing one's sexuality, the fear of the young man taking over, the accepting of retirement and having grandchildren (as we see with Hitch's cameo, him dandling a tottler on his knee) and the vague hope that one may descend to hell and somehow cheat, lie and kill their way back to life.

by Erich Kuersten
Newman, trapped in an East Berlin theater,
contemplates his next smartass Yankee trick.


Robin Wood, HITCHCOCK'S FILMS REVISITED (Columbia University Press, 2002)

c. 2007 - Acidemic

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244