Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain 3Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  I will discuss the plot in detail, so there will be spoilers.

American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) arrives in Copenhagen with his fiancée, colleague Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) to attend a conference.  Receiving a call that a book is waiting for him at a local book store, she picks it up for him.  Taking it into a toilet at the hotel, he reads a secret message telling him to “Contact π.”  His behavior disturbs Sarah and when she discovers he has changed his plans and will be flying to Stockholm, she decides to follow him, but he isn’t going to Stockholm, he’s actually boarding a plane for East Germany.  In a state of shock, she watches as he defects, stating to the press that he was disappointed that the United States shut down his missile program and he plans to develop an anti-missile system in Leipzig with Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) that will end the threat of nuclear war.  They have been shadowed by Professor Karl Manfred (Günter Strack) who arranged the defection.

Michael is angry that Sarah has followed him and repeatedly tells her that she should go back home while she can, but the East German government asks her to stay and work as Michael’s assistant.  Despite her disillusionment, Sarah decides that she loves Michael enough to stay and support his work.  At the time of the interview, he is informed by East German Security that he has been assigned a security watchdog, Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who is to follow him around and watch his actions.

The next morning, Michael leaves the hotel and hops a bus.  Gromek follows him on his motorcycle to a museum where Michael tries to lose him.  Going out the back, he hails a cab and gives the driver an address.  At a farm outside Berlin, Michael has the cab wait while he meets an American agent (Mort Mills) who is under cover as a farmer.  It turns out that π is an escape network and Michael is going to attempt to get information from Professor Lindt that will aid the United States in their own anti-missile system.  Before he can leave, Gromek shows up.  Seeing the π symbol in the dirt where Michael had drawn it for the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell), Gromek interrogates him.  As Gromek attempts to call the authorities, the farmer’s wife throws a pot at him and Michael attacks him.  As they fight, she stabs Gromek with a knife and they wrestle his head into an oven.  She turns on the gas and he dies.  Indicating that she will bury both Gromek and his motorcycle, Michael leaves.

In Leipzig, Michael is about to be debriefed for Professor Lindt when state security bursts in with the news that Gromek is missing, so they decide to debrief Sarah first, but when confronted with revealing American secrets, she can’t go through with it.  Speaking to her alone, Michael finally reveals to her that he is on a spy mission and gets her cooperation.  The cab driver (Peter Lorre, Jr.) sees the missing Gromek’s picture in the paper and comes forward, telling the police that he drove Michael to the farm.  When they arrive, the farmers are gone, so they commence digging and find the motorcycle 

After Michael gets the formula he is looking for, he and Sarah begin a convoluted escape route that includes assistance from a university clinic physician Dr. Koska (Gisela Fischer) and another man from π (David Opatoshu), eventually landing them back in East Berlin.  Their instructions call for them to go to a  post office and along the way the meet exiled Polish countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) who wants them to sponsor her to the United States.  Their escape plan calls for them to go the ballet where state security hunts them down.  Michael’s only resort is to yell “Fire!”  During the ensuing chaos, they are taken backstage and put in ballet trunks for shipment to Sweden, the ballet’s next stop.  As the trunks are about to be offloaded, the lead ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) blows the whistle and a guard shoots up the trunks, but they are the wrong trunks.  Michael, Sarah, and their rescuer have jumped into the water and swim safely to shore.

Normally, Hitchcock’s scripts have been worked over for many months, if not years in advance of shooting.  In this case, the script by Brian Moore was not ready.  Both Hitchcock and Newman knew it and Hitch sought additional help with the dialogue, but the studio had foisted Julie Andrews on him as his leading lady and she had a very short window to film the movie, so they went ahead with a faulty script.  It did not help that longtime Hitchcock collaborators Robert Burks (cinematography) and George Tomasini (editing) had both passed away, so he was working with people he wasn’t completely certain of.  He also had a falling out with his longtime musical director, Bernard Herrmann, and even though Herrmann scored part of the film, Hitch fired him and had John Addison complete the work.

The second problem in the film is that the climax occurs when Michael finally gets the formula from Professor Lindt, but the film continues on for nearly forty-five minutes after that as the elaborate escape, done with Hitchcock’s usual sense of suspense, plays out.  It simply goes on too long and it should have been edited down to fifteen or twenty minutes tops.  It makes the movie drag exactly where you don’t want a movie to drag.  At two hours and eight minutes, the film feels like it goes on forever.

That being said, the movie also contains the best scene Hitchcock ever filmed: the killing of Wolfgang Kieling by Paul Newman and Carolyn Conwell. 

Although both Herrmann and Addison had written music to accompany the gritty scene, in the end Hitchcock opted to only use the natural sound of the three people in their life and death struggle.  We hear grunts, scuffling, and very little dialogue as the two men struggle with each other.  Hitchcock intercut the scene as montage, so the viewer gets glimpses of arms and hands, short close-ups of faces, and two-shots of the struggle.  Almost forgotten is Conwell’s terrific contribution to the scene.  They can’t make any loud noises because the cab driver is still waiting outside, so they can’t shoot him.  She tries to stab him, but in the struggle the knife only goes into his shoulder, the blade breaking off and blood soaking his shirt.  She takes a shovel and bangs his knees to make him go to the floor.  Kieling gets both of his hands around Newman’s neck and tries to choke him, but Conwell begins to drag them across the floor, her face sweaty and creased with the exertion.  In the final moments, Hitchcock shoots the scene from above the oven and we see Newman and Conwell gasping for air as Kieling’s hands go through the paroxysm of death, fighting against the gas and gradually giving in, eventually resting with no movement at all.  If feels like an absolutely real death.

The reactions of Newman and Conwell afterward is just as important. As they regain their breath, the viewer can see the emotional scars of the act of killing: the trembling, the sweat, the redness of their faces, the disbelief that they have just taken a man’s life. 

It is overpowering cinema. 

When I first saw this movie in a theater in 1966, that scene haunted me and I have never forgotten it.  I think it has a much greater impact than the shower killing in Psycho, which is generally considered Hitchcock’s best murder scene.

There are other wonderful things in the movie to delight film students and Hitchcock fans.  The scene in the museum, for example, where Hitchcock never shows Gromek following Michael, but we hear the echo of the pursuer’s footsteps.  The tension on the bus on the escape back to East Berlin is almost unbearable.

However, even with all of the wonderful techniques of Hitchcock at his best, the film as a whole has too many problems to be considered one of his best.  A flabby script, lenient editing, and way too much time at the end all work together to sink this movie.  In fact, in the canon of films that Hitchcock made in America, it must be considered one of his least successful.

The Big Sleep

The-Big-Sleep Bogart BacallThis 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel remains one of the best films ever made for a variety of reasons.

Start with Chandler’s novel, written in a unique voice and style, that delved into the underworld of big city vice, using dangerous and edgy behavior that were normally hidden from the public eye: pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality. Phillip Marlowe stood out as a character.  He was mature, worldly, manly, direct in a way that even criminals found disarming.  Finally, you have a plot that wastes no time on deliberation or description.  It moves forward relentless, with a certainty that is not obvious until the reader finds himself breathless in wonder.

The film is directed by the brilliant Howard Hawks, who understood the story arc and knew he wanted to make a film that wasted no time. He hired the same writers who had fashioned his 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, the great novelist William Faulkner and science fiction/crime wizard Leigh Brackett (one of the first women to break through into either genre) and told them to waste no time.  Unlike other screen adaptations, he wanted this one to leap directly from the page to the screen.  Working separately on different parts of the book, they finished the first screenplay in eight days.

Private eye Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the mansion of wealthy retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). With two wealthy, bored daughters who move in a racy crowd, the old man finds himself blackmailed with the gambling debts of his youngest girl, Carmen (Martha Vickers).  Sternwood’s former detective, Sean Regan, an old acquaintance of Marlowe’s, has disappeared.  Before leaving, Sternwood’s older daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) asks him if he has been hired to find Sean Regan, who had been seriously interested in Carmen, but he won’t tell her anything, but the wisecracking and banter between them creates a sexual tension that is palpable.

Marlowe begins by investigating the man who holds the gambling debts, a rare bookstore owner named Geiger, but he discovers the man’s assistant, Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) knows nothing about rare books and she stonewalls him on her boss. Hiding out in a rival bookstore across the street, he spends a rainy afternoon with the sexy proprietress (Dorothy Malone) before following Geiger home.  Waiting in the car, he hears gunshots, sees a car roaring away, and then finds Carmen inside, high as a kite, with Geiger’s body on the floor before her.  He finds a camera hidden inside a statue, but the film is missing.  Looking around, he finds Geiger’s notebook, filled with names and unreadable ceiphers.  Taking the book, he returns Carmen to the Sternwoods and finds that Mrs. Rutledge has no answers.

An old friend, Police Detective Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) brings Marlowe along when they fish a car out of the ocean just off a local pier. It belongs to the Sternwoods and the driver turns out to be a former Sternwood chauffer who had also been in love with Carmen.  It has been made to look like a suicide, but the driver had been killed before the car was driven off the pier.

Mrs. Rutledge appears at Marlowe’s office the next morning with scandalous photos of Carmen and a new blackmail demand from a small time gambler named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). She can get the money through her friend, gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).  Marlowe says he will wait for her call that night before the $5,000 in blackmail money will be paid.  During the day, he tails Brody to his apartment.  That night, Mrs. Rutledge puts him off, but on a hunch, he goes to Brody’s and finds not only Agnes, but Mrs. Rutledge as well.  Although held at gunpoint, he puts together the sequence of events as he understands them.  The chauffer had actually killed Geiger and taken the photos, but Brody stopped him and confiscated them to bribe the Sternwoods, which he had done before.  Marlowe suspects that Brody killed the chauffer, but Brody maintains his innocence and that killing remains unsolved.  Carmen shows up with a gun, demanding the photos.  Marlowe easily disarms all of them, but before he can get more information from Brody the man is shot through the door.

It is a complicated and twisting plot, but it moves forward relentlessly. The smart, sharp dialogue crisply moves the story along and renders it secondary really to the underplot: the growing relationship between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge.

When Hawks directed To Have and Have Not, he knew he’d found the ideal screen couple in Bogart and Bacall, so he was determined to reunite them for this movie.  By that time, their off-screen romance was big news in Hollywood and the pairing was natural.  With a great script and an excellent cast, Hawks shot the film in 1944, but it was kept on the shelf for two more years, partly because Warner Bros. was working feverishly to release all of their wartime films before World War II was over and partly because there were problems with Bacall.  After the huge hit with To Have and Have Not, she was considered a hot property, but her follow-up film, Confidential Agent, was a flop and she’d been widely panned in reviews.  Her agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote a letter to Jack L. Warner, asking that several scenes in The Big Sleep be re-shot and the film re-edited to take advantage of Bogart and Bacall’s screen chemistry.  Warner agreed and the two actors were called in to film additional scenes, including the now famous scene in the restaurant that is full of sexual innuendo.

The Big Sleep Martha Vickersbig-sleep-dorothy-malone-humphrey-bogart-toastingbig sleep_cab-driver

One thing that becomes apparent right from the beginning of this movie is that beautiful young women are used in abundance to help create a strong feeling of free sexuality. It begins when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood residence and the gorgeous Carmen walks in wearing a really short skirt and throws herself into his arms.  Then, you meet Mrs. Rutledge and Lauren Bacall shines as a young urbanite living life on the edge.  It continues with the girl at Acme Books, played by Dorothy Malone, who unpins her hair and closes the store to spend an afternoon drinking rye whiskey with Marlowe.  Then there is the female taxi driver that Marlowe rides with who gives him her card and tells him to call her at night when she’s not working.

In the pivotal scene between Bogart and Bacall that was re-shot, the two of them are talking about having a relationship in terms of horse racing. She wonders just how far he will go and he replies that it depends on her.  Is she willing “to go all the way?”  This tightly wrapped sensuality, contrasted against the violence, the mystery of not knowing exactly what is happening in a plot that moves forward darkly, relentlessly creates a movie that almost impossible to stop watching.  It moves that way right to the end, when we finally sense that Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge will be able to consummate their smoldering desires.

Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has been restored to allow modern viewers to see it as released in 1946. The DVD also includes a documentary on the two versions of the movie, showing scenes that were cut and added, so viewers can see how much the film was improved by the re-shoot.

It is every bit as strong and engaging today as when it was first released and that is one reason it will always be considered a classic, perhaps the very finest example of film noir and one of the best movies ever made.

Capote

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Capote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood. The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

At the heart of the film, though, is a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive novelist who followed his instincts to a small Kansas town to investigate the murder of the Clutters, a family of four, execution style, in their own home. The way he insinuated himself into their landscape was nothing less than audacious, especially for a flamboyant New York homosexual. Hoffman won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this beautiful, studied performance. He portrays Truman Capote as the consummate artist searching for the heart of the story and finding it in the person of the primary killer, Perry Smith, portrayed with restrained power by Clifton Collins, Jr. The relationship that develops between this unlikely pair is pinned on the fact that both of them had difficult childhoods.

Capote lies repeatedly to Perry to get the answers he needs. The heart of In Cold Blood resides with Perry’s unpredictable rampage that turned a robbery gone wrong into a heartless mass killing. The novelist takes his time to slowly lead Perry to tell the story until time runs out and he must manipulate the killer into telling how everything went down that night at the farmhouse.

A number of subordinate performances are also of extremely high quality, including Catherine Keener as Capote’s research assistant and brilliant novelist in her own right Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the officer in charge of the investigation.

I urge anyone interested in either filmmaking or the art of the novel to see this movie. It is truly brilliant.