Alfred 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.