Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mary Poppins Behind the Iron Curtain

I've just been a Julie Andrews state of mind this past week, I started with Victor/Victoria and then came Thoroughly Modern Millie, and now I'm taking a look at one of Julie's many attempts to distance herself from musicals and her family-oriented typecasting that occured after Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. It was a thriller by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, and was one of the many that was released after people began to murmer that the old man was beginning to slip on quality.  He had followed up the critically loved The Birds with the critical disaster (unfairly labeled I say) Marnie and then decided to go back to his international espionage roots with a picture that would star Andrews and new hearthrob Paul Newman as a couple who were thrown behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and into a plot that could endanger their lives.  Not unlike Foreign Corrospondant, this film would deal with the hard feelings between East Germany and the United States and the government officials who are trying to keep and steal secrets from each other.  It would not be as well recieved or remembered, but some still think of it as one of Hitch's merely 'good' films.  So grab your spy book and your German translator, we're going behind the Torn Curtain.

Professor Michael Armstrong and his assistant (and fiance) Sarah Sherman begin their story on a cruise ship that is on its way to Copenhagen and a physisist's convention.  They are trying to stay warm (the heat is broken) when they have a conversation about their relationship.  Sarah resents Michael for not wanting her to come on the trip with him and she also thinks that they ought to be married at this point, but Michael keeps waffling on the date.  When they arrive in Copenhagen, Michael recieves a secret communication in a book from a book shop and immediately books a flight to East Berlin...but he tells Sarah that he is merely going to a different location to continue his work on a missile project.  She decides to follow him and is horrified to discover that he has gone behind the Iron Curtain and plans to share his work with the East German government, which would make them a leading power in the field of weaponry.  Sarah then has to make the choice of whether to stay with the man she loves and thought she knew or to go home and leave him behind.  She also must be sure that Michael really is defecting to East Germany and giving his secrets to them, or if its merely a clever ruse to gain information that can help him.

Torn Curtain is an odd duck.  For the first half we are treated to a nicely paced 'suspicion' plot that revolves around Michael acting strangely and Sarah trying to figure out if he's really changed or whether he's going there as a spy.  It probably would have resonated more with its audience if they had stuck to that model...but Curtain throws us for a loop when we arrive in Berlin.  The focus suddenly shifts off of Sarah's suspicion and onto Michael's struggle.  It turns out he IS only defecting to spy and he is trying to keep himself from getting killed, while also trying to keep Sarah from hating him.  We are treated to his action sequences and his inner conflict over whether to tell Sarah what he is really up to...and Sarah gets pushed off to the sidelines.  Its an interesting shift that quickly reassures us of Michael's innocence, but it changes the drive of suspence from 'what is he really up to?' (which is interesting enough to drive to the conclusion) to 'will they get out alive' (which is fairly standard and doesn't provide many thrills because we KNOW they will because they are the characters we love).  Its not a bad movie at all, but definately not as good as holding out the interest in the plot as long as some others. There were, of course, much on-set drama that may have led to the uneven feeling of the film.  Paul Newman, according to Hitch, was very difficult to work with and had his own ideas as to how the story should unfold (and there are equally strong voices who say the same thing from Paul Newman's side) and with such strong opinions involved in the same movie it was bound to hit some blocks.  Also in the cards against it was the falling-out between Hitch and longtime composer collaborator Bernard Herrmann and so the audience was treated to a highly different score, tonally, than what they were used to from a Hitchcock picture (and allegedly, it was a very hastily written score at that).  But still, its not as poor as something like Topaz (apologies to fans of that) and it still makes for a very exciting watch.  The bus sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

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