Writing can serve as a catharsis. I originally started this column with the intention of expressing bewilderment over the state of Georgia’s quandary about whether the mass murder of six Asian-American women might just possibly be construed as a hate crime. I intended to mention that the police spokesperson had posted photos of anti-Asian merchandise on his Facebook page.
The killings involved racism and guns, two of the preeminent social problems in the country; the ones we dismiss because of potential infringements on a bigot’s rights to spread toxic hatred, cover up with mounds of flowers and teddy bears, and listen to politicians vow to confront with all the conviction of a bowl of mashed potatoes.
The mass murders in Atlanta should have provided plenty of fodder for a column but, I have to tell you that, despite the hopeful step the country took last November, every once in a while, the things that still go on in America are so damn discouraging I just want to revert back to the time when movies were my concern in this newspaper. So…
“Torn Curtain,” Alfred Hitchcock’s fiftieth feature film, was an unhappy experience for all concerned. Brian Moore’s script had not been developed and polished to Hitch’s usual standards because of time constraints imposed by the casting of Julie Andrews. Her post “Sound of Music” stature eluded Hitch, who referred to her as “that girl who sings,” but the studio insisted on her for their expensive and prestigious movie.
Paul Newman’s Actor’s Studio training just annoyed the director. Hitchcock wanted his actors to stand where they were told to stand and say the lines they assumedly had learned. Newman needed things like character development and motivation and Hitchcock resented being relegated to the status of celluloid psychoanalyst. (When Ingrid Bergman asked about motivation, he snapped, “Your salary!”) The tension between the two men was palpable and Newman later said that making the movie was “a mistake.”
Hitchcock’s rocky relationship with actors in general was further frayed when he found out how much money Andrews and Newman were being paid. He vowed never to use expensive A-list players again and he never did.
Some Hitchcock analysts — of which there are legions — sense a point in “Torn Curtain” when the director seemed to lose interest in the project and it falls victim to the same visual lethargy that is apparent in his previous movie, “Marnie,” with too much dependence on rear screen projection and backlot sets.
Hitch never liked location filming. Despite an expressed admiration for Vermont’s pictorial splendor that he gained shooting “The Trouble With Harry,” he eventually retreated back to the Paramount soundstages when the weather proved to be uncooperative. He consciously incorporated familiar landmarks into his movies (the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur,” Royal Albert Hall in the remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” the Golden Gate Bridge in “Vertigo,” Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest,” Covent Garden in “Frenzy”) that necessitated location work because he thought places that generated good feelings would make excellent locations for nefarious activities.
Although they both were modesty successful financially, neither “Marnie” nor “Torn Curtain” attracted the attention that had, during the 1950s, propelled Hitchcock into a realm only previously occupied by Charles Chaplin as a director with a box-office draw as potent as any movie star. But both films remain a treasure trove to people who admire Hitch.
The sequence in “Marnie” when the title character, a compulsive thief played by Tippi Hedren, robs her employer’s safe, unaware that a cleaning lady is starting to work only a few feet away, is a sterling example of the director’s genius for creating suspenseful situations. The revelation for Marnie’s psychological trauma, triggered by the color red, may be clichéd and trite, but there are some marvelous moments before that too-predictable final revelation. There is also a surprisingly assured performance by Hedren, in a complex role originally intended for Grace Kelly’s Hollywood comeback, and a wonderful performance by Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother.
“Torn Curtain” was a Cold War thriller. The highlight of the film was set in an isolated farmhouse. Hitchcock was especially enthusiastic about it because he wanted to visually demonstrate how difficult it is to kill a man if an inherently noisy method (such as a gun) cannot be used. Newman, playing a scientist purportedly defecting to East Germany, is confronted by a communist agent (Wolfgang Kieling), who suspects his duplicity. The fight between them, edited with a staccato brilliance that rivals the shower sequence in “Psycho” and the phone booth scene in “The Birds,” finally ends with the German agent’s head in a gas oven, a demise that Hitch wickedly thought was the height of irony.
The climactic scene in the film takes place in a theater where a ballet is being performed. Authorities are closing in on Newman and Andrews. Desperate to escape as the police edge closer and closer to where they are seated, Newman stands up and hollers, “Fire!” causing panic as mobs of people stampede for the exits.
For the supposed hero of the film, it wasn’t a very heroic thing to do. People might have been killed just to improve his chances of survival.
I was reminded of it when I heard Texas congressman Chip Roy’s appalling remarks summoning up images of ropes and oak trees at a hearing called to look into the escalating violence committed against Asian-Americans.
It wasn’t a very heroic thing to do, Mr. Roy. People might be killed just to improve your chances of being reelected.
You can’t even find complete relief from the madness in the movies anymore.
Alden Graves writes a regular column for the Banner.