Hitchcock-a-thon: Torn Curtain (1966)

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The Golden Age of Hitchcock couldn’t last forever. With New Hollywood on the rise, the ground was shifting.  Now in his sixties, there was a danger that Hitchcock would be shafted by the studios like other old-time directors such as Frank Capra and John Ford. This meant that for Torn Curtain Hitchcock was forced to do something he hated almost more than anything. Compromise.

American physicist and rocket scientist  Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), travels to Soviet-occupied East Berlin for reasons he conceals to his to his fiancée, Sarah (Julie Andrews).  Sarah secretly follows him to Berlin to get some straight answers, worried that he’s defected to the other side. But Armstrong is, of course, secretly working for Uncle Sam; gaining the confidence of his communist hosts in order to uncover a crucial anti-missile equation. Armstrong struggles to escape the watchful eye of Soviet goon Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), to get the crucial information back home.

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There’s one particularly good scene, both tense and darkly comic, where Hitchcock shows just how long and arduous it would be kill someone by strangulation. Other than that, there’s little to pull Torn Curtain out of mediocrity

Brian Moore’s plodding screenplay is the film’s biggest fault, but the cast don’t help matters. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Julie Andrews in a non-singing role. Her short, prim delivery makes every line sounds same-y to me. As for Newman, well, I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as much as the next person, but here he just looks lost. There’s a blankness to his performance that leaves him completely unconvincing as a man caught between duty and his personal feelings. Someone bring back Cary Grant!

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Actually, Grant was exactly who Hitchcock wanted, as well as Eva Marie Saint for his leading lady, but Universal refused, claiming the pair were too old. Accustomed to the wide production control the studio had granted him with The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock now found himself grappling with Universal over key creative decisions which also led to to an irreparable falling out with his long-term collaborator Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the score for every Hitchcock film since 1955. Hitch despised the process and later wrote it off as the least enjoyable production he’d ever worked on.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: The Birds (1963)

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Where on earth would Hitch go after a masterpiece like Psycho? He chose to return one of his favourite authors for inspiration, Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca and Jamaica Inn) in his first attempt at paranormal horror.

The story revolves upon one spooky speculation: what if, for completely unexplainable reasons, all the billions of birds of the world started to attack humankind?

But, like all the best disaster horrors, Hitchcock keeps us waiting before we get to the full on avian attacks. The first half of the film is dedicated to character development and gradually building sense of menace before he unleashes the full feathered fury.

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Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), travels to the deadend hamlet of Bodega Bay to play a flirtatious practical joke on Mitch (Rod Taylor) who she met in a San Francisco bird shop. Melanie starts to get close to Mitch, despite his protective mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and befriends the local school teacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette). They are startled in the middle of the night by a loud thud of a gull killing itself by flying against the front door.

“Poor thing,” remarks Annie, “Probably lost his way in the dark.”
“But it isn’t dark,” responds a puzzled Melanie, “There’s a full moon.”

DUN DUN DUNNN

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From then on, it’s full on Birdageddon, with our heroes trapped in the epicentre. Inevitably, a few of the special effects have dated somewhat. But the film succeeds because the build-up to the attacks is just so damn good. You can’t help but get the sense that there must be some pattern or purpose to it all…but Hitchcock’s masterful execution doesn’t provide you with any easy answers.

The Birds was the film debut for Tippi Hedren, who Hitchcock picked up after seeing her in a commercial for a diet drink called Sego. His alarmingly possessive treatment of her will be covered in more depth when we get to Marnie, but for now let’s just say that it ain’t pretty. Despite the behind-the-scenes trauma, she’s a magnificent onscreen presence. Hitchcock had been searching for a leading lady to fill the void left by Grace Kelly’s departure and in his eyes Hedren was even greater still. He could well be right.

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