Cinema: Mystery in Mothballs

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Torn Curtain is scarcely ten minutes into its tale of espionage derring-do in darkest Europe when Alfred Hitchcock stamps the film with his inevitable monogram: there in the lobby of a Copenhagen hotel sits the familiar Buddha-like figure, dandling a little girl on his knee as the sound track noodles a few bars of Hitch's television theme tune, the Funeral March of a Marionette. The audience chuckles in recognition. Ah, yes. The master is at work again.

Well, no. Curtain is Hitchcock's 50th film, but this time he must have been thinking back to his 49th, or ahead to his 51st, or maybe even dreaming about that old TV show. Given an able novelist (Brian Moore) as screenwriter and a surefire box-office cast (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews), Hitchcock fritters away their talents in a limp spy story that has about as much fizz as a can of warm beer.

Looking furtively like a man who can't remember his next line, Newman is badly miscast as Nuclear Physicist Michael Armstrong, who apparently defects to East Germany as a traitor to the U.S. But it's all right, really. Newman is still a hustler. In order to complete his perfect nuclear-defense system, he must fake the treachery to pick the brains of East Germany's great Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath). Andrews, as Armstrong's dutiful fiancee and assistant, goes along for the defection—horrified at first, but then of course very stout and plucky when she discovers the true mission.

In better days, so juicy a plot might have stirred Hitchcock into turning out another edge-of-the-seat masterpiece like Notorious or Saboteur. But Hollywood's acknowledged king of suspense seems to have lost both his legerdemain and his timing. Only near the end, when physicist and fiancee escape from East Berlin after learning Lindt's secrets, does the film perk fitfully into life. Recognizing Armstrong in the audience, a Czech ballerina is repeatedly frozen in her pirouettes by a stop-action camera. Guards with tommy guns surface weirdly in the orchestra pit to the clash of cymbals. Lila Kedrova, in a vivid cameo bit, pops up as a potty Polish countess who hates Russian cigarettes ("Deez-kosting!") and helps the Americans get away with a perfect football block on a chasing East German cop. Alas, good Hitchcock touches no longer make a good Hitchcock film, and Curtain falls, more redolent of mothballs than mystery.