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Hitchcock Annual (1998) - The Controller Controlled: Hitchcock's Cameo in "Torn Curtain"




The Controller Controlled: Hitchcock's Cameo in Torn Curtain

Despite Hitchcock's insistence that "every piece of film ... in the picture should have a purpose" and despite the inherent appeal of the director's brief appearances in his films, many commentators dismiss them as eccentric tangents or self-promotional MacGuffins.1 Yet Hitchcock's bit parts often serve as structural cinematic components that complement or comment on the central dramatic action. This is particularly evident in his scene in Torn Curtain (1966), in which the director shares the limelight with a baby. One of Hitchcock's most intriguing big-screen appearances and the only one accompanied by the theme music from his television series, this mini-drama is more than a reminder that "this is only a movie" (Leitch 2) and invites scrutiny both in terms of thematic parallels within the film and in regard to Hitchcock's often repeated commentaries on children and control.

The stage is set in the film's opening scenes where we are introduced to nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) and his fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). The two are first shown in bed his under plaid blankets and his checked overcoat on a frigidly cold Norwegian vessel, debating issues of domesticity. Her desires to wed soon are countered by his delaying tactics. Their snuggling is interrupted by the receipt of a mysterious radiogram from Copenhagen, which Michael manages to disavow in Sarah's presence and then to answer without her knowledge.

As the scene shifts to the Danish capital, John Addison's musical score moves seamlessly from the unsettling tones that underscore the secretive nature of the shipboard radiograms to sprightly strains, with orchestration recalling Gershwin's "An American in Paris," accompanying establishing shots of bustling Copenhagen and the Hôtel d'Angleterre.2 The music then abruptly breaks into a parody of Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," Hitchcock's signature musical theme, as if to say, "look for Hitchcock now." There he is, foregrounded and left of center, sitting in the lobby of a Copenhagen hotel in an armchair near a marbled column in front of an elevator. He is wearing a dark suit and holding a baby on his right knee. The infant, clad entirely in whit...

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James M. Vest is head of the French program at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he teaches in the interdisciplinary humanities program and offers courses on French cinema and on Hitchcock and Truffaut. He has published articles on Hitchcock's French connections in Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association and French Review.


  1. The Hitchcock quotation is from "On Style" 290. While admitting that there may have been something of the MacGuffin in his feature film appearances, Hitchcock insisted that there was also more to it than that ("Master of Suspense" 122-24); for Hitchcock on MacGuffins, see also Hitchcock on Hitchcock xix, 102, 161, 237, 267. Leitch offers a valuable analysis of the director's traces in his films but does little with the cameo in Torn Curtain; others who have seriously considered the cinematic role of Hitchcock's cameos include Poague, Rothman, and Yacowar.
  2. The hotel's name evokes a cosmopolitan milieu, Hitchcock's homeland, travelers' longings for home, and the potential for romance and misadventure associated with France and things French in films from Easy Virtue and Downhill through Rebecca, Bon Voyage, and To Catch a Thief to Topaz. I am indebted to Prof. Charles Mosby of the Rhodes College Department of Music for his comments on the orchestrations in Torn Curtain.
  3. A still of the cameo may be found in Haley 156 and a publicity photo of Hitchcock with his clearly dubious young "costar," in Spoto, Art 359.
  4. The lighting in the cameo and in Gromek's death scene contrasts with that in much of this film in which Hitchcock prided himself on achieving softened, near-natural light. On the particular attention paid to lighting in Torn Curtain and some of the technical effects used to achieve it, see "Lights, Camera, Action" 303-14; cf. Phillips 170 and Truffaut 313; for stills from this scene see Haley 115.
  5. Street's study of Hitchcock's women enabled through difficult or transforming circumstances to become "powerful, resourceful, and often subversive" (25) might be extended to include Torn Curtain. The director's insecurity and anxiety about women as threats to masculinity, which have become topoi of Hitchcock criticism (e.g., Cohen, Modleski, Wood), may apply to children as well. The isolated farmhouse is reminiscent of the farmhouse in occupied France that plays a comparable role in Hitchcock's 1944 short film Bon Voyage (see Vest passim). In both cases a country woman is called on for desperate courage in the face of imminent danger in her own home. In the earlier film the brave woman dies at the hands of a ruthless enemy agent while on the phone attempting to alert Resistance comrades. In Torn Curtain Hitchcock depicts a dramatic reversal as the farmwife determinedly disconnects the phone that could work against her and proceeds to help kill the intruder.
  6. The first two quotations in this paragraph are from "Search for the Sun" (251-52); the next (referring specifically to his grandchildren), from "The Woman Who Knows Too Much" (52); and the last from "On Style" (301).
  7. The former is recounted in "Why I am Afraid of the Dark," 142-43 and the latter is cited in Spoto Dark Side 7; cf. Taylor 28, 31, 261. Hitchcock asserted that the issue of potential adverse influences of violent stories and of television on children boils down to "parents and their control over their children" ("A Redbook Dialogue" 149).
  8. Wood raises this question in regard to the taxi driver who unwittingly takes Michael to a murder and the old woman who inadvertently boards the escape bus (203-04); it becomes a subject of debate among others on that bus. Wood also emphasizes the element of lurking chaos in this film as part of an "archetypal Hitchcock pattern" (198) but does not emphasize the director's cameo in this context.
  9. Translations from Villien's French text are by the author. The notion of "L'enfant, c'est moi!" allows the director to play the dual role of controller and controlled. Hitchcock shot a sequence involving Gromek's brother, "a look-alike" (Harris and Lasky 231) "who bears an uncanny resemblance to Gromek" (Truffaut 313), footage that was cut from the final version of the film and that Hitchcock promised to send to Truffaut (313). Literary antecedents include Poe's "William Wilson" and go back at least as far as Plautus. Cf. the look-alike as comic flourish in Family Plot and as the dramatic heart of The Wrong Man and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents program entitled "The Case of Mr. Pelham," which ends with Hitchcock getting rid of his own trouble-making double.
  10. Quoted from, respectively, "Director's Problems" 186; "Production Methods Compared" 206; "Some Aspects of Direction" 262; and "I wish I didn't have to shoot the picture" 22, 25; on Hitchcock's meticulous attention to advance design, including his preliminary drawings, see "On Style" 293-94. Cf. his assertions regarding control over audiences and their reactions, e.g., "I play them like an organ" ("A Redbook Dialogue" 151-52).
  11. See, for example, Poe's writings on the creation of "The Raven," in "The Philosophy of Composition"; on Poe and Hitchcock, see Hitchcock on Hitchcock 99, 104, 105, 142-45; cf. Spoto, Dark Side 40-42 passim.
  12. Cf. Hitchcock's frequent comments on the director as producer, as one who controls and executes the work of making a film (e.g., Hitchcock on Hitchcock 60, 172-75, 183-85, 186-87, 227-30, 257, 265, 289, 296). Hitchcock reported that Paul Newman, who kept looking for naturalistic motives for characters' actions, pestered him about details of the kitchen scene, especially how the farmwife could come to think of the oven as a murder weapon while she is on the other side of the room. Hitchcock replied acidly that she got the idea in her car on the way to the studio (Nogueira and Zalaffi 4)!
  13. The quote is from Taylor 275; for more details on the fiascoes of filming Torn Curtain, see the sections dedicated to this film in Harris and Lasky; Nogueira and Zalaffi; Phillips; Spoto, Dark Side; Taylor; and Villien.
  14. Citing Susan Sontag's On Photography, Gottlieb notes the "hostility and aggression that are intimately bound up with filmmaking" (Hitchcock on Hitchcock 102); on Hitchcock's notorious bathroom humor and practical jokes, the most infamous of which involved a disabling dose of laxative, see Spoto, Dark Side 124 and Taylor 120-22.
  15. On Hitchcock's role in a British government agency project to assemble footage shot by Allied troops who liberated concentration camps throughout Eastern Europe, reconstructed in 1984 as Memory of the Camps, see Gottlieb, "Hitchcock's War Films" 165, and "The Unknown Hitchcock" 118-25. The script of Memory of the Camps refers to concentration camp workers and SS guards as "unashamed ... and cheerful," a phrase that also describes Gromek's attitude as he confronts Armstrong at the farmhouse.
  16. The idea of the filmmaker sitting still in a moving picture is doubly disconcerting. Although one of his cameos in The Lodger shows him seated, nearly motionless, most of his cameos are literally walk-ons where he is seen strolling or standing in a crowd. In Blackmail, Shadow of a Doubt, and To Catch a Thief he moves about somewhat while sitting on a moving conveyance, and in Topaz he rises from a wheelchair. His static appearances in Lifeboat (standing) and in Dial M for Murder (seated) were occasioned by the narrative necessity to include his "bit" in a still photo. Stasis became the central motif in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents program "Breakdown."
  17. Harpocrates was the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian Harpechrat (the infant Horus, often depicted sitting on the lap of his mother Isis) who grew to prominence among the gods and crowned monarchs; because of the infant's distinctive hand gesture the Greeks regarded him as representing mystery and secrecy; the Romans viewed him as the god of discreet silence; by controlling information flow this child exerted power over adults. On the role of silence in Torn Curtain, see Camolli 52.
  18. On Hitchcock as conjurer in Torn Curtain, see Narboni 51 and Téchiné 56; cf. Gottlieb, Hitchcock on Hitchcock xviii and Sterritt 3-5.
  19. Hitchcock viewed his films in this parental way, "a gleam in my camera's eye" (speaking of Psycho, quoted in Bouzereau 164); his "equivocal position" here is typical of many in the film (see Wood 201-02) and places the would-be director ambiguously somewhere between parent and nanny.
  20. The title of the film suggests much more than any small rent Michael could hope to make in the Iron Curtain. Spoto lists two other ranges of meaning involving the vertically tracking chalk board the East German physicist slams down in an attempt to keep Armstrong from learning his secret and the theatrical curtain separating performer from viewer at the ballet (Art 355). There are also the blankets under which the protagonists nestle against forces that could sunder their relationship (Phillips 169; cf. Wood 204-05). One could add the shredding cloak of scientific and cultured civilization discussed at the beginning of this essay as well as the sense that the profession associated with the screen is tattered (as the director has found himself forced to substitute this project for others he preferred and to make concessions to commercial demands). With his Catholic upbringing and Jesuit education, Hitchcock would also appreciate the biblical resonances of the title, including the rending during the crucifixion of the curtain in the Temple in Jerusalem (Mt. 27:51).

Works Cited