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Cinema Journal (1999) - Torn Curtain's Futile Talk

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While conceding the story's moral ambiguities, most critics of Torn Curtain ultimately concur with the popular judgment of the film as a satire flawed by a weak script, production problems, and even the director's indifference. This deconstructive study reads the film as a narrative of the illusion of mutual understanding, one that puts into question political, ethical, and religious distinctions.


While conceding the story's moral ambiguities, most critics of Torn Curtain ultimately concur with the popular judgment of the film as a satire flawed by a weak script, production problems, and even the director's indifference. This deconstructive study reads the film as a narrative of the illusion of mutual understanding, one that puts into question political, ethical, and religious distinctions.

Commentaries on Torn Curtain (1966) have mainly concluded that Hitchcock's fiftieth film lacked the unquestioned genius of his "peak" masterpieces — Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963) — or even the psychological complexity of its immediate predecessor, Marnie (1964).1 The deconstructive approach advanced in this essay considers Torn Curtain, instead, as another of Hitchcock's MacGuffin films, which include The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Notorious (1946), and North by Northwest.2 Like them, Torn Curtain narrates a compulsion to discover and appropriate an "object" that seems paradoxically both arbitrary and significant. In Torn Curtain, acquiring the formula that is supposed to save the world is dramatized as appropriating someone else's knowledge. Learning Professor Lindt's (Ludwig Donath) secret is the paradigm for the film's many other acts of supposed knowledge, mutuality, affection, and reading; reading Michael Armstrong's (Paul Newman) reading as both a necessary and a dangerous delusion situates the film in the MacGuffin genre, which, as recent critics have suggested, is one of Hitchcock's recurring metaphors for reading.3

Reading, speech, and language are allegorized in this film as torn curtains. These three activities assume belief in distinctions that prove to be untenable or in apparent walls that are porous. This essay examines the film's title, credits, springboard situation, circular structure, and use of foreign languages to demonstrate that reading is depicted as either an illusory coming-together or an illusory distinction and that language in the film anticipates the world of Jacques Derrida's La Carte postale (The Post-Card).4 In that work, Derrida argues that the arbitrary nature of signs prevents them from ever reaching their intended destinations; instead, they move freely, detached from true referents, and the world becomes a vast post office, archive, or circulating library. Hitchcock's Derridean world of empty communication, both frightening and droll, is epitomized when his main characters leave a post office in East Berlin and stand by the shop window of an appliance store where behind them, on a television screen, appears this untranslated line of German: "Gesprache ohne Nutzen" [futile talk].3

The Title. Rhetoricians might classify the phrase "torn curtain" as an example of catachresis, a forced naming and implied metaphor whose "real" referent — some ripped fabric — never appears in the film. Of course, the title alludes to the Iron Curtain, Churchill's neologism for the Cold War, though it is important to remember that that phrase is itself a metaphor or oxymoron. This doubling underscores not only the figurative nature of Hitchcock's title but the vexed nature of figuration itself. The referent is absent in both film and life: there is no physical curtain separating Eastern and Western blocs; nothing in the film is actually torn. On a plane from Copenhagen to East Berlin, Armstrong flies through the Iron Curtain, and as he returns to the West on a ship bound for Sweden, he must pass through the invisible curtain a second time. Neither boundary is actual, neither is depicted, and neither penetration creates a literal tear. And, of course, a real iron curtain cannot be torn.

Taking "curtain" figuratively as Iron Curtain means that its "tear" is Armstrong s appropriation of Lindt's secrets and his successful return to the West. But the very idea of a rip or a tear in the "iron" curtain makes the meaning of the curtain as definitive distinction between East and West open to question. Are the blocs really so distinguishable after all? For instance, the communist scientist Lindt, like Armstrong, is impatient with his country's national security professionals. Karl Manfred's devotion to Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) is at least as strong and sincere as Armstrong's. Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), the stereotypical East German thug, has lived in New York, chews gum, loves pizza, and for all we can tell prefers the Eastern bloc. Lindt loves Viennese waltzes. The East Berlin museum is full of Western art; its opera company performs Western music. As Raymond Durgnat points out, we learn that it is America, not East Germany, that sustains an iron curtain by preventing Countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) from emigrating; the contrast with East Germany's willingness to admit Sarah...

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Christopher D. Morris, Charles A. Dana Professor of English, teaches literature and film at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. His articles on Hitchcock's films have appeared in Cinema Journal, Literature/Film Quarterly, Film Criticism, Hitchcock Annual, and Film and Philosophy. He is the author of Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow.


The composition of this essay was facilitated by research support from the Faculty Development Committee of Norwich University, for which I express my thanks. A shortened version of this essay was delivered at the Conference on Literature and Film sponsored by Literature/Film Quarterly at Towson University, November 5-7,1998.1 am grateful to the two anonymous readers for Cinema Journal, whose comments helped me considerably.

  1. Donald Spoto opens his chapter on Torn Curtain in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Films (New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1976) with this sentence: "After more than a decade of masterpieces, the release of Torn Curtain in 1966 was a disappointment" (415). In his The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), Spoto calls the film "inauspicious and unfortunate" (521). Thomas Leitch, in Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), classifies Torn Curtain with Topaz as an anti-Bond film. In Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), Robin Wood concedes that "those who found evidence of failing powers in Marnie will find more here" and agrees that Torn Curtain is no "culmination" of Hitchcock's preceding work (198); however, he simultaneously makes a very astute case for the film's coherence and against the verdict of declining powers. I discuss Wood's excellent intuitions regarding Armstrong's peaceful intentions at the end of this section.
  2. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Spoto classified Torn Curtain with these MacGuffin films but reads their collective theme as the idea that "relationships matter, not political secrets" (418). My own understanding of the MacGuffin, as the sign that puts meaning in doubt, owes much to Tom Cohen's remarks in Anti-Mimesis: From, Plato to Hitchcock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). For a discussion of this function of the MacGuffin in North by Northwest, see my essay "The Direction of North by Northwest," Cinema Journal 36, no. 4 (summer 1997): 43-56.
  3. Other studies of Hitchcock's films as allegories of reading or viewing include Tom Cohen, "Graphics, Letters, and Hitchcock's 'Steps','" Hitchcock Annual (1992): 68-105; "Beyond 'The Gaze': Zizek, Hitchcock, and the American Sublime," American Literary History 7, no. 2 (1995): 350-78; and my essays "Psycho's Allegory of seeing," Literature/Film Quarterly 24, no. 1 (1996): 47-51, "The Lodger's Allegory of seeing," Film and Philosophy 4 (1997): 11-19, "Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Pursuit of the Tenable in Vertigo," Hitchcock Annual ( 1996-97): 3-25, and "The Allegory of seeing in Hitchcock's Silent Films," Film Criticism 22, no. 2 (winter 1997-98): 27-50, and "Easy Virtue's Frames," Hitchcock Annual (1998-99): 20-30.
  4. Hitchcock used the term "springboard situation" to denote the general plot problem, established in the first reel, for which the remainder of the film provided the resolution. See Sidney Gottleib, ed., Hitchcock on Hitchcock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 273. Here and elsewhere in this essay I use the term slightly more broadly to denote the early scene that first encapsulates the film's allegory.
  5. For Jacques Derrida's account of "the postal," see his The Post-Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Of course, many film theorists adopt ontologies and views of language that are different from Derrida's. In The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (New York: Viking, 1971) and later works, Stanley Cavell adopts a view of meaning in film influenced in part by the "ordinary language" philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. David Bordwell, in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), adopts a positivistic approach he calls "moderate constructivism" (105), according to which the film viewer is a rational agent capable of verifiable interpretation. From the standpoint of deconstruction, these and other approaches that assume cinematic signifiers convey determinable referents (or "signifieds") may be considered hermeneutic. For this distinction, see Gary Shapiro and Alan Sica, eds., Henneneutics: Questions and Prospects (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984); and John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
  6. Raymond Durgnat, The Strange case of Alfred Hitchcock (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974), 374.
  7. Of course, other critics view Hitchcock's relation to patriotism differently. In Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), William Rothman argues that Hitchcock does not challenge the rhetoric of patriotism in The Thirty-Nine Steps, even though he does so in the later films Notorious and Topaz (127). A comprehensive study of the relation between Hitchcock's films and the Cold War is Robert J. Corber's In the Name of National security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993). Corber argues that Hitchcock's films "simultaneously reinforced and undermined the postwar settlement," by which Corber means the liberal consensus privileging national security, capitalism, and heterosexuality (17). Corber's examples end with Psycho, and his "New Americanist" approach differs markedly from deconstruction; however, this article's argument that the apparent triumphalism of Armstrong's project is everywhere undercut by moral undecidability makes Torn Curtain a film that is not inconsistent with Corber's general thesis.
  8. See Spoto, The Art of Hitchcock, 416.
  9. I am preceded in the identification of the title's allusion to Matthew by James M. Vest, whose excellent essay, "Hitchcock's Cameo in Torn Curtain," Hitchcock Annual (1998-99): 3-19, appeared while this article was under review. Other aspects of the film suggest a religious dimension to the allegory. After Sarah leaves the bookstore with the volume that contains Armstrong's coded instructions, the bookseller tells his assistant to "pray for him." Encouraging her to tidy up, he then says, "Them religious books is in a hell of a shambles, Magda." There is no way to tell from these remarks whether the bookseller speaks from a religious or a secular perspective; this indeterminacy echoes the moral undecidability of Armstrong's actions. Armstrong also invokes the bookseller's expletive to Sarah on the plane ("What in hell are you doing here?"). Both references may have contributed to Donald Spoto's idea that Armstrong's journey is a descent into hell; see The Art of Hitchcock, 418-21. Armstrongs role as harrower-of-hell may be enhanced by the fact that he briefly rides on a plow and digs in the ground with his toe or that he successfully emerges from the Inferno of the stage production of Francesca da Rimini.
  10. New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 590. This interpretation is echoed in The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1951): "The division between Jew and Gentile now is gone: the Gentile now can go beyond the outer court into the holy place, yes, and into the 'holiest'" (III: 610). One difficulty in understanding the torn curtain in its relation to the Jewish people is reflected in the simultaneous claim of The Interpreter's Bible that the torn curtain is also a signal of the displeasure of God (610); hence, it is unclear whether the torn curtain is meant to obliterate a definite distinction or to establish one.
  11. The deconstructive understanding of reflexivity in Hitchcock differs from the treatment of the same subject by other critics. Laura Mulvey studied the reflexivity of Vertigo as an allegory of male spectatorship, then partly disavowed that argument; see her Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). In "Hitchcock's Rear Window. Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism," in Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, eds., A Hitchcock Reader (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1986), 193-206, Robert Stam considers reflexivity in connection with the themes of alienation and moral distancing. The most sustained treatment of this subject is Rothman's Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze. Rothman argues that through numerous reflexive techniques, the films' continuous insistence on their framed nature always implies both the author/director's presence and a pervasive worldview, for example, in the case of Shadow of a Doubt, the murderous truth of Charles concealed behind the optimistic mask of Charlie. By contrast, this essay explores Torn Curtain's reflexivity as an analogue of its story's depiction of interminable futility in the transmission and reception of signs, a process that eventually calls into question not just the characters but the director as sender, the supposed referents (like a worldview), and the reader.
    Vest's thematic discussion of the reflexivity of Hitchcock's cameo in Torn Curtain — in a hotel lobby, the director appears holding an incontinent baby and shifting it from one side to another of his lap — emphasizes the way this scene ironically illuminates both the characters' and the director's compulsion to control. Vest asks, "Will moving the derrière to another position — changing sides, changing studios, changing careers-make any difference?"; the question is an appropriate one in light of this article's argument. Vest, "Hitchcock's Cameo," 11.
  12. The ambiguity of Armstrong's character is only deepened when understood in the context of the film persona of Paul Newman. In Torn Curtain, Hitchcock's practice of casting actors in parts that manifested something contradictory but latent in their personae — beginning with Cary Grant in Notorious and Suspicion — is extended to the actor whose stoic athleticism had been colored in such films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and The Left-Handed Gun (1958) with a strain of homoeroticism. The mixed message of Newman's coldness toward women may be exploited in the opening bedroom scene and in the final scene, both of which play with the effects of merely apparent warmth; the extent of Newman's physical prowess may be ironized in his long struggle with Gromek, which succeeds only because of the farm girl. The innocence of the Julie Andrews persona, inherited from Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), is dispelled in the bedroom scene and in her willingness to use flirtation as a means of helping Armstrong purloin the secret of the formula from Lindt. I thank one of Cinema Journal's anonymous readers for suggesting the relevance of Newman's persona.
  13. Durgnat, The Strange case of Hitchcock, 372.
  14. Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited, 202.
  15. Tom Cohen finds this allegory of the retroactively dysfunctional nature of reading in his discussion of the analogy between travel folder and film in To Catch a Thief (1955). He argues that whatever is presented to characters or viewers as beautiful "is what we have already been led to expect to see, as from a postcard, and then recognize as 'beautiful' without really seeing. We are caught in a machinal system of simulacra that burns away any trace of the natural or real." Cohen, "Beyond the 'Gaze,'" 371.
  16. "I got so bored with seeing those English films with the nude couple in bed and that constant shot over the bare shoulder of the man, which is just covering the breasts of the girl. ... I wanted all the people in the dining room to be wrapped in coats and freezing to death having their lunch. And then I go down below and show our couple in bed, covered with blankets, covered in topcoats, and you barely see them at all. For some inexplicable reason, my sense of propriety in this matter didn't seem to meet the approval of the Legion of Decency; they complained that there were premarital occupations going on, and I don't understand why they said that because I can't see a thing." Budge Crawley, Fletcher Markle, and Gerald Pratley, "I Wish We Didn't Have to Shoot the Picture: An Interview with Alfred Hitchcock," in Albert J. LaValley, ed., Focus on Hitchcock (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 25.
  17. Tom Cohen notes the connection between the MacGuffin and the circularity of the plot in To Catch a Thief, in which "theft itself is also to be conceived as the act of representation or of language." Cohen, "Beyond The Gaze,'" 368. Cohen's illuminating reading of To Catch a Thief suggests ways in which that film's metaphor for language may anticipate Armstrong's theft as reading or as "false congress" in Torn Curtain.
  18. The necessity to presuppose meaning, as a false first condition of any discourse, is the metaphorical essence of deconstruction and the reason for its interminability. No one has put the matter more succinctly than Paul de Man in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979): "The paradigm for all texts consists of a figure (or a system of figures) and its deconstruction. But since this model cannot be closed off by a final reading, it engenders, in its turn, a supplementary figural superimposition which narrates the unreadability of the prior narration. As distinguished from primary deconstructive narratives centered on figures and ultimately always on metaphor, we call such narratives to the second (or third) degrees allegories" (205). In de Man's schema, Torn Curtain is figure and deconstruction, while film criticism, like this article, can only allegorize the unreadability of a text unjustly assumed to be readable. For example, the section of this essay devoted to the credit sequence is my "supplementary figurai superimposition," which explains how a false construction of meaning is a condition of reading the credits. And since it will not take long for readers to note my own unjust assumptions of readability, the reading process is never closed off.
  19. This association was first noticed by Gene D. Phillips, Alfred Hitchcock (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 169.
  20. François Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 309.
  21. Durgnat, The Strange case of Hitchcock, 373.
  22. Leitch, Find the Director, 233-34.
  23. For the transcription and translation of German-language portions of Torn Curtain, I am indebted to my colleague Professor David Ward, Department of Modern Languages, Norwich University.
  24. I am grateful to David Ward for calling my attention to this detail.