Upon release in 1966 Torn Curtain had a lukewarm reception and lead to most critics thinking Hitchcock was past his prime (however, had Torn Curtain come before North by Northwest the results may have differed). At a time when directors were going on location to shoot scenes he was still using the dated method of rear projection. The production was also said to be troubled with the studio pressuring him on who to hire, disputes between the director and his leading man, Paul Newman, and his eventual firing of long-time collaborator Bernard Herman. However, despite all these setbacks Hitchcock still managed to produce a movie that was uniquely layered and suspenseful.
The structuring of the movie is most worthy of note. As usual Hitchcock restricts the audiences’ knowledge to a single character (providing us with unrestricted knowledge only when he deems it necessary to build suspense) but this plays out in three stages. First we learn things from Sarah’s (Julie Andrews) perspective and after their defection we switch to Michael’s perspective, all our knowledge now coming from what he learns. In the final act, when Sarah is brought in on the charade, information is funnelled through both characters.
Another beautiful piece of artwork is Hitchcock’s use of framing in the airport interrogation scene. When both Michael and Sarah are seated in the room they are not shown in the same frame or with any other character. The editing shows three (repeated) cuts: to Michael, then to Sarah and then the communists. It creates a him, her and them feel to the scene. By doing this Hitchcock has visually shown the audience of the isolation of the two lead characters (each shares an empty frame, in medium shot, whilst the communists are crowded into one) up to that point.
Although a less well received work of Hitchcock’s it is in no way a lesser work of an irrelevant director.