This Sunday, TCM’s showing 24 hours of Paul Newman, and movie nerds, like football fans, probably have their tailgating all planned out. Slurp up spaghetti and Newman’s Own Sockarooni sauce while Hud drinks and disappoints (6 p.m.). Microwave a bag of Newman’s Own Light Butter Popcorn as Cool Hand Luke chokes down 50 hardboiled eggs (10 p.m.). Might we also suggest Newman’s Own Organics Dried Fruit Berry Blend, a bowl of granola, and Torn Curtain (10 a.m.)? It’s an Alfred Hitchcok thriller about a physicist who fake-defects and the fiancée who, not in on the trick, bumbles after him through the Iron Curtain.
The movie, to be honest, kind of blows. This isn’t one among the ridiculous, unequaled streak of Hitchcock masterpieces that began with Rear Window and ended nine years later with Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, right in a row. Torn Curtain came after, and everything’s off, echo-y. There’s no Bernard Hermann score. The Hitchcock blonde is played by redheaded Julie Andrews. Newman is only a slightly more convincing rocket scientist than Denise Richards in whichever Bond movie. Still, we can recommend four minutes of the film, which is how long it takes Paul Newman and a farmer’s wife to kill a guy.
Hitchcock wanted to experiment for once with inelegancy. “In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly,” he explained, “And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man.” So Newman throws a bottle of milk at the German secret policeman and starts choking him. The farm frau breaks a knife blade off in his neck and busts his kneecaps with a shovel. They turn on the gas and shove his head in the stove. The soundtrack offers no crescendoing or creeping music to tell us what to feel; it’s just their grunts and sighs and whimpers. Newman, in his gray tweed and skinny tie, looks like another Kennedy brother, which doesn’t help. When the German’s hands finally stop struggling and wriggling, you worry that maybe you should call the cops or face charges as an accessory.
This was, mind you, the year before Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway got mowed down in “Bonnie and Clyde,” supposedly the act of cinematic violence that shocked Hollywood into realism; and 42 years before the equally brutal, much more hilarious, seemingly never-ending beating James Franco, Seth Rogen and Danny McBride give each other in Pineapple Express. We’d argue that the fight in Torn Curtain influenced more filmmakers than the shower scene in Psycho; all that slow lurching around is as precise and perfect as any other Hitchcock set piece, but it’s also savagely straightforward, and perhaps easier for smaller talents to replicate.
Still, those four minutes don’t totally make up for the other 124; and no consolation for the fact that Hitchcock, who gave Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant their best and weirdest roles, mistook Paul Newman for some young punk. After Torn Curtain, of course, Newman still had a million great movies in front of him. But it took the once-profilic Hitchcock a decade to direct just three more films, his last. They were grubby, unglamorous, scaring nobody, starring nobodies.