For decades, Alfred Hitchcock had been alchemizing world politics into silky thrillers. The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes and Foreign Correspondent, to choose only from films he made in the 1930s, all showed ordinary people stumbling into espionage plots. Torn Curtain, written by ex-Brit-intelligence agent Brian Moore, brought the spying front and center. American rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) defects to East Germany with his fiancée Sarah (Julie Andrews); in fact he is a U.S. operative charged with locating a mathematical formula invented by a Leipzig scientist. Filming in Berlin and Copenhagen, and on the Universal Studios back lot, Hitchcock managed one brilliant, brutal sequence as Armstrong gets in a death match with an East German thug (Wolfgang Kieling) — proof that, as the director said, “It’s very difficult to kill a man.”
The shoot was also agonizing. Newman is palpably uncomfortable, as is Andrews, whom the studio insisted replace Hitchcock’s choice, Eva Marie Saint. Behind the scenes, the director acceded to Universal’s veto of Bernard Herrmann, his longtime composer, firing Herrmann in front of his musicians and hiring John Addison (an Oscar winner two years before for Tom Jones) to write a more sonorous score. The director also wanted to end the film on a pensive note: “Paul Newman would have thrown the formula away….. It speaks to the futility of all, and it’s in keeping with the kind of naïveté of the character, who is no professional spy and who will certainly retire from that nefarious business.” That idea too was overruled, leaving Torn Curtain as a sour compromise with one saving moment: the desperate, clumsy, unheroic death struggle of a man from the West and a man from the East.