Eight or Nine years ago I got a Box Set of Hitchcock movies Universal put together as a Christmas gift and one of the movie I never got around to seeing was Torn Curtain (1966). It's the story of an American nuclear scientist played by Paul Newman who, while on an expedition to the Arctic is tasked with defecting to East Berlin in order to learn a nuclear secret from behind the iron curtain. He tears right through that curtain, claiming he is bringing his own information on a nuclear defense system in order to trick a corresponding scientist of his own secrets. The big wrinkle is that his girlfriend played by Julie Andrews is not privy to the scheme, whether it is the defection or the spymcraft and follows him into East Berlin, complicating his cover and escape. Through her eyes we learn of the defection, and the weight of being stranded in a hostile land, from a distance we see her learn of his real intentions and as the information is stolen without ever giving anything up, the two escape by bus and by ship to freedom.
From a quick glance if the synopsis I figured a nice double feature partner to Torn Curtain would be the Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! (2016). Most of the film is the story of a Hollywood fixer and the morons he is bailing out. George Clooney's actor character is kidnapped by a "study group" of communist screenwriters, Scarlett Johasson's actress character is looking for a way to keep out of a scandal as she is pregnant out of wedlock and Channing Tatum defects to a Soviet submarine. It all falls apart for the screenwriters, Tatum gets away despite dropping the satchel of ransom money in the ocean, Johansson finds a placeholder husband and Clooney is just as much of a moron at the end as he was at the beginning.
While both movies have defectors behind the iron curtain, those defectors are on opposite ends of the spectrum of their enthusiasm for Communism. Channing Tatum’s character practically dances his way onto the Soviet submarine, and Paul Newman’s character does everything he can to get back after stealing soviet nuclear secrets. The actors kind of had differing relationships with the great directors of their movies as well. George Clooney said that he thought he was done with his Coen Brothers “Trilogy of Idiots” before signing on to be “the biggest idiot of them all.” He kind of pranked his way into getting this movie made, the title was one that he would throw around at press junkets to play a joke on reporters until the Coens went along with it and made a movie based on it, so he says. Channing Tatum said that he didn’t need to read the script to know that he was on board acting in a Coens movie, not sure how true this statement is either, his dancing abilities seem to play a big role in his part.
Paul Newman hardly had a fun time with Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps it was that Hitch was jealous of a handsome and heterosexual leading man, that sure seems to come up a bit in his movie-making relationships, but it probably had a little more with Newman coming from a younger generation. Upon reading the script, Newman sent a lengthy list of recommendations, or demands, for making the movie better which included statements about poor dialogue in the script, lack of humor and an unimpressive title. Hitch did not take these recommendations to heart and many of these criticisms ended up being echoed by critics.
There was also a bit of confusion from moviegoers about what to expect from Torn Curtain. Promotional materials were keen to highlight Julie Andrews as she was the audience surrogate of the film, but her reputation at the time had Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music fresh in the minds of viewers. There was an expectation that this would be a similar musical and not necessarily a suspenseful spy thriller.
The Coen Brothers have had problems with audiences regarding expected tone as well. I recall the excitement of watching No Country for Old Men then going into their next movie, Burn After Reading had a wildly different tone when it came to the characters. Although, the tone of the stories was very similar, they were still so drastically different that the initial viewing experience for Burn After Reading was quite jarring to see cartoonish characters in that bleak world of spies. Hail Caesar had perhaps a similar disconnect with viewers as critics gave it 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the audience score is 44%, similarly, the Letterboxd average is pretty middling at 3.2 out of 5.
Perhaps it is a movie for movie people and not moviegoers. Perhaps it lacks the edge of No Country or A Serious Man. Maybe moviegoers didn't expect a Channing Tatum tap dance sequence that rivals the homoeroticism of Magic Mike. Well, it's more overt. Maybe it was too much of a final swing from their previous movie, Inside Llewellyn Davis. Maybe Llewellyn Davis wasn't as big of a hit as other Coens movies and they lost a little of their buzz. It could be that it was a little too similar in subject matter to their earlier film Barton Fink.
Rather, Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar live in seemingly the same Golden Age of Hollywood, perhaps in different studios. It’s the Golden Age of Hollywood where Alfred Hitchcock had his own bungalow office on the Universal Studios lot that was walking distance to the studios where he would shoot. Barton Fink tells a fictionalization of great American writers like Faulkner and Fitzgerald who went to Hollywood to write for the pictures to limited success. Hail, Caesar takes the next step and uses the real name of the Hollywood fixer for MGM studios from the '30's to the '60's, Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, for the narrative device for the rest of the characters who are purely fictional.
Despite any behind the scenes drama or being a drama about what happens behind the scenes, these were both really entertaining to watch. There is just enough overlap of defectors to justify a theme.