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Torn Curtain

Universal Home Video

Starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews

Written by Brian Moore
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

When Alfred Hitchcock directed Torn Curtain, he had been making movies for over 40 years. Over the previous two decades he'd had a staggering number of successes, both artistically and commercially — in the 1950s alone he made fourteen films, including Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Every one was stand-alone classic, and that one man made all those films is a mind-blowing achievement.

But in the '60s, Hitch slowed down considerably (born in 1899, he was in his sixties himself), reaching a pinnacle with Psycho in 1960, followed by 1963's The Birds and Marnie in 1964 . Marnie bombed. Hitch was tired. And so we come to his 50th picture — 1966's Torn Curtain, a tepid Cold War thriller that fully deserves its reputation as one of Hitchcock's least-effective films.

The plot is formulaic spy stuff: Paul Newman plays Michael Armstrong, a physicist who defects to East Germany so he can work on his rocket project, for which funding has been cancelled in the U.S. His assistant/girlfriend, an uncomfortable-looking Julie Andrews, pluckily decides to stand by her man and follows him uninvited to East Berlin. But — surprise! — Newman's really faking desertion so he can pick the brain of a German scientist who has the information he needs to complete a nuclear defense project for the Americans. Not surprisingly, the plan is quickly discovered and the two must flee for their lives. You see, Newman's character, as presented in the story, is an extraordinarily bad spy. Somehow he's completely unprepared for what must have taken months of planning to accomplish, and once he gets himself behind the Iron Curtain he screws everything up the first day he's there. (It's worth noting that one actually has sympathy for the bad guys in Torn Curtain — besides being far smarter than the hero, they're a lot more interesting.)

In addition to a thuddingly dull plot, Torn Curtain suffers from a major lack of enthusiasm on Hitchcock's part — he not only disliked Andrews in her role (she was reportedly forced on him by the studio because she was red-hot, coming off of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music) and had trouble getting a script that he was happy with, but he also clashed with Actors Studio-trained Newman and fired longtime-collaborator Bernard Herrmann because of a disagreement over the score.

The last was a notable mistake — the score by Herrmann's replacement, John Addison, is abominable. Over-the-top and even discordant at times, Addison's music is often glaringly inappropriate to the scene at hand — wacky, light-hearted music scores scenes of suspense, and anyone who even looks like a bad guy gets a sinister music cue, no matter what's onscreen at the time. On the very best feature of this disc, you can listen to the music that Herrmann completed for the film matched with the appropriate scenes. Giving into the uncontrollable impulse to compare the two scores side-by-side just makes Addison's work even less appealing. One scene, for example, is a simple establishing shot of a hotel in Copenhagen, followed by an interior of the hotel's lobby and Hitchcock's predictable cameo (he's sitting in the lobby playing with a small child). Herrmann's score for the scene is initially grand, then shifts to a lighter melody to establish the pleasant atmosphere of the hotel. It's masterful and beautifully appropriate to the action onscreen. Addison, however, re-scored the scene as if it were a comedy — and then punctuates Hitch's appearance with (I kid you not) a few notes of the theme music from his TV show (the jaunty "Funeral March for a Marionette"). The word "awful" does not even begin to describe it, and given the opportunity to listen to what Herrmann would have contributed had he been kept on the job makes it an even greater travesty.

Torn Curtain itself is directed in the haphazard manner of a director who really doesn't give a damn, with some scenes gorgeously constructed and plotted in classic Hitchcock fashion, while others feature astoundingly horrible rear-projection shots and pedestrian editing. Of the three key scenes of suspense in the film, only the famous "farmhouse scene" really works: Followed to a remote farmhouse by a German agent, Newman and the terrified farm wife struggle to kill the baddie in the kitchen without alerting the taxi driver waiting outside. Almost four minutes in length, without any music to distract from the sounds of struggle, the scene is gruesome and darkly hilarious, as the two choke, stab, beat and finally drag the struggling German headfirst into a gas oven. Hitchcock said that his intention in this scene was to show just how difficult it is to kill a man, and his delight in constructing the sequence is evident. It is, frankly, the only good four minutes in the film — and not just because we don't have to listen to Addison's music.

Two other sequences intended to keep the audience on the edges of their seats fall utterly flat. A scene where Newman tricks the German scientist into giving up his secrets through a sort of "dueling formula scribbling" is unbelievably tedious — it appears that even Hitchcock couldn't make two guys writing on a chalkboard interesting. And Newman and Andrews' attempt to escape by bus into West Berlin — threatened at every turn by police, deserting soldiers, and a hysterical woman who keeps spouting unnecessary exposition — may be one of the most excruciatingly boring "climactic" ten minutes in cinematic history.

Universal's DVD release of Torn Curtain offers a good anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1) with audio in monaural Dolby 2.0. It looks good and sounds good enough, but who cares? The movie sucks. On the other hand, the 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, "Torn Curtain Rising," is pretty damn cool, offering a detailed history of the production of the film, complete with rarely seen photos. The scenes with music by Bernard Herrmann make one miss his brilliance all over again, and they illustrate that this movie might not have been quite so horrible had he been allowed to finish scoring it. There's also production notes, cast-and-crew notes, the theatrical trailer, and a still gallery of photos and posters. All in all, a far better presentation than this film deserves — and only worth owning to complete a collection of Hitchcock on DVD, if one is so inclined.

— Dawn Taylor

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