Oh, no! The curtains are torn! Better call Martha Stewart. Judge Patrick Naugle takes a look at this paean to decorating nightmares lensed by the Great One, Alfred Hitchcock.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
A chilly look at the Cold War, Hitchcock-style.
Torn Curtain was the next film Alfred Hitchcock directed after his box office bomb Marnie (and the first without music collaborator Bernard Herrmann). Starring Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Hud) and Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), Torn Curtain was a hit at the box office but not so with the critics. Have the years been kinder to Torn Curtain than the critics originally were, or is this the bottom of the Hitchcock barrel? Finally available on DVD from Universal, Torn Curtain is a split deal.
Facts of the Case
Professor Michael Armstrong (Newman) has deflected from the United States to work for East Germany's defense militia…or has he? His fiancée/assistant Sarah (Andrews) is in complete and utter love with Michael. After finding out that he's got ulterior motives for leaving the United States she still sticks with him, following him onboard a plane heading a different direction (herr-rah, we're goin' to Germany!) than where he was going.
As soon as Michael's plane lands he is caught up in a whirlwind adventure in Germany, posing as someone else to collect some top-secret information along the way (ain't that the way all these darn espionage movies go?). Yes, Michael is a spy (for those of you who are a wee bit on the slow side). In typical Hitchcock fashion (and in the same vein as North By Northwest), Michael and Sarah are soon on the lam, running from the law (plus a disgruntled ballerina), and dodging bullets.
Will Michael and Sarah make it out of Germany alive? Will the law catch them first? And is it true a ballerina is pursuing them?
I wish that I could say I was a Hitchcock connoisseur. I wish that I could say I have seen all of his films and read lengthy books on the subject. I wish I could say all that, but all I can really say is I cried at the end of Major League II. That alone forces me to inject that I am not a foremost authority on anything Hitchcockian. I have seen the original Psycho, as well as Family Plot, North By Northwest, and The Birds. So, the good news is I'm not a complete bozo when it comes to all things "Hitch." I know some history, and have seen a few of his films. However, be forewarned I often talk out of my chunky cheeks (if you get my drift, and I think you do).
Torn Curtain is the least of the films I have watched by Hitchcock. I was originally very excited to view this due to the fact that Paul Newman was in it, one of my favorite stars to watch on the silver screen. The film starts out promising; Newman and Andrews in bed zinging back and forth lot of naughty innuendo. Then it all slowly goes downhill. Though there are key Hitchcock sequences (such as the scene where Newman kills another spy), Torn Curtain is mostly filled with scenes that we've all seen before in Hitchcock movies (and many times seen better). Sorely lacking is Herrmann's music, substituted for John Addison's (Tom Jones) bombastic score. Herrmann was fired from the job after Hitch was unhappy with his score and Addison replaced him. Sadly, this would mark the beginning of a new music phase for Hitchcock as he'd never have Herrmann on board doing the scoring again.
Torn Curtain does have some excellent things going for it, though. Paul Newman's performance is, as usual, excellent. He tends to act a bit sideways and you never know exactly where he is coming from or where he is going. Hitchcock and Newman had a few squabbles over the way the character should be developed…and as history attests, Hitchcock was infamous for thinking his actors were like "cattle." Either way, Newman still gives a nice performance. The same cannot be said for Julie Andrews. Though I am not partial to her in general, Andrews' performance is very boring, with her playing the typical "I love you I'll do anything for you" gal. This is really Newman's show, and Andrew's Sarah often plays second banana to Newman's Michael. The rest of the cast all does what they're supposed to do. Look angry, confused, and speak a lot of German.
Torn Curtain was filmed primarily on the Universal lot, and it often shows. In one scene when Michael and Sarah are walking though a park in Californ…uh, I mean "Germany," the buildings behind them are obviously fake. You'd have thought that with Hitchcock's clout and status, they would have sprung for real live German buildings (but, you can't just blame the cash backers…it was also Hitchcock's preference as well).
Finally there is the script, whose main problem lay in the dialogue. Much of what is said on screen is spoken in German with no subtitles, so it's hard to know what is going on at points. Torn Curtain also lacks the black humor that is usually present in most Hitchcock pictures (or at least the ones that I have seen). The script is dry, lacking any real human emotion. Newman and Andrews are already hanging by a thin thread when it comes to making believable love scenes, and the script doesn't lend much of a hand.
Torn Curtain is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphic. For a film this old the source print looks very good. There were some faded spots, but overall the colors were bright and the blacks bold. Some shots sometimes appeared fuzzy, but overall the transfer is very good. Slight edge enhancement was spotted, but was kept to the bare minimum. Universal does another excellent job on one of Hitchcock's lesser films.
Audio for Torn Curtain is not nearly as impressive, however, with the set-up being only a 2.0 Dolby Digital track. Nothing to get excited over, as the sound had some hiss to it and the music was often too loud. Dialogue was generally clear and crisp, though there were spots of distortion. A pity that there couldn't have been some kind of surround sound remix for this (and most of the others) Hitchcock release. Also included is a French 2.0 track as well as English subtitles.
Universal has given us some decent bonus materials for you Torn Curtain fans, including a 30-minute documentary entitled "Torn Curtain Rising." The documentary explores the troubled history of Torn Curtain, including differences between Paul Newman and Hitchcock, Hitchcock's disapproval with leading lady Andrews, and how Hitch shot certain scenes to get maximum effects. Nuggets of information abound. Did you know that Paul Newman disdained the title Torn Curtain for the final film? Well, after watching this documentary you soon will. A good and satisfying look into one of Hitchcock's least praised films.
Also included are some scenes that were scored by Bernard Herrmann before he was fired for John Addison's new soundtrack. These are interesting for you film music buffs, a rare treat to watch what would become two film masters last works together. How different Torn Curtain might have been with Herrmann at the helm.
Some production photos as well as a poster gallery are included, plus some cast and crew biographies, production notes and a full frame, scratchy theatrical trailer (which is always fun to watch, as Hitch often times makes an appearance in his trailers, though not for Torn Curtain).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, looks like I have once again used up all my negatives before their time had come. Overall, Torn Curtain is not a bad movie; just a lesser treat than most Hitchcock films. If you're looking for something that is as powerful as Psycho or as thrilling as North By Northwest, you're looking in the wrong spot. For sheer entertainment value you could do much worse than Torn Curtain. Unlike most filmmakers, at his worst Hitchcock still stands miles above most mediocre Hollywood drivel.
Universal has priced most of the Hitchcock films at a nice price, usually around 25 dollars. This reviewer's opinion is that's a little high for a film like Torn Curtain, but as a renter it's a good piece of film history. Hey, it has Paul Newman acting, Hitchcock directing, and a scene where a ballerina gets really peeved. Now that I think about it, maybe I'm being a tad harsh on Torn Curtain. I'm "torn."
Get it? "Torn?" Har-har.
I know, I'm putting in my resignation when I'm finished writing this review.
Guilty for being one of Hitch's lesser films, but it's a hung jury as it's got a few good things going for it. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Torn Curtain Rising Documentary
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