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Torn Curtain

review by Anthony D.

Studio: Universal

Running Time: 128 minutes

Starring Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Lila Kedrova, Ludwig Donath, David Opatoshu

Screenplay by Brian Moore

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Documentary, Still Gallery, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 2.0, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

Alfred Hitchcock's 50th feature film, "Torn Curtain," is quite a departure from his normal blend of mystery and suspense, and not altogether a successful one. "Torn Curtain" is set against the pre-glasnot world of Cold War, nuclear missiles and the Soviet Union. Its title alone is a reference to the post-war moniker for the Eastern half of Europe, split by the Berlin Wall, nicknamed "The Iron Curtain." In those long half-forgotten days (ask anyone under thirty about the Iron Curtain, and see what kind of response you get), the United States and The Communist Bloc were engaged in a chilling game of spy versus spy accessing government secrets, nuclear warhead information and every now and then a defector: a citizen who would give up their own democratic country to become a member of the Communist Party and take up residence as well as employment in Communist controlled country. Although dealing with many of the same themes as "North by Northwest," "Torn Curtain" lacks the light touch, the witty script and the clear-cut villainy to make it work as well as the former.

"Torn Curtain" does however, have a brilliantly constructed screenplay, neatly divided into three self-contained acts. Screenwriter Robin Moore creates a sense of mystery, turns that mystery inside out for the second act, and in the third act, manages to successfully tie up most of the loose ends.

Act One begins on a luxury liner, where a convention of international physicists are ensconced without heat. Michael and Sarah, professor and lovely assistant whose nuptials are drawing nigh, have found a way to create some heat in their stateroom: our first shot of Julie Andrews and Paul Newman show them frolicking beneath the sheets, the quilts and their clothing. I can imagine audiences' responses to that combination in 1967: Mary Poppins is in bed with Cool Hand Luke!, ah, the times they are a-changin'. Well, that's not so difficult to take to, but, Paul Newman is playing a nuclear physicist! And that's hardly a spoonful of sugar to swallow. It seems that Michael is planning to defect to the state of East Germany in order to find a formula needed for his nuclear research. Instead of giving his speech at the convention of physicists in Norway, Michael books passage to East Berlin where he hopes to work out his formula with a brilliant German physicist. Sarah is shocked to see Michael going behind the Iron Curtain; but becomes even more frustrated once she has followed him and discovers his intentions to defect. Michael once in bed with his fiancee, is now sleeping with the enemy.

Act Two follows Michael's adventures in East Berlin to garner the information he needs. Michael and Sarah are under constant supervision by the Communist party; and while Sarah grieves in their accommodations, Michael attempts to ditch his guardian by losing him in an art museum, then trekking out to a farm, where he meets with his contact. It is here that we learn that Michael is actually working as a "double agent," and his defection is a ploy only to get the information that the United States needs. As Michael is about to make his way back into town, his guard arrives on the scene with an escort. Michael and the farmer's wife must silently murder this man, Gromek, so as not to alert the escort, and to get rid of this major problem of the guardian. In one of Hitchcock's most exciting scenes, we see how difficult and how time consuming killing a man can be. With this brutal slaying, he has put himself and Sarah in graver danger, a danger that can only be resolved through escape from East Germany.

Though he is now both a liar and a murderer, Sarah stands by her man as they frantically try to evade the authorities in "Torn Curtain's" Third Act. It is in the final segments that Hitchcock's genius for the "wanted man on the run" genre takes hold and grabs the viewer. Ever wonder what it would be like to yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theater? Well, "Torn Curtain" supplies the answer, even if it ultimately leaves more questions unanswered.

Presented by Universal in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, "Torn Curtain" possibly looks even better now than when first released. Its 1.85:1 aspect ratio boasts and intriguing display of colors often used in a symbolic manner by Hitchcock: the reds speaking for Communism and danger, green for safety and serenity and the infamous Hitchcock grey; made famous by Kim Novak's suit in "Vertigo," and here worn with style by Julie Andrews. And though the image of Julie Andrews in a beret and trenchcoat may at first be off-putting, she pulls off the look with class. The second unit work looks sub-standard, even for a Hitchcock title, but reasons are given in the film's supplemental material; to me it looks as if Universal had done some restoration work on "Torn Curtain," and then quit abruptly near Chapter 14, but the process camera work has always looked shoddy, and in the digital domain these flaws are much more apparent. The colors hold very true throughout, and the contrast level couldn't be better: compare the cobalt blue eyes of Paul Newman to the ocean blue of Julie Andrews'and you can see just how right the color scheme is. If at times the picture seem a little on the soft side, this was Hitchcock's intent; he used a smoke-grey filter when shooting "Torn Curtain" to give the film a certain unsettling quality.

If only the sound were half as good as the picture, but, alas, this 2.0 mono digital soundtrack is quite problematic. John Addison's workable score often comes off quite harsh on the high end, otherwise dialogue is intelligible, if all-too-often processed. Some added effort could have gone into restoring the film's soundtrack. The disc also supports a 2.0 French mono soundtrack for those who find the idea of a French-speaking Paul Newman even sexier than the English speaking one.

In the Special Features category, Hitchcock buffs will find a truly rare treat: Hitchcock's most frequently used composer Bernard Herrman was supposed to have scored "Torn Curtain," but the suits at Universal wanted a more "commercial" soundtrack - - they may have even comissioned a title tune to be sung by Julie, "Ah, look! A Torn Curtain. I with no needle nor thread," to be sun during the films' credits for all we know - - and decided to tack on the cheerier, easier on the ear score of John Addison. The supplemental material makes up for lost time by including several scenes from "Torn Curtain" with Herrmann's brilliant right-on-the-money score intact. While Addison's score plays up the romantic aspect of the film, and softens the serious subject matter, Herrmann's score cuts to the quick weaving a tapestry of sinuous suspenseful motifs more appropriate to the subject matter. The full-frame Theatrical Trailer is one of the roughest pieces of film I've encountered on any of Universal's titles, thus hardly watchable. The original documentary, "Torn Curtain Rising" features some interesting stills of unused scenes, but is narrated more as a film student's senior thesis than most "making of" documentaries. The Special Features' decidedly mixed bag is rounded off with a Photo Gallery of posters, production photographs and original artwork as well as Biographies and Film Highlights of most of "Torn Curtain's" main cast of filmmakers.

"Torn Curtain" is most assuredly a mixed bag from a gifted director, a film with a limited appeal, though it was one of Universal's highest grossing films of 1967. Working with a literate script, but under forced studio conditions, Hitchcock's energy and creativity seem stifled by the enforced casting of studio picks Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Newmans' Actor's Studio Method performance works less and less as time goes by, whereas Ms. Andrews' natural charisma and simplistic work methods have aged gracefully. Perhaps Hitchcock found a kindred soul in the sheer Britishness of Miss Andrews, a similar soul, so to speak, that she comes off more realistically than the All-American charms of Newman. Co-star Lila Kedrova, recent Oscar-winner for "Zorba the Greek," adds much needed humor in the final third of the film, with her flaming red hair and mittle-European accent; while fifth billed ballerina Tamara Toumanova registers haute humor in an earlier scene which is punctuated with a corker of a punchline in the final reels. Two Hitchcock set pieces keep "Torn Curtain" head over other 1960's espionage tales: the brutal killing of Gromek, mentioned previously, and the final escape from a crowded theater featuring the stunning dance work of Toumanova. When "FIRE!" is yelled, the theater's audience becomes a pre-punk mosh pit for stars Andrews and Newman; now whoever said that Hitchcock was behind the times!?!?

Fans of the spy genre looking for a tale with a difference will likely be disappointed at "Torn Curtain's" look at the male-female question of compatability, though for Hitchcock completists, this "Torn Curtain" is already sewn up.

(4.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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