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Thursday, March 15, 2012

TORN CURTAIN (1966)

One-by-one, Alfred Hitchcock’s late films have been undergoing critical reclamation . . . except for TORN CURTAIN. Made as the old studio-system was in fast collapse, Hitch was being squeezed by a deal with the devil (Universal’s super-mogul Lew Wasserman) and by his two expensive, but ill-suited stars (Paul Newman, Julie Andrews). Then, he made a bad situation worse, pinching pennies with tv-sourced replacements after his long-time lenser & editor both died unexpectedly; he even accepted John Addison’s clueless musical score after a final blow-up with the irascible Bernard Herrmann. Hitch was down-and-out before you even factor in Universal’s typically sub-par tech work which reached its nadir on a soundstage hill in East Berlin, Hollywood. Here, on an appallingly artificial set (and its equally awful cyclorama), Paul & Julie get their big romantic moment. But wait!, the studio managed to make things worse, sending out prints with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but meant to be ‘masked’ down to 1.85:1. Screw up the framing, Mister Projectionist, and you can see all the lovely studio lights & electrical rigging hanging above. (Many of these problems were swiftly addressed in TOPAZ/’69, an atypical tale for Hitch, the best-selling book another ‘gift’ from the WasserMan, but with vastly improved tech work and class-A lensing, scoring & editing. And its latest DVD edition redeems a lot by using the best of the three endings Hitch shot.) So, is this Cold War thriller worth a look? Sure. It’s kind of fun seeing Hitch’s technique laid bare, unencumbered by too much involvement in plot, place or character, and being always a couple beats ahead of the story makes for easy study. (PLOT: Newman feigns defection behind the Iron Curtain to steal research; Andrews tags along; they sneak back.) The last two acts have a fair share of quality set pieces (plus more shoddy tech work at odd moments) and it's instructional to guess where Hitch simply took over editing chores. Anyway, there’s something subversive & deeply Hitchcockian in a Cold War thriller that makes our American hero pick the superior brain of a Commie scientist.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fritz Lang didn’t do much better sending Gary Cooper in & out of Nazi-occupied Italy for a nuclear scientist in CLOAK AND DAGGER/’46.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If Universal really wants to give TORN CURTAIN a shot at critical reclamation, it needs to finish synching up the original Bernard Herrmann score. There’s about a reel and a half of it in the Extras, all Herrmann finished recording before getting the heave-ho from Hitch. But you can hear the more-or-less complete score on a brilliant recording from Joel McNeely & The National Philharmonic Orchestra on Varèse Sarabande.

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