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Review
Torn Curtain



Torn Curtain

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Elmer Bernstein, 1977.

Film Music Collection FMC-10 (LP, 1977); Warner Records BSK 3185 (LP, 1978).
Herrmann and Hitchcock

Torn Curtain (1966) became the end of a ten year long relationship between the composer Bernard Herrmann and director Alfred Hitchcock. Together they had ruled and manipulated the audience with The Man Who Knew too Much (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (no music, B.H. as a sound consultant; 1963) and Marnie (1964).

During the 1960's the pressure increased upon the directors not just to make an attractive movie but also to ensure that the film music would contain a hit-tune, everything to increase record sales and the movie's popularity. Hitchcock was no different. At the recording of Torn Curtain Hitchcock was dissatisfied with the composition Herrmann had made and Hitchcock fired him immediately. Their long relationship ended abruptly.

There has been different opinions whether Hitchcock was pressured by the film's producers to fire Herrmann or if Hitchcock himself made the crucial decision. In the documentary Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann the answer is given. There the director Josh Woletzsky says it was Hitchcock. "Hitchcock never really understood how dependent he was upon Herrmann", says Woletzsky.

During an interview with the Swedish film music magazine MovieScore, Woletzsky also says that he has listened to a recorded interview with Hitchcock where Hitchcock's being questioned about what happened and if the director is going to take Herrmann back. Hitchcock than answers: "I'll do that when Herrmann has learned to do what you tell him to do".

Anyway Herrmann was replaced with the English composer John Addison. And the film got it's hit-tune - but not by Addison! Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote "Love Theme from Torn Curtain (Green Years)" featuring Johnny Mann Singers.

Despite the fact that John Addison had to do a few instrumental arrangements on the vocal theme his music is a combination of dark and low style against a dramatic "chase"-cue with among others military snare drums.

So it's indeed a big paradox. Hitchcock fired Herrmann and thought he would get some sort of more commercial or "light weighted" music, but of course Addison had to, just like Herrmann did, stick to the picture and it's potentials and compose a score. That fact no one can change!


The Music

Now let us have a look at what Herrmann wrote for Torn Curtain.

Herrmann had an enormous ability to portray and reflect emotions and moods in a picture. Torn Curtain was no exception. He characterised the life behind the iron curtain with a sad, bleak, cold and an unfriendly style. To achieve this he used 12 flutes. The music is really grey and low and it has an eerie and a creeping sound. This style is used through-out the entire score accompanied by the dark harmonies of the cellos and basses.

Above the 12 flutes and a few other instruments, 16 horns, 9 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of timpani, 8 cellos and 8 basses were needed! For those who haven't heard this masterpiece I hope that this will shed some light of the magnitude of this score.

The score opens with "Prelude", which is a bombastic and powerful cue, that only uses the flutes, horns, trombones, timpani and high piccolos (that Christopher Palmer describes in his liner notes as "squealing rats"). The music has a strong impact and feel of danger.

A variation of this motif occurs in "The Corridor", which portrays the action when Paul Newman (as Michael Armstrong) has obtained the formula and is been chased by security men through a corridor trying to escape. Here the danger motif transforms into a crazy dance rhythm to enhance the action.

The low and grey music is sometimes punctuated by attacks from the brass instruments like in "The Bookstore", "The Farmhouse" and "The Body". Something which is quite effective and has a certain devastating feel to it.

Herrmann's score has very little of warmth to offer. Only two cues have some tender moments. "Valse Lente", which is a source-cue performed by a handful of strings that Herrmann has said is "a kind of frayed reminiscence of a dim and distant past", and "The Hill", when Newman tells Julie Andrews (as his fiancee Sarah) that he is spy and not a defector.

The highlight of Herrmann's score is none-the-less the cue "The Killing". It expresses true terror in a way that Herrmann never had done before. "[This is] the real Psycho theme", he has said to his friend Palmer. And I can't agree more. The music is extremely brutal, forceful and violent. It can be described as music that devastates everything in it's way.

The killing scene in the film has no music and many critics have argued that it's too slow and that it doesn't have that Hitchcock touch that for instance the shower scene in Psycho has. But this is definitely due to it's lack of Herrmann's music.

This scene appears on the documentary Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann with Herrmann's cue added to it and the difference that it makes is enormous. The impact is gruesome.

Even John Addison composed a cue for this scene, but it was also rejected.

Bernard Herrmann didn't really want to compose film music. He rather wanted to conduct classical music. But destiny wanted different. Despite this he really put his heart and soul into the scores he composed and Torn Curtain is no exception. And just like all his other compositions it has that unique speciality like the combination of the orchestra, the structure of the score and the musical palette. It's undeniably a masterpiece.

Elmer Bernstein and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra aren't to be forgotten. A score such as this should of course be conducted and performed by an elite and they are doing there absolute best. The liner notes by Christopher Palmer are (as usual) superb.

It's about time that this score is released on CD.


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International Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)