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Review
Torn Curtain



Torn Curtain

National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely.

Varese Sarabande VSD-5817 (CD, 1998).
Varese Sarabande has recently released Joel McNeely's 1997 recording of Bernard Herrmann's score for Torn Curtain as part of their continuing series of Herrmann film score releases. This is not the first time that this unused and unfinished score has been recorded. In 1977 Elmer Bernstein and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded twenty-one cues for his Film Music Collection (FMC-10) series, subsequently reissued on Warner Brothers records (BSK-3185).* Now, twenty years later, Joel McNeely and the National Philharmonic Orchestra have revisited those twenty-one cues and added ten more from this legendary score. One might assume that McNeely's recording is simply an expansion of Bernstein's earlier production. However, this is not so.

Torn Curtain was to be the ninth (and last) film collaboration between Herrmann and Hitchcock. The film contains a number of Hitchcock set pieces, e.g., the killing of Gromek, the escape from the crowded theater, and attempts to portray a world of espionage that contrasts strongly with the then hugely popular spy films typified by the glamorous James Bond movies. Unfortunately, the film's few strengths are not enough to allow it to be counted among Hitchcock's successes. At Universal's urging, Hitchcock had asked Herrmann to compose a score with a 'beat', a score geared to modern audiences. Herrmann had other ideas and felt that a pop score was not what this film needed. The composer came up with a percussive yet brooding collection of cues that required an ensemble weighted heavily and uniquely toward the brass and woodwinds. At the time of the first recording session Herrmann had composed thirty-three cues to accompany the first hour and a half of the just over two-hour film. When Hitchcock arrived halfway through the first day's taping session and listened to a playback, he was clearly not getting what he had requested. Herrmann was quickly fired and his score replaced by one composed by John Addison. For Herrmann, the falling-out with Hitchcock was a devastating personal and professional blow, one from which he arguably never recovered.

The first thing one notes in comparing the McNeely and Bernstein recordings is how different each sounds. Bernstein's album, recorded at London's Olympic Studios, has a crisp, clear sound with lots of 'air.' The various parts of the ensemble are very distinct. Brightness continually asserts itself throughout the recording. The McNeely CD has just the opposite quality: the recording sounds compressed and claustrophobic as if all the air has been sucked out of it. Upon a direct comparison of the two, the newer album appears at first to have been either badly recorded or mishandled in post-production. Further and more thoughtful listenings suggest that the producers of the new recording may have intentionally tried to capture in sound the gray, claustrophobic feeling of the film itself.

In another contrast with earlier recording, McNeely has opted not to maintain the tempi of the earlier recording. According to the liner notes for the new CD, McNeely's "conducting philosophy was to match the tempi as directly indicated on Herrmann's original scores and to avoid referencing any previous recording." Without a finished version of the score to use for comparison, one cannot compare McNeely's pacing with any authoritative source, yet his choices seem to work: frantic when needed and slow and building when suspense is called for. The National Philharmonic Orchestra, an ensemble that Herrmann himself used for his scoring sessions for "Obsession" and many other recordings, performs well and captures the proper mood throughout. Overall, the music on the Varese CD flows together as a whole very well, much better than Bernstein's recording. The earlier recording sounds like bits and pieces of an unfinished work; the new disc more resembles a cohesive, completed whole . . . with, of course, the never completed end lopped off!

As to the score itself, themes are few, with the most prominent being the martial, yet chaotic and clashing music that Herrmann planned to use to accompany the film's opening credits, "Prelude." It recurs several times, most prominently in the cues "Hotel Berlin" and "The Corridor". Just as the all strings orchestra he used for Psycho was an experiment, Herrmann uses a skewed ensemble here as well to create music to suit a cold, gray yet dangerous world. Chaos (the "Prelude"-based cues, "The Killing") and life ("Valse Lente" and "The Hill") only occasionally rise above the gloom and doom. As a whole, the score resembles a slower yet more percussive version of Psycho, but one can hear portions reminiscent of other Herrmann scores as well, including North by Northwest.

Much of the appeal of this new CD is as that of a historical document, providing the most comprehensive look yet at this legendary, discarded work. The disc, along with a copy of the released film on video, allows one to experiment to determine just how different Torn Curtain might have turned out had this score not been discarded. Lay these tracks against the film itself and Herrmann clearly had in mind a much different cinematic experience than the pairing of Hitchcock's film with Addison's replacement score. Addison's music has much lightness in it; Herrmann's has little. As the film begins and Hitchcock is attempting to build his suspense story, Addison's breezy music counters his efforts; Herrmann's music does not. One of the most dramatic contrasts in the two approaches can be found in the music that each composer uses to accompany Armstrong and Sherman's arrival at the Hotel Berlin in East Berlin. Herrmann reuses his chaotic "Prelude" theme here to underscore the enormity and danger inherent in the characters' defection to then communist East Germany. Addison chooses to underscore their arrival with music that has absolutely no menace in it whatsoever; the characters may just as well have been arriving at a Swiss hotel for a fortnight's relaxation holiday.

Many unanswerable questions crop up following this experiment. Why were there no musical cues written for the lengthy sequence of Armstrong's arrival and debriefing at the East Berlin airport? Had he not written them yet? Or was it Herrmann's intention to leave this section of the film without any score at all? Even more rhetorically, how would Herrmann have scored the crowd sequence in the theater? We can only guess.

Although I wouldn't suggest that Torn Curtain is one of Herrmann's classic scores, it shouldn't be dismissed as inferior either. Had Hitchcock not dumped the score, it undoubtedly would have been the single most successful element in the movie and would have clarified and enhanced many suspenseful elements that fall flat in the film as we now have it. Unfortunately, Herrmann's score would not have 'saved' Torn Curtain in the way some maintain that Herrmann saved Psycho; Torn Curtain simply isn't in the same league as Hitchcock's earlier work.

The new Varese Sarabande disc runs 48:15. The lengthy and informative liner notes by Kevin Mulhall explain that only two brief cues penned by Herrmann have been excluded. One must wonder why the producers opted to leave these two cues off the disc and give us a less than complete collection of Herrmann's music for the film. On the plus side, unlike the Bernstein/Warner Brothers album which ends with a reprise of "Prelude," the producers of the Varese disc have wisely opted to end the CD with the last cue (in film order) that Herrmann had written for the film. Why try to provide a false ending to a work that cannot ever be resolved? With some small reservations for the missing cues and the somewhat murky sound quality, I recommend this new CD as the closest we will probably ever come to a resolution for this score.





* Other recordings of music from Torn Curtain includes the same three cues ("Prelude," "Gromek" and "The Killing") recorded by both Paul Bateman conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic (Silva America SSD-1051 and Silva Treasury STD 5005) and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony SK 62700).


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