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DVD SAVANT

A letter from Robert Swarthe

The Bernard Herrmann Soundtrack for Torn Curtain


(Savant note:) Robert Swarthe wrote today to let me know about a discovery he'd made in the new Universal Home Video DVD of Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, which I thought made fascinating reading.  As is well-known by Bernard Herrmann fans, a score was commissioned from the famous composer, but not used in favor of another by John Addison.  The original, unused Herrmann score is now available on CD, but in the 1970's a limited release lp was issued with Elmer Bernstein conducting the cues.

The subject struck a nerve because I remember Robert Swarthe from when I met him in a special effects shop (Savant had a short but fun career run with visual effects people) and was happy to fall in with another Bernard Herrmann fan.  An accomplished animator, filmmaker and special effects supervisor, Swarthe had invested in some new technology in his home in Laurel Canyon that was strikingly ahead of its time.  In 1977 the only reasonably- priced video recording machines were Sony AV 8600 Helical Scan decks that used 1/2" reel-to-reel tape, that had to be threaded up like 1/4" audio tape. 1  Swarthe had a pair of these machines and was experimenting with editing with them, even though most edits resulted in a glitch.  This was several years before the days of linear videotape editing caught on.

Robert was doing all kind of experiments at the time, and the opportunity to hear and see how Herrmann's score fit into Torn Curtain was too exciting to resist.   His was the first instance where I remember someone doing what editors do all the time now - personal experiments - recutting, etc., for their own private purposes.

I mention all this not only to record a bit of unknown technical Hollywood trivia, but to set up Robert Swarthe's letter about the Torn Curtain DVD.  He's so exacting, I tend to believe him without question on matters like this.

The letter was addressed to a group of his friends, who are Bernard Herrmann fans:


Hi Herrmann admirers,

I've just played my DVD of Torn Curtain for the first time.  I write with special reference to the "Bonus Materials" section which includes the scenes scored by Bernard Herrmann using his original studio recordings.  I have not had time to check out all of the cues, but the music for the murder of Gromek is definitely not synched correctly at all -- starting approximately 1:07 early -- immediately after the cooking pot hits the telephone on the wall next to Gromek (Bonus 12:14, Main Film Ch. 8, 48:23).  On the DVD, the music ends before Newman and the farmer's wife start to drag Gromek towards the oven.  The music just seems to fizzle out in the middle of the scene for no reason.

Here's the way the music should match up:

Timings given are for Chapter 8 in the main movie section of the DVD (not the Bonus section).  The murder music should start just AFTER Gromek is stabbed in the chest -- a split second AFTER the metallic sound effect of the knife handle breaking (at 49:30).  The music ends just AFTER Gromek dies in the oven, his convulsively twitching fingers finally releasing their grip on Newman's neck. The music fades out under the sound of the farmer's wife turning off the squeaky gas oven handles (approx. 52:00).

We all have heard that Hitchcock originally did not want any music during the Psycho shower murder, but changed his mind after hearing Herrmann's cue.  When I originally saw Torn Curtain in the theater, I thought that Hitchcock's doing the murder without music worked amazingly well.  I was convinced that it did not need any music.  It is interesting to see what Herrmann decided to do.  He did let the Gromek murder scene play quietly with only dialog and effects for quite a while before bringing in the music.  This lets the audience know that neither the murderers nor the victim want the waiting cab driver to hear anything going on inside the farmhouse -- even when their lives are at stake.  When it begins to look like nothing Newman and the farmer's wife can do will stop Gromek, then Herrmann punches the music in strongly.  This is not like Psycho where the music shocks you into the very beginning of the murder.  There's trilling effect in the music which fits the gas oven, but makes no sense as laid in, in the DVD Bonus section.  If you can, try to synch the music up to the film.  You'll see/hear that I'm right.

I know there are other examples of Herrmann waiting to bring in music until the scene reaches a dramatic point.  The only one I can think of right now is not the best example, but in North by NorthWest the music for the cropduster sequence does not start until the point where Grant is saved, AFTER the cropduster explodes into the oil truck.  In this case, the music functions as comic relief to the tension of the sequence which preceeded it.

It's too bad that this happened.  I think the sync on some of the other cues is rubbery, but will have to try to figure that out later.

In the Torn Curtain Rising DVD documentary, they discuss and show stills of the deleted Gromek's brother scene.  They say that is all that remains of it.  I wonder if the actual film exists anywhere.  I believe that Herrmann scored (but did not record) music for Gromek's brother because there are cues named "The Sausages" and "The Photos" in the score (at UCSB).   There are no sausages or photos emphasised anywhere else in the film.

Another note.  There was a documentary Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann (Dir., Joshua Waletzky, Alternate Current International) which was released on laser disc a few years ago (it was also shown on PBS and was entered for Oscar consideration).  In it, they did show some of Gromek murder with the Herrmann music.  I think they synched it correctly.  As I recall they only used an excerpt, not the entire sequence.

Regarding Gary Teetzel. 2  I, too, remember Hitchcock's comment about the Gromek's Brother seq. in Hitchcock/Truffaut book.  I have a copy of the screenplay (in storage right now) which includes the scene.

A few more comments about (Laurent Bouzereau's) documentary included on the DVD.   It does have useful information and stills I've never seen before.  He mentions Albert Whitlock in a nice postitive way, but does not say that every single wide exterior and interior of the museum that Newman walks through is a Whitlock matte painting.  They are PERFECT.  The narrator says Hitchcock used old-fashioned rear projection for Newman/Andrews scene in garden/restaurant.  I believe that Hitchcock used the Sodium Vapor Process (yellow screen) for that scene.  I remember attending a Hollywood SMPTE meeting about this many years ago.  Petro Vlahos (?) was showing how they could make mattes through transparent things like smoke, glass and hair (I believe they showed a scene from this garden/restaurant scene as an example.)  I also remember noticing on the big screen that the background plates had a very slight unsteadiness in them (can't see this on DVD).   The camera is completely locked-off for these scenes, something unnecessary with rear screen, but necessary for Sodium Screen (in the pre-motion control era ).  Bill Taylor at Illusion Arts could probably set everyone straight on this one.

Another nitpick:  The narrator mentions that John Addison used a bit of Hitchcock's TV Theme during his cameo appearance in Torn Curtain.   Unfortunately he talks over the theme, making it inaudible.   The music comes up right after, but it is no longer "Funeral March of the Marionettes!"

There is at least one cue that Bernstein did not use on his LP which Herrmann did record -- "The Blurring."  It's used during a kind of tearstained wipe transition from CU Julie Andrews to Ext. East German Airport (another Whitlock matte painting).  I can't be sure, but I think the DVD's got the music placement wrong.  I think it should start on the effect and carry over to the Airport interior when the dialog resumes.  But I can't swear to this.  It just seems like the music is an "effect" tied to the visual and Herrmann would not start his music effect way BEFORE the visual effect.

The more I think about Torn Curtain, the more I remember.  There's a fun cue on Bernstein's LP called "The Corridor."  It starts on a camera angle looking straight down a spiral staircase (DVD Chapter 13 1:20:08).  Newman and Andrews are beginning their escape from East Germany. In the movie as released, there is no music and the scene is flat.  With Herrmann's cue, the scene actually become exciting, even though it contains exactly the same action.   As I recall, Bernstein comments in his liner notes that the orchestra broke into spontaneous applause after playing that cue.

Any thoughts?  Any comments?  Is this old news to you all?

Robert Swarthe


(Glenn speaking:) It's always good to know there's people out there even more exacting than you are about the details, and in this case, authoritative as well.   Savant is grateful for his correspondents who constantly help him keep the facts straight, and I thought you Bernard Herrmann / Alfred Hitchcock fans in the audience would appreciate this letter.   The next Herrmann milestone coming out on DVD will be Columbia TriStar's Obsession, with one of Herrmann's last and, appropriately, most obsessive scores.



Footnotes:

1. Actually, Sony U-Matic existed, but didn't seem to be available, or were too expensive.
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2. Gary Teetzel's note: to which Robert is responding:  "In regards to the "Gromek's brother" scene, Hitchcock tells Truffaut in his book that he'll send that footage to the Cinematheque Francais.  What happened to it?   Did Hitch forget?  Did the Cinematheque lose it?  Did Universal not check with them?  By the way, I always thought that Gromek looked like he should have been out looking for Moose and Squirrel with his partner Natasha."
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