October 30, 2012 is when Universal is releasing the 'Alfred Hitchcock: Masterpiece Collection' containing fifteen of the director's seminal works. In an effort to bring you the most in-depth coverage on this set we are going through each included movie to give you the most thorough review we can. Feel free to visit the 'Alfred Hitchcock: Masterpiece Collection' hub page. There you will find links to the other movies in this set and everything you'd want to know about the set's technical specifics and its packaging.
Nowadays our espionage thrillers are full of car chases, explosions, and highly choreographed fight scenes. Rarely do our theaters see the likes of something akin to Alfred Hitchcock's 'Torn Curtain' where double agents and espionage are treated with more of a cloak-and-dagger feel. Every once and a while we get a movie like 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' that mirrors the slow-burn spy thrillers of yesteryear, but not often.
'Torn Curtain' has just as much relevancy now as it did in 1966. Focusing on nuclear weapons and the immediacy of the threat, with tensions sky-high between America and Germany during the Iron Curtain Era, 'Torn Curtain' could easily be remade nowadays and instead focus on Iran. Hitchcock is able to tap into the constant threat of what would happen if nuclear war were to break out. It's the driving force behind the movie, even though we never see a nuclear bomb.
Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is living the life of a reluctant double agent. The nuclear arms race between the Americans and the Germans has hit fever-pitch. Armstrong claims to be working on a missile defense technology that would render nuclear warheads obsolete. However, he says that the Americans don't want this type of technology around because they need the imminent threat of their missiles to scare other nations. So, Armstrong defects to Germany. What's really going on is much deeper though.
Armstrong's girlfriend is Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and she ends up getting stuck right in the middle of this whole convoluted affair. Andrews lacks that cool steely resolve of most Hitchcock leading ladies. It's hard to watch her in this movie because she doesn't resemble any Hitchcockian female types. She feels out of place, playing her character with aloofness rather than arrogance, which Hitchcock blonds have portrayed throughout history.
Even though Andrews feels out of place, the rest of the movie works extremely well as a slow-burning thriller. Shadowy figures peer at Armstrong and Sherman from behind bookcases and from darkened corners. The tension slowly builds as the Germans begin to realize that Armstrong may not be the defector they were led to believe. Armstrong finds himself trapped between two worlds, trying to keep his stories straight as he tries desperately to find the information that he came to Germany for in the first place.
'Torn Curtain' hasn't ever been considered one of Hitchcock's greatest films. Yes, it's been put in the Masterpiece Collection, but it's always been considered one of his lesser works. While that may be true, there are a couple scenes in 'Torn Curtain' which showcase a master director at work.
Hitchcock has an innate ability to present seemingly mundane activities and transforming them into wholly original ideas for thrillers. For example there is a scene where Armstrong and Sherman find themselves on a bus headed out of East Berlin. Only the bus is owned by a faction of undercover agents working to smuggle people out of the city. If the bus leaves right on time they can sync it perfectly with the real buses that run through the city. During the bus ride, however, the real bus begins to catch up to the fake bus. If the ever-watchful police notice this discrepancy they'll be caught, their cover blown, and most likely all of the smugglers aboard will be killed. It's hard to imagine a chase scene, where a couple buses that are traveling around 20 miles per hour to be nail-biting, but it is. Hitchcock creates tension as we see the real bus slowly gaining on the decoy. It's edge-of-your-seat type of stuff, without any expensive CGI or big budget action scenes.
There's another scene where Armstrong must kill a German security officer to maintain his cover. This sequence is one of the most traumatic instances of homicide ever put to film. It's not an overly graphic scene. Rather, it's a completely human scene. The two men aren't fighting each other with a well-timed choreographed dance. They're rolling and tumbling around. They're struggling and Hitchcock lets them struggle. You can picture this happening in real life, which is why it's such an effective scene. Its end is truly one of the most dramatic things Hitchcock ever filmed.
There's a lot to like in 'Torn Curtain.' It has a decidedly Hitchcockian feel, even though Julie Andrews feels like a fish out of water here. It's a slow building espionage film put together by the Master of Suspense, which is all the reason in the world you need to watch it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Check the main hub page for the complete detail of the packaging of this set. Everything about it can be found there. For fun we've posted a picture of the section in the set created for 'Torn Curtain' so you can see what it looks like.
This is one of the more average looking transfers in the set. 'Torn Curtain's 1080p transfer takes on a soft, diffused look much like how 'Marnie' looked. Many close-ups are presented in an almost dreamlike state as the picture takes on a very fuzzy look. Colors, especially whites, end up bleeding over edges adding more fuzziness to the picture.
In essence it's sort of what you'd expect from a catalog movie from 1966. It isn't as crystal clear as some of the other titles. Edges are less defined during mid- and close-range shots. Long-range shots are peculiarly well rendered. Much like many of the long-range shots of Bodega Bay in 'The Birds.' When the camera steps back the picture takes on a more accurate sharpness. There's a crispness to the edges in these scenes that isn't seen in the medium and close shots.
Colors are muted, due to the movie's overall softness. Like many of the Hitchcock films, the rear projection scenes suffer from their own line of problems, but that's due to the technology used at the time for those scenes.
There are moments of nice clarity though. When Armstrong gives his press conference in the airport there is a wall of a large mosaic behind him and each tiny tile is clearly visible. There are a few times where checkered jackets are worn and there isn't any shimmering seen.
Besides the movie's overall fuzziness, there isn't any other egregious artifacting to discuss. Source noise, like flecks and specks, pop up on occasion. This isn't one of the best transfers in the set, but it also isn't one of the worst either. It's firmly in the middle of the pack.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mixes in this set have been rather well done, 'Torn Curtain' is no exception. The mono track is clear, concise, and free from any fuzziness or hissing. This track has been prioritized really well and offers a great mix that makes the movie all the more enjoyable.
No Bernard Hermann this time around (save for a few select scenes). For 'Torn Curtain' the original music responsibilities fell on composer John Addison. Addison's mix is presented with a strong punchiness. I do think that the mix is often far too happy-go-lucky when compared to what's happening on screen, but that's not going to affect the score. The dialogue has been nicely prioritized compared to the music offering a well-rounded mix.
Dialogue is always clear. Even subtle sound effects are perfectly intelligible. One notable scene involves one of the German security guards loudly chewing gum. I was surprised how noticeably audible it was. From revving cars to gunfire, 'Torn Curtain' has great clarity when it comes to sound effects. All in all, it's another solid audio mix for the set.
It's true that 'Torn Curtain' isn't really remembered as one of Hitchcock's most famous films. It doesn't reside on the same plane as 'Vertigo' or 'North by Northwest.' However, it's still a very capable effort from the Master of Suspense, providing more than a few scenes that still reflect his genius with the camera. This is certainly recommended.