Alfred Hitchcock was a fool for letting Bernard Herrmann go the way of Dimitri Tiomkin. The suits at Universal pressured Hitch into dumping Herrmann for this "old fashioned" (read: orchestral) score for Hitch's 50th motion picture, "Torn Curtain."
But, Herrmann would have the last laugh: After he was fired for not providing a "hit tune" for the keen teens of the mid 1960s, he was replaced with British composer John Addison, who contributed a lackluster score, and -- as another reviewer here mentioned -- no hit songs.
I just finished watching the VHS of "Torn Curtain": Addison's soundtrack is just awful -- mainly because it was trying so hard to be, in David Raksin's sneering words at Addison's mess of a soundtrack, "with it."
Instead, you can hear where Addison slipped in some guitar chords, a la Monty Norman's "James Bond" theme, but the rest of it sounds like it belongs in a commercial for Levitt Homes or the 1966 Ford Galaxie.
The problem is that, given a few years, "with it" only ends up sounding "painfully dated."
Not so with Herrmann's soundtrack, which I am listening to at this very moment. The great thing about "old fashioned" is that it always sounds "timeless."
Here, Herrmann was doing something new, brash, and bold, from his musical standpoint. He was taking an ensemble of brass and winds, layering them in overlapping thematic strands, employing polyphony to create something very unique, and personal.
You can feel the menacing chill of life behind the Iron Curtain in this one. As with his score of "black and white" music for "Psycho," Herrmann uses melancholic motifs in "Torn Curtain" to paint the screen in shades of grey. The rustle of wood flutes, repeating a loneley theme in ostinato, backed by the low rumbles of basses and cellos, and accented by muted trumpets, is a peculiarly Herrmannesque combination, but it evokes emotions of isolation, heartache and dread.
The opening title music is simply a bold, over-the-top, musical statement. As if a psychotic reworked the march "76 Trombones" into a foreboding dance of death. Pure chutzpah, pure Herrmann!
The cue "The Farmhouse" repeats the French horn "Fox Hunt" motif Herrmann used in "Marnie," but set contrapuntally against the flutes repeating the same alternating four and five note figures, it sets up what has to be the greatest murder music in any Hitchcock film (except the shower scene from "Psycho").
"The Killing" is a bombastic and brutal pummeling by the low brass and strings, pierced like a butcher knife with shrieking piccolos and flutes. It is the aural equivalent of a drive-by shooting. I once watched a documentary film about Herrmann, and it played the murder scene in which Paul Newman and a German hausfrau kill the Stasi agent Gromek: Once, without music. It was a by-the-numbers Hitchcock murder scene: Competent, neat, and thorough, by the time they got the goon's head into the gas oven.
Played again with Herrmann's soundtrack dubbed over (to show just how much Hitch needed Herrmann), and the scene was utterly transformed: It hit me like a ton of bricks, and as the farmer's wife came at Gromek with the butcher knife, the tension was unbearable. The same image of her sticking the knife into his neck, and the knife breaking in two was a killing gone awry in the neutral, music-less theatrical release. In the dubbed version, as soon as the knife's point THRUST into Gromek's neck and BROKE in two, piccolos were screaming the terror of the scene, piercing my eardrums!
Raksin said in that documentary that Hitch owed EVERYTHING to Bernard Herrmann.
This disc is proof.
Even if you've never seen "Torn Curtain," this dark and desolate score is worth all five stars. It's Herrmann at his idiosyncratic and Gothic best, looking forward to his scores for "The Bride Wore Black," "Fahrenheit 451," "Sisters" and "Taxi Driver."