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Film music

Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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Blu-ray: ‘Point Blank’

When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank (Warner) where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.

Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker’s odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker’s attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.

Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence.

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Carl Davis on Scoring Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’

If all you know of Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece Napoleon is the version presented by Francis Ford Coppola in the U.S. in 1983 (and subsequently released on VHS tape and laserdisc), you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

Carl Davis conducts

Coppola invited his father, Carmine Coppola, to compose an original score for the American release, which was cut down so the presentations with live orchestral accompaniment would be under four hours. Completeness aside, that score pales next to the muscular score that Carl Davis compiled and conducted for Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration. That score has only been heard in live presentations in Europe.

Carl Davis, a longtime composer for TV and film, was brought to silent movies by Brownlow when he commissioned Davis to score his epic 13-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, and was so impressed with the expressiveness of his music accompanying the clips that he invited him to score a complete silent feature. When he began presenting restored silent films in British television, Brownlow turned to Davis to provide the scores. In his book “Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Silent Film,” Brownlow wrote: “I had been startled when King Vidor told us, in an interview, ‘Probably 50 per cent of the emotion came from the music.’ After listening to Carl Davis’s music and watching its effect with the films, I realized what he meant.”

The American premiere of Kevin Brownlow’s complete restoration in Oakland on Saturday, March 24, 2012, also marks the premiere of the Davis score, which draws upon music composed during the period of Napoleon’s influence (“I gave myself the date 1810 as a boundary beyond which I would not draw on any music”) with special attention to Beethoven, who (according to Davis) initially dedicated the “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon.

Davis discusses the score in the two video clips below.

Tickets, screening information and other event details can be found at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

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Basil Dearden’s London Underground

Basil Dearden’s London Underground” (Criterion/Eclipse)

British workhorse director Basil Dearden never established a strong cinematic personality like Michael Powell or the storytelling muscle (and powerful canvases to match) of David Lean, his two most distinctive contemporaries in the British film industry. But in a career of nearly 40 feature films (plus TV and contributions to a pair of anthology movies), Dearden proved himself a reliable craftsman in films like Dead of Night (1945, the horror anthology film to which he contributed two sequences), The Captive Heart (1946) and The League of Gentleman (1960, included in this set).

Up from the London Underground in "The League of Gentlemen"

The four features in the handsome box set Basil Dearden’s London Underground from the Eclipse imprint of Criterion display talents rare enough in any industry: intelligence, craft, ambition, professionalism and the ability to rise to the challenge of his material with a compassionate portrait of his characters. There’s a tastefulness and a restraint that keeps a lid on the emotional pressure cooker of the repressed and repressive worlds he peeks in on, which only makes him seem all the more distinctly British.

Sapphire (1959), the earliest film in the set, is also the most awkward, a somewhat arch murder mystery that traces the killing of a beautiful young woman on Hampstead Heath into the culture of segregation and racial prejudice in late fifties London. This well-liked student with a wild side (her secret wardrobe bursts with the exploding colors of party dresses and dancing outfits, a sharp contrast to the muted, overcast shades of everyday dress) turns out to be a “lily skin,” a light-toned colored girl who was “passing” in white society (including her own whites-only boarding house). And yes, the bigotry just pours out when the these facts are revealed, even in the junior police detective (Michael Craig) who proclaims that they should just “ship them all back.” The cooler, more compassionate Superintendent (Nigel Patrick) offers the voice tolerance and understanding next to his hotheaded partner while the racial tensions immediately cast a pall over every room once the subject comes up.

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“Somebody’s Fiddle”: Traditional Music in “The Searchers”

Martin Pawley has barged into Charlie McCorry’s wedding to Martin’s childhood sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson, and the two have waded into a typically Fordian brawl—momentary comic relief from the darker concerns of most of The Searchers. Suddenly, Charlie interrupts the fistfight: “Somebody’s fiddle!” he cautions, picking up an overlooked musical instrument and handing it hastily out of harm’s way before Martin lands the next blow. It’s not the only, but probably the most audacious, announcement of the almost-sacred importance of music to this world and this film.

We’ve known it from the outset. In barely two minutes of film time, before the first word of the film is spoken, four pieces of music are thrown at us, each one dramatically distinct and loaded with information.

First, we hear what analysts have dubbed the “Comanches” theme, a powerful, full-voiced fanfare that evokes the traditional “Indian” music convention of the western film score, and startles us by supplanting the production company logo music that we’d normally expect in a studio film made in 1956.

After this short attention-getter, which firmly establishes the notion that this film will have something to do with Indians, we hear an acoustic guitar introduction and a sung ballad (written by Stan Jones and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers), the “title tune” of a film that came from an era in which it was common for a movie to have its own originally-composed theme song. Because this song has words, we need no prior experience of film or cultural heritage to grasp what it conveys, and add it to the “Indian” motif we heard first:

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?

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Keeping Score – Musique Noir: Investigating the Sound of Film Noir

The sound of noir—plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones.

No one invented the sound of film noir. It grew over seven decades, teased and shaped by the touch and mood of particular composers, particular films, particular times.

The Film Scores of Adolph Deutsch

You need to start somewhere, and the best place is probably with Adolphe Deutsch. Though capable of creating melody, Deutsch indulged in his noir scores a tonal experimentation that suggests the influence of Schönberg—an appropriate choice for a film genre so heavily indebted to the look and feel of German expressionism. With scores for The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Dimitrios, Deutsch laid the foundations for a language of film noir with specific tonal gestures evocative of foreboding, suspense, surprise, high action, the shock of sudden recognition. And with Dimitrios especially (my vote for the first great noir score), he began building the orchestral sound of film noir.

The same year as Dimitrios, however, Miklos Rosza played a different card in his score for Double Indemnity. Rosza, an unapologetic romantic and exemplar of the Wagnerian strain in film scoring whose love of big melody made him the go-to guy for epic spectaculars in the 50s and 60s (and persona non grata for most of the remainder of his career), created in Double Indemnity a wondrous score, a suite of which was recently made available as an extra on Disc 3 of Tadlow’s magnificent complete El Cid. Billy Wilder gave Rosza both light and dark to work with, and Rosza rose brilliantly to the challenge. To the mood-pinned underscorings of the Deutsch approach, Rosza added melody, and threw the noir sound decisively forward. The spectacular, ominous main theme blankets the film with the sense of doom of a guy who knew all along he should have known better; the resigned, almost despairing love theme points toward his celebrated music for Hitchcock’s Spellbound two years later.

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Keeping Score – Scary Music: the Sequel

For last Halloween, I offered a list of 13 movie scores that I believe stand out as landmarks in the in the history of scary movie music. I got some comments from a few readers who were disappointed that some of their own favorite fright film scores and composers weren’t represented. Well, there’s a lot more great stuff out there, and so, with Friday the 13th upon us, here’s a second set of 13.

princeofdarkness
John Carpenter and Alan Howarth: "Prince of Darkness"

13. Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1987.

This remarkable film and its score came in for new and long-delayed recognition in 2008 with the release of a two-disc recording of the Carpenter-Howarth score, probably the best of their many collaborations. There’s an insistent underbeat throughout the film, the advance of relentless evil, over which Carpenter and Howarth weave motifs of traditional Gothic sound in non-traditional electronic instrumentation.

12. Orson Welles’s Great Mysteries, John Barry, 1973.

For a little-watched and little-remembered television anthology series, John Barry created one of his best themes, an infectious melody with a distinctively creepy, almost threatening reach.

11. Cannibal Holocaust, Riz Ortolani, 1980.

Ortolani, who remains best known for “More,” the popular theme tune from Mondo Cane (1962), had a stock in trade of putting music to the graphic horrors of Italian shockumentary, and the ensuing cannibal cycle of film-making that assayed previously unimagined depths of gore and cruelty. The notorious Cannibal Holocaust boasts a score that features one pretty melody, several jaunty passages set to a Latin beat, and several savage musical embodiments of horror and revulsion.

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Keeping Score – “Ennio Morricone: The Complete Edition”

Fifteen CDs is a big set—and a bargain for $99.95. But in what sense is GDM’s big holiday release a “Complete Edition”? Obviously it’s not everything the Maestro has written; that couldn’t be done in ten times as many discs.

emcompleteedThe avowed effort here is, for the first time in a single collection, to offer a sampling of Ennio Morricone’s work in every one of the specialized fields of musical composition in which he has worked. The set is organized accordingly: Music for Cinema (9 discs); Music for Television (2 discs); and one disc each covering Contemporary Classical Music, Orchestral Arrangements, Hit Song Arrangements, and Original Songs.

If you bought GDM’s previous extravaganza, Ennio Morricone: The Super Gold Edition (GDM Music srl, 0168292GDM; 6 discs, avail. at $45-85), you may well wonder whether the cinema music portion of this new collection replaces that previous set. No, it doesn’t. While the vast majority of the cuts on the previous set are also included in the present one, there are several instances in which a film represented in the earlier box set is represented this time by a different excerpt, or none at all. So if you buy the new box, there’s reason to hang on to the earlier one as well.

Like the earlier box, this new set’s CDs are all in matching format, featuring the same superb pencil portrait of Morricone at mid-age; unlike the earlier box, the new one has color-coded the CDs, so one can always grab the right sleeve to consult the contents of the current disc. A big difference between the new set and the old one is that the works on the new set are presented in chronological order, enabling you to trace the evolution of the Morricone touch from the late ’50s right through to last year, spotting patterns, repetitions, variations, and increasingly complex and inventive stylistic gestures.

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Keeping Score – Scary Music for Scary Movies

In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a list of 13 movie scores that stand out as landmarks in the honorable tradition of writing music designed to scare the pants off the movie viewer.

13. Jaws, John Williams, 1975.

Any responsible list of scary movie music has to acknowledge the achievement of John Williams and Stephen Spielberg in making the accelerating repetition of a simple two-note motif into a fundamental component of pop-culture history. By most definitions, Jaws is more a suspense thriller than a horror film, but it gave us one of the most heart-stopping, breath-holding, unnerving musical ideas in the history of cinema.

Jerry Goldsmith: "The Omen"

12. The Omen, Jerry Goldsmith, 1976.

Serial Oscar nominee Goldsmith won his only Academy Award for The Omen’s powerful choral/orchestral score. Simultaneously savage and quasi-religious, it broods, threatens, menaces, and finally stages an all-out assault on the listener.

11. King Kong, Max Steiner, 1933.

For a movie about a big monster, Steiner created a big score, filled with suspense, romance, power, and fear. Steiner repeated—and arguably exceeded—the achievement in 1935’s She. Both scores appreciate the importance of quiet, lush, romantic moods in setting up counterpoint for real musical terror; but for epic scale and innovation, Steiner’s exotic and aggressive music for King Kong set the standard. From the very beginning, the eight-note descending principal motif captures the power of Kong while predicting his fall. Steiner runs this motif through an astonishing chain of variations—romantic, horrific, even the ceremonial dance of an unspecified tribe that exists solely in the realm of imagination. Peter Jackson reprised Steiner’s music to score the Broadway stage appearance of the captured Kong in his recent remake—the only thing in that film that truly honors the original.

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