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John Barry

Review: Love among the Ruins

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

The first of the best films of 1975 has been and gone, and won’t be back, at least at your naborhood theatre. Love among the Ruins appeared on ABC-TV on March 6; reportedly, an agreement with Sir Laurence Olivier ensures that it will never be released theatrically. One can only hope that the film will soon be leaked quietly to 16mm nontheatrical distributors (as, for instance, is the case with Losey’s A Doll’s House), for it’s a treasure, a shining testimonial to the glories of memory and dreams that deserves better than to become merely a memory itself.

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Still Life: ‘Robin and Marian’

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Ripeness has gone to rot with a vengeance in Richard Lester’s latest film. In some wasteland out at the edge of the world (patently not a holy land) a one-eyed old man and some women and children hide out in a cracked, ungarrisoned castle and do not guard a golden statue coveted by King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Richard Harris), because it’s really only a stone, and besides, it was too heavy to carry away from the turnip field where it was dug up. Not even Robin Hood’s still-illusioned alchemy can shapechange the “pig” who peevishly orders the castle razed and its inhabitants butchered back into a lion-hearted monarch. Richard’s death is flung like accidentally accurate doom from above; but Justice in this diminished world is old and one-eyed, its bolt flung in fallibly human long shot rather than sent as sign of any god’s terminal exasperation with a hero long fallen from divine or mystic or even human grace. The heroic vision that Richard once embodied, and gave Robin a taste for, is apparently laid to rest where it went bad—in a stony land of too much sun and too many senseless massacres. But although Robin, Little John, and we watch the king’s funeral cortege in longshot, it soon becomes clear that Robin has managed to internalize some vestige of the former dream, and now means to take it home—home to the cool green fastnesses of Sherwood Forest where it first thrived.

Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as Robin and Marian

If Nicol Williamson’s practical Little John finds sustenance in plain bread, the sights he’s seen in the wide world, and his love for Robin, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood is hooked on more exotic fare. Grizzled, just this side of being old, he lacks the cleverness to buy cynicism as life insurance, but is just simple enough to be a hero. He’s hardly ever able to contain the gay, brave boy who, untouched by time and circumstance, struggles free to shout “I’ll save you!” to an uncooperatively grownup Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). Bergman’s knight in The Seventh Seal comes home from the Crusades to seek God among the ruins, but finds only ruins and, inevitably, death. Lester’s peasant-knight returns to quest for a present, if not a future, in the past, and ends by putting a period to a life that cannot, will not dwindle into obscurity and old age, but must burn out in a flash of meaning. There must be a beginning, a middle, and a proper end. Some richer, more resonant image must replace that of a spent king bleeding in the foreground of an empty stonescape, a uselessly burning castle thrust up in the dusk behind him, a monument to death without dignity or purpose.

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Review: Robin and Marian

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A lot of things work against Richard Lester’s new film Robin and Marian. In the first place, as two of England’s most treasured heroes, those ur-Communists Robin Hood and Little John, Lester has cast (horrors!) two rowdy Scots, Sean Connery and Nicol Williamson. In the second, he has allowed the film itself to take a back seat to the heavily flacked return to the screen of Audrey Hepburn. Further, he has settled for an always inappropriate and often downright bad film score from John Barry which threatens to sabotage some of the film’s best moments (one keeps wishing period music had been used). And, worst of all, he has accepted from James Goldman a selfconscious and often labored screenplay that, in attempting to capture the conflict between a man’s mortality and the timelessness of myth, is at best adequate, and at worst overwritten with an embarrassing sappiness (Marian’s final profession of love to Robin falls somewhere between Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s counting of the ways and Maria von Trapp’s enumeration of a few of her favorite things). In fact, Goldman’s screenplay bears some uncomfortable similarities to that other Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: the image of the fair-fighting hero debunked with a kick to the balls; two heroes in a hesitant jump from a high place (cf. “I can’t swim!” with “We might hurt ourselves!”); and the woman eternally fond of them both, but desperate to dissuade them from following the suicidal course of reckless adventurism.

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Review: King Kong (1976)

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

There are good things and bad things about the new King Kong. One of the good things is that it’s nice to look at. Though the photography and production design are scarcely more interesting than those of the 1933 film, they are on an epic scale, impressive and economic, using widescreen and color to more purpose than merely out-spectacle-ing the original. The designers have retained much of the architecture in the island sequence, especially the bridal altar and the huge gate with phallic bolt, and they were wise to do so. They were equally wise to avoid the dinosaur encounters of the 1933 film, for which Willis O’Brien’s model animation was perfect. In the new version the only attempts at model work come off as distressingly poor: the huge rubber snake against which Kong battles while zoologist Jack Prescott stages his daring, pure Frank Frazetta pulp rescue of a bare-breasted Dwan from the ape’s mountain lair; and its parallel sequence in New York, Kong’s battle with a toy-sized El that, in his hand, visibly does not contain the panic-stricken passengers we see at the windows in the intercut interior shots.

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A Community of Two: Blake Edwards’s ‘The Tamarind Seed’

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world…
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

More than one person, myself included, was not too terrifically turned on by the prospect of The Tamarind Seed. Despite Blake Edwards’s modest rep as a quirkily competent director, and memories of his refreshingly adult Peter Gunn television series in the late Fifties, the notion of Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif let loose in an environment “where love grows and passion flowers” (to quote the early ads) did not set my critical—or indeed, any other—pulses racing in anticipation. Mary Poppins and Dr. Zhivago, as one Movietone News writer aptly dubbed them, might make magical music for Middle America, but they aren’t the couple that comes most readily to mind in the context of passionate, grownup love. In fact, I fear I had come to cast the two as top-of-the-line Barbie and Kenny doll stars: handsomely groomed and coiffured, offending no one (and even enchanting some) with their unrelieved attractiveness, and wholesomely bereft of bothersome genitalia.

Even when I got the word that the love story was set within the spy-thriller framework, I wasn’t much more sanguine about The Tamarind Seed. I’ve about had my fill of the institutionalized world-weariness of this venerable genre. Like the cop flick, the international spy drama has come to wallow in unearned cynicism, automatic angst. Current events haven’t helped this drift towards self-congratulatory recognition of corruption here, there, and everywhere. Having been conditioned to accept it as our native element, we are all too easily and undiscriminatingly immersed in a cinematic environment in which every landmark is subject to change without notice, depending upon the ebb and flow of political and/or ideological expediency. With poleaxed complacency, we watch individuals, relationships, ethics suffer such swift sea-changes that nothing is certain, save the expectation that the ground under one’s feet will be shifting again at any moment.

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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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