Posted in: Film music, Film Noir

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.

That was a good year, 1944, because in addition to The Mask of Dimitrios and Double Indemnity, it also gave us Laura. David Raksin—that’s Raksin, folks, not “Raskin,” as seen so frequently—produced a body of work any composer would be proud of, but it’s all been overshadowed by his haunting score for Laura. An RCA Victor CD combining cuts from the score with two other Raksin soundtracks is no longer available; but the score’s familiar and inimitable title tune is frequently covered, often very well. A classic six and a half minute capsulization of the score is featured on Silva’s Cinema Century 2000 collection; a more free-style cover is found on the enchanting, not-to-be-missed album Sax And Violence: Music From The Dark Side Of The Screen. The fragile, ghostly, romantic, subversively erotic main theme is quite simply one of the landmarks of film music, and set a new standard for the noir composers who followed.

There was no genre of film music that wasn’t decisively touched by the redoubtable Max Steiner. Another romantic, but one more influenced by the exotic musical pictures of the Russians from Rimsky-Korsakov to Rachmaninoff than by the theatricality of Wagner and Richard Strauss or the experimentalism of Schönberg, Steiner loaded his scores with quotes from folk and traditional music, fragmentary melodies both old and new, and lush orchestral stylings, accents, and moods. His gift to the sound of noir was The Big Sleep, whose ominous tonal innuendo, even in a purported “love theme,” embodies the mystery and untrustworthiness of human behavior.

The Wrong Man: Film by Alfred Hitchcock, score by Bernard Herrmann
"The Wrong Man": Film by Alfred Hitchcock, score by Bernard Herrmann

Another composer who touched a wide range of musical and film genres with his own particular brand of brilliance was Bernard Herrmann. His claim to noir fame is his astonishing score to Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1957). A hot and hummable mambo sets a deceptive tone for Hitchcock’s bleakest and darkest film, the fact-based drama of a financially struggling musician and family man arrested and convicted for a serious of bank robberies he didn’t commit, and of his wife’s resulting descent into mental illness. Herrmann’s score consists chiefly of a series of short, emotional, discordant accompaniments to the film’s scene after scene of insurmountable setbacks. The protagonists’ hopeless descent into the vortex is underscored by a small orchestra, selected and marshaled with technical precision and chilling innovation.

The sound of noir matured and solidified in B-films of the 50s and television shows of the 60s, and at the center of it all was Henry Mancini. His Peter Gunn television work featured the most familiar noir theme since Laura, and exemplified the extent to which big band and Latin beats had become inescapably associated with the look and feel of noir. An especially good example of Mancini’s mastery of the sound of noir, as well as the emerging rhythms of rock and roll and nightclub pop, is his score to Orson Welles’s Touch Of Evil. The infectious main title music has been excised from the more recent edition of the film, re-edited in closer accord with Welles’s wishes, and its loss is the one drawback to what is otherwise a superior version of a Welles masterpiece.

Forget it, Jake, its Jerry Goldsmiths score for Chinatown
Forget it, Jake, it's Jerry Goldsmith's score for "Chinatown"

When Robert Evans and Roman Polanski contemplated a film noir in color, it was essential that the production design and cinematography would have to evoke the world of noir—what could be more noirish than Los Angeles in the 30s?—and Richard and Anthea Sylbert and John Alonzo delivered in spades. But the music had to be right too, and Jerry Goldsmith tackled the score as if he were composing for Warners in the 30s, not Paramount in the 70s. Chinatown is a masterful score, evoking the moods and tones traditionally associated with the subtleties of shadowy, Venetian-blind-slatted monochrome, and the peculiar combination of investigation and introspection, doomed love, expensive women and cheap scotch. It would have been a classic of noir composition in any color or decade.

As far from his The Wrong Man score as imaginable, Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver is an indelible page in the annals of the noir sound. The archetypal saxophone score, it not only evokes noir, it defines it, grounding in a traditional genre Martin Scorsese’s harrowing tale of a distinctly nontraditional sort of anti-hero, crying “I am” in the darkest places of a big, pitiless, crushing city. Soundtrack album discontinued, but good covers on Sax And Violence, Film Noir!, and Esa-pekka Salonen’s definitive Herrmann collection, Bernard Herrmann: The Film Scores.

Another noir score both completely traditional and completely new is John Barry’s sweaty, sexy Body Heat. In a film about heat, both metaphoric and literal, Barry keeps the piano and sax irresistibly cool, and creates an essential noir milestone.

Vladimir Cosma’s main theme to Diva—overlooked in the flurry of interest in the little-known operatic aria that lay at the center of the film’s mystery—is perfect noir, a downbeat, blue anthem to accompany a hopelessly obsessed, hopelessly trapped young man as he walks the oppressive streets of the City of Light. Soundtrack album discontinued; good cover on Sax And Violence.

Blue Velvet
"Blue Velvet"

Angelo Badalamenti is always his own man with his own approach, and the perfect composer for David Lynch. Blue Velvet works as well as it does in large part because of its ability to capture the elements of noir and use them as a kind of shorthand for the very different sort of internalized story that Lynch enthusiasts are accustomed to—small-town noir, if you will. Badalamenti’s string-heavy mysterioso Main Title perfectly sets the noir tone for what remains after two decades an always new and unsettling cinematic experience.

At a time when most film soundtracks featured either synthesizer scores or collections of pre-existing pop and rock hits, John Ottman dared to assay a full symphonic score for 1995’s breakaway indie hit The Usual Suspects. The film’s narrative and thematic line owe much to The Mask of Dimitrios, but Ottman’s haunting, melodic score owes more to Raksin and Steiner than to Deutsch, and the main theme built on a simple, quiet, mysterious piano tune is Ottman’s own lasting contribution to the sound of noir.

The most recent landmark in noir music, to my ear, is Joe Hisaishi’s simple, nostalgic “Ballade” from Kateshi Kitano’s Yakuza-in-America film Brother. It’s a good companion piece to Cosma’s Diva theme; but Hisaishi’s is more the sound of ice cubes in a whiskey glass in a near-deserted bar, caught in the golden brown light of a dying afternoon. Nicely covered on Film Noir!, this is a good one to go out on.

Want to suggest some of your own favorite film noir scores? Comments welcome.

© 2009 Robert C. Cumbow