Sunday, October 18, 2015

Psycho (1960)

Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho came in the middle of his highly fruitful period of work with director Alfred Hitchcock. At the same time, however, it can also be seen as the beginning of the end for their partnership. The film came at the tail end of Hitchcock’s contract with Paramount, and the company felt they had him over a barrel, as he had to produce one more film for them before he could move over to Universal--which the director had already done physically. Paramount didn’t like the film and so they wouldn’t finance it, forcing Hitchcock to mortgage everything he owned to finance it himself. The pressure got to him and for a while his wife, Alma Reville, had to take over the production. One of the things Hitchcock wanted for the film was for the murder scene in the shower to contain no music. He thought this would make the scene even more realistic and frightening. Bernard Herrmann disagreed. At Alma’s insistence, he was allowed to score his distinctive music for the shower scene. And in one of my favorite anecdotes of Hollywood history, Hitchcock sat for the screening of the scene with Herrmann’s music and when it was over said, “Well, of course we’ll use that.”

Herrmann’s conception for the score was one of matching the black-and-white visuals on the screen with black-and-white music, a limited tonal palate to replicate the limited colors of the film. To do this he chose a string orchestra. But where this was a new idea in film scoring, it was certainly not a new instrumentation, having been used almost since the inception of concert music. Even Herrmann himself had composed a “Sinfonietta for String Orchestra” in 1936 that eerily presages his work on the Hitchcock film. This version of the score is one that was conducted by the composer himself, in 1975, just a year before his death. The score was reconstructed by Fred Steiner at USC and recorded in London with the National Philharmonic Orchestra. The first thing one notices as the title cue begins, is how slowly it is taken. In the film, beneath Saul Bass’s opening credits, there is a frenetic energy to the music, taken at a breakneck pace that thrusts the viewer into the story before even knowing what the story is. Here, however, the “Prelude” seems almost plodding. One of two explanations seems likely, the first that the aged Herrmann slowed down the pace to match his own energies and hadn’t bothered to re-screen the film to hear the original pacing. The second, however, is the one I like to think is the reason, and that is that Herrmann knew that the music apart from the visuals demanded it’s own pacing. When listened to in that way, the music is almost more ominous.

Slowed down, the “Prelude” is a masterpiece, with antiphonal sections playing off against each other, an undercurrent of cellos rushing beneath the melody, syncopated bass notes and pizzicato strings, and soaring violins that are anything but romantic. “The City” and “Marion and Sam” shows Herrmann eschewing melody for pure visual support with the strings. The way he weaves the bass and cellos into the mix is masterful and casts an incredible spell over the listener. As Marion takes the money from the real estate office and decides to take it to her boyfriend Sam, “Temptation” has long, sustained notes being undercut by a slowed version of the repetitive, prelude undercurrent. Leigh’s “Flight” in the car after her boss spots her heading out of town, as well as the “Patrol Car” and “The Rainstorm” are all slight variations on the opening theme. The next set of cues, which includes “The Hotel Room” and “The Window” serve two functions. In repeats the motif of Marion and Sam to reinforce the idea that she is taking the money to him, as well as reminding the viewer of the opening shot which came in through the hotel room and foreshadowing the fact that she is being watched by Norman’s mother. “The Madhouse” and “The Peephole” are both associated with Norman, deep and resonating fear that reflects his psychosis. Then comes the most distinctive cue in all of film music, “The Murder,” with its shrieking strings, thrusting their bows downward on upper-register glissandos to replicate the stabbing of the knife and screams of the victim.

Herrmann subliminally tips Hitchcock’s hand in the following cues, “The Office” and “The Water,” repeating the murder music as Norman cleans up, but in a lower register and much slower. “The Search” for Marion by her sister and the hired detective, repeats the opening theme, slower and lower, while Herrmann pushes the viewer along with the investigation in the next few cues. During the murder of the detective, “The Knife” launches into the murder music once more, while “The Search” of Marion’s sister and Sam goes back to the city music, as if somehow musically setting up the sequel. The final set of cues follows the sister into the house, reflecting her ever more gruesome discoveries, while the final “Discovery” of mother cascades in a swirl of music recalling the water spinning down the drain in the shower. “The Finale” at the courthouse reprises Norman’s motifs and ends on an unresolved chord as Marion’s car is pulled out of the swamp, and ending that is anything but happy. The reason this was the beginning of the end for Herrmann and Hitchcock is that a few years later, on Torn Curtain, the director wanted another murder scene without music. Without Alma to intercede, however, the two parted company over the incident. Herrmann’s music for that scene--not used in the film--is almost as good as that in Psycho, still the composers best-known work.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dodge City (1939)

My first exposure to this classic Max Steiner score came via Charles Gerhardt’s incomparable RCA recordings, in this case the album called Captain Blood – Classic Film Scores for Errol Flynn. In addition to his swashbucklers penned by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, there were also suites from a couple of his Warner Brothers’ westerns written by the great Max Steiner, They Died With Their Boots On, and my favorite, Dodge City. The later has movements from nine cues and, while only eight minutes in length, the lush orchestration and crystal clear recording is easily the best available music for the film. The most complete version of the soundtrack is available on a disc from Film Music Archives and contains thirteen cues that come from the original soundtrack. That having been said, they are a strong set of cues that good sound quality considering the source. Obviously they are nowhere near the quality of the Gerhardt RCA recording, but they are better than a lot of soundtrack recordings like The Adventures of Don Juan or Steiner’s The Fountainhead.

The title track, which Gerhardt called “The Open Prairie,” naturally begins with the Warner opening theme, which was also written by Steiner, and then the credits roll to a stately, march-like opening that segues into a lush interlude before returning to the main theme. It’s something that Steiner liked to do a lot, even late into the fifties. The next cue is a series of events, “The Buffalo Herd,” with its vague Indian motif when the film introduces Flynn and Alan Hale, followed by “The Iron Horse,” a loping melodic theme as the train nears Dodge City, and finally the frenetic “Rendezvous” as Flynn meets up with he nemesis in the film, Bruce Cabot. Cue number three underscores the naming of the city and for this Steiner returns to the main theme in “Dodge City.” Next is the somber cue for “Matt Cole’s Funeral” when John Litel is killed. “Covered Wagons” is a slow variation on the main theme as Flynn leads a wagon train north and Olivia de Havilland is introduced, while the dramatic “Stampede” accompanies the death of de Havilland’s brother, William Lundigan.

The seventh track combines three more cues once the train reaches Dodge City but they don’t occur until much further into the film. “Murder,” “Surett’s Theme” and “Necktie” party comprise some of the most chilling music in the film, and while Flynn’s charm manages to disarm the suspense onscreen, the music does more than enough to reoinforce it. Track number eight combines cues related to the regular folks in the town. It begins with an uptempo tune for the picnic and then goes into an almost Spanish-tinged tune for de Havilland’s “Abbie’s Theme,” but quickly shifts to gunfight music, followed by the death of Bobby Watson, and then the main theme again when Flynn decides to become sheriff. The following track, number ten, is a light tune where Flynn and de Havilland take a ride together and a variation on “Abbie’s Theme” when they kiss. More malevolence ensues in the following track when Frank McHugh is murdered by one of Cabot’s henchmen, Victor Jory. In the final two lengthy cues the first has Flynn sneaking Jory out of jail to keep the mob from hanging them, and second is the excitement of a fire onboard the train. The finale is a pleasant drawing room scene with Henry O’Neill asking Flynn to become sheriff of Virginia City in Nevada. And though he at first refuses, de Havilland volunteers them both which takes the film to its into the sunset ending.

This is one of Max Steiner’s most distinctive scores and it really deserves a restoration by John Morgan and William Stromberg, but in recent years those projects have been slowing to a trickle. In that context, it’s fortunate in the extreme to have so much of the isolated soundtrack available at all, and it’s definitely something to treasure. The Film Music Archives disc pairs the cues to this film with the James Cagney/Humphrey Bogart western The Oklahoma Kid, which is a good combination seeing as how Steiner wrote the score for that film just prior to working on Dodge City. It also comes with an exhaustive book of liner notes that are a boon to film score fans. The film was a Technicolor extravaganza for Warner Brothers and Steiner’s score is in keeping with the sweep and grandeur of the project. In fact, the music is a lot more grand than the story itself, which on its own is fairly thin. But there are plenty of interesting episodes that keep the plot moving, and Steiner’s score is there to support them all. Dodge City may not be one of the greatest westerns, but Max Steiner’s music is certainly one of the great scores of all time.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Historical Romances (1936-1946)

This is a nice disc of, what I would call, Korngoldian inspired music on Marco Polo. As it states in the liner notes, Erich Wolfgang Korngold specialized in historical drama, from swashbucklers like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, or more intimate stories like Anthony Adverse or Kings Row. Even the two sets of cues by Alfred Newman and Max Steiner in this anthology seem inspired by Korngold, so it’s fitting that they be put together. The music was performed by the Brandenberg Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Richard Kaufman. As it is so often, the scores were reconstructed by the great John W. Morgan and sound beautiful.

The opening is an overture for Warner Brothers’ 1939 historical drama Juarez that Korngold wrote for the premier. The film starred Paul Muni in the title role, and also Bette Davis. At the time I purchased this, the only music from the film was the love theme on the Charles Gerhardt disc of Bette Davis films. Since then, an extended set of sixteen cues has become available by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on Koch. The suite here is very nice, including some ingenious use of Mexican flavors and the brilliant love theme.

Next comes a very nice set of cues by Alfred Newman for the 1939 RKO production of Gunga Din. Newman starts off his opening with a few notes from the British national anthem and then moves into a set of martial themes. The fifth cue is a lovely melody that accompanies the reading of the Rudyard Kipling poem that the film was based on. Finally, “Auld Lang Syne” is heard before concluding with the end cast music. This is followed by a Korngold suite from Devotion, a 1946 attempt by Warner Brothers to tell the story of Bronte’s, England’s literary first family. Unlike the fluffy melodrama onscreen, Korngold attempted to bring in some of the gothic flavor of the novels written by the sisters and created music that seems reminiscent of his operas.

Finally, seven cues from Charge of the Light Brigade, another rousing Warner Brothers historical drama featuring Errol Flynn. This is almost superfluous now, with the two-disc set of the complete score available from Tribute Film Classics. But the different orchestra here is a nice contrast. The opening is a bit more ponderous than the William Stromberg interpretation, but soon settles into a nice set of cues. To my knowledge, this is the only disc with cues from Newman’s Gunga Din, and so that is a good reason to get it. But the overture from Juarez is very nice as well. As with most Marco Polo discs, the music is well recorded and a definite plus to anyone’s collection.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Works for String Orchestra (1936-1955)

I first fell in love with string orchestras when I heard Bernard Herrmann’s complete score to Psycho. It was captivating in a way that classical/film music had never been for me before. So, when I saw this Koch disc at the public library, I was intrigued. When I brought it home and played it, I was changed forever. I’m not a fan of atonal music at all, but that's not really what these pieces are about. They're more about dissonance, tension and release, something altogether different than abandoning tonality. That tension and release, and the interplay between the string sections, is something that resonates deeply for me, and this will forever be one of my favorite discs of music.

The disc begins with Franz Waxman’s “Sinfonietta for String Orchestra & Timpani.” Written in 1955, this is most tonal selection and the most accessible of the bunch. The timpani is a brilliant addition to the orchestra. It absolutely makes the music soar, and brings to mind the melodic and percussion work on Waxman’s music for Universal’s The Invisible Ray. The three movements last about fifteen minutes and, for me, perfectly evoke the fifties in a sonic way that even visuals could never do.

Miklós Rózsa has two selections here. The first is an “Andante for String Orchestra” from 1950. It’s a medium tempo piece about ten minutes long that has nice sections of counterpoint and drama that make it . . . dare I say the word, cinematic. And that is the beauty of all these pieces. Though written for the concert hall, they evoke in a powerful way each composer’s work in the cinema. Rózsa’s next piece is a “Concerto for String Orchestra,” written in 1943, three movements that clock in at almost twenty-five minutes. There is more dissonance in this than the previous piece along with, ironically, a strong melodic leitmotif that carries through all the movements.

The final work on the Koch disc is by Bernard Herrmann, and it is easily the most dissonant on the album, and also the earliest piece composed. His “Sinfonietta for String Orchestra” is from 1936. Five short movements around three to four minutes each, they instantly bring to mind his work on Psycho, in a fantastic way. In addition to this tremendous music I added a selection to the album from another disc to my iPod, the “Symphonic Serenade” for strings by Erich Wolfgang Korngold from 1947. It’s from a German import by CPO and makes this a complete string orchestra experience for film score lovers. This is my favorite music of all time, and I’m sure that other fans of film scores will find it equally enriching.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Uninvited (1944)

Subtitled The Classic Film Music of Victor Young, The Uninvited is an interesting mix of unexpected music from a stalwart, if not great, Hollywood composer. The main cues, of course, are from the 1944 classic The Uninvited and are alternately atmospheric and humorous, in keeping with the split personality of the film itself. In fact, one of the great cues is the Squirrel Chase, which sounds as if it’s been used in a hundred films. Although the popular song from the film, "Stella by Starlight," is not included there is a heavy piano presence in the score as the main character, played by Ray Milland, is a pianist and composer.

The remaining cues are rather unexpected for a man who composed over two hundred films during his lengthy career. Leading off the disc is the Sousa-esque march from The Greatest Show on Earth. This was Cecil B. Demille’s penultimate picture and though it won the Academy Award in 1952, time has not been kind to it and it is seen today as somewhat overblown. The usual suspects for this Marco Polo release are here, music reconstructionist John Morgan and conductor William T. Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, all of whom did a magnificent job.

The real gems here are the cues from Gulliver’s Travels. Max Fleischer’s attempt to compete with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the same year, it pales in comparison in almost every way. The direction, the songs, the animation, are all a big step down from Disney’s genius. The films score, however, is amazing. Just listening to it you wouldn’t guess it was from an animated film. The opening credits are a wonderful, magical overture, complete with choir. Once, however, we get into the storm, we could be watching any great action/adventure film. Though I wasn’t expecting much, it turned out to be a real delight.

The final cues on the disc are from the Gary Cooper / Lauren Bacall historical drama Bright Leaf. Suitably dramatic music by Young underscores the pseudo-Western aspect of this film of tobacco plantation melodrama. It’s actually a nice bit of scoring. The entire disc was a real surprise for me, as Victor Young never really scored any pictures of enduring greatness and, as such, is considered somewhat lower tiered that the greats like Steiner, Korngold, Rózsa, Waxman, and Herrmann. Nevertheless, The Uninvited is a great disc for lovers of classic film scores.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

Though there have been some great scores from composers late in their careers, one thinks of Dimitri Tiomkin’s Guns of Navarone or Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver, perhaps no composer had such a fruitful later career as Miklós Rózsa, who scored films like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Time After Time and Eye of the Needle at the end of his career. But the score of his that is perhaps most impressive is his last, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982.

Several years ago the European company Prometheus released, among numerous others, two volumes of film music by Miklós Rózsa, the first being suites from Ben-Hur, King of Kings, and other of his later scores for Biblical epics. But, wonderfully, their second volume is the entire score of the Steve Martin/Carl Reiner masterpiece Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The film is a comedy in which Martin is filmed in black and white as the detective Rigby Reardon, interacting with starts of the film noir era in clips from the classic films. The film also stars Rachel Ward and is easily one of the highlights of Martin’s career. For me, it’s the pinnacle.

It’s difficult to think of another composer more associated with film noir than Rózsa, writing for such classics as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, The Killers, Spellbound, Brute Force, The Asphalt Jungle and a dozen others. It was natural then that Martin and Reiner would approach the master to see if he would score their film. Initially he turned them down flat, saying “I don’t do comedy.” Reiner told him it wouldn’t be like that, then asked to show him a scene from the film with Alan Ladd that had already been cut. When Rózsa saw the screening he agreed, and lovers of film music have been grateful ever since.

Rózsa wrote a beautiful main theme for the film that is the equal of any he wrote in the forties and fifties. In terms of the film itself, there were many clips that had existing music (much of it his) on it and he was forced to change keys and compose melodic bridges to integrate the existing scores. Because of this, he said it was one of his most challenging scores to write. He was no doubt inspired, though, by Martin’s antics onscreen as he also wrote a couple of cues that fully support the comedic undertone of the film. Ultimately, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is an incredibly satisfying score, complete with an extended Universal Theme at the beginning, and one of Miklós Rózsa’s best and comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Charles Gerhardt Redux (1972/2010)

I’m sure I don’t have to tell most of you that the entire Charles Gerhardt RCA recordings were re-mastered and re-released over the last couple of years. As someone who owns the entire collection on CD, it’s difficult for me to know where to begin in terms of a recommendation on the new series. As you well know, one of the downsides of the digital era has been the incessant repackaging of existing media, if not to a different format to a newly “re-mastered” presentation, the addition of bonus tracks, or anything else that justifies reselling the same material over and over again--usually to the same customers.

In the end I’d have to say my decision would be not to update my current discs. I decided to purchase the Bogart and Flynn sets, as those are my two favorites, just to see how much of a difference there is. To my ears it wasn’t enough. In the first place, anyone who has the sets knows the superior quality of the Gerhardt recordings from the outset. You just have to listen to the only other recording of the Casablanca suite from The Longest Day compilation by Silva Screen to understand how impeccable those early recordings were and, in my opinion, have yet to be surpassed. And . . . although I know this has nothing to do with the music, the new packaging by Sony is pretty lame.

Back in 1972, the first album recorded by Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra was The Sea Hawk: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Now, there were two different versions of this LP, one with extended versions of some suites and the elimination of some of the shorter tracks, like the main title to Captain Blood. What I’ve done below is to list the rest of the re-releases with a link to the original CD versions directly after. For those of you who haven’t experienced Gerhard’s work, these are must have discs, the cornerstone to any serious film score collection:

The Sea Hawk – The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Remastered)
The Sea Hawk – Original Version
The Sea Hawk – Extended Version

Gone With the Wind – Max Steiner (Remastered)
Gone With the Wind – Original Version

Captain from Castile – The Classic Film Scores of Alfred Newman (Remastered)
Captain from Castile – Original Version

Casablanca – Classic Film Scores for Humphrey Bogart (Remastered)
Casablanca – Original Version

Lost Horizon – The Classic Film Scores of Dimitri Tiomkin (Remastered)
Lost Horizon – Original Version

Captain Blood – Classic Film Scores for Errol Flynn (Remastered)
Captain Blood – Original Version

Citizen Kane - The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann (Remastered)
Citizen Kane – Original Version

Sunset Boulevard - The Classic Film Scores of Franz Waxman (Remastered)
Sunset Boulevard – Original Version

Elizabeth and Essex - The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Remastered)
Elizabeth and Essex – Original Version

Spellbound - The Classic Film Scores of Miklos Rozsa (Remastered)
Spellbound – Original Version

Now, Voyager - The Classic Film Scores of Max Steiner (Remastered)
Now, Voyager – Original Version

Classic Film Scores for Bette Davis (Remastered)
Classic Film Scores for Bette Davis – Original Version

Laura - David Raksin Conducts His Great Film Scores (Remastered)
Laura – David Raksin, Original Version