Category Archives: Cinema Scoring

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Many of the earliest American movies were made in New York. While the center of commercial production shifted to Los Angeles in the teens, low-budget producers were still making films on the East Coast during the twenties and thirties. After WWII there was a resurgence of production in New York, and in the fifties independent filmmakers created a style all their own. Instead of Hollywood fantasy, these films embraced gritty reality. Instead of relying solely on studio sets, the directors often shot in the city streets.

Robert Wise was a product of the studio system. Starting out as an editor, he had worked his way up the ladder at RKO and in the forties he became a director. Early films like The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still had earned him a good deal of attention. At his best, Wise had a taut, straightforward approach that worked especially well in the world of B-movies.

But Odds Against Tomorrow feels totally different from Wise’s studio work. It has a looseness, a freedom that you don’t find in the director’s lean, suspenseful Hollywood thrillers. I think in large part this is because he was working in New York. It may have been the crew, or the locations, or maybe just stepping outside of the Hollywood box, but this movie stands apart from anything he’d done before.

To start with, the tone of Joseph Brun’s photography is different from anything I’ve seen coming out of Hollywood at the time. Brun’s images are rich and complex, but the light is generally diffused, giving us few solid blacks and bright whites, more shades of grey. The film takes place in winter, and the light feels thin and chilly. It’s also interesting to see how much attention is given to things on the periphery, details that don’t advance the story. Working in Hollywood, Wise was known for a direct, no-frills approach. Here the camera lingers on the shadows cast by horses on a merry-go-round, newspapers flying down an empty street, a pool of water rippling in the gutter.

This wouldn’t just be Brun’s doing. I suspect that this willingness to linger on the details is at least in part the work of Dede Allen. Odds Against Tomorrow is one of Allen’s earliest feature credits, but she had been working as an editor for years. Of course, Wise had started his career as an editor, but the rhythms here are definitely a departure from his previous work. My feeling is that this more creative, intuitive approach is probably due to Allen’s involvement. It seems to point toward her later work with Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. Instead of moving relentlessly forward, the film allows us to look around and linger on things that don’t advance the plot. The focus is less on the story than it is on mood, atmosphere, character.

The characters are very interesting. Ed Begley is Dave, an ex-cop who got busted and has fallen on hard times. He seems to be a sensitive, caring person, but he’s willing to do some ugly things to get what he wants. Robert Ryan gives a stunning, low-key performance. He has tremendous authority on the screen, and he uses it to pull us inside characters who are deeply flawed and deeply unhappy. Playing Earle, Ryan manages to keep us with him every minute, even though the man is a bitter, violent racist.

Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley and Robert Ryan

Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley and Robert Ryan

Johnny, played by Harry Belafonte, is the most sympathetic of the three, and also the most complicated. At first he appears to be smart, suave and confident, a talented nightclub performer who’s enjoying a certain amount of success. But as we learn more about him, we realize that his life isn’t nearly as sweet as it seems. The failure of his marriage is eating away at him, and his addiction to gambling has put him in a huge financial hole. And race is also an issue for Johnny, though it’s hard to pin his feelings down exactly. When he’s in his own world he seems completely comfortable with his white friends, but when he sees his wife inviting white acquaintances to her apartment, he can’t keep his resentment from boiling over. Belafonte plays the part with a striking mixture of assurance and sensitivity.

We wouldn’t get such vivid performances if the script didn’t provide such interesting characters. The screenplay was written by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding, based on the novel by William P. McGivern. As with many of the best heist films, the focus isn’t on the job but on the people. The robbery is a mechanism that allows us to observe the lives of these three men, and to watch how they interact. As the pressure builds, we see each of them slowly starting to crack, we see more of who they really are.

And John Lewis’ music provides a rich, resonant background for all of this. The jazz score is another aspect of the film that ties it to the New York school. There were many soundtracks written in Hollywood that incorporated jazz elements, but in New York the filmmakers often turned to actual jazz musicians. Lewis paints a moody, brooding backdrop for this bleak tale of desperation. He’s not afraid to use dissonance, and his brass arrangements make the tension in the story palpable. For the quieter moments he turns to vibes and guitar, which complement the sombre visuals well.

Wise made a number of excellent films in his long career, and he wasn’t afraid to take chances, to try new things. His openness to different approaches is probably one of the reasons Odds Against Tomorrow is such a striking movie. If he had shot it in Hollywood, it might have been a solid thriller. But I think shooting it in New York made it something more.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) [Berlin: Symphony of a Great City]

BerlinIn nineteen twenty seven, Berlin was a city suspended between two wars. Germany had been devastated by the violent conflict which had ended less than a decade before. It was a country still trying to rebuild itself, with mixed success. The capitol was in a dizzying state of flux. The government was fragile, the economy was unstable, but the culture was flourishing. The chaos seemed to inspire artists, writers and composers to break away from the past and imagine a new future.

Nowhere was this newfound freedom more apparent than in German cinema. Writers, directors and designers explored radical new approaches to making movies, and the films they made attracted a good deal of attention both in Europe and abroad. One of the most original talents to emerge during this period was Walther Ruttman. Ruttman had worked as an artist and an architect before beginning his film career in the early twenties. He began making abstract animated shorts using form and color to create a kind of visual music.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt uses images of a vast metropolis to create a different kind of visual music. It is not a documentary, but an attempt to distill the spirit of this great capitol in a cinematic tone poem. Ruttman didn’t want to tell a story. He wanted to compose music with images. In this film he creates a visual symphony that incorporates the frenzied energy, the languorous calm, the lights, the shadows, the madness, the excitement of a great city.

In the same way that a symphony is divided into movements, the film is divided into five parts, or “acts”. We observe the life of the capitol through the course of a day, starting at dawn and ending at midnight, with each of the five parts focussing on different aspects of this sprawling urban giant. And just as a piece of music has various themes that recur throughout, there are visual motifs that are used repeatedly, binding the torrent of images together.

The opening sequence is a perfect example of the film’s musical structure. Ruttman begins with images of water, rippling gently. This segues to an animated sequence, where horizontal lines are crossed by diagonal lines falling against each other in a rhythm that builds slowly. And then we’re at a railroad crossing as barriers fall into place across the tracks. Suddenly a train is hurtling across the screen, and soon we’re experiencing the motion of the train as it rushes through space, trees flashing by so quickly they become abstract shadows flying past in a blur. After tearing through the countryside, speeding past the slums on the outskirts, the train gradually slows, the rhythm gradually slows, as we enter the city.

From this powerful opening, the film goes on to show us a panorama of life in Berlin during the twenties. We see children stroll through the streets on their way to school and workers march through the gates at massive factories. We see the wealthy consuming their banquets with relish and the poor begging for scraps on the street. Machines play a central role in the film, spinning, stamping, steaming, smoking. At times the action is fast-paced and frenetic, pulling us into the aggressive rhythm of the city. But the director also shows us that there are quiet moments, spaces for relaxation and leisure.

Throughout the film Ruttman focusses on the crowd rather than on individuals. He seems to be standing back, trying to act as a neutral observer, but at times he does comment on the images. Scenes of crowds milling through the streets on their way to work are juxtaposed with a herd of cattle making their way down a road. A frenzied montage of men in the business world is matched with footage of dogs fighting. And there are moments when Ruttman pushes the film into abstraction. Typewriter keys melt into a geometric swirl of letters. Pinwheels fill the screen, spinning relentlessly. Words come rising rhythmically off pages of newsprint.

The images are half of the film. The other half is the score. Sadly, the music originally written for Berlin by Edmund Meisel has apparently been lost. But the version of the film that I’ve seen, which was released by Kino Video in the nineties, has a newly composed score by Timothy Brock which is beautifully suited to Ruttman’s cinematic tour de force. With a movie like this, the composer isn’t just writing individual cues as needed. Brock’s score for Berlin is a complete work. He must have spent a lot of time with the film, getting to know it intimately before he started, because his music is perfectly matched to the images on the screen. The driving motion of machines is accompanied by a furious string section playing overlapping rhythmic figures. A lull in the early afternoon is scored with lyrical winds and reeds. And to underline the frightening intensity of this massive city, the composer rolls out thundering percussion as needed. Brock’s score gives this film everything it needs. He nails it.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is a thrilling, visionary film. I’m so blown away by what Ruttman accomplished that I’d like to hold him up as a hero. But I can’t. As I said earlier, at the time this film was made, Germany was between two wars. The country’s faltering economy finally collapsed, driving a desperate nation to desperate solutions. By the early thirties the German people were embracing Adolph Hitler as their leader. While many German filmmakers fled the madness, Ruttman stayed behind and worked for the Nazis, making propaganda films. In nineteen forty one he was injured while filming at the Russian front, and died shortly after.

It’s baffling to see an artist with so much talent and so much imagination embrace the horror of Nazism. How could someone so intelligent embrace a philosophy that worshipped violence and death? As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more aware of the disturbing fact that there are people who have tremendous gifts who also do truly monstrous things. I don’t understand it. I don’t think I ever will.

But just as I can’t embrace Ruttman as a hero, I can’t dismiss his work. Berlin is an exhilarating panorama of a modern metropolis in all its terrifying wonder. A silent film that uses the power of images to reach across time and space to show us a place, a people, that have long since vanished. And also a work of art that, if we look closely, might remind us of who we really are.

Cops (1922)

CopsThe great screen comedians need to create a world of their own. In their best films, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields and others inhabited a universe that was governed by their own set of rules. I think this is one of the reasons comedians have such a hard time sustaining their careers. They tend to choose projects where they get to do funny things, instead of choosing projects that will allow them to be themselves. Woody Allen has been more successful than many, I think in large part because he writes and directs his own movies. Steve Martin can be brilliant, but his films are often crippled by directors who seem more focussed on framing the action than creating a world where the star can be his eccentric, outrageous self. Richard Pryor is one of the greatest comics this country has ever seen, but aside from his concert documentaries, he generally ended up in movies where the makers seemed to have no idea what to do with him.

For a time, Buster Keaton managed to create a world on film that was his alone. While his movies usually have a love interest, and there’s always an assortment of supporting characters, Keaton is the only one who truly has a presence. The rest are two-dimensional figures drawn with a few bold strokes, staying on screen just long enough to fulfill their purpose. In a Chaplin film the supporting players often have a life of their own. We might recognize them as people we’d meet on the street, and sometimes they have surprising emotional depth. The laughs in Laurel and Hardy’s silent films come out of their absolute inability to cope with everyday situations. They just aren’t equipped to deal with the real world. But Keaton’s films have little to do with the real world. They take place entirely in his imagination.

Cops starts off with Keaton’s girlfriend telling him to get lost. He’s not successful enough, and she doesn’t want to marry a loser. In the very next scene, Keaton finds a wallet full of money. It’s actually not quite that simple, but it would be impossible to describe the high-speed, knockabout ballet that ends with our hero making his getaway with a wad of cash. Now having the necessary capital to invest, our hero runs across a man sitting on the curb next to a mountain of furniture. The man says he’s just been evicted, and has to sell his belongings. Keaton, trying to act like a real businessman, makes the purchase, thinking he can sell everything for a tidy profit. Naturally this would impress his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the man on the curb doesn’t tell him that the furniture is not his. It actually belongs to a family that’s getting ready to move. They’ve put everything they own out on the sidewalk to have it ready for the expressman.

Soon Keaton is driving a horse-drawn wagon, the back piled high with furniture. The magical series of misunderstandings leading up to this is completely absurd, but in the context of the movie it all seems to make perfect sense. After a fairly prosaic beginning, this tight little two-reel film is rapidly moving into the realm of surrealism. A boxing glove is transformed into a turn indicator, which works well until a policeman is decked. Keaton decides it’s easier to communicate with his horse by calling him on the phone. One minutes he’s driving down an empty street, the next minute he’s in the middle of a parade, doffing his hat to the cheering crowd. As if all this weren’t enough, out of nowhere an anarchist tosses a bomb, and all hell breaks loose.

Of course, Keaton gets the blame for it all. He has gone from being a rising entrepreneur, calmly driving his cart down the road, to being public enemy number one, now fleeing from an army of cops. And it gets worse. Completely in keeping with the film’s absurd logic, it turns out that the head of the household that lost all its furniture is a policeman. And to take it even further, the father of the girl he’s trying to impress is the chief of police. Soon Keaton is dashing madly down the city’s streets, pursued by a horde of cops that seems to keep growing larger and larger. In the hands of a less talented man, this might seem like overkill. In the world that Keaton has created, it seems like the only possible outcome. Years later, Edgar Ulmer directed Detour, a noir classic which tells us in the starkest terms imaginable that there’s no point in running. We can’t escape our fate. Cops basically has the same premise, but in this case it’s played for laughs. It’s not surprising Samuel Beckett was such a big fan of Keaton’s work.

If you’d like to take a look at Cops, here are a couple of links you can follow….

Cops (Chamber Ensemble)

Cops (Organ Accompaniment)

The reason I’m giving two links is not because the prints offer different versions of Cops. It’s the music. The first one was scored with a small chamber ensemble for a contemporary release of the film. The second one is scored with a large pipe organ, which is much more in keeping with what you would’ve heard in a theatre back in the twenties.

I have to say I’m not totally happy with either version. While the chamber score is certainly a nice piece of music, it doesn’t capture the spirit of Keaton’s world. The music is too genteel for this rough and tumble comedy. The organ soundtrack, while probably close to the accompaniment Cops would have had in the silent days, is too big and too busy for my taste. It doesn’t give the film room to breathe, and doesn’t capture the subtlety that was so much a part of Keaton’s genius.

I’d prefer something in between the two. Actually, I remember a night years ago when the Silent Movie Theatre was still actually showing silent movies. They had a Keaton night, and I’m pretty sure Cops was on the bill. At any rate, to accompany the films they had a guy on piano, and I thought he really nailed it. He knew how to complement the action on the screen without competing with it, and he had a light touch where it was needed. I was so impressed with his playing, I went up to him during intermission and asked him his name. Of course, that was years ago, and now I’ve totally forgotten it.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

fahrenheit-451-6
When a director sets out to turn a book into a movie, they have to make it their own. There is no way to take words on a page and translate them literally into images and sounds. Even if a filmmaker didn’t have to deal with the time constraints of a commercial feature and had the freedom to include every event, every episode described in a novel, there’s no way to replicate the experience of reading a book on the screen. They’re two different mediums, and to make a successful adaptation, you have to transform the book into a film.

So I can’t really fault Francois Truffaut for not capturing the feeling of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the film he made of the novel. Bradbury’s work is so much about the experience of words, and the resonance that words have, there’s no way you could replicate what he does in a movie. But I still have to say that the film doesn’t work for me. I’ve never been able to connect with it.

Which is not to say that it isn’t worth watching. In many ways I think the film is kind of brilliant. The world Truffaut creates and the visual language that he uses have a striking immediacy. While his earlier features were shot largely on location, Fahrenheit 451 was made in a studio. Truffaut uses this to his advantage by emphasizing the artificiality of the environment that Montag, the fireman, lives in. Art director Syd Cain (aided by Tony Walton, uncredited) gives an eerily bright, hard-edged look to this future society where TV controls all information and conformity is the key to survival.

The brilliant reds and solid blacks of the fireman’s world contrast effectively with the earth tones of the natural landscapes and the homes inhabited by the book people. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg takes full advantage of these extremes. He is amazingly sensitive to the various qualities of light, using it to define the stark, modern interior of the firehouse, and to paint the subtle, ghostly beauty of the English countryside. Working with editor Thom Noble, Truffaut finds a rhythm to suit each sequence. Jump cuts give urgency to a scene where a man is warned he’s about to be busted. The firemen’s raids crackle with a scary energy. Long, uninterrupted takes emphasize the arid, sterile atmosphere of a suburban home.

But in spite of all that, I have to say I just don’t connect with the film on an emotional level. There’s something strangely detached about it. You might say that the movie’s polished, impersonal feel would be totally appropriate for this cold future world, but if we can’t connect with Montag as he struggles to break free, then there’s no dramatic impact. As creative as Truffaut and his team are in giving the film a look and a feel, for me the finished product is emotionally flat.

Pauline Kael felt Truffaut’s approach was too restrained, and she may have a point. Fahrenheit 451 was one of Bradbury’s early novels, and it clearly comes out of his roots as a pulp writer. Apparently the book was the author’s response to the chilling oppression of the McCarthy era, and the theme of an individual struggling against a totalitarian government could hardly be stated more bluntly. Montag has to choose between good and evil. Truffaut may not have been comfortable with such a clear-cut moral choice, and he seems unwilling to play it to the melodramatic hilt. There is a reserve in his approach which makes the actors seem strangely distant. It’s also possible that, since this was his first film in English, the language was a barrier he couldn’t quite overcome. And it’s important to mention that the director’s relationship with Oskar Werner was strained during the making of the film, which may have affected the way Montag comes across, or doesn’t come across.

Then again, a good deal of what makes the book memorable is the language, and that’s something you can’t put on screen. I started to re-read Fahrenheit 451 recently after watching the film. I have to say that the story does seem naive and melodramatic. I definitely feel like it’s the work of a young writer, and it doesn’t have the depth or the subtlety of the author’s later work. But the way he writes is totally compelling. Bradbury’s language is dense, rich, intoxicating. His prose is so close to poetry that the line between the two disappears. There’s poetry in Truffaut, too, but it’s a different kind. As a filmmaker he seemed to be seeking clarity, simplicity. Often his best films, such as The Wild Child and The Story of Adele H., have a brusque directness, a naked honesty that allows us to get very close, often uncomfortably close, to the characters. The poetry is held in check, never being allowed to overwhelm the story. Bradbury, on the other hand, wants to overwhelm the reader. He plunges us into his own sensual dimension, a world of experiences he describes so vividly we can touch them, taste them.

While Truffaut’s sensibility is different from Bradbury’s, composer Bernard Herrmann is very much on the writer’s wavelength. His score has a rapturous intensity that is completely in tune with Bradbury’s world. Herrmann sets the tone with the first cue. As a narrator recites the credits over images of TV antennas, strings playing ethereal, shifting harmonies with no resolution, preparing us for the film’s chilling vision of the future. Immediately after we’re assaulted by the bracing, dissonant music that accompanies the firemen’s raids. Throughout the film, Herrmann’s eerie, otherworldly score keeps us off balance with its strange harmonies and unusual rhythms. It’s only at the very end, when we’re in the forest with the book people, snowflakes drifting from above, that the composer introduces a lovely, lilting melody, letting us know that Montag has finally found safety. The tension and anxiety that have dominated the score are gone, and the final, resounding chords reassure us that there is hope.

So while I’ve got some serious problems with the film Truffaut made from Fahrenheit 451, I also find a lot to like in it.  I get the feeling that the director was trying to challenge himself by taking this project, a far cry from Shoot the Piano Player or Jules and Jim. It also seems like he was trying to assimilate what he’d learned from Hitchcock, not just in this film but in others like The Soft Skin and The Bride Wore Black. While I’m not crazy about his work from this period, I think it was important for him to explore this approach. Artists have to make mistakes to grow. We all do. As Buckminster Fuller said…,

“How often I found out where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.”

Rachel Portman

Rachel Portman

Rachel Portman

It’s one thing to watch a movie. It’s another thing to feel it. A while ago I took a look at a film version of Ethan Frome. The story takes place in New England, and the winter landscapes set the emotional tone for what happens between the characters. I remember one scene in particular where Ethan is trudging through the snow against a background that’s almost pure white. The image alone says a lot about the character’s isolation, and while the music reinforces that, it also adds other layers. The strings seem to echo the cold beauty of the snow-covered hills. But most importantly, the music suggests the sense of longing that is central to Edith Wharton’s story.

Rachel Portman has been writing music for movies since the early eighties. While she’s written for a variety of genres, she seems to be most interested in stories that focus on characters, stories that explore relationships. Her scores are both subtle and complex, and she has a gift for drawing us closer to the people we see on the screen.

John Duigan’s sensuous comedy Sirens tells the story of an Australian pastor and his wife going to call on an iconoclastic painter, who lives in the country with his three female models. The conflict is between upright morality and free-thinking hedonism, and Portman uses these two poles as the basis for her approach. While the thematic material is fairly consistent throughout, the score is based on a shifting back and forth between two textures. The orderly world of the pastor and his wife is represented by a crisp rhythmic figure that occupies the string section while a clarinet plays short, resolute lines above. But then the strings relax into a sultry, sensual shifting of harmonies, and instead of the clarinet we hear a flute floating lazily overhead. Portman also weaves harp and glockenspiel into these sections, giving them an otherworldly feel. At times the strings swell up to give us the feeling that we’re falling helplessly into the seductive beauty of the natural world. While the score includes other elements, folk songs, jigs, and even a piece by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, it’s this simple movement from one texture to another that expresses the basic conflict in the film.

Portman also uses this approach of creating contrasting textures in Beeban Kidron’s Great Moments in Aviation. There’s a jazzy blues theme which appears in various forms, the melody being played first by a sauntering clarinet, then a wistful flute, and finally by a brash cornet. But there is also a soaring gospel theme that takes us outside of the real world. Portman does a deft balancing act here, incorporating swift, surprising shifts in tone. I’d love to listen to the whole score some time, but unfortunately the film isn’t available on DVD. I’ve only heard the selections included on a CD compilation of Portman’s work.* Sadly, soundtracks generally don’t get released unless someone considers them marketable.

Ostensibly The Manchurian Candidate is a thriller, but the end result is something far different from the standard Hollywood suspense flick. To start with, Richard Condon’s novel exploits our fear that our lives are controlled by forces we can’t even imagine. Jonathan Demme’s adaptation immerses the viewer in a world of unrelieved paranoia. Instead of pumping the suspense as many composers would, Portman creates a dissonant, oppressive score that heightens the sense of dread and anxiety. A dense string section gives us a background of vague, shifting harmonies that never seem to achieve a resolution. There are no melodies to hang on to. No recognizable themes. This score is all about texture. At times an ethereal chorus rises through the mix, giving a drugged-out sense of drifting through fog. Even at the end, after the main character has found the answers he was looking for, the sense of anxiety is not dispelled completely. The story comes to a close, but the music still gives us the feeling that all is not right with the world.

As a filmmaker Demme seems willing to take risks, to try different things, and Portman’s films with the director have offered her the chance to do the same. The movie version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is well outside the boundaries that usually define commercial filmmaking. Portman rises to the challenge and delivers a score that is completely unconventional. Instead of using a traditional orchestra, she selects a narrow range of instruments and couples them with voices to create an unusual sound landscape. Beloved is a ghost story, and the music seems to emerge from a darkness filled with mystery. Oumou Sangare’s solo vocals float in a space surrounded by silence. The feeling of deep sadness lingers in sparse passages featuring percussion and the occasional flute. But the darkness seems to lift when a shimmering gospel chorus shines through. At the end of the story the main character has found her way to the light.

In order to write music for any film, the composer has to figure out what the film is about. They have to find its core. What sets Portman apart is that she doesn’t just settle for expressing what lies at the heart of a movie. Ultimately she tries to express what lies in the human heart.

* A Pyromaniac’s Love Story, Varese Sarabande, 1995