What I want from a movie score is pretty straight-forward, though of course nothing that boils down to a matter of taste is ever entirely straight-forward. At the very least, a score should add something to a scene that neither dialogue nor picture alone can offer.
A perfect example of this is the strings in the shower scene from “Psycho.” As you may know, Hitchcock didn’t want music in that scene, but Bernard Herrmann’s score changed his mind: Hitchcock had conceived the scene as silent, except for the sound of the water and the sound of the knife entering Marion Crane’s torso. This original conception was unquestionably violent and disturbing, but Herrmann’s shrieking strings pushed it to an altogether new level of madness and terror, and the concluding notes on the double-basses rounded the scene with coda of mortality. The scene simply isn’t as intense or hair-raising without the score. It is now quite impossible to imagine that sequence without the music: the score is an essential and indivisible part of the action.
For a somewhat different reason, “Casablanca” offers another example of what I consider great scoring. It’s safe to say that “Casablanca” wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for its score — at least, not for me. I mean, after all, what could be less romantic than the sight of the chain-smoking, bourbon-soaked, middle-aged Humphrey Bogart with his rabbity store-bought teeth kissing the young and beautiful Ingrid Bergman? Bogey’s romantic dialogue is wooden and paternalistic: “kid” is his only endearment: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Hey, hey! Kid! . . . What’s wrong?” And yet “Casablanca” is regularly voted one of the two or three most romantic movies of all time . . . and why? I say it’s because the entire love affair between Rick and Ilsa is shown through a series of flashbacks with minimal dialogue (played in front of obvious process shots of Paris) and narrated by those lovely variations on “As Time Goes By.”
This is an instance of a score’s doing the heaviest lifting imaginable, and doing so effortlessly: on the strength of fewer than two minutes of excellent scoring, we readily accept that Bogey and Bergman are lost in the embrace of a deep and meaningful romance . . . and we weep at the end when they’re parted. Steiner certainly earned his money for that score!
Richard Rodney Bennett’s music for “Murder on the Orient Express” is another example of excellent scoring: it sets you, at the beginning of the picture, in the Ottoman Empire and then, after the train heads to the West, the music resolves into a waltz. His music leading up to the departure of the Orient Express also provides what production and costume design couldn’t do all by themselves: a heady sense of the glamour, luxuriousness and excitement of first class train travel in the 1930s. What his music doesn’t do is act as aural wallpaper. Nor does Steiner’s score to “Casablanca,” nor Herrmann’s to “Psycho.” Music should never be used as wallpaper. (Benny Herrmann hated Bennett’s score: “A train can’t fucking waltz!”)
Patrick Doyle’s score to Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” is so overtly great that I won’t bother to enumerate its virtues here. Suffice it to say that Doyle’s music sets one absolutely in the proper time and place, and provides potent atmosphere. It also got the star/director out of many a jam: Branagh simply doesn’t have the pipes for the big speeches and Doyle’s score provided the heroism and majesty that his voice could not accommodate. Olivier, you may remember, performed the famous Crispin Crispian speech a capella: he spoke it so musically that underscoring would have been redundant and intrusive; Branagh’s voice needed help and Doyle’s brilliantly appropriate underscoring has the effect of making one almost believe that Branagh is fit to black Olivier’s boots.
Less definable, but equally important to me is this: a score should NEVER appear to be noodling about aimlessly; I never want the sense of mere note-spinning. PBS documentaries are the worst about this — Ric Burns’ otherwise estimable documentary about Eugene O’Neill is a perfect example of what I mean. The biography is brilliantly narrated by Christopher Plummer and is full of wonderfully acted vignettes, but it’s undermined by an insufferable, synthesized score that noodles about . . . reminiscent of when Jack Lemmon used to “entertain” Johnny Carson with his jazz improvisations upon the piano. The score is an insult to the material, as is the score to “The History Boys.” (Strange that Nick Hytner should have so little faith in Alan Bennett’s text au naturelle!)
The most basic test is: how would this scene play without any music? In a great number of cases — certainly the majority — good dialogue is better off without music. It’s the rare composer who has enough on his mind — and the talent to express it — to improve an excellently written and acted scene. Patrick Doyle is a notable modern exception. By contrast, “Gladiator” has an insufferable score — it’s all generic battle music that churns in place on its melodic treadmill — the same four bars over and over again until you feel your head will explode; one hears more musical invention coming from a popsicle truck. Compare it to anything by Korngold, whose music is never generic and is always headed in a specific direction, and the meanness of Zimmer’s musical imagination becomes as obvious as it is odious. In the case of “Gladiator,” the battles definitely require music, but bad music is worse than no music.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” quite apart from its beauty and nobility, does a lot of storytelling. When Maid Marian first begins to thaw in the blaze of Robin’s charm, the two of them talk about politics — specifically, the troubles between the Saxons and their Norman overlords. Not a word of love is spoken, but the music tells us more clearly and subtly than any dialogue (short of Shakespeare’s) could hope to do. (By the way, I was surprised to learn that Korngold almost opted out of scoring “The Adventures of Robin Hood” because he said he didn’t know how to write battle music. In fact, were it not for the Anschluss, he would have gone back to Vienna and never become a Hollywood composer. As it was, Hitler was responsible for Korngold’s sojourn in Hollywood and thus, for one of the greatest composers ever to write for the movies. Till the end of his days, Korngold was fond of saying, “Robin Hood saved my life!”)
What drives me crazy about crummy movie scores is that they are added after the picture is finished. When a picture features great acting, writing, directing and cinematography, why on earth are third-rate composers allowed to besmear all the excellence with their noodling banalities? And why does it happen again and again? Why has it become the rule, rather than the exception? And to think that Bette Davis used to complain about Max Steiner’s over-explanatory scoring! (For the final scene of “Dark Victory,” she said, “Tell Max: Either the music goes upstairs, or I do, but I’ll be GODDAMNED if we go up together!” She lost: they went up together.)
She had no idea how lucky she was!