A Few Thoughts about Movie Scores

'Rick's wouldn't be Rick's without Sam':  Dooley Wilson entertains the crowd.

‘Rick’s wouldn’t be Rick’s without Sam’: Dooley Wilson entertains the crowd.

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.  

Pyscho:  Cue violins

Pyscho: Cue violins.

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 a 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. 

The End of Marion Crane:  Double basses finish her off.

The End of Marion Crane: Double basses finish her off.

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.” 

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman:  "Moonlight & love songs, never out of date."

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman: ‘Moonlight and love songs, never out of date.’

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!

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot in 'Murder on the Orient Express.'

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot in ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’

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!”)

Kenneth Branagh lathers up his men: We must have music.

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.  

Courtship in Sherwood:  The talk is politics; the music is love.

Courtship in Sherwood: The talk is politics; the music is love.

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!

Dark Victory:  Up the stairs together with Max.

Dark Victory: Up the stairs together with Max.

10 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts about Movie Scores

  1. Gregorio

    LOOOOOOOOVE your entry about movie score. It read delightfully fast and cleverly in crescendo of topics.
    The last paragraph – my favorite – was brilliantly crafted and added a piece of wisdom (expressed very succinctly) that it never occurred to me before.
    The opening photograph was also a very beautiful choice. Great opening for the article.
    In general all the selected photographs are superb.

    Does any of those movies have any YouTube clip/sound that you could add?

  2. Ricardo

    I saw Casablanca on the big screen last year. It was a wonderful experience. I am a huge fan of Thomas Newman (Angels in America, American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption).

  3. Michael Pollak

    You have wonderful stills. Dooley at the piano for example is caught at just the best possible moment. Do you get them all from the films the films themselves or are some publicity stills? Because I don’t remember that overhead shot of Bette Davis kneeling in Jezebel. But it’s amazing.

    1. TR Post author

      Some are publicity stills; some are from the pictures themselves. I choose the ones that I like & that seem to fit the best. The overhead shot of Bette Davis in “Jezebel” is a publicity still, probably taken to show off that amazing dress. — TR

  4. Billo

    While I’d agree Doyle’s score to Branagh’s Crispin Crispian assay was estimable, I’d differ with you: it was generic instead of specific. It fell more into your catagory of “wallpaper” rather than seek out the actor’s melody and play a duet with him as principal.

    1. TR Post author

      That’s a fair point & I gladly accept the correction. It is indeed more general than I remembered it to be. It does, at least, serve a vital function: it offers music that the voice cannot provide, which allows it, in some measure, to be better than mere aural wallpaper. I’m not sure it would be a good idea to attempt to play a duet with that particular voice. Still, I appreciate the distinction & will probably rewrite that bit . . .

  5. Billo

    Korngold had sufficient musical talent to write “tone poems” ala Richard Strauss. He proposed something musically and the directors and editors found the way to weave it into the picture.
    The results were thrilling. Spielberg’s relationship with the music of John Williams has produced similar happy results. He has said himself that John can come in with a musical sequence and he will happily shoot to it.

  6. Carl-Edward

    I should like to tell you of two films – the first excellent, the other terrible but enjoyable – with beautiful scores: ‘The Voice Of Merrill’ (1952), with the lovely Valerie Hobson, and: ‘By Love Possessed’ (1961). I am certain you have seen the latter, and I hope you will one day comment on it. “The Voice Of Merrill’ is a murder mystery, with a realistic love story, and a fascinating psychological texture.

    I suspect I am in a minority in loathing: ‘Casablanca’. It is a badly acted piece of vulgar Allied propaganda. I have never liked Ingrid Bergman, and I only tolerate Bogart because he appeared in a few interesting films. I also dislike the much praised: ‘As Time Goes By’. Claude Rains of course, can do no wrong.


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