By Alan Hurst
Any list of the great film themes will include major achievements like Maurice Jarre’s sweeping score for Lawrence of Arabia (1962); Max Steiner’s romantic theme for Gone With the Wind (1939); John Williams’ adventure tinged work for Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and E.T The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Elmer Bernstein’s panoramic The Magnificent Seven (1960); Henry Mancini’s sexy theme for The Pink Panther (1964); Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock on Pscyho (1960) and for Scorsese on Taxi Driver (1976); and Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative work on Chinatown (1974).
There are others – both The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Born Free (1966), Out of Africa (1985), Laura (1944), How the West Was Won (1963) and so many more. These are all pieces of music that any film fan knows after they hear just the first few notes of the familiar orchestration.
But there are others, less famous but equally impactful and memorable. They’re just as romantic, haunting, and dramatic as those named above and they do exactly what a great move theme and score should do – set the tone for the film as it plays under the opening credits, augment the mood as variations are heard throughout the film, or provide an emotionally evocative wrap up just before the final credits roll.
These are 10 of my favourites:
Now, Voyager (1942) by Max Steiner
Now, Voyager – one of the all-time great Bette Davis films – opens with the traditional music used to accompany the Warner Brothers logo in the 1940’s and then segues into Max Steiner’s rousing score. This is one of the classic scores of the era. Yes, it’s lushly dramatic, but also very romantic and perfectly suited to the story of Charlotte Vale’s transition from ugly duckling to confident swan. When you’ve seen the film, you can’t separate any scene from the memory of what Steiner is doing musically. It deservedly won the Oscar that year.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945) by Alfred Newman
Leave Her to Heaven is a sublime 1940’s melodrama, one of the best of the decade with a fascinating central performance by Gene Tierney. Tierney plays an obsessive, heartless character who will stop at nothing to get and keep what she wants. And heaven help anyone who gets in her way, including her unborn child. Her emotions and behaviour are over the top, and so is the superb Alfred Newman score. It’s a pounding, pulsating composition that signals dire things to come right from the start. As Tierney’s actions get more desperate and vile, Newman’s music is with her every step of the way.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) By David Raskin
There’s a decidedly over the top, important feel to the theme for Vincente Minnelli’s fascinating look at Hollywood and movie making. The film is melodramatic, with performances to match from a cast that includes Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, but it and they are excellent. So is David Raskin’s music. The melody and lush orchestration are the perfect accompaniment to the pulpy yet incisive dialogue and plot. It’s all very 1950’s Hollywood and very fun.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) by Charles Wolcott
When you think about this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams’ play, first thoughts probably go the stunningly beautiful pairing of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, both in their visual prime as the depressed Brick and the sex starved Maggie. But director Richard Brooks wisely bookends the film with a jazzy, sexy, smoky composition by Charles Wolcott that helps give the film some heat and establishes a sultry tone that both actors – particularly Taylor – deliver in spades.
Zorba the Greek (1964) by Mikis Theodorakis
Mikis Theodorakis’ score is an authentic sounding and life affirming boon to this story of the flamboyant Zorba (Anthony Quinn) who teaches the ways of the world to Alan Bates. The film is a mix of comedy and drama, but the Theodorakis’ score is the consistent unifier, helping to balance the shifts in tone and, in the process, providing one of the most evocative scores of the decade. It provided North American audiences with a window – and ear – a world most had never been exposed to before.
The Lion in Winter (1968) by John Barry
There is something transporting about the first few notes of John Barry’s score for The Lion in Winter. It’s loud, it’s dramatic and it sounds completely of another time. Whatever tricks were deployed in the recording, there’s something majestic and ancient in the sound of the recording that helps the music feel truly medieval and very commanding. Set in 1183, The Lion in Winter is the story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their battles to pick an heir to the English throne. Both Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn are brilliant in the leads, but John Barry’s score certainly augments their many thrilling moments.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) by Krzysztof Komeda
This is probably the simplest musical composition on the list, and the eeriest. A slow-moving panoramic of New York City starts the film with the camera finally settling in on an old gothic apartment building. Over the visuals is a pink swirling font for the title, cast and crew names – all underscored by a spooky, haunting lullaby sung by Mia Farrow. It’s simple, scary and let’s you know you’re in for something unsettling. Komeda used variations of the theme throughout, yet even when it’s highlighting something as sunlit and uplifting as painting a child’s nursery, there’s still something just slightly off kilter with what we’re hearing and it’s very effective.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974) by Richard Rodney Bennett
This was a terrific year for films and for film scores. I’m a fanatic about Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting work on Chinatown, as well as John Barry’s memorable work on The Tamarind Seed (see below). But Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for Murder on the Orient Express is probably the most elegant score of the decade. The film kicks off with a beautiful opening credit sequence that uses black and yellow art deco lettering on pink silk and shifts to a documentary-style set-up of a fictionalized kidnapping on Long Island. Underscoring this is Bennett’s vintage and classy music that is lightly nostalgic, but with a real dramatic undercurrent. Even if the title didn’t give it away, there’s no doubt this film is going to be about murder. Right from the start you’re hooked. There’s also a beautiful waltz that Bennett created for the departure of the Orient Express from the station, which is one of the film’s visual peaks. You can hear both in the clip below.
The Tamarind Seed (1974) by John Barry
The Tamarind Seed was a middling success when it was released in 1974, an efficient little espionage drama with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif under the guidance of director Blake Edwards. Almost 50 years later it’s a little dated but still enjoyable, and what strikes me every time is how strong John Barry’s score is. As the credits roll, his music has a very international feel, tinged with mystery and romance. You’re entering a world of foreign espionage with a female protagonist and that’s all communicated with the music. The visuals here are dramatic as well, but it’s the music gives you a real sense of foreboding and excitement.
The Prince of Tides (1991) by James Newton Howard
You just know that composer James Newton Howard worked very closely with Barbra Streisand to get the right mix of romance, melancholy and depth to his score for her finest directorial achievement. The Streisand music aesthetic – on her albums, in her concerts and on film – is lush, full bodied and accessible. That’s what they achieve here with a theme and score that supports the moving story of a dysfunctional southern family. It’s at once sweeping and intimate. The scale of the film is actually quite small, but the emotions and drama are huge. The music captures that – it’s both haunting (in a good way) and relaxing.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.