Milan Music have recently released three remastered albums of classic film scores. Each album picks one film’s soundtrack as a starting point, making up the bulk of the tracks and then adds a few more that are somehow linked to fill the full running time of the CD. All three albums are also available as digital downloads. Below are my thoughts on all three releases.
Le Troisième Homme Orson Welles et La Musique
The Third Man and Music From the Films of Orson Welles
Original Music By: Anton Karas, Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini
Also Featuring Tracks by: Doris Fisher, Allan Roberts, Jacques Ibert, Efrem Kurtz, Paul Misraki
Duration: 72 min
Label: Milan Music
The Third Man is one of my all time favourite films and its soundtrack is undeniably one of the most memorable aspects of it. Where most film noirs opted for a moody jazz score, director Carol Reed hired Anton Karas, a zither player he’d heard in a beer garden during a location scout. The zither is an unusual string instrument which isn’t totally native to Austria, but is more common there than in most countries, so Reed must have felt it added some authenticity to proceedings. It certainly made for an incredibly unique sound, making it stand out from the standard fare being written at the time. It’s immensely catchy too and will stay in your head for days after listening to it.
I find it odd that The Third Man heads up this album though. Not that it doesn’t deserve it, but because there are only three tracks from that soundtrack here, but six from The Magnificent Ambersons, five from Jane Eyre and four from Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil. And these albums are definitely worthy of headlining too. The first three I mentioned were from the brilliant Bernard Herrmann, one of the world’s greatest soundtrack composers, certainly my favourite. The Citizen Kane soundtrack is a known classic, with the glorious ‘The Inquirer (Polka)’ track included here a stunning example of Herrmann’s skill, producing a piece of music that equals any classical melody whilst remaining true to the film it was made for.
Of course Welles realised Herrmann’s skill and brought him back to score his follow up to Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons. With it’s beautiful waltz-like theme, it’s easily the equal to the music in Kane and shows a much lighter touch to the man most famous for giving a signature sound to Hitchcock’s later work (see below). Jane Eyre, which Welles starred in, but didn’t write or direct, is a moody and darker affair which hints towards those later scores. The melancholic use of strings is classic Hollywood scoring at its best.
Karas’ zither music and these Herrmann tracks make up the bulk of the album but the last few tracks cover some of the less famous music from films Welles has directed. ‘Please Don’t Kiss Me’ from The Lady From Shanghai sticks out like a sore thumb, being the only vocal track on the album. It’s not bad, but brief and out of place here. Next is a short cue from Macbeth, composed by Jacques Ibert and Efrem Kurtz which sounds decent, but doesn’t add much to proceedings. The ‘main title’ from Confidential Report is a nice little number by Paul Misraki, but again is very brief.
Rounding off the album are a number of tracks from Touch of Evil, a film I adore (and have reviewed here not so long ago). Henry Mancini’s ‘Main Title’ is a suitably sleazy jazzy affair as are most of the tracks from the film. Being much ‘poppier’ and blues and jazz influenced, the choices from the film are enjoyable but don’t sit too well after the previous tracks. Also, being a big jazz fan I don’t feel these tracks quite match the work being done by the top artists of the era. I guess Welles didn’t want the music to be too classy though as it wouldn’t have fit the atmosphere of the film.
So there is some absolute gold on this album, making it a must purchase if you don’t already have most of those individual soundtracks, but the last third does let it down a little and of the three of these Milan Music releases it’s the least cohesive. But don’t let that stop you from listening to some of the finest pieces of music composed for films.
Le Troisième Homme Orson Welles et La Musique is out now on CD and digital download.
And here’s the classic theme from The Third Man:
Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai The Original Soundtrack & Music from David Lean’s Celebrated Works
Original Music By: Malcolm Arnold, Maurice Jarre
Featuring a Track by: Kenneth J Alford
Duration: 76 min
Label: Milan Music
Once again, Milan Music have made a slightly peculiar choice of album-header here. The score from The Bridge on the River Kwai makes up the bulk of the album unlike The Third Man does in the album above, but it’s odd that they’ve chosen that soundtrack to celebrate the music in David Lean’s films over the possibly more celebrated Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago soundtracks. Again, this is a very minor concern as it’s still a famous soundtrack and long suites from those two scores alongside a couple of others are included on top of Malcolm Arnold’s work on Kwai.
The Bridge on the River Kwai does contain one of cinema’s most memorable pieces of music though in ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’ so I shouldn’t be too surprised by Milan Music’s decision. Funnily enough though, this piece of music was written by Kenneth J Alford back in 1914 rather than Arnold, who composed the original score for the film. Arnold does integrate the march into the rest of the soundtrack too as it plays a pivotal part in the film.
And that’s not to say that Arnold’s work isn’t as noteworthy or memorable. The score to The Bridge on the River Kwai is a fine piece of work. It’s largely a quite rousing affair with a military edge to mirror the content of the film itself and its deluded hero, colonel Nicholson (played by the great Alec Guinness).
It also has a dark edge reminiscent of some of Bernard Herrmann’s work, bringing in discordant and almost frightening passages, some of which can be found as soon as the album kicks in on the ‘Overture’. The music also has the sweeping majesty and epic bombast needed to accompany a David Lean film.
As mentioned, it’s not only Arnold’s music on the album though, more than half of the running time is taken up with four lengthy suites of music from the films Maurice Jarre scored for David Lean. All of these are amongst the finest soundtracks ever composed. First up is the Middle-Eastern tinged majesty of Lawrence of Arabia. With a gloriously full sound this is epic scoring at it’s finest. A 10 minute cue from Doctor Zhivago is next, featuring snatches of the distinctive ‘Lara’s Theme’. Again, this is full of sweeping beauty and hints of the film’s Russian setting. Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India finish off the album and whilst they’re not as instantly recognisable as the previous two track, they still have their passion, romance and scale.
So despite my surprise at the choice of focus for this album, it’s more consistent than the Third Man release and comes even more highly recommended.
Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai is out now on CD and digital download.
Here’s Colonel Bogey’s March from Bridge on the River Kwai:
Vertigo et la Musique des Films d’Alfred Hitchcock
The third of these classic re-releases focuses on the music from Vertigo as well as a few highlights from other scores Bernard Herrmann composed for Alfred Hitchcock. Their collaborations were among the most successful in cinema history and Vertigo ranks among one of the all time greatest soundtracks.
Over a decade ago I actually chose to write my University dissertation on Herrmann’s use of music in Hitchcock’s films. So, forgive me if this might be a little self-indulgent (or maybe just lazy), but I thought I would post an abridged version of my chapter on the soundtrack to Vertigo rather than cobble together a straight forward review:
“When Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958) was first released, it was given quite a luke-warm response by critics and the public; a quote from The New Yorker called it ‘far-fetched nonsense’ (cited in Weaver 2000) and it earned only $3.2m in the U.S. compared to Psycho (Hitchcock 1960), which earned $32m (IMDb). Over the years respect for it has grown dramatically; when Sight and Sound (BFI 2002) recently ran a poll with a number of the world’s leading directors and critics asking them for their favourite films, the directors placed it at number 6 and the critics at number 2, behind only Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941).
Many critics attribute Herrmann’s score as being one of the strongest elements of the film, especially considering that it contains more music than spoken dialogue (Williams 1999). As James Katz (cited in Smith 1996), part of the restoration team behind the 1996 re-release of the film stated, ‘as it stands now, the Bernard Herrmann score is the third star’. This chapter will look at how Vertigo’s score works to uncover why it is thought of so highly, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of film music at its supposed peak.
The best starting point in analysing the score to Vertigo would be the opening prelude played over the titles. This is almost always an important sequence for a composer partly because of the fact that there is usually little or no action or sound effects present, but also because this is where they must set the tone for the rest of the film. As composer Neil Brand (cited in Kirkham 1997) stated of the Vertigo prelude, ‘the mysticism, violence and passion of the story are all conveyed before the first of the technical credits’.
The prelude to Vertigo, along with Saul Bass’ swirling visuals, creates a genuinely unnerving atmosphere, mirroring the dizzying sensation of actually experiencing vertigo. This is achieved in the music through a number of techniques that go against the characteristics of traditional Romantic styles that London, Adorno and Eisler described as being prevalent in film music.
One of these techniques can be heard straight away in the opening bars of the prelude. Here the bass/lower instruments and the treble/higher instruments are playing alternately ascending and descending arpeggios (where notes of the chord are played consecutively) in opposite directions. This instantly creates the dizzying effect mentioned previously. Also, because the parts move in different directions, it prevents any real melodic tune being forged, and as Kathryn Kalinak (1992) points out; ‘one of the reasons for the discomfort of the opening is the absence of a conventional melody, which denies the listener the familiar point of access’. This certainly isn’t the sort of ‘background music’ London spoke out against, nor does it suggest a similarity to the calming use of ‘muzak’ that Gorbman discussed.
Instead this use of music backs up Brown’s idea of ‘music of the irrational’ that he attributed to Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. One of the ‘irrational’ characteristics Brown described was the use of the ‘Hitchcock chord’ (so called because of Herrmann’s frequent use of it in the films he scored for Hitchcock). He describes this technically as being ‘a minor major-seventh chord in which there are two major and one minor third’ (Brown 1994). An example of this in Vertigo’s prelude is apparent in a broken-up form in the arpeggios mentioned earlier and played together more obviously a little later in the cue. This type of chord can be described as being atonal, where the sound produced feels incomplete, and is commonly used in modern jazz, but not in film music’s traditionally tonal compositions such as those written in the Romantic style.
As well as exploiting melody and the tonality of music, Herrmann plays with the regular conceptions of rhythm in his score for Vertigo to unsettle the audience. The prelude is written in 2/2 time (meaning each measure/bar consists of two beats), where typically the first beat of each measure is accented most prominently. Through most of the prelude this convention is adhered to, but once or twice the emphasis is shifted to the second beat. One example of this can be heard when the aforementioned ‘Hitchcock chord’ comes in. The effect of this ‘contributes to the agitation many listeners feel in hearing this cue’ (Kalinak 1992).
Herrmann’s use of dynamics also adds to the unsettling nature of the prelude. Dynamics can be described as being ‘the relative loudness or softness of the music or its volume’ (University of the Ozarks 2002). Throughout the prelude the dynamics shift dramatically and erratically as the quiet arpeggios are interrupted at irregular intervals by the blaring brass section.
This constant fluctuation in dynamic patterns again adds to the unease of the title sequence. It also challenges the practice of ‘standardized interpretation’ that Adorno and Eisler disapproved of. They described how generally in film music, ‘the different degrees of strength are levelled and blurred to a general mezzoforte’ (medium volume) ‘which neither startles by its power (fortissimo) nor requires attentive listening because of its weakness (pianissimo)’ (Adorno & Eisler 1947).
Elsewhere in the film, Herrmann tends to go against a number of the conventions and theorists displeasures of film music. The use of the ‘Love Theme’ in Vertigo for instance isn’t quite like the melodramatic examples London disliked so much. Although it does build and swell at times in a slightly overly dramatic fashion, it still doesn’t sound like a typical love theme, mainly because it’s in a minor key which makes it sound much more mournful than most. Its repetitious use of a short phrase rather than an extended melody marks it out too.”
So, as you imagine I think very highly of the music from Vertigo as well as all of Herrmann’s work. Following the seven main themes and cues from the score, the album ends with four suites and preludes from other Herrmann/Hitchcock collaborations. The first of these is from Psycho, which doesn’t really need my recommendation. It’s possibly the most recognisable film score of all time and still retains its strength despite decades of spoofs and rip-offs. Next up is the ‘Cantala’ from The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is actually Herrmann’s adaptation of a work by Arthur Benjamin, but is still a beautiful piece of music and more than welcome in the collection. Next up is another cast-iron classic track in the form of the prelude from North by Northwest. I adore this piece of music – it’s unique and complex but wonderfully catchy and dance-like in rhythm. And finally, the album comes to an end with the prelude from ‘The Wrong Man’. This is not one of Hitchcock or Herrmann’s more popular works, but it’s a jaunty little number which mirrors the jazz musician profession of its protagonist even if it doesn’t mirror the overall mood of the film (the rest of the score is more subdued).
As my lengthy dissertation sample above can testify I’m a huge fan of Bernard Herrmann and this album is a great place to get a taste of some of his finest work. Along with the other two classic re-releases from Milan Music reviewed here, this is highly recommended.
Vertigo et la Musique des Films d’Alfred Hitchcock is out now on CD and digital download.
Here’s the inimitable theme from Vertigo: