Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jerry Goldsmith - 3 Scores from 1966

“Music is supposed to enhance the emotional reaction of the audience. These are things you can’t mechanically place in a film – the emotional elements, no matter how wonderful the actors are. Music brings emotions to a higher level. I think that’s what music basically should be used for.” – Jerry Goldsmith speaking about the role of music in film.

In the summer of 1970, at the tender age of 14, I went to see the movie Patton with my grandmother in a large theater in Chicago’s Loop. I recall the opening scene quite vividly with the huge American flag and George C. Scott’s inspiring speech. I can’t honestly say that at that age, I understood much of the ironic humor of that monologue (my grandmother said that movie had a lot of “salty language,”), but I loved the visuals.

I also recall the rousing musical theme that followed as well as much of the rest of the score, which was at times reflective and very quiet (especially for a war film) and at times, quite lively and dramatic in its nature. It was the first time that I realized the power an original score could bring to a movie (I had been also thrilled by Stanley Kubrick’s marvelous use of classical and modern music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, just two years earlier).

The score for Patton was written by Jerry Goldsmith, who had a decade of feature film scoring experience at the time, but he was just getting his composing talents in second gear. Dozens of other great scores would emerge from the pen (piano?) of Goldsmith over the next 30 plus years, from Chinatown, The Wind and The Lion, MacArthur, Islands in the Stream and The Boys from Brazil in the 1970s (what a remarkable decade for Goldsmith!) to Poltergeist, Under Fire and Hoosiers in the 1980s to Basic Instinct, Rudy and L.A. Confidential in the 1990s to The Last Castle, The Sum of All Fears and the brilliant unused score for Timeline this decade, evidence that Goldsmith was clearly one of the finest film composers who ever lived. He passed away in 2004 after a long battle with cancer; all film and music lovers can be grateful that Goldsmith’s applied his brilliant talent over such a long period of time and that we can continue to listen to these remarkable, moving compositions.

In this post, I will deal with a few of Goldsmith’s early scores. Born in Pasadena, California in 1929, he studied film composition with the great Miklos Rózsa (composer of such classic scores as Ben Hur, Julius Caesar and Quo Vadis) at the University of Southern California. Goldsmith was soon writing for television; his early resumé includes work for such series as The Lineup, Gunsmoke and Thriller. He also composed the music for seven different episodes of The Twilight Zone in 1960 and 1961; among those are his sensitive scores for "Back There" and "The Big Tall Wish."

More television work followed and Goldsmith composed several famous themes including Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (He would go on to write music for many more well known television series in the 1970s, including The Waltons, Police Story and Barnaby Jones.) Film work began in the early 1960s with Goldsmith receiving his first Academy Award nomination for John Huston’s biopic Freud in 1962.

Goldsmith soon became an in-demand composer and was becoming known as someone who could deliver almost any type of score; listen to his bittersweet, touching score for A Patch of Blue and then contrast it with his bravura work of In Harm’s Way, both from 1965. The former earned the composer his second Oscar nod, while the latter is best remembered for the stirring end theme which beautifully complemented Otto Preminger’s vision of the apocalypse in the closing titles. Also worth recalling in this score are the passages of brass that accompany the scenes of military planning; these cues call to mind several moments of his future score for Patton. A note of trivia about In Harm’s Way: Goldsmith made his only screen appearance here (uncredited), he is seen in the opening sequence at the evening dance, leading the band, seated at a piano.

Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s

It was in 1966 that Goldsmith truly reached new heights with scores for six feature films; the three I will discuss are The Sand Pebbles, The Blue Max and Seconds. For The Sand Pebbles, he composed a lengthy score, as this was one of those old-fashioned road show films that made a big splash back in the 1960s. The score features an overture (one of the few in the composer’s career) as well as an entr’acte and even a love theme that became a hit song, known as “When We Were Lovers,” with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, no less (while the theme is heard in the film, the song is not).

The Sand Pebbles, though a bit overly serious and too long at three hours’ running time, remains a solid treatment of a little known moment in American history in 1926 when U.S. Navy gunboats were assigned to China to keep the peace. The composer at times went for the Oriental effect in his music, though in a subdued fashion. (According to Jon Burlingame in his article on the Film Music Society’s website, Goldsmith used a variety of instruments, including Chinese temple bells, wood drums and even a mandolin to achieve the eastern-sounding effects.) The opening theme is dissonant and quiet, featuring strings, woodwinds and percussion. Midway through the theme, the mood becomes more strained with brass taking over; this is a fine introduction to the struggles the characters will face in the film.

One of the most memorable cues in the score is a simple four note passage that Goldsmith wrote for the chilling scene in which Po-Han (Mako), the head coolie hand-picked by Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is being cut by Chinese rebels just a few hundred yards from the ship. Holman, seeing his newfound friend being brutally tortured, grabs a rifle and shoots him, putting him out of his agony. This is a beautifully directed scene by Robert Wise, who builds up the suspense brilliantly; at the very moment Holman kills Po-Han, we are relieved of the tension, as though the air has gone out of a balloon.

Goldsmith wisely decided not to score much of the scene, as there is plenty of sound between the roars of the angry mob, the horrific screams of Pan-Ho and the barking orders of the ship’s captain (Richard Crenna). Holman pulls the trigger – the sound of the gunshot is like a punch to the stomach – and there is silence for a few seconds as Holman lowers his head in sorrow and disbelief. The composer then introduces his sad, somber theme and continues it as we follow Holman down to the engine room where he breaks down for a brief moment. We will hear this same theme again much later in the film when Holman is forced to brutally murder in self-defense; the music here is both ironic and a brutal reminder of Po-Han’s death. Goldsmith’s use of this theme revealed a complexity in his scoring ability that had elevated him to the top of his profession’s ranks at that time and these moments are still among the most effective of his distinguished career. (Goldsmith would work with Wise again for one of his most memorable scores for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.)

Goldmsith also composed the score for another military film in 1966: The Blue Max. The story of ace aviators in the German army of World War 1, the main plot focused on one pilot Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), who sought to win the coveted medal of the film’s title by shooting down enough enemy planes. Beautifully photographed, the film is often quite riveting, despite some of the less than enthralling subplots. Goldsmith’s main theme is majestic with a strong brass line and a sweeping melody played by strings. It is remarkable how unknown this theme is, as it is one of the most powerful of all themes for war films.

His passage for the aerial attacks is a driving piece with strings, percussion and brass all combining in slightly dissonant fashion to convey the whirlwind, confusing, pulsating nature of this specialized combat. A superb piece, with a definite Germanic influence, this is a marvelous part of the score that stands magnificently on its own; it is no wonder that many symphony orchestras have performed it over the years. Goldsmith’s score is definitely one of the strongest components of this uneven film; all the way through to the lush orchestrations of the closing sequence, the composer is at his best.

The other first-rate score of 1966 by the composer was for Seconds, the fantasy film directed by John Frankenheimer, about people who would pay to be transformed into a new personality through radical plastic surgery (they are given a second life, hence the film’s title). Feauturing stunning black-and-white photography by James Wong Howe, the film has become a cult classic and is one of the most intense science fiction films of all time. Goldsmith’s title theme is appropriatley eerie, with strings and organ (a particularly wonderful touch) combining to create some of the composer’s creepiest music, perhaps only rivaled by The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and his Oscar-winning score for The Omen (1976).

He also wrote one of his simplest, most nostalgic themes for a later scene in the film, when the main character Wilson (Rock Hudson) goes to visit the widow of one of his recently departed friends. It is a very touching moment, made all the more so by the quietness of this music in contrast to the frightening sounds of the remainder of the score. This same peaceful theme is repeated in the film’s final ironic scene, as we see a vision of a dream of a man on a beach carrying his young son and walking with his dog; this image quicky goes out of focus, as the haunting music perfomed by solo piano is a 180-degree reversal of the film’s opening music.

Given the quality of these scores in 1966, the Academy certainly could have rewarded Goldsmith with three Oscar nominations; while this was unlikely, he might have been given two nods (as Seconds was a box-office disaster, that score had little chance). As The Sand Pebbles was a bigger success at the box office than The Blue Max, it is no surprise that the former film was the one for which Goldsmith was nominated.

In what would be an all too recurring theme, he did not win the Oscar that year; the admired, but less than excellent score of Born Free by John Barry won the trophy (that film’s title song which was a pop hit was certainly a factor in the voting decision). Looking back, it would have made more sense if Alex North for his touching, achingly beautiful score for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have been the one to edge out Goldsmith, but popular music has always tended to win awards. (Note: while Goldsmith was robbed on at least three occasions of an Academy Award, he did at least win for The Omen; North – one of the seminal film composers of all time - amazingly never won for one of his scores. The Academy, no doubt embarassed by this, did give North a lifetime achievement award late in his career.)

Two years later, Goldsmith would write his wildly famous score for Planet of the Apes; Patton, also for director Frankin Schaffner, would follow in 1970. His career soared after that, but perhaps it was in 1966 that Jerry Goldsmith laid the groundwork for what would become one of the great catalogues of fim music Hollywood has ever heard.