The Movies

He Made Film Noir Sing

by Andrew Mangravite

Miklos Rozsa, who died recently, seems destined to be remembered for the stirring and exotic scores he wrote for such epics as Quo Vadis, The Knights of the Round Table, Ben Hur and El Cid. These epic scores harkened back to the work he did for British producer Alexander Korda during the early 1940s, when he scored such popular romantic dramas as That Hamilton Woman, and The Four Feathers.

While genre fans fondly recall his two fantasy scores for The Jungle Book (one of the first movie scores to be released on 78 rpm records) and The Thief of Bagdad (still one of the most beautiful scores for a fantasy film this side of Bernard Herrmann), I would like to think that there are also fans out there who remember Rozsa's contributions to film noir.

Between 1944 and 1950, Rozsa scored all of these classic noir dramas: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944); Deep Waters (Andre deToth, 1944); Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945); The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945); The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946); Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1946); Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947); A Double Life (George Cukor, 1947); The Red House (Delmer Daves, 1947); The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda, 1947); Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948); The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948); Criss-Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949); The Bribe (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949); and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950). In terms of sheer number alone, the list is not an inconsequential one; when you take the overall quality of the work into account, it becomes truly impressive.

Memorable scenes are dramatically underlined and nailed into the memory via Rozsa's film scores: the creepy sound of the theremin (an electronic instrument) as Gregory Peck slips into Ingrid Bergman's bedroom, razor in hand, in Spellbound; the pitiless marching theme as Burt Lancaster and his cellmates burst from the tunnel in Brute Force, with stoolie Jeff Corey tied to the gondola that shields them; the dying Ted de Corsia surveying The Naked City one last time from his perch atop the Williamsburg Bridge.

The ominous pounding introduction for hired gunmen William Conrad and Charles MacGraw as they speed through the New Jersey night en route to Brentwood and their meeting with The Swede in the opening moments of The Killers has entered into American movie folklore (and is said to have provided the inspiration for the theme to the TV series Dragnet).

But there's more to the magic that Miklos Rozsa worked upon film noir. Recognizing the tragic potential inherent in these tawdry tales, he set about to write grand tragic themes, so that the love music for Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo (and, by extension, Dan Duryea) in Criss-Cross becomes a mini-Liebestod, perfectly delineating their doomed passion.

In the closing moments of Brute Force he weds his music so perfectly to the action that the film winds up having a musical, rather than a visual, climax. There's not a lot of visual impact in something failing to happen. The dying convict leader can summon up the strength to hurl the would-be superman warden from the gate tower, but finds he is unable to open the gates so that his followers can escape. Lancaster can make a face of hopeless bafflement as he collapses and dies, but it's Rozsa who must hammer the mood home to the audience with his faltering, despairing rendition of the strident revolt theme with which the sequence began.

There's a similar use of music at the climax of The Naked City, by playing the chase theme in a slower, more gradiose manner, Rozsa telegraphs to the audience that it's all over for the wounded de Corsia, and that he will fire on the police rather than surrender to them.

Sometimes Rozsa achieved an almost operatic effect, as in the closing moments of The Killers, when Ava Gardner attempts to convince her dying husband to cover for her one last time. The music rises with Gardner's entreaties, grows more desperate as the life ebbs from her would-be alibi, then crashes to earth as he dies without speaking up for her and a policeman rebukes her for asking a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.

Again, there is an almost operatic quality to Sterling Hayden's long death scene at the close of The Asphalt Jungle. This film includes little musical accompaniment to the long stretches of finely wrought tough-guy dialogue. There is an opening theme, followed by a few bars of ominous music as Hayden plays tag with a patrol car, then almost nothing until the mortally wounded hooligan, moving into and out of delirium, flees the city for the long-lost family farm of his youth.

Rozsa provided a headlong, obsessive theme for this scene, at times echoing the asphalt jungle theme of the film's opening moments. This, in turn yields to a strong, elegaic theme as the dead-on-his-feet gunman lives just long enough to stumble into a field where grazing horses will curiously regard his corpse. Since much of the action was filmed in long shots (to preserve the overall objective mood of the film), Hayden couldn't do a whole lot of tongue-lolling, eye-rolling emoting even if he wanted to. Rozsa'a music had to carry the emotional weight of the scene and Rozsa, as always, was up to the challenge.

Toward the close of his active career, Rozsa became involved with the neo-noir movement as well, scoring old friend Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978), Jonathan Demme's Last Embrace (1979), and Richard Marquand's The Eye of the Needle (1981), his music having by then become instant nostalgia, a sure-fire way of evoking that echt-'40s atmosphere. The music generally held up better than the films, a tribute to the prodigious and evergreen skills of Miklos Rozsa.

"He Made Film Noir Sing" copyright 1995 by Andrew Mangravite. All rights reserved.
Andrew Mangravite is a freelance writer of art and movie reviews and editor of a volume of Symbolist poetry, The Book of Masks, for Atlas Press.


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:52 EDT