A box set explores the music of film noir, which was hardly in any film noir
In the 1950s, film began to move away from romantic or bombastic (depending on the type of film) orchestral scores and toward a more varied landscape. One of the chief styles of music to become the basis for cinematic soundtracks was jazz (the other, a little later, was rock ‘n’ roll). Jazz was no stranger to film; hell, the first talkie was called The Jazz Singer, and early jazz, big band, and swing made frequent appearances in film. However, much of the time, jazz on-screen was presented as a performance rather than as an integral part of the score, which was more times than not the tried and true orchestration that had served film so well since, basically, the medium moved beyond “whatever the piano player in the movie house knows.” It wasn’t until the post-war era that jazz began to migrate to the score, to become both diegetic and non-diegetic within the context of the film. Many people who know more about the history of jazz and film music than me cite director Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire as the point at which jazz became integral to the aural tapestry of film. So it is fitting that Jazz on Film: Film Noir, a 5-disc box set exploring the jazz soundtracks of seven crime dramas from the 1950s, should open with Alex North’s score for Streetcar, even if you consider the film itself tangential to noir.
By the 1950s, jazz was moving away from the hot jazz, big band style that had been the dominant form of the music since the 1920s and toward a more intimate, experimental, and freewheeling style being pioneered by young musicians like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane though also still heavily involving luminaries from jazz’ previous generation who were still interested in innovation and exploring new tricks, like Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. The new sound was more unpredictable, less pop-oriented, and was better suited for a dark, smoky nightclub or bar than a bandstand. Film noir, or at least crime film, was one of the first cinematic styles to integrate this new style of jazz into the score (though noir boasts its fair share of brilliant orchestral scores as well). It made sense, after all, for a genre so tied to nightlife, to the streets, to after-hours clubs, and above all, to a certain mood and atmosphere, to tap into such a moody style of music. Jazz musicians, who might previously have looked forward to appearing in a scene set in a nightclub where they were performing, were suddenly finding themselves hired to write entire film scores, not just in the United States but also overseas, particularly in France (where French noir, spearheaded by director Jean-Pierre Melville, was at least as enthusiastic as American noir to lean on jazz), and later in the decade, Japan (where Nikkatsu Studio’s brand of “borderless action” films emulated French crime films, including an obsession with jazz scores).
Compiled by Jazzwise writer and “cinematic jazz” aficionado Selwyn Harris and released by Jason Lee Lazell’s boutique label Moochin’ About, Jazz on Film: Film Noir makes the case, in its welcome and well-researched liner notes, for A Streetcar Named Desire not just as the coming out party for jazz as cinematic music but also for A Streetcar Named Desire as the first major example of crime, or noir, jazz. Streetcar isn’t often classified as noir, but noir is a nebulous term, and the case is made that Streetcar meets more than enough of the criteria to justify consider it and its score film noir and noir jazz. Alex North’s music was as groundbreaking and shocking as was Marlon Brando’s brute, naturalistic acting style in the role of Stanley Kowalski. Born just south of Philadelphia in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910, North migrated north (as the case was) to New York where he sought work as a composer for the theater. It was there he got a gig composing music for a production of the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman, being directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan and his wife Molly Thacher were two of the earliest and biggest proponents of young playwright Tennessee Williams, and together Kazan and Williams mounted a number of successful productions including, in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire.
Method and Madness
When Kazan left Broadway for Hollywood, he took Alex North with him. In 1951, North collaborated with Kazan on the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, which starred two actors from the stage production: Karl Malden and Marlon Brando. Although revered as a classic today, upon its release Streetcar met with mixed reaction. Kazan’s decision to keep the film largely stage-bound was seen by many as a step back in time to an era when many films were little more than recordings of stage performances. For Kazan, it was a way to retain the claustrophobic power of the play, but for many, it was an oddly archaic approach at a time when film was opening up, moving out of the sound stage and toward more location work. whatever criticism might have been leveled at this philosophy ultimately proved moot. Streetcar was nominated for twelve Oscars that year and won four. One of those nominations was for Alex North’s score (he lost to Franz Waxman’s lush, more traditional score for A Place in the Sun). In fact, over the course of his career, North was nominated for fifteen Academy Awards, none of which he won. Those nominations include one for best original song “Unchained Melody” and scores for such minor films as Spartacus, Death of a Salesman, Cleopatra, and oddly enough, the dark 1981 Disney fantasy film Dragonslayer, among others.
For Streetcar, North appropriately turned to the new style of jazz emerging in the clubs of, among other towns, New Orleans, where the story is set; “lowdown basin street blues,” as North himself described it. This being the earliest example of jazz as a score, North still plays nice with classical orchestration, and much of the music is a comfortable, intoxicating mix of languid romanticism fueled by strings and aggressive, sexual modernism powered by brass. The opening theme is like Bernard Herrmann strolled into a seedy bar at two in the morning and decided to collaborate (granted, Herrmann wouldn’t really make his mark on movie music for a few years yet). Sweeping, sinister strings give way to bass, drums, and a creeping trumpet, creating a sound that would, in time, become the very definition of “crime jazz.” he second track, “Four Deuces,” is a much purer expression of jazz without additional layers. It’s sultry, smokey, flirtatious in spots, and just a little bit menacing.
North said in interviews that he wanted to write music for moods and mental states rather than actions, an approach that is very much in keeping with the philosophy of Streetcar as a study in tumultuous personalities. If you know the setting and general tone of the story, you can easily interpret the mood of the music without having seen the actual movie itself. Even without seeing it, “Belle Reeve” sounds like a faded plantation, a place of crumbling former glory, forlorn people, and wasted dreams. Listen to “Blanche” with its mix of whimsy and melancholy and you can tell a great deal about the character for whom the song was written. “Mania?” Yes, that’s pretty much what mania sounds like. The combination of jazz and romantic-period orchestral music even reflects the film on a more meta-textual level, as the modern, naturalistic “Method” acting of Brando plays off the more classical, stylized acting of co-star Vivian Leigh.
Although the constant shift from jazz to classical/romantic might keep this score from being thought of by some as pure jazz (in much the same way the film itself isn’t quite noir to many), it’s still a landmark work. Never had jazz, in any capacity, been so integral to the overall structure of a film. Take it away, and Streetcar is not the same movie. North even ran into problems with censors, who thought his music was in some places, too sexual, too evocative. In those instances, he was forced to revert to less suggestive and confrontational orchestration — the most famous moment being the film’s much-referenced “Stella!” scene. Actress Kim Hunter’s reaction to Brando’s tortured howling was cut because Hays Office censors found it “orgasmic,” and North’s music for the scene was similarly disapproved of for more or less the same reason. In the cases when he was required to compromise, North didn’t half-ass it out of spite. His orchestral compositions might not be as groundbreaking as his jazz pieces, but they are still expertly written and drenched in mood. There’s a reason that well over half a century later, few people mention the score from A Place in the Sun but Alex North’s work on A Streetcar Named Desire is still written about, analyzed, and re-released.
The back half of the first disc is Leith Stevens’ score for a relatively obscure noir called Private Hell 36, directed by Don Siegel (who went on to direct the superb late-cycle noir The Lineup as well as Dirty Harry), starring the always superb Ida Lupino (who also wrote the screenplay), and released in 1954. By then, jazz had a few years to settle in as the signature music of crime films, so Stevens’ score here is less beholden to the orchestration of previous decades and freer to delve into some of the more eclectic and dissonant avenues down which jazz often meandered. The making of Private Hell 36 would make for a pretty good Hollywood noir tale itself, and Stevens’ soundtrack for the film could just have easily been generated by the behind-the-scenes drama. Lupino was a pioneering woman in noir, moving from on-screen roles into the role of producer, writer, and even director, eventually eschewing the established studios (with which Lupino was frequently feuding) and founding her own production company along with then-husband Collier Young. Even after the two split, they maintained an amiable professional relationship and often collaborated. Lupino’s films from this era walked the line between A and B pictures, one foot in noir and “social issue” films and the other at times in exploitation.
Private Hell 36 was inspired by real-life corruption cases shaking America’s faith in law enforcement at the time, and Lupino, who wrote the screenplay (her dream when young had been to be a writer, but she came from show folk who wanted her to perform on stage), intended to also direct it, casting her third husband, Howard Duff, in one of the two lead roles. When it came time to shoot the film, however, Duff and Lupino had separated, and Lupino thought it would be awkward for her to direct her estranged husband (though the two reconciled shortly after the initial separation and would remain married until they divorced in 1984). She hired Don Siegel, fresh off the grim noir classic Riot in Cell Block 11, to replace herself. Nothing went the way he wanted. Steve Cochran was, according to Siegel, drunk and difficult for most of the production. In fact, Siegel claims a good many people involved with the film spent most of the production drinking.
He and Lupino clashed constantly. She might have hired him, but she was less willing in practice than she was in theory to give up artistic control of the film. Into this mix, you can through notorious hard-drinker and eventual acclaimed hardboiled director Sam Peckinpah, who was hired to punch up the dialogue, and you have a recipe for the kind of misadventure explored in such “film” noir as The Bad and the Beautiful. The end result of all this drunken, argumentative madness was a “could have been” picture that never lived up to its potential and ended up little more than a footnote in the history of noir that is memorable only for two reasons: the cinematography by Burnett Guffey, who had just won an Academy Award for his work on From Here to Eternity, and the score by Leith Stevens.
Stevens began the 1950s composing music for producer George Pal’s big budget science fiction spectacles. In 1952, he worked with Ida Lupino on Beware, My Lovely, a film produced by her Filmakers production house and produced by her partner and soon-to-be ex-husband Collier Young. In 1953, he composed the scores for The Bigamist (directed by and starring Lupino, written and produced by Young) and The Hitch-Hiker (directed by Lupino, co-written by Lupino and Young, and produced by Young). He also did the score for The Wild One starring Marlon Brando in 1953, so he was riding pretty high when Lupino asked him to compose the score for Private Hell 36. Perhaps because it was a low-budget independent production that afforded him more freedom, perhaps because the production itself was so booze-fueled and out of control, perhaps for some other reason entirely, Stevens (working with trumpeter/arranger Shorty Rogers, one of the creators of West Coast jazz as well as Stevens’ collaborator on The Wild One) turned in a brassy, confrontational jazz score that sees (well, hears) crime jazz come to its fruition. All the pieces are in place here, and the sound Stevens wove for this score would influence cop and crime dramas for years to come.
The opening theme expertly evokes the grimy, shadow-shrouded city of film noir. Ever-evolving thing jazz was, there are some new elements added to the mix, including xylophones, that give the music a “creeping through the shadows, skulking in the alleys” feel. “Havana Interlude” incorporates Latin rhythms. Each track from this score functions as a sort of template for exactly what it needs to do. “Easy Mood” is exactly the song that needs to be playing when you slink into a nightclub on a late, foggy night. “Private Blues” is exactly the song it should be for when you spend the rest of that night at that bar sitting alone, staring into your fourth glass of whiskey before you walk out into the waning darkness to an ominous fanfare. Once again, the music is about mood, and Leith Stevens knows his stuff — as does Selwyn Harris, who is to be commended for including a truly deep cut of a soundtrack in this collection when he could have gone with a higher profile score. The film is no forgotten classic, but the soundtrack certainly is (something that would become common in Italian films during the 1960s and 1970s, which legendary scores were written for many a forgettable film).
Heroin and Horns
The second disc in the set contains Elmer Bernstein’s score for the 1955 Frank Sinatra film The Man with the Golden Arm, another film that skirts the boundaries of film noir but exists pretty comfortably within its confines even if it’s often classified simply as a drama. Bernstein is one of the titans of film music, an artist whose contributions are almost beyond measuring. His career was almost derailed right as it was taking off when he was called before and refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, known more commonly as the McCarthy hearings. After a promising start composing for the films Saturday’s Hero (starring Donna Reed) and Sudden Fear (starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and Gloria Grahame), young Bernstein was called before HUAC, which as was their way, demanded he out any Communists he might know working in the picture business. Bernstein refused to comply with the demand, maintaining that despite having written some music reviews that were published in a left-leaning newspaper, he wasn’t a Communists, had never been to a Communist meeting, and didn’t know who was or was not a Communist in the industry. For his refusal to cooperate, he found himself essentially blacklisted by the major studios. Unable to capitalize on a budding career in the majors, he found work on independent B-pictures — and lower — including such infamous fare as Robot Monster and Cat Women of the Moon (both in 1953).
His big break, and a return to the big time, came in 1955 with Otto Preminger’s taboo-challenging crime-drama The Man with the Golden Arm, a film that seemed designed from the ground up to piss off as many uptight moral watchdogs as it could. Based on the novel by Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm was about a talented but crooked card dealer who, upon his release from prison, wants to go straight. Unfortunately, he’s surrounded by bad seeds and, even worse, has never quite been able to kick his heroin addiction, which leads him right back into the seedy Chicago underbelly from which he thought he’d escaped. Depictions of drug use and addiction were strictly forbidden under the Hays Code that governed the content of American movies at the time, and the associated Production Code Authority (PCA) refused to issue the film a seal of approval. With no seal, the movie would find it next impossible to get screened in any major theater in America, but Preminger, never one to back down from a fight persisted with the backing of studio United Artists, which hoped the PCA would reconsider based on the fact that the film depicts drug addiction as bleak and harrowing. Preminger was fighting another battle at the same time, with the novel’s author Nelson Algren. Algren had originally been contracted to work on the screenplay, but he and Preminger clashed constantly (granted, Preminger clashed with pretty much everyone) and Algren was eventually fired and replaced with screenwriter Walter Newman. Preminger and Newman reworked Algren’s original story to the point where they felt justified in refusing the author a screen credit. He sought an injunction against the film but, Algren being a novelist and all, he didn’t have the money to pursue it any further.
The film was eventually completed and, as had been warned, failed to secure a PCA seal of approval. Preminger and UA forged ahead never the less, and their campaign for the film bore fruit. In a rare moment of dissension among America’s most powerful censors, the Catholic League of Decency — which had been the spearhead of so many crusades to ban film and literature it branded objectionable — parted company with the Hays Office and “passed” the film as “morally objectionable” rather than the more damning “condemned.” Perhaps as a sign of changing times and morality, theater chains that would previously have refused a film lacking PCA approval decided to book the picture, noting the artistry and important message it contained. When some exhibitors objected to the controversial poster design by Saul Bass (he of Hitchcock poster design fame), Preminger threatened to pull the film from circulation, a bold gamble which, once again paid off. In much the same way that the film’s star Frank Sinatra would use his clout as a performer to force nightclubs and casinos to integrate racially, threatening that he and all his buddies would boycott them if they didn’t open their doors to minority patrons (Sinatra was a dedicated civil rights advocate, albeit in an era when such an advocate could still feel comfortable cracking racist jokes about Sammy Davis, Jr.), Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm was one of the first films to push back against the Production Code Authority. The Code was significantly revised as a result and, throughout the remainder of the 1950s and into the 1960s, became increasingly anemic and ignored as filmmakers insisted on greater freedom while filmgoers insisted on more mature, complex fare than had previously been allowed.
The Man with the Golden Arm is also one of the first films to present modern jazz as a part of the plot — Sinatra’s Frankie Machine dreams of going straight by getting a job as a drummer in a bebop outfit (an ironic profession, given the reputation of jazz musicians, for a guy looking to kick his smack habit) — in a capacity more integral and complex than Jimmy Cagney or Jack Oakie needing to pull off a big variety show. It was the perfect sort of iconoclastic movie for the blacklisted Elmer Bernstein, who was afforded a great deal of freedom by two of entertainment’s most notorious control freaks, Frank Sinatra and Otto Preminger. By the mid-1950s, Sinatra had been a major presence in American entertainment for a couple of decades, enough time to have had a few different fades and comebacks and to have kicked around during the big band and swing eras. His career was on an upswing in the 1950s, both as a recording artist and as an actor. Frank was looking to be taken seriously on the big screen, and his role in From Here to Eternity did a lot to advance him toward that goal. He lost a plum role in On the Waterfront to it-boy Marlon Brando, which steamed Frank to no end and inspired him to triple down on his efforts to steal the role of Frankie Machine out from under Brando, who was the leading contender for the gig. Sinatra got his revenge and harbored a grudge against Brando (who he referred to as Mumbles and disparaged as “the world’s most overrated actor”) for the rest of his life — a grudge that was exacerbated when they starred together in the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls, in which Brando, who could neither sing nor dance, was cast as Sky Masterson, a role Sinatra decided he wanted only after it had gone to Brando (hey, I never said Sinatra was in the right). Brando’s acting style and attitude on set was utterly incompatible with Sinatra’s policy of “no rehearsals, no Method, and just one take” philosophy. Realizing this, Brando would reportedly execute his scenes with Sinatra perfectly…until the last line, which he would purposely blow, forcing them to redo the whole thing and driving Sinatra bat shit insane with fury. Perhaps Frank channeled that rage into The Man with the Golden Arm‘s detox scene.
Anyway, though Sinatra reportedly sat in on some of Bernstein’s sessions, he doesn’t seem to have involved himself in the composition and recording of the music itself. Free to go nuts in a film that was spoiling for a fight on pretty much every front anyway, Bernstein unleashes a genre-defining jazz score. The movie’s theme is powered by urgent, in-your-face brass and a driving tempo that recurs throughout the soundtrack. Like Alex North’s work for A Streetcar Named Desire, Bernstein doesn’t shy away from classical orchestration. The theme for the character of Zosh (Frankie’s crippled wife, who is up to more than one initially suspects) begins as a melancholy piece centered around strings and clarinet, but toward the back-end it gives way to forlorn, brooding jazz elements. Subsequent tracks continue to work this combination, sometimes shockingly. “The Fix” begins like another slice of traditional “suspense” orchestration, but it veers suddenly, but not jarringly, into a wild jazz crescendo and then keeps wandering between the two styles. Even when Bernstein is playing in the more traditional end of the pool, he frequently opts for a more challenging, discordant style of orchestration that evokes depression more than sadness (if that makes sense), desperation, and on occasion, a delirium nearly equal to that which he’s able to conjure when his jazz compositions are at their maddest (like Leith Stevens on Private Hell 36, Bernstein collaborated with arranger Shorty Rogers).
A Cookie Full of Arsenic
That approach carries over onto the third disc, which contains Bernstein’s score for the merciless Sweet Smell of Success, a personal favorite film of mine and the one score included in this set that I was previously quite familiar with (having blasted it into my own ears on many a night when I was prowling the streets of my city). Upon its initial release, Sweet Smell of Success was met with mixed reaction, with many critics (and audience members) finding it too mean, too nihilistic — which is quite an accomplishment for a noir that contains no murders, no gangsters, and only the mildest of criminal activities (a little weed smoking, a little roughing up). Rather than plumbing the world of cops and criminals, it’s about gossip columnists and publicists and the all-night hustle it takes to make someone or break someone in the cutthroat world of New York entertainment. Bernstein’s score grabs you from the very first with a brash, swaggering fury that perfectly captures both the hyperactive hustle of Tony Curtis’ publicist Sidney Falco (“a cookie full of arsenic”) and Burt Lancaster’s smug, venomous gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, not to mention the general atmosphere of excitement, fear, and energy of Manhattan’s 52nd Street when it was Swing Street and all the kings and queens of America congregated there to see, be seen, make deals, break deals, and get rip-roaring drunk while the leading names of the jazz ages both past and present tore up the local nightclubs.
The soundtrack for the was actually a combined effort, with part of it being done by Bernstein and part of it by the Chico Hamilton Quartet, a popular jazz outfit that also plays a significant role in the film. Where as jazz plays a small role in the plot of The Man with the Golden Arm, it’s more front and center here (though still not central), and at least this time, the jazz band includes black musicians. Hunsecker’s younger sister is in love with a jazz musician (once again ironically, given the bad rap of musicians, the only decent, innocent guy in a movie full of scheming scumbags) and the over-protective and disturbingly jealous J.J. pressures Sidney into ending the relationship in the only fashion Hunsecker can imagine: by utterly destroying the young kid’s life. Hamilton and his band appear frequently throughout the movie’s many scenes set at New York hot spots, which include real-life locations Toots Shor’s and the 21 Club (which is still around, the last remaining vestige of Swing Street). Hamilton was a West Coast guy who cut his teeth as a drummer alongside musicians and bandleaders including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus and vocalists and performers such as Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday, the queen of New York’s Swing Street (both when it was in Harlem as well as when it moved to 52nd). In 1955, he struck out on his own as a bandleader and formed a quintet that was notable for its inclusion of a cello, an instrument that rarely made an appearance in small jazz ensembles.
Hamilton’s jazz melds seamlessly with Bernstein’s more traditional score. Given that Bernstein had proven his jazz chops just a couple of years earlier while working on The Man with the Golden Arm, it’s no surprise that he understands what Hamilton is doing and that the two are able to complement one another so well. Hamilton plays it modern while Bernstein mixes up dark classical compositions and big band era bravado. Without a properly annotated track list, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when one composer’s work ends and the other’s begins. The end result is a sinister, sultry affair that reeks of cigarette smoke, booze, and something to do with rage and hopelessness, ambition and withered dreams, aggression and impotence. The recordings were originally released as two separate soundtracks but have since been rightfully reunited, as they should. To delve into one without the other is to isolate yourself from half of the score’s power and meaning. The order of songs included in this set is different than on the version with which I’d previously been familiar, released by the Stage & Screen label in 2015. That release is a combo of the two original soundtracks, grouping all of the Chico Hamilton songs together on the first half and all of the Bernstein compositions on the second. In terms of being to dwell on the details of what each man brought to the score, it’s nice organization, but ultimately I prefer the order here in the Jazz on Film set, which more closely resembles how they occur in the film and creates a more accurate reflection of how the two separate scores become one and how each composer plays off the other.
After the one-two punch of The Man with the Golden Arm and Sweet Smell of Success (which, despite its initial dismissal, has since assumed a place among the classics of American cinema), Bernstein went on a tear, composing some the all-time great scores in cinema history, including the biblical epic The Ten Commandments, a string of high-profile John Wayne films, The Magnificent Seven and its sundry sequels, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape. He was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards and won for 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie. He scored a number of comedy classics, including Animal House, Airplane!, Meatballs, Stripes, and the Tony Danza masterpiece Going Ape! as well as oddball science fiction films such as Saturn 3, Heavy Metal, and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. Despite his success, he never turned his back on low-budget genre fare, though rarely did he work again quite so low as Robot Monster.
Cocktails for a Crime
In terms of sheer star power and impact on the entirety of the cinema music landscape, the name on Jazz on Film: Film Noir‘s fourth disc is the only one that surpasses Bernstein. People who have never heard the name Henry Mancini will still recognize some of his most famous compositions, which includes, among others, the theme from the film The Pink Panther, a song so ingrained into our collective pop culture consciousness that almost everyone knows it even if they don’t know its origin. Mancini is most closely identified with the scores he wrote for a string of films during the 1960s that became the very definition of modern sophistication, elegance, and refined cool; films like Charade, Arabesque, and towering over them all, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mancini’s playful, lush compositions became the de facto sound of the cocktail lounge era. It’s difficult to imagine, then, that he could write something as raw, eclectic, and down ‘n’ dirty as the music for Orson Welles’ border town noir Touch of Evil, a score that draws on Latin-flavored and Beat jazz and combines it with the new evolving sounds of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. But then, it’s never wise to underestimate Henry Mancini, a guy who, in addition to becoming one of the most versatile and prolific composers in cinema history, attended Julliard and then spent WWII kicking Nazi butt and liberating concentration camps. This was not a man who lacked for life experience.
After the war (he was also part of the Army band), he joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra when it was being led by Tex Beneke, then parlayed his success there into a contract with Universal Studios. Like Elmer Bernstein, he cut his teeth writing songs for genre pictures. Unlike Bernstein’ Mancini worked primarily on respectable films like Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, and This Island Earth. Oh, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, of course. In 1954, he was nominated for his first Academy award, appropriately enough for his work on The Glenn Miller Story. He would be nominated for an Oscar a total of eighteen times during his long career, winning four times, his first victory coming in 1962 for Best Original Song, “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sandwiched in between those two films, and released the same year Mancini became an enduring crime jazz legend by writing the “Peter Gunn Theme” (perhaps even more recognizable and more often referenced than the “Pink Panther Theme”), he got work on a doomed B-grade noir that, despite everyone’s dismissive opinion of it, became a minor American classic thanks in part to its director, and in part to the fact that, like almost every film in this collection, the drama surrounding its making almost surpasses what is presented onscreen. The director was Orson Welles, and the film: Touch of Evil, starring acclaimed Mexican person Charlton Heston.
As one version of the story goes, Orson Welles was aching for a vehicle to get him back into Hollywood after spending years in Europe struggling to scrape together financing and get a movie, any movie, made. After his controversial but much celebrated debut starring in and directing Citizen Kane, Welles struggled constantly to get another film off the ground, often coming to loggerheads with studios who demanded the right to recut his films after they were finished (if indeed they were finished). As stressful and uncertain as these times had been, they did produce a slew of films that were, at their worst, great, including The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Othello, and Black Magic. But in 1951, after the completion of Othello, the wunderkind found himself shut out of Hollywood. He scraped by with some television work, made the rarely discussed Confidential Report in 1955, and found himself in the office of producer Albert Zugsmith looking for a movie to re-prove himself (yet again) to Hollywood. Although the story may be a bit of nonsense, Welles supposedly looked at a pile of scripts on Zugsmith’s desk and said he’d take whichever script Zugsmith thought was the worst and would turn it into a masterpiece. The script he got was called Badge of Evil, based on a book of the same name by Whit Masterson. Welles rewrote the screenplay, cast himself in the role of a corrupt American cop on the U.S.-Mexican border, and took on the directorial duties for free.
Yet again, nothing went smoothly with the film. Final cut was taken away from Welles, who was furious and disowned the movie, issuing a detailed memo citing every change the studio made when they re-edited the film. Universal regarded the film as a failure before it was even released, and slapped it onto the bottom half of a double bill, the ignored B-side to The Female Animal starring Hedy Lamarr and George Nader. Despite a cast that included Welles, Charlton Heston playing a Mexican guy, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the film didn’t do much business and was quickly forgotten in the United States. In France however, where the term “film noir” had been coined and where study of these grim crime dramas had become an obsession for a generation of young film scholars and filmmakers, the film was much more highly regarded. The film grew in esteem int he United States over the decades, and in 1998 it was meticulously reassembled to conform to Welles’ original cut based on that cranky and useful memo. It’s now heralded as a classic of the genre, the last great film noir. And while the talk is always about Orson Welles, his struggle, his directorial flare, and the fact that Charlton Heston plays a Mexican guy (whatever; he’d played an Egyptian in his previous movie), it’s worth noting that Henry Mancini’s score is similarly groundbreaking work.
The style of jazz that had ruled international cool in the first half of the 1950s was falling out of style by 1958. Elvis had it the scene by then, shifting the center of cool away from jazz and sophisticated adults and toward rock ‘n’ roll and teenagers, who suddenly found themselves with disposable income and a greater degree of personal freedom for the first time basically since the country had been founded. In 1960, the focus of cool would shift entirely to youth culture, specifically that of London, where photographers like David Bailey, models like Jean Shrimpton, and musicians like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were about to make even Elvis seem square and behind the times. Jazz evolved, as it had been doing since the 1910s, and while it didn’t have much of a place in emerging Swinging London (they were more interested in the rawer sound of rhythm and blues), it continued to innovate, becoming more experimental down one avenue and, down the other, getting integrated into the sort of jazz-funk cocktail lounge sound that typified Italian soundtracks of the era. Henry Mancini, oddly enough, was at the forefront of this seismic shift in pop culture cool, when he used Touch of Evil to create a diverse and modern score that reflected that transitional time.
Welles’ only decree to Mancini was that the music should be diegetic — that is, within the context of the movie, it should have an identifiable on-screen source, such as being broadcast on a radio, or spilling out of a club — and that it should reflect the sort of music one would expect to come from whatever location and whatever character happened to be playing it. Touch of Evil‘s cast and location meant that Mancini could explore a rich tapestry of musical styles, from straight jazz to R&B to primitive rock to Latin beats. American, Mexican, old, young. The end result is a soundscape, almost a field recording, as much as it is a score. The opening theme begins with a blast of brass that sets you up for what had become, by this date, a pretty standard crime jazz theme. Then the congas kick in and something altogether more swinging emerges, almost a return to the big band era, but by way of Latin-influenced exotica and seedy strip club music. This song accompanies perhaps one of the most — if not the most — famous tracking shots in cinema history (maybe the nightclub shot from Goodfellas beats it out there days, but if so, just barely), which means the music can get lost as one is struck by the sheer virtuosity of the shot, but the shot wouldn’t be the same without Mancini’s theme infusing it. It rises and falls as the camera drifts over the border town that serves as the film’s setting, fading altogether at times, and at others being replaced by a different song as a car drives by or the camera meanders past an open doorway or window.
Other songs are more straight-forward teen beat garage rock, the kind of guitar and sax driven boogie woogie numbers that often accompany scenes of twistin’ kids in cardigans and poodle skirts or leather jackets and Capri pants, depending on your gang. “Reflections” brings things back into the realm of smoke-filled piano bars an hour after last call, while “Tana’s Theme,” heard in the apartments of Marlene Dietrich’s fortune-teller, is practically an old-time saloon number. “The Boss” is the sort of driving mix of jazz horns, guitars, and bongos that in the coming decade would become known as “spy jazz,” a style most closely associated with John Barry’s brawny James Bond scores and the subsequent work of Italian masters on the many Eurospy films that cropped up in Bond’s wake.
Those looking for a more traditional crime jazz score — ironic, given that just seven years earlier, any jazz score was the epitome of non-traditional — will find fewer morsels in this smorgasbord than they might want, as it really is driven by rock, R&B, and the next era’s cocktail jazz. But regardless, as a soundtrack it’s a phenomenal, trend-setting example. Mancini’s compositions are inextricably tied to the film, so often is the source of the music on-screen, but it works on its own despite this close diegetic relationship. Alternately menacing, raunchy, ridiculous, and rockin’, like the movie it accompanied, it wasn’t appreciated for its true value when it was released, but from a vantage point looking back, we can now see what an important work, both thematically and musically, was Mancini’s score for Touch of Evil.
Return of the Legend
The fifth and final disc contains the scores for the highly regarded classic Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart as a jazz musician and lawyer, and the more obscure Odds Against Tomorrow, a tense heist drama starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Gloria Grahame. The former’s score was composed by the only old school legend of jazz represented in this collection, Duke Ellington. Ellington, who taught himself to compose music before he could read music and who honed his trade while sneaking into billiards halls as a kid, cut his teeth in the speakeasies and nightclubs of Harlem Renaissance era New York and became one of the most successful, most important artists of the big band era. When he wasn’t commanding the stage live, he and his orchestra frequently appeared on radio shows, variety revues, and movies, often as themselves but rarely more integrated into the plot than having the star, who is probably a seedy but lovable producer who needs to mount one big show, walking on stage and saying, “And now, ladies and gentlemen of the audience, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra!” Though he and his music were frequently part of a soundtrack, they were never really part of the score.
Few are the jazzmen who aren’t also adaptable and innovative, so as the trend drifted after the War away from big bands and toward smaller combos, Ellington was quick to respond, working with his own groups while also collaborating with some of the great names to emerge from the 1950s, including John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Despite one of the most storied careers in jazz, Anatomy of a Murder represents Ellington’s first credit as composer on a film (it wasn’t work he would pursue much afterward). Collaborating with Billy Strayhorn, it’s a blend of styles — the new jazz that had emerged during the ’50s, the swing music that Ellington had helped invent, and like Mancini’s Touch of Evil score, an occasional flash forward to the sort of cocktail jazz that would become common in the 1960s. It was among the first non-diegetic score for a mainstream Hollywood film by black Americans, and once again, the film was a controversial product of mad genius Otto Preminger, one of the first films to frankly confront rape and sex in terms forbidden by the Hays Code, which by 1959, was fraying as bold, empowered filmmakers challenged its restrictions in the wake of a series of landmark obscenity trials that went the way of free speech. Ellington’s music is fantastic without there being any one particular standout, though “Flirtibird” comes close. It’s a pretty perfect melding of the Duke Ellington of the 1930s with the Duke Ellington of the late 1950s. It’s not as confrontational as some of the other scores in this set, nor as challenging, but not everything needs to be.
The set closes with John Lewis’ excellent score for the underseen Odds Against Tomorrow, a racially-charged heist film starring one of the pre-eminent figures in music at the time, as well as a firebrand civil rights advocate, Harry Belafonte. Belafonte was instrumental (along with Frank Sinatra) in pushing for the desegregation of nightclubs, hotels, and casinos. He was friend and confidante to Martin Luther King, Jr., and often was the man providing the cash to bail activists (including King himself) out of jail. Where blacks were welcome as performers but not guests, Belafonte would stride through the front door, use the swimming pool, and otherwise demand his just due at a time when many thought his “just due” should be a lynching. The man most famous for the novelty calypso song “Day-O” was one of the most fearless crusaders of the era, and he fought that crusade with his own life on the line, over and over. Like Sinatra, who also put his muscle behind integration (but, to be honest, at substantially less personal risk), Harry Belafonte was keen on being looked at as an actor when he acted, not as a musician, so he doesn’t have anything to do with the score in Odds Against Tomorrow (although he does play a nightclub entertainer), unless you’re talking about the score from a bank robbery. He’s thrown together with a disgraced cop (Ed Begley) and a racist ex-con (king of film noir heavies Robert Ryan, who could turn a viral video about kittens and fluffy unicorns into a tense, nail-biting drama). Not a recipe for a successful heist, but then, heist crews are built for dramatic, rather than heist, success. Seriously, just knowing Robert Ryan is in a film already starts me feeling nervous.
Pianist John Lewis, of a generation that grew up with parents who loved jazz, played in an Army band before striking out with his Army bandmate Kenny Clarke to New York, where they fell in with Dizzy Gillespie, then neck-deep in the first big revolution in jazz: the move from big band to bebop. After that, he teamed up with Miles Davis, where he arranged several songs on the landmark Birth of the Cool album, and in 1951, became part of the group to shortly become known as the Modern Jazz Quartet, a group that was formed to move away from the sound of Gillespie and bebop and toward something less focused on solos and more interested in a collective whole. Although always a jazz lover, Lewis was also just as passionate and traditional European classical music, and the style of he and the Modern Jazz Quartet almost bring us back full circle to Alex North’s work on A Streetcar Named Desire. Where that score was jazz-tinged classical, Lewis’ score for Odds Against Tomorrow is classical-tinged jazz and an excellent way — almost soothing despite having its fair share of menace, after some of the jarring, threatening music of the previous four discs — to close out a collection that not only provides hours if top-notch listening, but inspires one to rethink (or at least think deeply about) the role of jazz, and of music in general, in cinema, as well as the role of black Americans in the history of film music (a role, like the role of many minorities, often under-discussed or ignored entirely).
As the final notes of John Lewis’ “Postlude” drift from the hi-fi, Jazz on Film: Film Noir, has taken the listener on one hell of a musical journey through one of the most exciting times in American pop culture history, during which a country full of hillbillies and rebels emerged as the most powerful country in the world with the coolest music in the world; when the social conventions of the past — sexual, racial, cinematic, musical — were being more consistently and more successfully challenged with each passing day. By the end of the collection, black artists are collaborating with other black artists to score major Hollywood pictures. Two decades of reliance on traditional European chamber music was upended and replaced by a nimbler, more modern approach to scoring a film that integrated current sounds not just as acts on a stage, but as an integral part of the structure of a film. But perhaps more importantly, it’s just damn good music, perfect to listen to whether you are at home in the dark, at the bar at three in the morning, or on a bus to nowhere, one step ahead of your past.