On a Sinister Note

A shadow cast against a plume of steam billowing from a manhole in the middle of a potholed, rain-slick street. Neon light imprisoned in puddles of rainwater. The shadow emerges from the steam, becomes the form of a man wrapped in a khaki military trench coat—one of two souvenirs he still had from the war. The other souvenir was tucked into the waist of his pants. A city this big is rarely quiet, but this street, at that hour, only whispered quietly like wind in a graveyard. The heels of his shoes echoed off the brick of the buildings straining toward the black, murky sky. He pulled the brim of his hat lower against the mist of rain and turned down a narrow alley. Here at last was sound. Faint, strange, seeping out of a beat-up metal door at the end of the street. One last glance around him, one more breath. He pulled the door open and the mad sound of a raucous jazz quintet suddenly came tumbling out like a mass of brawling drunkards. The air inside was humid, smoky, and smelled of booze. He nodded at the bouncer, who nodded back almost imperceptibly, and scanned the crowd as the door closed behind him. A well-heeled bunch, dressed to kill, black and tony mostly with a few white faces scattered here and there. It wasn’t hard to find her. She was alone, at a table off to the side, sipping what looked from across the room to be a Manhattan. As the trumpet player launched into a wandering solo, he made his way toward her…

In the 1950s, film began to move away from romantic or bombastic orchestral scores and toward a more varied landscape. One of the styles that started making its mark on cinematic soundtracks during this period was jazz. Jazz was no stranger to film. Hell, the first talkie was called The Jazz Singer. Early hot jazz, big band, and swing made frequent appearances in film during the 1930s and ‘40s. 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, 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. Among the genres that would become most defined with jazz was film noir, those morally ambiguous crime dramas spawned by the ennui lurking beneath the surface of wartime America. Ask anyone to describe “film noir music” and you will likely get a description of cool jazz, the sort of sound pioneered by Miles Davis. And that’s with good reason. It’s hard to say in retrospect whether cool jazz sounds like noir because we’ve spent so many decades identifying it as such, or whether it just really does sound like film noir, whatever that may mean. Moody, blue, haunting, but also capable of wild abandon and fits of musical violence. Listen to “Blue in Green” off Miles’ 1959 album, Kind of Blue, and you will hear the very essence of film noir.

Which, as a genre, was pretty much over by 1959. Nothing like “Blue in Green,” nothing like any of what we would think of as quintessential “noir jazz” ever appeared as part of the score for a film noir from the classic period. No one can agree on when film noir emerged; no one can even agree on whether it’s a genre or a style or a mood of film. But for the sake of picking something, the default position is that noir kicks off with The Maltese Falcon (1940). There is no jazz in the score for The Maltese Falcon, nor in any film noir from the first half of that decade despite the fact that Duke Ellington and Charlie Strayhorn were swinging and musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk were tucked away in dark, mysterious nightclubs inventing bebop, the jazz style that would eventually birth Miles Davis and cool jazz. Jazz doesn’t really take the stage in film noir until 1946, when Robert Mitchum walked into a jazz bar in Out of the Past. Even then, it’s diegetic—the source of the music is a performance on-screen. It’s not part of the film’s soundtrack, which like almost all noir sticks with the classic Hollywood sound derived from European orchestral music. When jazz does make an appearance in the noirs of the 1940s, it is usually in this fashion, as a temporary soundtrack provided when the white hero or heroine walks into a club, signifying either they are on dangerous ground or are just cooler than the other white people in the movie.

By the 1950s, the hot jazz, big band, and swing styles of jazz that had been the dominant form of the music since the 1920s was fading, and jazz musicians were drifting toward a more intimate, experimental, and complex style. For all their musical genius, when you went to see Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway, you weren’t just there for them. You were eating, dancing, or watching others dance. As jazz moved out of the band stands and into smaller clubs, the musicians started to assert that you were there to listen to their music. It was the focus, not just accompaniment and background music. The new sound was more unpredictable, better suited for a dimly-lit, smoky bar than the bandstand at the Cotton Club. You sat and watched (and listened to) Monk and Parker, and later to Davis and Coltrane. The new style and new way of thinking about performing also attracted the more innovative luminaries from jazz’ previous generation. Ellington is always going to be around, always learning, always evolving. Although it didn’t happen as early or as often as people today may think, film noir, or at least crime film, was still one of the first cinematic styles to integrate jazz into the score. It made sense 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 a similarly moody, similarly difficult to describe, style of music.

It wasn’t until 1958 that the style of jazz we think of as “noir jazz” was fully realized on screen, as the score for a film noir. It was, of course, Miles Davis who provided the score—but the movie wasn’t American; it was the French noir Elevator to the Gallows. Before that, the signature musical style of film noir was, at best, fleeting found in film noir and very rarely provided by dedicated jazz musicians. When it did surface as part of the score—non diegetic—it was usually in a movie that was controversial in more ways than just its musical preferences and put together by a composer well-versed in classical Hollywood music but looking to try something a little more daring.


Jazz, Lust, and Madness
Alex North
A Streetcar Named Desire

Director Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the earliest points at which jazz became integral to the aural tapestry of film, even if you consider the film itself only tangential to noir. A Streetcar Named Desire serves then not just the coming out party for jazz as part of a film’s non-diegetic score, but also as the first major example of crime, or noir, jazz. A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t often classified as noir, but noir is a nebulous term, and the case can be made that Streetcar meets more than enough of the criteria to justify considering it and its score film noir and noir jazz. Alex North’s music was as groundbreaking and shocking as Marlon Brando’s brute, naturalistic acting.

Born just south of Philadelphia in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910, Alex North migrated north (as the case was) to New York, where he sought work as a composer for the theater. He got a gig composing for a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan and his wife, Molly Thacher, were two of the earliest proponents of playwright Tennessee Williams, and together Kazan and Williams mounted a number of successful productions; including, in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire.

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, starring 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 kept the film stage-bound to retain the claustrophobia of the play. Many, however, saw this as a step back in time to an era when movies were little more than filmed stage performances, an archaic approach at a time when film was opening up, moving off of the sound stage and toward more location work.

Whatever criticism might have been leveled at Kazan’s approach ultimately proved moot. Streetcar was nominated for twelve Oscars and won four. One of those nominations was for Alex North’s score. He lost to Franz Waxman’s lush, more traditional music for A Place in the Sun. 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 including Spartacus, Death of a Salesman, and Cleopatra, among others.

For Streetcar, North turned to this new style of jazz emerging from the clubs of, among other towns, New Orleans, where the story is set. “Lowdown basin street blues,” as North described it. This being one of the earliest examples 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 modernity 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.” “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 in keeping with Streetcar as a study in tumultuous personalities and one that also exemplified the attitude of many jazz musicians.. If you know the setting and general tone of the story, you can interpret the mood of the scene by the music, without having seen the movie itself. “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 orchestral music even reflects the film on a more meta-textual level, as the modern, naturalistic “method” acting of Brando plays off the classical, stylized acting of co-star Vivian Leigh.

Although the constant shift from jazz to classical 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), it’s still a landmark work. Never had jazz, in any capacity, been so integral to the structure of a film. Take it away, and Streetcar is not the same movie. North ran into problems with censors, who thought his music was in some places, too sexual. He was forced to revert to less-suggestive orchestration in some scenes—the most famous moment being the 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 was similarly disapproved of for the same reason. In the cases when he was required to compromise, however, North didn’t half-ass it out of spite. His orchestral compositions might not be as groundbreaking as his jazz pieces, but they are expertly written and drenched in mood. There’s a reason that well over half a century later, Alex North’s work on A Streetcar Named Desire is still written about, analyzed, and re-released.


Jazz in Hell
Leith Stevens
Private Hell 36

One of the next instances of jazz as a film noir score is Leith Stevens’ work on Private Hell 36 (1954), directed by Don Siegel and starring Ida Lupino, who also wrote the screenplay. Lupino’s dream when young had been to be a writer, but she came from show folk who wanted her to perform on-stage. She had a pretty good career as an actress, but her creative spirit was restless. She eventually moved into the roles of producer, writer, and director, eschewing the established studios with which she was frequently feuding and founding her own production company along with then-husband Collier Young.

Lupino intended to direct Private Hell 36, casting her third husband, Howard Duff, in one of the lead roles. When it came time to shoot the film, however, Duff and Lupino had separated. Lupino thought it would be awkward for her to direct her estranged husband, so she hired Don Siegel, fresh off the grim Riot in Cell Block 11, to take over. Nothing went the way he wanted. Siegel claimed the cast spent most of the production drinking. He and Lupino clashed constantly. Into this mix, throw notorious hard-drinker Sam Peckinpah, who was hired to punch up the dialogue. The end result was a “could have been” picture that never quite lived up to its potential, a footnote in noir history, memorable 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 is less interested in the orchestral sound of previous decades and dips into some of the more eclectic avenues down which jazz was wandering. He 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. In 1953, he composed the scores for The Bigamist (directed by and starring Lupino) and The Hitch-Hiker (directed and co-written by Lupino). He also did the score for The Wild One starring Marlon Brando, so he was riding pretty high when Lupino asked him to compose for Private Hell 36. Perhaps because it was a low-budget independent film, or, perhaps because the production was so booze-fueled and out-of-control, no one was paying attention to Stevens, which meant he had a lot of freedom. Working with trumpeter/arranger Shorty Rogers, one of the creators of “west coast jazz” and Stevens’ collaborator on The Wild One, Stevens delivered a brassy, confrontational jazz score that sees crime jazz come to its fruition. All the pieces are in place. This score would influence crime dramas for years to come.

The opening theme evokes the grimy, shadow-shrouded “dark 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 “skulking in the alleys” feel. “Havana Interlude” incorporates Latin rhythms. “Easy Mood” is exactly the song you need when you slink into a nightclub on a foggy night. “Private Blues” is exactly the song you need when you spend the rest of that night sitting alone, staring into your glass of whiskey before you walk out into the waning darkness to an ominous fanfare. The music is about mood, and Leith Stevens knows his stuff. The film, while good, is no forgotten classic, but the soundtrack certainly is.


Heroin and Horns
Elmer Bernstein and Shorty Rogers
The Man with the Golden Arm

The controversial Frank Sinatra film, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), like A Streetcar Named Desire, skirts the boundaries of noir. The score was written by Elmer Bernstein, who became one of the titans of film music. However, his career was almost derailed just as it was taking off. After a promising start composing for Saturday’s Hero and Sudden Fear, young Bernstein was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which demanded he out any Communists he might know in the picture business. Bernstein refused to comply, insisting that despite having written music reviews published in a left-leaning newspaper, he wasn’t a Communist, had never been to a Communist meeting, and didn’t know who was or was not a Communist.

For his refusal to cooperate fully, he was blacklisted by the major studios. Unable to capitalize on his previous success, he found work on independent B- and C-pictures, including Robot Monster and Cat Women of the Moon (both in 1953). His return to the big time was orchestrated in 1955 by Otto Preminger, the confrontational director of The Man with the Golden Arm. It was a film that seemed designed from the ground up to anger moral watchdogs. Based on a novel by Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm is about a talented but crooked card dealer (played by Sinatra) 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 sleazy Chicago underbelly from which he thought he’d escaped.

Depictions of drug use and addiction were forbidden under the Hays Code that oversaw 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, it would be next impossible to get screened in any major theater. Preminger, never one to back down from a fight, persisted, with the backing of 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 Nelson Algren. Algren had been contracted to work on the screenplay, but he and Preminger clashed constantly. Algren was eventually fired and replaced with Walter Newman. Preminger and Newman reworked Algren’s screenplay to the point where they felt justified in refusing the author a screen credit. Algren 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 nevertheless, 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 art it deemed taboo—parted company with the Hays Office and “passed” the film as “morally objectionable” rather than the more damning “condemned.” Theater chains that would previously have refused a film lacking PCA approval decided to book the picture anyway, noting the artistry and important message it contained. When some exhibitors objected to the controversial poster design by Saul Bass, Preminger threatened to pull the film from circulation, a bold gamble which, once again, paid off. The Man with the Golden Arm was one of the first films to push back against the PCA, and as a result the Code became increasingly anemic and was more often ignored. Filmmakers insisted on greater freedom, and film goers 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 in a capacity more integral and complex than Jimmy Cagney or Jack Oakie needing to pull off a big variety show. Sinatra’s character, 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. 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. That grudge 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. Brando’s acting style and attitude on set was utterly incompatible with Sinatra’s policy of “no rehearsals, no Method, speak clearly, 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 batshit insane. Perhaps Frank channeled that rage into The Man with the Golden Arm’s detox scene.

When it came time to score The Man with the Golden Arm, Preminger made a decision that was as confrontational as everything else he’d done. He hired blacklisted Elmer Bernstein. It was the perfect opportunity for blacklisted Bernstein, who was afforded great freedom by two notorious control freaks in Sinatra and Preminger. Though Sinatra sat in on some of Bernstein’s sessions, he didn’t involve himself in the recording of the music, concentrating instead on his acting. Like Leith Stevens on Private Hell 36, Bernstein collaborated with arranger Shorty Rogers. Free to go nuts in a film that was spoiling for a fight on pretty much every front, Bernstein unleashes a defining jazz score.

The movie’s theme song is powered by urgent, in-your-face brass and a driving tempo. Like Alex North’s work for A Streetcar Named Desire, Bernstein doesn’t shy away from orchestration. The theme associated with Frankie’s crippled wife begins as a melancholy piece centered on strings and clarinet. Toward the back-end it gives way to forlorn, brooding jazz. Subsequent tracks continue to work this combination, sometimes shockingly so. “The Fix” begins like another slice of traditional “suspense” orchestration, but it veers suddenly 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 challenging, discordant style of orchestration that recalls 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.


Match Me
Elmer Bernstein and Chico Hamilton
Sweet Smell of Success

Upon its initial release, Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was met with mixed reaction, with many critics (and audience members) finding it too caustic, too nihilistic—which is quite an accomplishment for a film noir with no murders, no gangsters, and only the mildest of criminal activities. 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 or break someone in the cutthroat world of New York entertainment. Elmer Bernstein is composing once again, and his score is brash, swaggering fury that captures both the hyperactive hustle of Tony Curtis’ publicist, Sidney Falco, and Burt Lancaster’s smug, venomous gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker. It encapsulates the 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 score for Sweet Smell of Success was a collaborative effort, with part of it done by Bernstein and part of it by the Chico Hamilton Quartet, a popular jazz outfit that also plays a role in the film. Whereas jazz plays a small role in the plot of The Man with the Golden Arm, it’s more front and center in Sweet Smell of Success (though still not central)—and this time, the jazz band actually includes black members. Hunsecker’s younger sister is in love with a musician (once again ironically, given the bad rap of musicians, they are the only decent guys in a movie full of scheming scumbags). Overprotective, possessive 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 group appear throughout the movie’s many scenes set at New York hot spots, which include real-life locations Toots Shor’s and the 21 Club. Hamilton was a West Coast guy who cut his teeth as a drummer alongside musicians including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus; and vocalists such as Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday. In 1955, he struck out on his own and formed a quintet that was notable for its inclusion of a cello, an instrument that rarely made an appearance in jazz ensembles. Bernstein understands what Hamilton is doin,g and the two are able to complement one another. Hamilton plays it cool and 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 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.


A Cocktail of Crime and Corruption
Henry Mancini
Touch of Evil

People who have never heard the name Henry Mancini will probably 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 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 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 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 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 higher-profile films, including 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 eighteen Oscars 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. The director was Orson Welles, and the film was Touch of Evil. Like many of the early crime films to adopt a jazz-influenced score, Touch of Evil was dismissed upon its initial release, and like most, it was a tumultuous production.

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 begging for financing to get a movie, any movie, made. After his controversial but celebrated debut, Citizen Kane, Welles struggled 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 those times had been, they did produce a slew of films that were, at their worst, great, including The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. But in 1951, after the completion of Othello, the wunderkind found himself shut out of Hollywood. He scraped by with 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.

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 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. Final cut was taken away from Welles, who was furious and disowned the movie, issuing a detailed memo citing every change the studio made. Universal regarded the film as a failure before it was even released. They slapped it onto the bottom half of a double bill with 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, Touch of Evil was much more highly regarded. The film’s reputation in the United States also improved over the decades. In 1998, it was re-edited to conform to Welles’ original cut based on that cranky—and useful—memo. It’s now heralded as a classic, 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.

Elvis had it the scene by 1958, 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 than they’d had since the country had been founded. In 1960, the focus of mainstream cool would shift almost entirely to youth culture, specifically 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. Jazz, as it had been doing since the 1910s, 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. In fact, the defining youth culture movement of swinging London, the mods, derived their nickname from their love of modern jazz.

Henry Mancini, oddly enough, was at the forefront of this seismic shift in pop culture, when he used Touch of Evil to create a diverse and modern score that reflected the transitional times. 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 location meant that Mancini could explore a rich tapestry of musical styles, from straight jazz to R&B to primitive rock to Latin beats. The 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 1958, a 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 “burlesk beat” music.

This song accompanies perhaps one of the most famous tracking shots in cinema, which means the music can get lost as one is struck by the virtuosity of the shot. But the shot wouldn’t be the same without Mancini’s theme. It rises and falls as the camera drifts over the film’s border town 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 wild 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 cinematically and musically, was Touch of Evil.


Return of a Legend
Duke Ellington
Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder stars Jimmy Stewart as a jazz musician and lawyer working to prove the innocence of a man who, whether he’s innocent or not, is kind of loathsome (played by Ben Gazzara). The score was composed by Duke Ellington, the only old-school legend of jazz to make a major mark in film noir. 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. As leader of the house band at the storied Cotton Club, he 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 walk on stage and say, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra!”

Few are the jazz men who aren’t also adaptable and innovative. It was a style that demanded innovation, after all. So as the post-War trend drifted 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 artists who emerged during the 1940s and ‘50s, including Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Davis may have nailed “film noir jazz,” but if you are looking for a similarly sophisticated soundtrack for your own personal noir, pour yourself a whiskey, claim the most shadow-shrouded stool at the bar, and throw on Ellington’s The Complete Ellington Indigos. 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, who wrote the cool jazz standard “Lush Life” decades before cool jazz was a thing, Anatomy’s score is a blend of styles—the cool jazz that emerged during the ’50s, the swing music that Ellington 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 ‘60s.

It was among the first non-diegetic scores for a mainstream Hollywood film by a black American, and once again, the film was a controversial product of mad genius Otto Preminger. It was one of the first films sine the pre-Code silent era to frankly discuss rape and sex in terms forbidden by the Hays Code, which by 1959, was finally fading. Preminger, as well as Kirk Douglas, would claim a large portion of the credit for putting the final nail in the Code’s coffin.

Ellington’s music is fantastic, without there being any one particular standout, though “Flirtibird” comes close. It’s a perfect melding of the Duke Ellington of the 1930s with the Duke Ellington of the 1950s. It’s not as confrontational as some of the other noir jazz scores, nor as challenging to convention as the film in which it appears, but not everything needs to be a duel.


Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
John Lewis
Odds Against Tomorrow

John Lewis’ excellent score for the underseen Odds Against Tomorrow closes our examination of noir jazz. Odds is a racially-charged heist film starring Harry Belafonte, one of the pre-eminent figures in music at the time, as well as a firebrand civil rights advocate. Belafonte was instrumental in pushing for the desegregation of nightclubs, hotels, and casinos. He was a 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. Like Duke Ellington, who used his popularity in the 1920s to push for at least a little integration of the crowd at the Cotton Club, and Frank Sinatra later at the Copacabana, Belafonte turned his popularity into power. Where black people 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, 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 for 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 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 starts one feeling nervous.

Pianist John Lewis, of a younger generation that grew up with parents who loved jazz, played in an Army band before heading with his Army mate Kenny Clarke to New York, where they fell in with Dizzy Gillespie, then neck-deep in the first big revolution in jazz since the start of jazz itself caused a revolution: the move from big band to bebop. He later teamed up with Miles Davis (and would go on to arrange several songs on Birth of the Cool). In 1951, Lewis joined a group soon to be known as the Modern Jazz Quartet, formed to move away from the sound of bebop and toward something less focused on solos and more on a collective whole. Although a jazz lover, Lewis was also just as passionate about traditional classical music.

The style he and the Modern Jazz Quartet specialized in almost brings noir jazz full circle, back 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 to bring full circle a musical evolution that 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, the evolution of film noir jazz, has taken the listener on one hell of a musical journey through one of the most exciting times in American pop culture, during which a country full of misfits 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 journey—and the beginning of “neo noir” in the 1960s—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.

By the 1970s, as elements of noir were ported into what became known as “blaxploitation” cinema, popular composers such as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Isaac Hayes dominated both the screen and the radio with music that drew from jazz, soul, R&B, funk, rock, and classical. “Film noir jazz” from any era is just 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.

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