Friday, February 15, 2019

Movie Music, the Communicating Link

Bernard Herrmann, likely the most celebrated of classic era film composers today, who wrote the scores  for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and Taxi Driver among countless others, once said of the function of the film score:

Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock
“I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry.”

This is surely true of Herrmann’s own remarkable work for Welles, Hitchcock, Scorsese and others, as it is of the contributions of Max Steiner to films like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Letter and Now, Voyager and David Raksin’s work on such films as Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful. Herrmann’s contention has been borne out over the decades through scores by the likes of Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa and the all of Hollywood’s “big five” Golden Age composers. Beginning with Jaws and Star Wars, the prodigious work of John Williams continues to prove Herrmann’s point as do the scores of modern era film composers such as Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

It was on an evening in Los Angeles in 1987 when Andre Previn led the L.A. Philharmonic in accompanying Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky, with a live full symphony performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s renowned score. It is this event that has been credited with launching a phenomenon that has, in the past ten years or so, become a standard seasonal component of major symphonies throughout the world, the film concert, wherein a classic film is screened with its score scrubbed from the soundtrack and performed live by the orchestra. These concerts generally draw full-house crowds, something every orchestra enjoys playing to. And they bring, too, as a packed audience will, increased profitability for the symphony as a whole.

SF Symphony, North by Northest, 2017
And for the audience the enjoyment comes from watching a favorite film, a film like North by Northwest with its Herrmann score, and listening to that iconic music played live and full-on by a seasoned symphony orchestra. It's transporting, a kind of immersive experience that underscores for the viewer/listener what Bernard Herrmann, in speaking further on the role of  the musical score, believed, “it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.”


Since 2011, I’ve attended many film concerts, thanks to the San Francisco Symphony. My first was a screening of Casablanca, and what a beginning that was, from the opening notes of Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. theme to that stirring moment when Paul Henreid steps up to lead the patrons of Rick’s in singing “La Marseillaise.”

Next came Vertigo, showcasing Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping evocation of romantic enchantment and obsession. Later, Nino Rota’s epic score for The Godfather, a meditation on tradition and family and changing times. Most recently, Amadeus, and the great works of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Now comes the chance to see Damien Chazelle’s amazing La La Land, and hear Justin Hurwitz’s Oscar-winning score performed live. The film has been screened with orchestral accompaniment around the U.S. for more than a year now, from the Hollywood Bowl to Dallas and beyond. In two weeks the multi-Oscar winner (almost including Best Picture) will be presented for two nights in a row, February 27 and 28, by the San Francisco Symphony at Louise M. Davies Hall. I will be there. It's an unusual and inventive film - a musical in this era, for heaven's sake - and for film buffs who revel in its many references to classic movies, it's irresistible.

I've blogged about every film concert I've attended, which is five or six, with repeats of Casablanca and Vertigo. I always encourage local residents to come to the SF Symphony for the latest in its film series screenings - and I urge Bay Area folk to come out for La La Land. But I also hope those of you outside my area will be inspired to find out if the symphony in your vicinity has a film series program. If it does, please check it out. This is an experience you don't want to miss.

Click here for more information on the San Francisco Symphony's presentation of La La Land.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Noir Year 2019: Coming Soon

Every December for the past several years the Film Noir Foundation has presented a one-night-only "Noir City Xmas" screening at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. This year that night was December 19 and the film was The Night of the Hunter (1955). The only film Charles Laughton ever directed, it is a chilling masterpiece, a tale told in images both beautiful and terrifying, with unforgettable performances by Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Obscure "Christmas Carols" of Christmases Past




This month, The Film Detective, a two-year-old streaming service that refreshes its film library monthly, presents “25 Days of Christmas.” So far, offerings have included Peter Pan (1955), the live NBC production with Mary Martin famously starring as Peter Pan, and a 1990 Lifetime TV production, Home for Christmas, in which Mickey Rooney stars as a homeless ex-con taken in by a family at Christmastime.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

George Bancroft: What a Star, What a Character!

Big, blustery George Bancroft was in his mid-40s when he became a film star, breaking out in 1927 with a linchpin performance as mob boss "Bull Weed" in Underworld, Josef von Sternberg's prototypical gangster film. Bancroft was third-billed under dependably wooden Clive Brook, fluttery leading lady Evelyn Brent, and he stole the show with his powerhouse portrayal of a hoodlum with a heart.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Underworld (1927), at the dawn of the modern gangster film

I hadn’t seen Underworld before, but I knew enough about it to be intrigued. To begin with, it was directed by master filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, a man of remarkable cinematic ingenuity who is mostly remembered today for having discovered Marlene Dietrich and stage-managed her rise to stardom. Also of interest when considering the subject of outlaws on film, Underworld was, to quote its introductory title,  “…unusually bold both in subject matter and in treatment at the time it was made. It introduced a fashion for gangster pictures.” Specifically, the film, a runaway hit on release, is credited with establishing many conventions for what would emerge as the gangster genre a few years later, in the early sound era. Another attraction Underworld held for me was that genius costume designer Travis Banton, who would become Paramount’s Chief Designer and go on to mentor Edith Head, costumed the film. For leading lady Evelyn Brent, starring as “Feathers McCoy," he created an endless variety of trendsetting feather-swathed hats, wraps, jackets and dresses, enough to fill at least one sizable closet. And so, early last week I sat down to watch Underworld and begin my post for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall 2018 OUTLAWS Blogathon.