The Golden Age of Cinema

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Elmer Bernstein: Theme from The Magnificent Seven

The cowboy sound of American Westerns was created by artists far removed from it. The composer Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004), a New Yorker born to Ukrainian and Austrian Jewish parents, was not unusual in his contribution. The story of film music—at least orchestral soundtracks from the 1930s through the ’60s—is mostly the story of European immigrants and first-generation East-Coasters who wound their way to Hollywood. American cinema has always imported its materials as much as it has exported its products.

The Magnificent Seven (1960), directed by John Sturges, was a cowboy remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which itself had been influenced by earlier American Westerns. Both tell the story of a group of mercenaries (cowboys or samurai) who accept the unglamorous task of defending a helpless community (Japanese peasants or Mexican villagers) against a group of bandits. The seven heroes are boldly drawn, each with his own style and motivation, and four are struck down in battle, giving their lives to aid much humbler people.

Bernstein came up with a broad melody to capture the freedom and majesty of the cowboys. But the theme is as much, if not more, about the jaunty little rhythms urging the tune forward. “I remember being very excited when I found that opening rhythm,” Bernstein wrote in a note for his publisher. “It was like a surge of energy. That’s what people really remember.”

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Cello Concerto in C major, Opus 37, from Deception

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957) wrote his Cello Concerto in C major for the Warner Bros. noir Deception (1946), in which it features as the work of the film’s villain, the fictional composer Alexander Hollenius. Along with Casablanca (1942), Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), Deception is one of several films of the era to use ripped-from-the-headlines stories of European war refugees and enemy fugitives in bittersweet dramas and psychological thrillers. It is also one of just a handful of movies to semi-realistically depict the world of modern classical musicians.

Hollenius (Claude Rains) is a mashup of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, with a style described as combining “the rhythm of today with the melody of yesterday.” The music itself is pure Korngold—he wrote a complete, one-movement concerto in a wild, angularly romantic style, with the cello shooting up into its highest range, intensely lyrical one moment, frenzied the next. The cellist Eleanor Aller dubbed the soundtrack for Deception and premiered the full concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1946.

Like his real-life counterparts, Hollenius is portrayed as a famed European composer displaced to America, living in opulent homes with record labels and orchestra managers at his beck and call. Meanwhile the film’s lead, Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), is a threadbare cellist and liberated Nazi political prisoner, newly arrived in New York. He reunites with his sweetheart, the pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), who believed him dead. In the intervening years—it gradually emerges—Christine became a student and lover of Hollenius, who embarks on a manipulative campaign to destroy her and Karel.

It’s all pulpy drama, of course, but the backdrop was within the reality of the day. Korngold, too, was a refugee. Born to a Jewish family in Brünn (Brno), he was recognized as a child prodigy in Vienna, praised to high heavens by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. At 23, his opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) was performed around Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera. Beginning in 1935, he began working part-time in Hollywood, where he was fortunate to be in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. While European musical life was shattered, and then largely rebuilt postwar in the mold of the avant-garde, Korngold transplanted a branch of late Romanticism to American cinema, where it still grows to this day.

Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront

Leonard Bernstein (1918–90), like Elmer (no relation), was born in the Northeast to immigrant parents. And like Korngold, his musical roots were in theater—though in Broadway rather than opera. Perhaps no other composer has ever been as bilingual in popular and classical styles.

Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) gives us Marlon Brando’s memorable line, “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve had class and been somebody,” as his character laments a promising boxing career given up to fix matches for the mob. Now a longshoreman, he is determined to testify against corrupt union bosses—a thinly veiled self-defense of Kazan’s decision in 1952 to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Several of his colleagues were backlisted as a result, while the director—who had also once been a Communist Party member—stayed in the studios’ good graces.

In a pugnacious memoir, Kazan said he had been determined “to make a film about the New York harbor and what went on there, thus to show everyone, including myself, that I hadn’t backed away from my convictions … [and] to show my old ‘comrades,’ those who’d attacked me so viciously, that there was an anti-Communist left, and that we were the true progressives as they were not.” Many people begged to differ. As late as 1982, Orson Welles declared: “Elia Kazan is a traitor. He is a man who sold to [Joseph] McCarthy all of his companions … [and] then made a film called On the Waterfront, which was a celebration of the informer.”

The film won eight Academy Awards (“I have to add that he is a very good director,” even Welles allowed), and earned Bernstein a nomination. It was his only original soundtrack, as he disliked underscoring dialogue. In 1955 he created the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, combining several cues into a smooth dramatic flow. The stoic opening in the horn is Terry Malloy’s music (Brando); the drums and pushy saxophone theme stand for the energy and danger of the docks. A delicately accompanied flute represents Edie, his love interest (Eva Marie Saint), who supports him to the end, even as he must go it alone.

Bernard Herrmann: The Murder from Psycho and Vertigo Suite

Bernard Herrmann (1911–75) had a cerebral style especially suited to psychological dramas and science fiction. “The trouble is, good composers, when they do a film, for some reason or other, they’re brainwashed, and they write rubbish,” he opined late in life. “Generally they say, ‘This is the Hollywood style, let’s write for it.’ Of course that’s all wrong.”

Born in New York, Herrmann first worked for CBS as a conductor, composer, and arranger, mostly for radio dramas and symphony broadcasts. His first film score was Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and he ended his career with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). In between, he worked on nine Alfred Hitchcock films, finally falling out with the director over Torn Curtain (1966).

Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—the essential San Francisco movie starring James Stewart as the detective Scottie and Kim Novak in the dual role of Madeleine/Judy—brought a saturated Technicolor world to a noir essence. The disorienting Prélude accompanies the film’s opening credits (designed by Saul Bass) and establishes its romantic mystery with swirling textures and just a handful of chords. The Nightmare introduces a Spanish rhythm, reflecting the Mission San Juan Bautista and icons of old San Francisco seen in Scottie’s dream. Scène d’amour scores the moment of recognition when Judy turns back into her dead doppelganger, blonde haired and bathed in green light—echoing Scottie’s first kiss with her on the shore with the crashing waves.

Psycho (1960), though made two years later, returned to black and white, shot cheaply with a television crew. Herrmann also stripped down to a string orchestra—a musical un-luxuriousness matching the Bates Motel. Today the murder cue has become a slasher-film cliché, drawing chuckles of recognition more than shock. But try to hear it fresh as the violins lose all sense of pitch, becoming an adrenaline alarm of autonomic panic.

Miklós Rózsa: Love Theme and Parade of the Charioteers from Ben-Hur

Miklós Rózsa (1907–95) was born in Budapest and spent his youth in the musical milieu of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, collecting Hungarian folksongs like they did. He gradually migrated westward, studying in Leipzig in 1926, moving to Paris in 1931, then working in the British film industry for a few years before landing in Hollywood in 1940, where he eventually settled in as a staff composer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Ben-Hur (1959), along with Spartacus (1960), marked the pinnacle of midcentury Hollywood historical epics. Based on an 1880 bestseller about a fictional Judaean prince whose life intersects with scenes from the Gospels, the film was also a remake of a 1925 silent picture. Both Ben-Hur and Spartacus tell of slaves who stand up against the Roman Empire, and the two films can blur together in the memory (hint: Ben-Hur has the galley rowing scene and chariot race; Spartacus has the gladiator matches and overland military campaign). But they differ widely in their ideals: Spartacus posits liberation through class solidarity, while Ben-Hur preaches salvation through the teachings of Jesus.

Rózsa’s score won an Oscar—one of a still-unbeaten 11 awarded to Ben-Hur. The Love Theme is lush and folk-inflected, vaguely Hebrew, lending tenderness to the relationship between Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and the simple slave-girl Esther (Haya Harareet). The Parade of the Charioteers is pure pomp, leading up to one of the most exhilarating action sequences of all time. Following in the tradition of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, it sounds convincingly like what ancient Romans might have written if they’d had a modern orchestra.

John Williams: Theme from Jaws and Flying Theme from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

By the late 1960s, with the rise of rock and pop soundtracks, orchestral scoring had fallen somewhat out of favor. As a jazz pianist and onetime Air Force Band arranger, John Williams was perfectly poised to work in this evolving scene. In fact, most of his early film and television scores were jazz or pop inflected—but by the early ’70s a new crop of adventure spectacles revived big, classical soundtracks, and Williams was also talented in this older art.

Jaws (1975) was his second collaboration with Steven Spielberg, and it had a notoriously difficult shoot on the ocean around Martha’s Vineyard. The mechanical sharks barely functioned, and Spielberg compensated by shooting from the fish’s underwater point of view. Paired with the miracle of film editing, Williams’s ominous theme—seemingly inspired by Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—became the most enduring motif of watery terror since Psycho’s shower scene.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), on the other hand, is a film about suburban childhood as much as it is a sci-fi fantasy—with a dose of ’80s anxiety over rising divorce rates and working moms. (Look out, or your kids might take up with an alien and you’ll be too busy to notice!) Williams’s theme, which scores the iconic flying-bicycle sequence, is multi-layered—sputtering and soaring in turn, warm-hearted but slightly slippery—a bit like E.T. himself. At a 2016 American Film Institute gala, Spielberg quipped: “without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly.” It’s become a much-repeated phrase, but it captures the strange paradox that the anti-naturalist conceit of musical scoring sells the cinematic illusion of reality.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.