As classic movie fans, we don’t need to tell you about how much a solid movie score can enhance even the best dramas — or comedies, for that matter.
Yet “best original score” remains a distinctly down-the-list Oscar category (can you tell us who won in this bracket this year?) even though “best original song” gets a bit more attention. The point is that even the best composers who slave away on scoring movies are often overlooked.
To do our part today to keeping alive the names of what may be the most deserving of the movie composer breed, we thought we’d run an informal listing of some of the notables we are most partial to.
This is by no means a comprehensive exercise; we are just scratching the surface. So feel free to email us your favorites. We’d love to hear from you.
Miklos Rozsa — Listening to our favorite classical station, we were pleased to hear the other day a full-orchestra “concerto” version of this Hungarian-born composer’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller Spellbound, costarring Gregory Peck as a murder suspect with amnesia and Ingrid Bergman as his psychiatrist protector. The two are pictured above. (The movie’s tag line asks the question: “Will he Kiss me or Kill me?”) Rozsa’s score is excellent, holding up remarkably well today no matter the musical format.
Bernard Herrmann — Justly celebrated as among the (if not the) best film composers ever, the New York-born Herrmann has memorably given us scores for Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), among other titles. The music for the latter is so futuristic in its sound combinations it still has the power to scare the daylights out of you. Say what you will about director Hitchcock, he had unbeatable taste in movie composers.
Anton Karas — While shooting his 1949 thriller The Third Man, director Carol Reed unearthed this obscure, Austrian-born zither player, and hired him to compose the music for the movie. The result is amazing. In Karas’ sure hands, this single instrument captures the murky, post-World War II feel of this marvelous picture.
Dimitri Tiomkin — This Russian-Jewish Hollywood transplant’s score for The High and the Mighty, a 1954 airplane thriller costarring John Wayne and Claire Trevor, included a hit tune (co-written by Victor Young) and elevated an other wise so-so commercial package. The score still sounds great. Tiomkin also composed the scores for 1952’s High Noon and the Frank Capra classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. For his part, Young wrote the sublime score for George Stevens’ 1953 western, Shane.
Henry Mancini — Perhaps Hollywood’s best known movie composer, his score for Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) includes Moon River sung by Audrey Hepburn (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer). Has any other single tune warbled by a single star ever been so effective?
Max Steiner — This Austrian-born stalwart scored Casablanca (1942) and Gone With The Wind (1939) so it hardly is surprising that his lesser known work on John Huston’s 1948 thriller Key Largo is of the highest quality. Steiner’s score nicely propels this fine thriller in the directions indicated by Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall.
Jerry Fielding — Take a listen to the score put together by this Hollywood veteran for Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western, The Wild Bunch. The use of unusual instrument combinations produces a multitude of sounds matching the often frenetic pace of this excellent movie’s onscreen action.
Ennio Morricone — We saved the best, in our opinion, for last. This prolific Italian composer has revolutionized movie scoring, incorporating new sounds and new instrumental-vocal combinations while remaining sublimely melodic. Check out his enhancement of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and, most especially, the same director’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968).
Honorable Mentions: French composer Jean Constantin’s score for Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is a gentle gem; Duke Ellington’s score (as performed by his orchestra) for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is well worth seeking out; and the work of Japanese composer-actor Ruichi Sakamoto includes 1987’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence among nearly 50 scoring credits.
Who are your favorites?