Monday, May 12, 2008

Music-Free Movies

The Gunfighter, the first "revisionist Western" and one of the best, comes out on DVD tomorrow. Buy it. It is awesome. (The two Westerns it's packaged with I have not seen yet, but one of them has a Bernard Herrmann isolated score, so that can't be bad.)

Henry King had an odd career. His style, as I've said often, is very similar to John Ford's; their movies look similar, have similar cutting, lighting, camera angles, both of them liked relatively static shots at low angles with the ceilings in full view, etc. He wasn't as self-consciously arty as John Ford, and he wasn't as sentimental; his best movies for Fox are as good as Ford's or better. The difference between them was that King didn't have Ford's independent streak, and starting in the mid-'30s he was happy to spend virtually his entire career as a Fox contract director, doing basically whatever project was handed to him. As a director-for-hire, he was probably better than Ford (Ford kind of shut down when he was handed a project that he hadn't had any role in developing), but directing-for-hire is just about all he did, meaning that the quality of his films depended more on the work of the producer than on him. He was the Michael Curtiz of Fox; he didn't do as many great films as Curtiz because Warner Brothers was a better studio than Fox for most of the '30s and '40s, but they were both brilliant directors-for-hire.

One thing about The Gunfighter that I noticed is that even though Alfred Newman gets a music credit, it has no music at all except in the opening and the closing. It seems like there were a number of movies in the post-war period that tried to turn the lack of music into a sort of special musical effect. (Nunnally Johnson, the producer and uncredited co-writer of Gunfighter, had tried something similar with The Grapes of Wrath, which he co-produced: that movie has a bit of music in a few sequences, but most of it is deliberately music-free even where you'd normally expect to have some soundtrack music.) I'm thinking especially of three movies from MGM: The Asphalt Jungle (1950) has opening credits music and then not a single piece of musical scoring until the final scene, when Dix gets out of the city and into the country; Intruder in the Dust (1949) has no music except in the opening credits; otherwise it's all "source" music (music played by radios and so on), and Lady In the Lake (1947) not only has that crazy POV camera gimmick but doesn't score any of the scenes.

There are others; those are the ones that come to mind. I don't know if this move toward music-free filmmaking was a reaction against the over-use of soundtrack music in the late '30s and early '40s (when some movies were wall-to-wall music) or if it was an attempt to play more with other things you could do on a soundtrack -- The Gunfighter uses distant crowd noise, kids shouting outside, etc. -- but it was almost a return to the early talkie pictures that had music stings at the beginning and end but nothing in between.



6 comments:

Mark Mayerson said...

Hawks' His Girl Friday only has music over the opening and closing credits. There's no music even in the quiet scenes like when Hildy interviews Earl Williams.

Speedy Boris said...

Outside of some opening and ending music, 12 Angry Men didn't use any music either, and it's actually more powerful for it.

Thad said...

Thanks for the tip.

Does Bonnie and Clyde count? The only real scored music I recall was over the end credits.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget the one movie for which there is no score whatsoever not even during titles and credits: Hitchcock's "The Birds". All you hear is chirps and squawks and the fluttering of wings.

Thad said...

What is this movie you call "The Birds", anonymous? Geez, that's embarrassing how I forgot that one...

Laura said...

LADY IN THE LAKE actually did have a score of sorts, but it was very different -- there was choral Christmas music in the background. It was an interesting contrast with the crime going on on screen. (I just caught this film for the first time a couple weeks ago so it's fresh in my mind.)

YELLOW SKY is another postwar Peck Western with very limited music; in fact, the credits recycle Alfred Newman's theme music from BRIGHAM YOUNG -- which is recycled once again in RAWHIDE, one of the movies in the set with THE GUNFIGHTER. (RAWHIDE is a fine film and my reason for buying the set.) Anyway, YELLOW SKY relied a lot on silence and sounds like the wind, which was very effective.

Best wishes,
Laura