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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

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The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

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Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

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(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

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Archive for the 'Directors: Tarantino' Category

Little things

Equinox Flower (Ozu, 1958).

DB here:

Academic critics and fans share a passion for looking closely at the movies we admire. A lot of film critics enjoy spiraling out from the film to ponder Big Ideas, which is okay, I guess. But I confess I particularly enjoy digging in for trouvailles (great word), lucky discoveries that passed me by on earlier encounters.

Across my career, many of the directors I admire seem to have tucked in little things just for me (or you). They don’t necessarily carry meanings; they’re quietly decorative, subtly off-center to the narrative. Tati slipped peculiar items into the corners of the frame. Sturges offered gags that only people with his sense of humor will find funny. A successful crowdsourcing enterprise exposed Welles’ homages to early film. Above all, Ozu nudged me toward red teakettles and surprising details. Who else lines up the levels of beverages in a table setting, and then matches that plane to the edge of a fruit bowl?

If you care enough about my movie, the director seems to say, I’ll reward you with a trouvaille. Here are two I found recently.

 

Showing the stitches

Sometimes a trouvaille is a felicity of craft. The director quietly shows off his virtuosity to those in the know. While studying Pulp Fiction for a book I’m finishing, I noticed that Tarantino sets up the ending in a sidelong way.

You’ll remember that the opening shows Honey Bunny and Pumpkin discussing how a restaurant is one of the safest robbery targets. Abruptly they launch an assault on the diner. Then they drop out of the film for a couple of hours.

Very likely we’ve forgotten about them when Jules and Vincent settle down for breakfast in a diner. After discussing the virtues of pork products and the prospects for Jules’ future, Vincent rises to go to the toilet. As he pauses, it’s possible, but not easy, to discern the larcenous couple out of focus in their booth behind him. Given their peripheral status and the centrality of Travolta’s performance, I suspect that almost no one notices them on a first viewing.

Soon after Vincent has left, we’ll hear a repetition of the final bits of the couple’s conversation and we’ll see a replay of their leaping up to announce the robbery. Tarantino has rewarded the sharp-eyed viewer with a slight anticipation of the replay, and a hint at how his film will fold back on its opening sequence.

But this echo is matched by a “pre-echo” during the opening sequence. As Pumpkin and Honey Bunny plan their heist, a close view of her includes a bulky man in a t-shirt walking into the distance.

At this point, a first-time viewer hasn’t been introduced to Vincent, so the t-shirt guy is just part of the scenery. Only in retrospect do we realize that here Tarantino is anticipating, and overlapping, the portion of the robbery that we’ll see in the final moments of the film.

Here the critic/fan is invited to appreciate how carefully made the film is. It’s a quality we don’t sufficiently recognize in Tarantino: a delight in fine-grained formal niceties.

 

Easter Egg, avant la lettre

In Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1950), tennis pro Guy Haines is introduced (implausibly) reading a book on his trip. Soon he’s accosted by the spoiled, marginally nuts Bruno Anthony, and the plot gets under way. Only a fan, or a critic, will want to know: What’s Guy reading?

It’s not easy to tell. We don’t get a close-up of the book. The best we can tell, from above, is that it’s a hardcover, with a photo on the back of the dust jacket. Later, after Guy and Bruno have shared a meal in a compartment, we can glimpse the spine.

Blown up, thanks to the glory of Blu-ray, the spine looks like this.

A little research reveals that the volume is Hitchcock’s collection of stories published in 1947 by Simon and Schuster.

Several anthologies were published under Hitchcock’s name from the 1940s onward, but most were in paperback. This was a more prestigious item, and I suspect it helped the branding effort that was underway during his Hollywood career. The picture on the back is of Hitchcock, of course. (My copy lacks a dust jacket, so I can’t supply that.) But the resonance comes from the fact that I was reading this very book as part of preparation for my own study of 1940s mystery culture.

It’s not exactly product placement; the book’s presence is too fleeting to register with audiences, surely. Including the book seems more in the nature of a private joke among Hitch and his team. Guy is a man of good taste, reading a book by the man directing the film he’s in.

Today we’re familiar with Easter Eggs, those bonus materials that establish a complicity between filmmmaker and viewer. Is this an early example? It could be a prize for fan connoisseurship. The book isn’t emphasized, being buried in the mise-en-scene, and so it encourages the devout to poke and probe. It also points outside the film to the production context. Still, how many 1950 viewers, lacking our ability to freeze and magnify the frame, could have spotted it? Perhaps only the devotion of a modern fan, aided by new technology, can bring this trouvaille to light. An incipient Easter Egg, then, awaiting digital technology to be discovered?

Once we’re down this rabbit hole, let’s scramble further. What stories might Guy be reading? There are two hints. We have the placement of the jacket flap in the shot above, and an earlier shot showing the book open.

As best I can tell, the story Guy’s reading is likely to be “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” It tells of a psychiatrist who meets an Englishman called “Guy Hollis.” Sir Guy believes that Jack the Ripper has migrated to the US and is at large in Chicago. With the aid of the psychiatrist, Sir Guy finds him. Apart from the name Guy, the correspondence to Strangers it would seem to involve a peculiar bond between two men, one of whom is a psychopathic killer.

But there’s another, stranger affinity.

The author of “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” is Robert Bloch., whose novel Psycho would furnish Sir Alfred his 1960 film. Coincidence? In the land of trouvailles, are there any coincidences?

 

Fans have raked over these movies assiduously, so I can’t imagine I’m the first to notice these fine touches. No matter. When you discover them on your own, you still feel a tiny thrill of communicating with the filmmaker, behind the backs of all those folks who didn’t notice. Ozu, I often feel, is making movies especially addressed to me. It’s an illusion, of course, but I refuse to give it up.


Thanks to the University of Wisconsin–Madison Filmies listserv for helping me understand what counts as Easter Eggs, and for a reality check on my sanity.

This site includes lots more on Hitchcock, Ozu, Sturges, and Tarantino. My book on Ozu is available from the University of Michigan. It takes time to download, so be patient.

P.S. 15 August 2021: As I thought, I’m not the first. A mere twenty-one years ago, Dana Polan in his monograph on Pulp Fiction (British Film Institute) noticed the pre-echo of Vincent headed toward the toilet. Good going, Dana! Film analysis wins again.

Days of Youth (Ozu, 1929).

Once upon a time in Hollywood, again: Tarantino revises his fairy tale

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019).

I guess what I’m always trying to do is use the structures that I see in novels and apply them to cinema.

–Quentin Tarantino

DB here:

Tarantino has often embraced print-based texts that revise or complement his films. He’s shared screenplays that differ sharply from the finished product, and written graphic novels derived from Django Unchained. Now he’s gone farther. He’s published a novelization that playfully modifies the  film’s title: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, without the three-dot ellipsis.

Some will say, rightly, that the book is another instance of today’s tendency toward cross-platform narrative, what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling. As such it sells more stuff, builds fan connoisseurship, and provides academics like me more to talk about.

But I think it does more. Tarantino has long borrowed from popular literature, particularly crime fiction. (The book I just finished writing tries to trace out some of his debts.) With his novelization, he returns the favor by transferring some of his creative methods to the long-form prose format. Moreover, he realized that some conventions of two genres–the movie novelization and the Hollywood novel–could be steered in fresh directions. What he provides, I think, is not only a fresh path through the story world that will tease fans but also another of his accessible experiments with narrative form. As a bonus, the book shows the author to be a stimulating historian of American studio cinema.

Of course what follows contains spoilers for both the film and the book. But since you’ve had a good stretch of time to catch the film, and since the book currently sits at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, I’m hoping a fairly close analysis won’t scare away many readers. Even if you don’t read on, maybe the mere existence of this entry will send you to the two items in this intriguing multimedia package.

 

TV or not TV: What is the question?

The film weaves together the doings of actor Rick Dalton, stuntman Cliff Booth, and actor Sharon Tate, over the space of a few days. Rick has been hired to play a villain in a pilot for the TV series Lancer, and Cliff, no longer employable as a stuntman, fills his days serving as Rick’s personal assistant, maintenance man, and boon companion. Sharon, wife of Roman Polanski, lives a life of partygoing, shopping, and occasional screen performing. These characters cross paths with members of Charles Manson’s cultist “Family,” who in 1969 actually murdered Sharon and her guests in a  home invasion. In the film, things turn out differently. The novelization takes up these characters and basic incidents but recasts them.

The typical novelization is published to promote a film just before its film’s release, and it sometimes serves as an enduring fan memento or a contribution to a franchise’s “canon.” The writer is often working from a screenplay or a detailed synopsis, so changes made in the later phases of production can render the finished film quite different from the book. But Tarantino’s novelization comes two years after audiences saw his film. Many readers have already seen the film, possibly several times, so they will be sensitive to deviations from the original. Tarantino exploits that knowingness in ways that are sometimes traditional, sometimes striking.

As you’d expect, a lot of the book is devoted to filling in the backstory of the three major characters. Flashbacks show how Sharon got to Hollywood and how Cliff became a stuntman (and a killer). Like other novelizations, Tarantino’s fleshes out subsidiary characters as well, providing the sort of enrichment of the story world that fans enjoy. And some scenes omitted from the finished film are dwelt on in the novel. For example, in the original pilot the Lancer half-brothers meet when they accidentally come to town on the same stagecoach. (Sorry about the punk YouTube rip.) Tarantino, always obliging, shot the scene in his own way and provides it as a bonus material on the disc.

     

The woman in the TV show is the patriarch’s ward, but in the novel and the film she becomes his daughter Mirabella, and thus the men’s half-sister.

Because a novel can plunge us more deeply into characters’ minds, Tarantino can share the thoughts of Cliff, Rick, and Sharon, as well as secondary figures like Squeaky Frome, Pussycat, Jay Sebring, Roman Polanski, and Manson himself. This widening of perspective alters Tarantino’s habitual storytelling method.

I’ve argued that his films rely on block construction, longish “chapters”attached to one character or set of characters. Whether offering us present-time scenes or flashbacks, they remain fairly self-contained chunks, often set off by titles. As a film, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood broke with this scheme somewhat and presented more alternation among shorter scenes, though still anchored to one of the three main characters.

The novel is even more chopped up, presenting the story in twenty-five chapters, many of them including shifts in time or viewpoint. The transitions are clearly marked, with inner monologues rendered in italics and verb tense differentiating the present-time story from flashbacks. In all, the short, sharp scenes sample a broader panorama of Hollywood life than we find in the film, yielding something more like a network narrative.

The same expansion goes for time. The film leaves Rick’s future somewhat open, but the book sketches in his career after his confrontation with the Family marauders. We learn fairly early in the book that in the 1970s he will cut down on his drinking, an important motif in the book. We also learn the career arc of Trudi Fraser, the little girl with whom Rick performs in the Lancer pilot. A more conventional novelization probably wouldn’t include this anticipatory material, because it would foreclose developments that filmmakers might want to conjure up in a sequel.

Still, Tarantino does adhere to his block aesthetic in an odd way. Big chunks of the Lancer backstory not dramatized in the TV episode are given to us in dedicated chapters, written as if they were extracts from another novel. Recounted by an omniscient narration, they treat the Lancer family history on the same fictional level as the contemporary Hollywood plot. Why? I’ll try to explain below.

Tarantino has experimented with viewpoint shifts and replays throughout his work, most notably in the repeated money-drop sequence in Jackie Brown. Now, like a writer of fan fiction, he can extend the strategy to prose. So an episode registered by one character in the film can be filtered through another in the book. The most extended viewpoint displacement involves Cliff’s visit to Spahn ranch. In the film, we’re attached to him throughout, but in the book everything that happens in that scene is restricted to what Squeaky sees and hears. Viewers are likely to remember Cliff’s fruitless conversation with George, so the replay allows Tarantino to build up a more sympathetic portrait of Squeaky than we get in the film.

Two other narrative strategies are more surprising, but both target readers’ memory of the film. First, the book begins with an office conversation between Rick and agent Marvin Schwarz that echoes the restaurant meeting that opens the film. The reader is likely to think that the book’s ending will resemble the film’s end, which shows the Manson followers attacking Rick’s house rather than Polanski’s. This is the most drastic “alternative history” in the film, like the assassination of Hitler in Inglourious Basterds.

But the reader who’s seen the film will be thrown off on page 110. In a flashforward to March 1970, Rick gets a call from director Paul Wendkos inviting him to join a project. Prompted by a teasing remark by Wendkos, the narration quickly summarizes the summer 1969 invasion and its aftermath before briskly scanning the effect on Rick’s career in the seventies. If you’ve seen the movie, now you can’t be sure what will happen at the end of the book. Will the book’s climax replay the movie’s firefight? Or will something else tie up the plot? Call it show-offish or shrewd, Tarantino’s anticipation of the film’s ending has activated the reader’s awareness of his choices about narrative structure.

Related to this replacement-ending problem is a shift in rendering the filmmaking process. The film shows two scenes of the Lancer pilot being filmed. In the first, Johnny Madrid/Lancer rides into town, shoots down a hired gunman, and discusses joining Caleb DeCoteau’s gang. In the second scene, Caleb holds Lancer’s daughter Mirabella hostage while he arranges for ransom from Scott Lancer.

     

But the novel version only alludes to these scenes; it doesn’t dramatize the filming of them. The meeting of Johnny and Caleb is presented as part of the inserted Lancer “novel,” while the hostage parley is merely mentioned. The only scene that the book describes being shot is one for Rosemary’s Baby.

Instead, the novel dwells on what happens before shooting. On a porch Rick and Trudi discuss acting in general, and later she urges him to scare her during the hostage scene. Tarantino suppresses the act of filming this big scene, simply indicating laconically: “And Caleb and Miranda act out the scene.” Likewise, Sharon Tate, recalling her slapstick scene in The Wrecking Crew, dwells on what happened before the camera rolled.

Why the shift from filming to preparation? I’ll suggest one possibility a bit later.

 

Palimpsest of a period

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a “Hollywood novel.” Typically that genre centers on the rise and fall of a fictional star (Inside Daisy Clover) or an executive (The Last Tycoon), with glimpses of production woven in. The fictional characters dominate the plot, but there are references to actual people and studios, which (libel laws being what they are) serve mostly as colorful background. Tarantino follows these guidelines, but he offers a deeper analysis of American film history than any other Hollywood novel I know.

His isn’t a dry historical approach, though, because of the flamboyance displayed by the narrator. Instead of giving us a prudent bystander’s account in first-person narration, as What Makes Sammy Run? does, the book presents an omniscient yarn-spinner addressing us through phrases like “And bear in mind,” “Now, truth be told,” and “You must remember.” At the same time, efforts at purely literary bravado mix the cheap tabloid alliteration of James Ellroy with the weirdness of Cornell Woolrich.

Still, none could really match Aldo Ray when it came to publicly played-out poignant pity.
The six powerful equines come to a gentle stop.
The diminutive Polanski sports bed head on his cranium. 

Who’s speaking? This narrator is at once omniscient and lightly personified. The Lancer segments are straight Western-novel narration, except when they’re not.

With his light Texas twang, Monty sang out, “Royo del Oro, last stop!” The backlit sunshine rays filtered through the gauze-like brown dust in the way, a hundred years from now, all cinematographers of western movies would hope to duplicate.

 An “I” almost never creeps in, but throughout we’re hearing the Tarantino who produces interview patter and whose screenplays insert wise-ass stage directions.

Freddy finishes his playing-possum piss (Reservoir Dogs).
Everyone is smiling except you-know-who (Pulp Fiction).
From the floor, the bloody, sweaty, and in excruciating pain (she’ll probably lose that leg) German movie star says to the two American soldiers she’s just meeting for the first time. . . . (Inglourious Basterds).

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood goes some way to confirming Tarantino’s repeated claims that when he stops making movies, he’ll turn to novels. I will read them.

Every Hollywood novel is in a sense an alternative history, I suppose, but this unpredictable prose helps prepare us for something peculiar. Start with the time frame. The first and longest stretch of the film takes place on Friday 7 January 1969 and the following day, and these chapters are tagged with time indications. The film then skips ahead to the day and night of 10 August 1969, with the attack on Rick’s home. The book adheres to the February dates but as we’ve seen it “spoils” the film’s climax by announcing the massacre fairly early on.

The central action of the book confines itself to the two days when Rick meets Schwarz and shoots the Lancer pilot, on 7-8 February, 1969. But that chronology is thrown off by another tag. After chapters presenting the day and evening of Friday the 7th, a new chapter indicates that Pusssycat’s Kreepy Krawl (another Ellroyism) takes place at 2:20 AM on that day. It’s either a flashback to an early-morning period before the previous four chapters (why?) or a scene taking place after the earlier chapters, and so is occurring at 2:20 on the 8th, not the 7th.

The Krawl anomaly is an early indication that a misaligned calendar governs the whole book, as it did the film. The actual Lancer pilot was shot in 1968, not 1969. Tarantino has merged events of one year (Rick’s career crisis, the Lancer shoot) with those of a later one (the actual Tate-LaBianca murders).

The typical Hollywood novel inserts made-up stories into a world of real ones, but Tarantino goes further. Your typical director would have pasted Rick on the cover of Time, but Tarantino goes for Mad. Your average movie-geek director would have had Rick reading an actual western novel, maybe Hombre in homage to Elmore Leonard. Instead, Tarantino invents a novel, Ride a Wild Bronc, by the real author Marvin H. Albert, because he wants a parallel between Rick and that book’s hero Easy Breezy. (The fact that Albert himself wrote many novelizations is a bonus.) Likewise, amid a flood of information about genuine Paul Wendkos films and stars therein, Tarantino deletes one actor (James Franciscus) from Hell Boats (1970) to cast the fictitious Rick in the part.

The substitution gambit is literalized in the film, when we learn the gossip that Rick supposedly just missed getting the McQueen part in The Great Escape (1963).

     

A comparable substitution conceit in the book is the jumble of publisher advertisements printed in the back. What could Tarantino’s book promote? Other books of the period published by Harper, of course: Oliver’s Story (1978), Serpico (1973), and Leonard’s The Switch (1978). The dates suggest that the “original” version of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was published in the late 70s, and this accords with hints in the narration and the book’s design. These period ads sit alongside one for the fake Ride a Wild Bronc and one for a purported hardcover edition of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (fake? forthcoming?).

Yet these dabs of phony history allow the book to float some genuine historical analysis. The constant references to obscure movies and TV shows might be taken as merely Tarantino’s nerdy self-indulgence. In fact, these citations fit into a fairly coherent cross-section of the period’s filmmaking and film culture, with the trends filtered through the business decisions and personal tastes of his characters. 1960s Hollywood turns out to be a palimpsest.

One layer is the fading of the studio system, reflected in agent Schwarz’s boast that he handles old royalty like Farley Granger and Joseph Cotten. Rick expresses his admiration for classic B-picture directors Wendkos and William Witney. Sharon’s backstory, when she hitched a ride to LA, reminds us of the enduring Hollywood myth of fresh-faced outsiders breaking in.

There’s also the new competition from European genres and overseas art films. Cliff, who scorns Antonioni and Resnais, is a big fan of Kurosawa and I Am Curious–Yellow. Now a European arthouse director has made a smash American hit, Rosemary’s Baby, and Rick fantasizes being tapped by Polanski. By contrast, Rick is reluctant to venture into spaghetti westerns, the new territory for a has-been US star.

“TV,” people used to say, “gets ’em on the way up or on the way down.” That’s been pretty much Rick’s career trajectory. Broadcast television has disrupted everything. B-directors like Wendkos shift between the two media, but the A-list older stars can’t sustain a series. Still, the narrator admits that some of these “sought to subvert their personas,” as Henry Fonda did in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Young talent is on the make. James Garner, James Coburn, and many other TV stars can jump to film, while Lee Marvin can shift from B-film villainy to TV heroism (M Squad) and return to films to play dark lead roles. The most shining example is Steve McQueen, who after his series Wanted–Dead or Alive became a top film star. In Tarantino’s film, he’s briefly seen commenting on Polanski’s ménage, but in the book McQueen haunts Rick’s life. The misbegotten anecdote about The Great Escape follows him everywhere.

At forty-two Rick is caught between two trends. He’s loyal to older directors and a classic genre, and he hates Eurowesterns and the counterculture. But to keep working he’s in competition with “the three Georges”–Peppard, Maharis, and Chakiris. Ten years ago he had his own series. Now he must wear a mustache and a biker wig and be the bad guy shot down by the newest “swinging dick.”

Said dick would be, in the Lancer pilot, James Stacy, to whom an entire chapter is devoted. He is the next failed McQueen, the young paladin who started memorably on Gunsmoke but now realizes that the clean-cut bad boy is on the way out. He admires Rick’s early work and envies Rick’s “fucking fly” look as Caleb. He yearns to wear a mustache.

The TV western has developed its own conventions, which Tarantino’s novel filters through the characters’ awareness. Schwarz introduces us to the antagonism between the series hero and the heavy, emphasizing that with every one-shot appearance, the guest star’s image suffers. After Rick reads the Lancer script, he admires its boldness in choosing as a protagonist Johnny, the sort of cocksure hothead who’d normally be shot down in the last act. Trudi is well aware that she is “just the ‘little tyke’ series regular.” More broadly, the book’s narrating voice realizes that westerns are based on “the man of principle pushed past his breaking point and beyond his nature. Most of Greek tragedy, half of all English theater, and three-quarters of American cinema operated from this premise.”

 

Men in war and at work

Men in War (1957); Aldo Ray on left.

The book spares some thoughts for women working in Hollywood. Schwarz’s secretary Miss Himmelsteen winds up becoming a talent agent who also performs fellatio on her clients. Sharon Tate, who prefers the Monkees to the Beatles, is fully aware that she’s playing the role of “sexy little me” in most social encounters. Yet she genuinely enjoys the audience laughter aroused by her klutzy scene in the not-very-good The Wrecking Crew.

Still, the book dwells far more on the men. The Mannix episode on Cliff’s TV spells it out.

These men are anxious. Both Rick Dalton and James Stacy see their futures endangered. Charlie Manson is trying to build a career in the music business, but his clumsy networking reveals him as a loser. Most strikingly, in devoting seven chapters to Cliff Booth’s life story, the narration presents a composite of trends swirling through the period.

We who’ve seen the film know Cliff’s manic, LSD-buzzed defense of Rick’s home. But who is he? This war hero who has murdered his wife and three other people is a hard case with a soft spot for foreign films. He’s a dog lover who put his pit bull Brandy through harrowing fights. He hurls Bruce Lee against a car but, out of concern for George Spahn, worries that the hippies encamped on his ranch are exploiting him. If Rick and James’ niches in the hierarchy are shifting, Cliff knows his place is near the bottom. Living in a crummy trailer eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, he can survive thanks to his muscle and his wits. He might be a man of principle who’s just pushed past his breaking point a bit too often.

Enter Aldo Ray, an actual actor whom Tarantino has long celebrated. Despite working with George Cukor, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, and other top directors, Ray destroyed himself through alcohol and wasteful spending. He gets his own chapter near the end, brought into the story when Cliff is stunting on a runaway production in Spain. While Charles Bronson is becoming a star, Aldo is sinking into a numb despair. He is what Rick or Stacy might become.

As the book closes, this parade of masculine misery replaces the film’s Manson Family siege. After finishing the day’s Lancer shoot, Rick and Stacy head out to the Drinker’s Hall of Fame, a tribute to great Hollywood drunks. Cliff and other acquaintances join them, and they share stories of their sex lives and the productions they worked on. Rick finally manages to spell out why he hates the Great Escape rumor. He admits to his peers that he never really had any chance for the McQueen part. That clarity seems to give Rick a dose of prudence: he leaves early because he needs to learn his lines for tomorrow. For the reader, the drinking bout chimes with Aldo Ray’s plight in the prior chapter, and it suggests how Rick will survive the 1970s. His reconciliation with Stacy will lead both to keep their alcoholism under better control.

Rick’s flash of self-discipline is among the many epiphanies that pile up in the final pages. Sharon, sweet-natured throughout, now gets annoyed with Polanski’s whining bossiness and maneuvers him into holding a pool party. Schwarz calls Rick and offers him a chance for a spaghetti western. Rick runs into Steve McQueen, and his resentment of the superstar drains away in a shared memory of male camaraderie, a pool game long ago. Above all, Rick gets a call from Trudi that resets his relation to his past and his craft.

 

An actor prepares

Tarantino admires directors, but he adores actors. Has any film more fully portrayed the insecurities of performers? Rick sees his career going down the drain while upstarts like Stacy and the coolly competent Trudi Fraser, only eight years old, are more professional than he is. Rick is baffled by the director’s pretentious ambitions (“Be evil sexy Hamlet”) and rages in his trailer when he blows his lines. Each small error confirms Schwarz’s diagnosis that Rick can flourish only in a downmarket cinema, below even episodic TV.

One of the film’s finest sequences builds enormous tension when it shows Rick struggling to keep up with Stacy in their saloon reunion.


Tarantino could have shot this sequence in 4:3 ratio and TV style, in accord with the Bounty Law commercial that opens the movie. But the bar sequence, like the hostage scene to come later, maintains the same stylistic tenor–widescreen, long takes, rich color–that presents the story of Rick, Cliff, and Sharon. Remarkably, we don’t see any shots of the director and crew watching the performance. The production staff remain offscreen, cueing Rick’s lines. Tarantino has fused the modern camera with the TV camera, “rewriting” the TV production with shadowy modern lighting and arcing camera moves. This filming strategy puts the pilot on par with the surrounding story, just as in the book the Lancer family saga carries the same weight as the 1969 story line.

At the same time, the sequence lets us see just how difficult film acting is. (You can see Stacy trying to match his spoon’s movements to get a clean retake.) An awkward axial cut-in to the bartender delivering Johnny’s beans may be hinting that already Rick has blown a line and they had to reshoot it.

     

Acting is hard. Even bad acting is hard. Could you or I do what Rick has to do in this scene?

Seeing Rick’s malfunctioning performance in this scene puts more pressure on the big hostage scene, which again runs as if it’s part of the surrounding film. But now, after Rick aces the scene, we get our first crew shot and the director’s happy reaction, along with Trudi’s whispered praise.

     

Even more than the film, the book pays homage to the strain of actors’ working lives. By sequestering the Lancer episodes in separate chapters, Tarantino can focus elsewhere on the sheer terror of preparation for filming them. Now we see why the book stresses the performers’ leadup to each shoot. We’ve seen in the film how harrowing it is to screw up, and the book digs into the panic of preparation.

Which is why, I suggest, the book ends with one more phone call. (The back cover of the paperback hints at its imporance.) Suspecting that Rick is slacking off, Trudi calls Rick to goad him into rehearsing. As they start to run the lines, they slip into their characters. The narration cooperates.

Caleb answers flippantly, “Greed’s what makes the world go ’round, little lady.”
The little lady says her name out loud: “Mirabella.”
“What?” Caleb asks.
The eight-year-old child repeats her name to the outlaw leader. “My name is Mirabella. If you’re gonna murder me in cold blood, I don’t want you to just think of me as Murdock Lancer’s little girl.”
Something about the way she says that registers with the outlaw. And suddenly it becomes important for Caleb to make her understand his fairness on this matter.

Through Rick’s performance the narration can plunge into Caleb’s mind. Things get even more complex when Johnny enters the scene, voiced by Trudi.

Trudi as Johnny points out, “Something happens to that money and we don’t get it, that’s our problem.”
Caleb spins toward Johnny and violently says, “Something happens to that money, that’s her problem!” With fire in his eyes, he tells Johnny Lancer, “Git it straight, boy! . . .”

Very soon Caleb will be shot dead, as enacted by Rick over the phone.

As usual, we won’t see the scene filmed, but Trudi foresees the result. “We’re going to kill this scene tomorrow.” Rick agrees. When she adds that they’re in a great line of work, Rick has his biggest epiphany. Trudi is right. The career that seemed so dismal has let him work with great actors, make love to beautiful women, enjoy luxuries most men never dream of.

He looks around at the fabulous house he owns. Paid for by doing what he used to do for free when he was a little boy: pretending to be a cowboy.

Boys will be boys, apparently forever.

 

Tracing three movie careers–a fading star, an aspiring starlet, and a below-the-line crew member–the film and the book provide Tarantino’s views not just of swinging-60s Hollywood (“You shoulda been there!”) but what working in The Business is like. Like most books and movies set in the film capital, these two texts show the pleasures and pains of a life that’s at once glamorous and dangerous.

But thanks to visual and verbal bravado, ingenious crosstalk between cinema and prose, and a respect for actors, Tarantino has gone beyond the usual finger-wagging chastisement of Hollywood excess. His taste for low-grade product, which has sometimes seemed an auteur provocation, is revealed as a respect for the desperate energy that animates even barely talented performers. That stubborn struggle, he suggests, is more rewarding than hippies’ hopes to mosey into nirvana.

Tarantino’s respect for those who dare to make movies, even opportunistic and down-market ones, puts him squarely in the classical Hollywood tradition of striving professionalism. His protagonist realizes, Capra style, that he has a wonderful life. Weird as it sounds to say it, Tarantino’s multimedia fairy tale might be the squarest story he ever told.


The epigraph comes from Graham Fuller, “Answers First, Questions Later,” in Quentin Tarantino: Interviews, rev. ed., ed. Gerald Peary (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2013), 37.

More homework for the Tarantino squad: Trudi Fraser in the film is Trudi Frazer in the book.

Jeff Smith’s discussions of the film, here and here, were our most popular 2019 entries. They still hold up.

Through a blunder, I missed seeing Mark Minett’s careful email reply to my question about the saloon dialogue scene. Would such an arcing shot be likely in network TV of the period? His response is very helpful:

As for lateral or arcing camera movements during shot reverse shot sequences, I think these must be pretty rare. It’s possible a show might feature one every once and awhile, but these would likely stand out as a directorial flourish. The late 1960s television I’ve seen tends to have static s/rs, with variety achieved through camera height and angle, though I did just see an episode of Hawaii Five-O where the reverse shot was a moving close-up of a pacing Jack Lord.

Typically, you’d get mobile framing as you set up the key figures and then cut into the s/rs sequence. We sort of get that in the LANCER sequence as they sit to eat, and then there’s that interesting jump cut and track back reset as the man approaches with the food (I wonder if this was supposed to signal imperfection and authenticity or what?). Or, you could get a push in on a face at a climax, usually as they move out of the scene or to a commercial, as in the “1958” Bounty Law footage, though I think the more common option was just to hold on a close-up. That arcing move around the back of Olyphant’s head in Lancer, though, would be unusual, I think.

I wonder if it’s worth distinguishing this kind of arcing movement that basically just resets the framing of the scene, from the kind of arcing movements that seem more common now, which continue across cuts and underwrite the dramatic tension of a sequence. The former seems like more of a possible – though still probably very rare – option on the menu of that era’s filmed television, while I’d be really really surprised to find the latter. These are all just somewhat informed hunches, though, and there’s definitely room for real research here. Arcing and lateral movements aside, I’m also not sure when s/rs sequences in filmed TV started to regularly incorporate the slow push-ins that develop over the course of a sequence. So much worth investigating!

Mark should know. He’s the author of an excellent book on Robert Altman’s work, with close study of his TV projects. Another scholar of televisual style, Jonah Horwitz replied as well.

I don’t really have much to add to Mark’s response except nods of agreement. I don’t have the Tarantino movie to hand but the kinds of embellishments David describes would be pretty rare. S/R/S, as Mark notes, tends to be locked down (though not usually as metronomic as on Dragnet!)

A few folks have made some very tentative arguments for directorial style in midcentury US series TV partly on the basis of camera movement—that is, based on ambitious movements being the exception rather than the rule. Some of the former live TV directors I studied tried to import their love of long takes and elaborate camera movements into telefilm production with very mixed success (often they ran into the opposition of producers who wondered why they weren’t getting through x number of setups per day). Some of Joseph H. Lewis’s ’50s TV episodes stand out—in spots—for such things.

Re. Mark’s question, in live TV drama S/R/S is typically handled using long lenses, which made precise or ambitious camera movements somewhat difficult for such sequences. I argue in my dissertation that much of the innovation in S/R/S in live TV drama came from finding ways to get more frontal angles on characters without the camera shooting the reverse-field intruding into the shot. Earlier live drama S/R/S set ups have an obliquity owing to the shooting situation. (If you imagine the prototypical S/R/S staging with a camera placed in front of each character, you can see the problem.) Later directors and cameramen mitigated this through careful planning and extremely dexterous crews. But, again, this is in 50s/early 60s live TV—far from the late 60s telefilm that Tarantino is supposedly pastiching.

I wonder if the partially anachronistic shooting style of the Lancer segment could be motivated by the dream-film aspect of the movie (or maybe given Tarantino’s tendency to flagrant stylization we don’t even need recourse to a more specific alibi).

P. S. 21 July 2021: Tarantino discusses the book in a fascinating interview with Mike Fleming, Jr. at Deadline.

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

Learning to watch a film, while watching a film

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992).

DB here:

“Every film trains its spectator,” I wrote a long time ago. In other words: A movie teaches us how to watch it.

But how can we give that idea some heft? How do movies do it? And what are we doing?

 

Many menus

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011).

In my research, I’ve found the idea of norms a useful guide to understanding how filmmakers work and how we follow stories on the screen. A norm isn’t a law or even a rule; it’s, as they say in Pirates of the Caribbean, more of a guideline. But it’s a pretty strong guideline. Norms exert pressure on filmmakers, and they steer viewers in specific directions.

Genre conventions offer a good example. The norms of the espionage film include certain sorts of characters (secret agents, helpers, traitors, moles, master minds, innocent bystanders) and situations (tailing targets, pursuits, betrayal, codebreaking, and the like). The genre also has some characteristic storytelling methods, like titles specifying time and place, or POV shots through binoculars and gunsights.

But there are other sorts of norms than genre-driven ones. There are broader narrative norms, like Hollywood’s “three-act” (actually four-part) plot structure, or the ticking-clock climax (as common in romcoms and family dramas as in action films). There are also stylistic norms, such as the shoulder-level camera height and classic continuity editing, the strategy of carving a scene into shots that match eyelines, movements, and other visual information.

Thinking along these lines leads you to some realizations. First, any film will instantiate many types of norms (genre, narrative, stylistic, et al.). Second, norms are likely to vary across history and filmmaking cultures. The norms of Hollywood are not the same as the norms of American Structural Film. There are interesting questions to be asked about how widespread certain norms are, and how they vary in different contexts.

Third, some norms are quite rigid, as in sonnet form or in the commercial breaks mandated by network TV series. Other norms are flexible and roomy (as guidelines tend to be). There are plenty of mismatched over-the-shoulder cuts in most movies we see, and nobody but me seems bothered.

     

     

More broadly, norms exist as options within a range of more or less acceptable alternatives. Norms form something of a menu. In the spy film, the woman who helps the hero might be trustworthy, or not. The apparent master mind could turn out to be taking orders from somebody higher up, perhaps somebody supposedly on your side. One scene might avoid continuity editing and instead be presented in a single long take.

Norms provide alternatives, but they weight them. Certain options are more likely to be chosen than others; they are defaults. (Facing a menu: “The chicken soup is always safe.”) An action film might present a fight or a chase in a single take (Widows, Atomic Blonde), but it would be unusual if every scene in the film were played out this way. Not forbidden, but rare. Avoiding the default option makes the alternative stand out as a vivid, willed choice.

Very often, critics take most of the norms involved for granted and focus on the unusual choices that the filmmakers have made. One of our most popular entries, the entry on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, discusses how the film creates a demanding espionage movie by its manipulations of story order, characterization, character parallels, and viewpoint. It isn’t a radically “abnormal” film, but it treats the genre norms in fresh ways that challenge the viewer.

Because, after all, viewers have some sense of norms too. Norms are part of the tacit contract that binds the audience to creators. And the viewer, like the critic, looks out for new wrinkles and revisions or rejections of the norm–in other words, originality.

 

Picking from the menu

Norms of genre, narrative, and style are shared among many films in a tradition or at a certain moment. We can think of them as “extrinsic norms,” the more or less bounded menu of options available to any filmmaker. By knowing the relevant extrinsic norms, we’re able to begin letting the movie teach us how to watch it.

The process starts early. Publicity, critical commentary, streaming recommendations, and other institutional factors point up genre norms, and sometimes frame the film in additional ways–as an entry in a current social controversy (In the Heights, The Underground Railroad), or as the work of an auteur. You probably already have some expectations about Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.

Then, as we get into the film, norms quickly click into place. The film signals its commitment to genre conventions, plot patterning, and style. At this point, the film’s “teaching” consists largely of just activating what we already know. To learn anything, you have to know a lot already. If the movie begins with a character recalling the past, we immediately understand that the relevant extrinsic norm isn’t at that point a 1-2-3 progression of story events, but rather the more uncommon norm of flashback construction, which rearranges chronology for purposes of mystery or suspense. Within that flashback, though, it’s likely that the 1-2-3 default will operate.

As the film goes on, it continues to signal its commitment to extrinsic norms. An action scene might be accompanied by a thunderous musical score, or it might not; either way, we can roll with the result. The characters might let us into their thinking, through voice-over or dream sequences, or we might, as in Tinker, Tailor, be confronted with an unusually opaque protagonist whose motives are cloudy. The extrinsic norms get, so to speak, narrowed and specified by the moment-by-moment working out of the film. Items from the menu are picked for this particular meal.

That process creates what we can call “intrinsic norms,” the emerging guidelines for the film’s design. In most cases, the film’s intrinsic norms will be replications or mild revisions of extrinsic ones. For all its distinctiveness, in most respects Tinker, Tailor adheres to the conventions of the spy story. And as we get accustomed to the film’s norms, we focus more on the unfolding action. We’ve become expert film watchers. We learn quickly, and our “overlearned” skills of comprehension allow us to ignore the norms and, as we stay, get into the story.

Narration, the patterned flow of story information, is crucial to this quick pickup. Even if the film’s world is new to us, the narration helps us to adjust through its own intrinsic norms. The primary default would seem to be “moving spotlight” narration. Here a “limited omniscience” attaches us to one character, then another, within a scene or from scene to scene. We come to expect some (not total) access to what every character is up to.

In Curtis Hanson’s Hand That Rocks the Cradle, we’re initially attached to the pregnant Claire Bartel, who has moved to Seattle with her husband Michael and daughter Emma. When Claire is molested by her gynecologist Dr. Mott, she reports him. The scandal drives him to suicide, and his distraught wife miscarries. She vows vengeance on Claire. Thereafter, the plot shuttles us among the activities of Claire, Mrs. Mott, Michael, the household handyman Solomon, and family friends like Michael’s former girlfriend Marlene. The result is a typical  “hierarchy of knowledge”–here, with Claire usually at the bottom and Mrs. Mott near the top. We don’t know everything (characters still harbor secrets, and the narration has some of its own), but we typically know more about motives, plans, and ongoing action than any one character does.

More rarely, instead of a moving spotlight, the film may limit us to only one character’s range of knowledge. Again, scene after scene will reiterate the “lesson” of this singular narrational norm. That repetition will make variations in the norm stand out more strongly. Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is almost completely restricted to Roger Thornhill, but it “doses” that attachment with brief asides giving us key information he doesn’t have. Rear Window and The Wrong Man, largely confined to a single character’s experience, do something similar at crucial points.

Sometimes, however, a film’s opening boldly announces that it has an unusual intrinsic norm. Thanks to framing, cutting, performance, and sound, nearly all of Bresson’s A Man Escaped rigorously restricts us to the experience of one political prisoner. We don’t get access to the jailers planning his fate, or to men in other cells–except when he communicates with them or participates in communal activities, like washing up or emptying slop buckets.

     

The apparent exception: The film’s opening announces its intrinsic norm in an almost abstract way. First, we get firm restriction. There are fairly standard cues for Fontaine’s effort to escape from the police car that’s carrying him. Through his optical POV, we see him grab his chance when the driver stops for a passing tram.

     

The film’s title and the initial situation let us lock onto one extrinsic norm of the prison genre: the protagonist will try to escape. Knowing that we know this, Bresson can risk a remarkable revision of a stylistic norm.

Fontaine bolts, but Bresson’s visual narration doesn’t follow him. The camera stays stubbornly in the car with the other prisoner while Fontaine’s aborted escape is “dedramatized,” barely visible in the background and shoved to the far right frame edge. He is run down and brought back to be handcuffed and beaten.

     

     

The shot announces the premise of spatial confinement that will dominate the rest of the film. The narration “knows” Fontaine can’t escape and waits patiently for him to be dragged back. In effect, the idea of “restricted narration” has been decoupled from the character we’ll be restricted to. This is the film’s first, most unpredictable lesson in stylistic claustrophobia.

 

Got a light?

Most intrinsic norms aren’t laid out as boldly as the opening of A Man Escaped, but ingenious filmmakers may provide some variants. Take a fairly conventional piece of action in a suspense movie. A miscreant needs to plant evidence that incriminates some innocent soul.

In Strangers on a Train, that evidence is a cigarette lighter. Tennis star Guy Haines shares a meal with pampered sociopath Bruno Antony, whose tie sports colorful lobsters. Bruno steals Guy’s distinctive cigarette lighter.

     

Bruno has proposed that they exchange murders: He will kill Guy’s wife Miriam, who’s resisting divorce, and Guy will kill Bruno’s father. Bruno cheerfully strangles Miriam at a carnival, aided by the lighter.

When Guy doesn’t go through with his side of the deal, Bruno resolves to return to the scene of Miriam’s death and leave the lighter to incriminate Guy. The film’s climax consists of the two men fighting on a merry-go-round gone berserk. Although Bruno dies asserting Guy’s guilt, the lighter is revealed in his hand. Guy is exonerated.

     

Once the lighter is introduced in the early scenes, it comes to dominate the last stretch of the film. In scene after scene, Hitchcock emphasizes Bruno’s possession of it. Sometimes it’s only mentioned in dialogue, but often we get a close-up of it as Bruno looks at it thoughtfully–here, brazenly, while Guy’s girlfriend Ann is calling on him.

     

When Bruno picks up a cheroot or a cigarette, we expect to see the lighter.

One of the film’s most famous set-pieces involves Bruno straining to retrieve the lighter after it has fallen through a sidewalk grating.

     

Bruno has dropped it before, during Miriam’s murder, but then he notices and retrieves it. It’s as if this error has shown him how he might frame Guy if necessary. The image of the lighter in the grass previews for us what he plans to do with it later.

     

What does the lighter have to do with norms? Most obviously, Strangers on a Train teaches us to watch for its significance as a plot element. It’s not only a potential threat, but also Bruno’s intimate bond to Guy, as if Bruno has replaced Ann, who gave Guy the lighter. The film also invokes a normalized pattern of action–a character has an object he has stolen and will plant to make trouble–and treats it in a repeated pattern of visual narration. The character looks at the object; cut to the object; cut back to the character in possession of the object, waiting to use it at the right moment. Our ongoing understanding of the lighter depends on the norm-driven presentation of it.

Once we’re fully trained, Hitchcock no longer needs to show us the lighter at all. En route to the carnival to plant the lighter, Bruno lights a cigarette with the lighter, although his hands conceal it. But then the train passenger beside him asks for a light.

In order to hide the lighter, Bruno laboriously pockets it and fetches out a book of matches.

     

If we saw only this scene, we might not have realized what’s going on, but it comes long after the narrational norm has been established. We can fill out the pattern and make the right inference. Bruno wants no witness to see this lighter.

 

The hand that cradles the rock

In The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, under the name Peyton Flanders, Mrs. Mott becomes nanny to Claire’s daughter and infant son. Pretending to be a friendly helper, she subverts Claire’s daily routines and her trusting relationship with Michael. As in most domestic thrillers, the accoutrements of upper-middle-class lifestyle–a baby monitor, a Fed Ex parcel, expensive cigarette lighters, asthma inhalers, wind chimes–get swept up in the suspense. Peyton weaponizes these conveniences, and through a somewhat unusual narrational norm the film trains us to give her almost magical powers.

We get Peyton’s early days in household filtered through her point of view. Classic POV cutting is activated during her job interview. She notices that Claire’s pin-like earring drops off and she hands it back to her.

     

Attachment to Peyton gets more intense when she sees the baby monitor and then fixates on the baby.

     

     

We’re then initiated into her tactics, and to the film’s way of presenting them. Serving supper, Claire doesn’t notice that her earring drops off again. Peyton does.

     

Breaking with her POV, the narration shifts to Claire and Michael talking about hiring her. But this cutaway to them has skipped over a crucial bit of action: Peyton has picked up the earring. Unlike Hitchcock, director Curtis Hanson doesn’t give us a close-up of the important object in the antagonist’s. In a long shot we simply see Peyton studying her fingers. Some of us will infer what she’s up to; the rest of us will have to wait for the payoff.

     

After another cutaway to the couple, Peyton “discovers” the earring in the baby’s crib. Her concern for his safety seals the hiring deal and begins her long campaign to show that Claire is an unfit mother.

     

This elliptical presentation of Peyton’s subterfuges rules the middle section of the film. Selective POV shots suggest what she might do, but we aren’t shown her doing it–only the results. For instance, Claire lays out a red dress for a night out. Peyton sees it, then sees some perfume bottles.

     

     

Cut to Claire and then to an arriving guest, and presto. When she returns to the mirror, her dress is suddenly revealed as having a stain.

     

Later, Claire agrees to send off Michael’s grant application during her round of errands. Once she gets to the Fed Ex office, she will discover the missing envelope. Before that, though, we get another variant of the intrinsic norm showing Peyton’s trickery.

In the greenhouse, while Claire is watering plants, Peyton spots the envelope in her bag. We don’t see her take it, and there’s even a hint that she hasn’t done so. A nifty shot lets us glimpse her yanking her arm away as Claire approaches. It’s not clear that she has anything in her hand.

     

In what follows, the narration confirms Peyton’s theft while building up the threat level.

If she’s caught, this woman will not go away quietly.

While cozying up to the children–Peyton cuddles with Emma and even secretly breast-feeds baby Joe–Peyton eliminates all of Claire’s allies. By now we know her strategy, so after she suggests to Claire that the handyman Solomon has been molesting little Emma, all the narration needs is to show us Claire discovering a pair of Emma’s underwear in his toolbox. As with Bruno’s pocketing the lighter in Strangers on a Train, we’re now prepared to fill in even more of what’s not shown: here, Peyton framing Solomon.

Michael, a furtive smoker, sometimes shares a cigarette with Marlene. So it’s easy for Peyton to plant Marlene’s lighter in Michael’s sport coat for Claire to discover. Again, the moment of the theft has given her quasi-magical powers. She sees Marlene’s lighter in her handbag in the front seat.

     

Again thanks to a cutaway, we don’t see her take it. Indeed, it’s hard to see how she could have; she comes out of the back seat with an armload of plants.

     

But later Marlene will tell Michael (i.e., us) that she’s lost her lighter, and a dry cleaner will find it and show it to Claire.

The attacks have escalated, with Claire now suspecting Michael of infidelity. She confronts him without knowing that Michael has invited friends to a surprise party for her. Her angry accusations are overheard by the guests, and this public display of her anxieties takes her to a new low.

Claire’s revenge plan is almost wholly consummated, so we stop getting the elliptical POV treatment of her thefts. Instead, the plot shifts to investigations: first Marlene  discovers Peyton’s real identity, with unhappy results, and at the climax Claire does. Her POV exploration of the empty Mott house counterbalances Peyton’s early probing of Claire’s household. When she sees Mrs. Ott’s breast pump–another domestic object now invested with dread–she realizes why baby Joe no longer wants her milk.

     

This is the point, fairly common in the thriller, when the targeted victim turns and fights back.

In The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a familiar action scheme–someone swipes something and plants it elsewhere–is handled through an unusual narrational norm. The scenes showing Peyton’s pilfering skip a step, and they momentarily let us think like her, nuts though she is. Thanks to editing that deletes one stage of the standard shot pattern, the film trains us to see how banal domestic items, deployed as weapons, can destroy a family. In the course of learning this, maybe the movie makes us feel smart.

 

Arguably, we’re able to fill in the POV pattern in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle because we’ve learned from encounters with movies that used the standard action scheme, including Strangers on a Train. This is one reason film style has a history. Dissolves get replaced by fades, exposition becomes more roundabout, endings become more open. As audiences learn technical devices, intrinsic norms recast extrinsic ones and some movies become more elliptical, or ambiguous, or misleading. All I’d suggest is that we get accustomed to such changes because films teach us how to understand them. And we enjoy it.


The passage about training us comes from my Narration in the Fiction Film (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 45. I discuss norms in blog entries on Summer 85,  on Moonrise Kingdom, on Nightmare Alley, and elsewhere. A book I’m finishing applies the concept to novels as well as films.

The example of mismatched reverse angles comes from The Irishman (2019) In the first cut, Frank is starting to settle his coat collar, but in the second, his arms are down and the collar is smooth. In a later portion of that second shot, Hoffa gestures freely with his right hand, but in the over-the-shoulder reverse, his arm is at his side and it’s Frank who gets to make a similar gesture. To be fair, I should say that I found some striking reverse-angle mismatches in Strangers on a Train too.

For more on conventions of the domestic thriller, go to the essay “Murder Culture.”

Radomir D. Kokeš offers an analysis of how Kristin and I have used the concept of norm. We are grateful for his careful discussion of our work and his exposition of the achievement of literary theorist Jan Mukarovský. See “Norms, Forms and Roles: Notes on the Concept of Norm (not just) in Neoformalist Poetics of Cinema,” in Panoptikum (December 2019), available here.

Strangers on a Train (1951).

The poet of dynamic immobility: Ennio Morricone: A guest post by Jeff Smith

Ennio Morricone holding his principal instrument, the trumpet, in a picture taken in the 1970s. Photo by Roberto Masotti.

 

DB here: For our blog entry #1001, who better to memorialize Morricone than our stalwart collaborator Jeff Smith? He has provided many music-sensitive analyses of films both recent and classic. Our most popular entries from last year were his two looks (here and here) at the music and musical culture behind Once Upon a Time. . . . in Hollywood. Herewith his warm appreciation of a maestro.

 

Jeff here:

On July 6, 2020, the legendary composer Ennio Morricone passed away in Rome at the age of 91. As expected, several encomia were published reflecting upon Morricone’s musical genius. Of particular note were reflections by two writers for Variety, film critic Owen Gleiberman and film music historian Jon Burlingame.

The tributes highlighted many notable features of Morricone’s film work: his gift for melody, his sense of humor, his eclecticism, and his amazing productivity. Having written more than 500 film and television scores, Morricone’s compositional output was jaw-dropping. After all, even Josef Haydn wrote only 106 symphonies.

Throughout my own career as a film scholar, I frequently engaged with Morricone’s music. In preparation for the writing of my dissertation, I did an independent study with David on Hollywood film music. My final project? A detailed analysis of the score for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, complete with handwritten transcriptions of every musical theme and motif I could identify.

I vividly remember the satisfaction I felt in being able to play the main title from start to finish on the piano. It is one thing to read music and play it. It is another to take what you hear and try to put it in some reproducible form on paper. Playing back Morricone’s famous theme, I felt I’d gained insight into the mind of the great composer.  That work eventually became the basis for chapter six in my first book, The Sounds of Commerce.

My fascination with Morricone’s work has continued to the present day. Last summer, I wrote a review of Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, a book of interviews conducted by Alessandro De Rosa. This past April the Criterion Channel posted my most recent “Observations on Film Art,” which examines musical motifs in Morricone’s score for The Battle of Algiers.

That’s close to thirty years of near-obsessive fascination with Morricone’s music and his compositional style. In what follows, I share some additional thoughts on the Maestro’s legacy, offering some insight on the reasons for his seemingly inexhaustible creativity.

 

The Sicilian defense

The first section of Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words is all about the maestro’s love of chess. Although the composer would describe himself as a hobbyist, his chess skills surpassed those of most amateurs. Morricone played against Boris Spassky, Garry Kasparov, and other Grand Masters. When asked about his passion for the game, Morricone explains that he sees important parallels between music composition and chess. Both activities involve mathematical relations. These relations are further expressed in axes of verticality, horizontality, and graphics.

This initial discussion of chess struck me as a key to understanding Morricone’s creative process. The game of chess is often analogized as a battle where stratagems and tactics are deployed in an effort to outmaneuver – and thus, defeat – one’s opponent.  That comparison undoubtedly rings true. Yet when one looks at the board before the game starts, it also represents something simpler: a field of open possibilities. Not every move is permissible, of course. But when you consider possible combinations of moves, the permutations can number in the millions. And even though the rules of chess constrain the patterns of moves that can be made, all of these possibilities are generated by the dispositions of up to 32 pieces on a field of 64 squares.

Morricone seems to approach the blank space of staff paper as though it were a chessboard at the start of the game. A chess player works with sixteen pieces that can be used in various combinations. A composer works with the twelve tones of the chromatic scale to create intervals and chords. As with the chessboard, there are millions of different permutations in the way these twelve tones can be arranged. More importantly, since each note in the scale can be varied by pitch class, duration, articulation, dynamics, and instrumental color, the options seem endless.

Yet while the “terror of the white page” can be an obstacle to the creative process, that has never appeared to be the case with Morricone. Why? I think it is because the composer found a method of composition that reduced the apparently infinite possibilities to the level of the merely multitudinous.

In Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, the composer characterized himself as a student of the Second School of Vienna. Unlike Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, who were part of the first Viennese School, Morricone tried to transpose the former’s twelve-tone technique into a seven-tone system while retaining the latter’s commitment to the rules of serialism that ordered all other musical parameters. For Morricone, this system had the advantage of enabling him to write tonal music without having to slavishly adhere to its characteristic tensions and resolutions. By adopting Webern’s principles of serialism, the notes, according to Morricone, “are freed from their reciprocal constraints.”

Over time, Morricone learned how to adapt this simplified version of twelve-tone serialism to the needs of each film score he wrote. In some cases, he would work within a pentatonic system. In others, he might base his compositions on a row of six or eight tones. In still others, he might jettison the system altogether.

This simplified serial technique provided Morricone with a compositional framework that was extraordinarily generative. Once the composer has determined the tone row and the ordering of other musical parameters, he simply spins off hundreds of variations that are then fitted to the film’s dramatic situations. The smaller tone row still acts as a guarantor of harmonic unity. Morricone describes it as the music’s DNA, something like an identifying marker in every musical “cell.” Specific changes in rhythm, tempo, orchestration, volume, and tessitura all provide means of refreshing the basic musical schema.

Indeed, Morricone’s compositional system proved so procreant that he sometimes wrote three or four versions of a score’s theme in order to give the director some options to choose from.  In Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, he offers an example with the police triumph theme in The Untouchables. The theme was the last one written for the score, and Morricone prepared three pieces that were recorded with two pianists. He then sent them off for director Brian De Palma’s consideration. De Palma didn’t like any of them. Back to the drawing board,

Morricone wrote three more pieces and shared them with De Palma. In a phone call, the director told Morricone that he still wasn’t convinced. Morricone completed three additional pieces and sent them. This time, though, he included a brief that summarized the strengths and weaknesses of all nine proposals. Morricone himself recommended against variant number six, claiming it was most triumphant and therefore the least convincing.  Concluding his story, Morricone asks, “Guess which one he chose?”


After I sniggered at the composer’s dig at De Palma’s musical sensibilities, the larger implications of Morricone’s anecdote began to sink in. My mind was well and truly blown. If Morricone had written eight other themes in lieu of the one that was ultimately chosen, how much music had he actually written for The Untouchables? And if this, as Morricone indicates, was not an isolated case, how many unused cues are likely sitting in boxes somewhere in Rome simply waiting to be discovered? As noted earlier, Morricone had written music for more than five hundred films and television shows. Were the aggregated number of unused cues and alternate versions of themes the equivalent of another one or two hundred scores?  And if we trust Morricone’s judgment, some of these versions are actually better than the ones we already know.

All of this is a reminder that Morricone’s output is astonishing. This is evident both in terms of the size of his corpus and the sustained quality of his work over a period of almost sixty years.

Much of that productivity, I think, was fueled by Morricone’s transposition of serialist concepts to the film score. Like the rules of chess, which prohibit certain moves, Morricone’s use of simplified tone rows gave him a set of “rules” that fruitfully limited certain options in terms of melody and harmony, but still preserved the usual range of choices for other musical parameters. It also shaped our sense of Morricone’s style by favoring certain compositional devices over others. Pedal points and ostinati are completely permissible in Morricone’s system. But a rapid chromatic run of the type used in classical Hollywood “hurries” would be out of bounds.

Such a rapid chromatic run is also ill-suited to Morricone’s aesthetic for another reason; it is a musical gesture that implies directional movement. Instead Morricone strives to produce a sensation of “dynamic immobility” in his work, the musical equivalent of the swirls, eddies, and ripples we associate with lake water. The sense of immobility derives from Morricone’s interest in writing tonal music outside of the strict rules governing the Western tonal system. One hears chord changes. But you couldn’t describe any particular change as a modulation insofar as there is no definite key to ground these harmonic relations. Consequently, you discern harmonic change, but without the sense of teleological movement toward a cadence as a definite endpoint.

If Morricone’s approach to harmony strives for a feeling of moving stasis, what then accounts for the music’s dynamism? For Morricone, it is the constant change evident in the other musical parameters: texture, pitch, dynamics, and timbre.

Listen again to the cue from The Untouchables. Do you notice the sorts of surges and swells produced by its chord changes? Does it sound like it moves to a definite endpoint?  Or does one instead get the feeling of an endlessly deferred resolution?  If those surges and swells produce the latter, that’s Morricone’s “dynamic immobility” in situ.

Morricone’s creative spark seems all the more remarkable when one considers that he worked in a production environment guided by the notion that “I don’t need it good; I need it Tuesday.” That Morricone flourished within this milieu for more than five decades eventually made him “untouchable.”

 

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news

A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

In The Sounds of Commerce, I argued that the 1960s proved to be an important period in the history of the Hollywood film score as the dominance of its neoromantic style began to wane. Driven partly by the popularity of theme songs and soundtrack albums, composers infused the classical Hollywood score with elements of both jazz and pop music. To be sure, those styles all had their place in Hollywood films. Characters performed Tin Pan Alley songs in musicals. Dance bands played jazz as part of the nightlife featured in gangster films and films noirs. And one even heard the occasional bit of Gershwin-style orchestral jazz pop up in a score. The changes I discerned in sixties film scores were more a matter of degree than of kind.

What prompted the change? Besides the emergence of new ancillary markets for film music, Hollywood also saw a generational shift take place throughout the industry, including film composers. Sadly, some of the greatest proponents of the classical Hollywood style, such as Herbert Stothart, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Victor Young, were dead before 1960. Others, like Roy Webb, Max Steiner, and Miklós Rózsa, remained active, but they saw fewer assignments come their way.

Taking their place was a new breed more attuned to changes in the jazz and pop idioms.  Instead of aping Gershwin, these new composers were more likely to draw upon swing music or West Coast jazz. Similarly, several film composers also began to incorporate elements of pop music’s newest sensation: rock and roll.  In an interview I did with Henry Mancini, he described his famous “Peter Gunn” theme as a rock tune due to its “straight eight” rhythms and its twangy guitar line. Not coincidentally, John Barry’s arrangement of the James Bond theme foregrounded Vic Flick’s guitar in a similar way. The middle section of the tune features a swinging, Dizzy Gillespie-ish break. But that guitar sound stood out, much closer to Carl Perkins than to Wes Montgomery.

During the 1960s, no film composer was as thoroughly steeped in the rock idiom as Ennio Morricone. Yet, unlike Mancini and Barry, who were drawn toward rockabilly in their use of electric guitar, Morricone cribbed from the slightly more modern sounds of early sixties surf-rock. Morricone tells Alessandro De Rosa that he used the electric guitar long before he wrote the scores of his spaghetti Westerns, albeit not as a solo instrument. Yet he opted to feature the electric guitar in the main theme of A Fistful of Dollars because he liked “its tough and sharp timbre,” which he felt was perfect for the atmosphere of the film.

De Rosa also notes that the Shadows’ surf music was extremely popular on Italian record charts in the early sixties, especially their Western-themed classic “Apache.” The distinctive twang of Hank Marvin’s Fender Stratocaster was widely imitated by Italian beat bands. By the time A Fistful of Dollars was in production, the Shadows’ influence had seeped into Italian popular music culture. When they topped the Italian charts in 1963 with “Geronimo,” another paean to the American west, it probably seemed quite natural to make the Stratocaster’s sound the centerpiece of Leone’s groundbreaking film.

Morricone made the electric guitar the star of many more spaghetti Western scores.  But none so prominently as the “Man With the Harmonica” theme of Once Upon a Time in the West.  Famously, the film features no main title in the opening credits, “scoring” the scene instead with the sounds of the wind, a creaking mill, the clanging of a metal gate, and an especially persistent horsefly (among other things). Morricone’s score doesn’t come into Leone’s film until about the twenty-minute mark.  But when it does it makes quite an entrance.

Frank and his gang have just slaughtered the McBain family. The only survivor is a red-headed boy who comes running out of the house after hearing gunshots. As he comes into a close-up, Bruno Battisti D’Amario’s guitar starts blasting through the theater speakers. The sound is loud and distorted, cutting through the silence like an axe through a chicken’s neck.

In his instructions to D’Amario, Morricone insisted that the theme was meant to “wound the audience’s ears like a blade” the first time we hear it. As a coup de théâtre, it is brutally effective. I’ve seen it more than twenty times, and the moment never fails to give me chills. Here we see Morricone experimenting with the timbre of the guitar by heightening the effects of high volume and high voltage to overdrive the power valves of the amplifier. The effect was such that some critics even described Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West as a sort of “post-Hendrix” rock. The comparison was undoubtedly flattering. No musician had done more to explore the timbral possibilities of the electric guitar than Jimi Hendrix.

Morricone experimented in other ways that seemed to merge elements of avant-garde classical music with more vernacular forms. Consider his “Harmonica” motif in Once Upon a Time in the West alongside Henry Mancini’s main title for Wait Until Dark, which was released about a year before Leone’s epic. Both film scores explore microtonal effects, albeit in quite different ways.


In Mancini’s case, he asked the studio to give him two pianos that were tuned a quarter tone apart.  He then asked his two performers to play the chords of an accompaniment figure in rapid succession.

The dissonance produced through this effect is unlike any produced in atonal writing. There the composer deliberately emphasizes intervals that create a sense of disharmony, such as minor seconds, major sevenths, and tritones. Yet Mancini’s microtonal experiment does something else entirely. Our ears tell us we should be hearing the same chord, but the repetition on the detuned pianos sounds a bit off. Mancini’s score evokes a kind of dislocation well suited to Wait Until Dark’s generic trappings as a psychological thriller. The effects, though, were even more pronounced for the two pianists who played on the main title.  Pearl Kaufman and Jimmy Rowles both reported having to take frequent breaks during the recording sessions. The sort of “swimming” effect produced by the detuned pianos gave them a feeling of vertigo and nausea commonly found in motion sickness.

Morricone’s approach to microtonal harmonies proves to be much more elemental: the wavering sounds of two notes played on the harmonica, ostensibly a half step apart. Anyone who has played a harmonica knows it requires great breath control. Inhale and you make one pitch. Exhale and you make another. Beyond that, skilled performers can also bend pitch on a harmonica by changing their embouchure. Harmonica players can also use their hands as dampers, altering the sound in much the same way a wah-wah mute alters the tone of a trumpet.

All of these techniques give the harmonica player a number of means to bend pitch.  Morricone takes full advantage of them with the “Harmonica” motif in Once Upon a Time in the West.


Listening to this passage, one can hear how Franco De Gemini’s mouth harp straddles the fence between sounding bluesy and sounding strident. Morricone viewed the half-step relation in the motif as a key element in building musical tension since it is heard in the flashback that explains Harmonica’s life-long quest for revenge.  Yet De Gemini’s subtly wavering pitch seems to capture the full range of microinterval variants that fall between the D# and E that comprise the last two notes of the motif.

Both composers’ explorations of microtonal effects prove effective. But the precision of the quarter tone difference in Mancini’s detuned pianos gives the music a mechanistic quality that seems cold and brittle. By contrast, the harmonica’s fluid pitch-bending in Once Upon a Time in the West is looser, freer, more improvisatory – all of which fits the types of vernacular music played on harmonica.

This effect was enhanced by Morricone’s recording techniques. He first recorded the orchestra and then recorded De Gemini’s harmonic track individually. Although the latter recording was less precise, Morricone said that “the tension generated by the performance made his harmonica float over the orchestra. Now on the beat, then behind it, this time ahead….in short, it was almost as though it was fluctuating.”

Morricone’s compositional and recording techniques in Once Upon a Time in the West might seem less daring than Mancini’s more avant-garde experiment in Wait Until Dark. Yet Morricone’s music gains something in its more organic placement within Leone’s film. The harmonica’s wavering pitch is akin to the sorts of portamenti and string-bending frequently heard from saxophones, guitars, and basses in a multitude of rock and roll songs produced throughout the idiom’s history. And the harmonica as an object has long been a common feature of the Western’s iconography. In this way, Morricone’s experimentation is grounded in the dramatic, stylistic, and symbolic structures of Leone’s epic.

 

A horse of a different tone color

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).

Unquestionably, Morricone’s most audible innovations came through his approach to orchestration.  As nearly every obituary noted, his unusual combinations of instruments became a hallmark of the Morricone sound. In a summary of the signature elements found in the score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,  The Economist declared:

And then there is the freewheeling range of sounds with which he chose to make that music: the whistling, the yodeling, the gunfire and the squeaky ocarina, an ancient Italian wind instrument that looks like a sweet potato and is better known to a younger generation as the soundtrack of a Nintendo video game.

As I suggested above, Morricone was part of a cohort that moved outside the neo-Romantic style of film composition associated with the studio era. Unconventional orchestrations were an important part of that push.

Several factors provided impetus for this change. One was the embrace of jazz and pop styles. Incorporating those elements often meant writing for the instruments typically associated with those idioms. Mancini, John Barry, Frank De Vol, and Nelson Riddle all were prominent exponents of this approach during the 1960s. Indeed, many of Mancini’s orchestrations simply add strings to the usual forces of a jazz big band.

A second factor was the breakdown of the studio system in the 1950s. The majors’ retrenchment saw them making fewer films and reducing their overhead costs. They sold off parts of their backlots and leased their soundstages to independent producers or television crews. They also tried to shed labor costs, including those associated with maintaining an in-house orchestra.

This was bad news for musicians, who suddenly found themselves working in a gig economy as independent contractors. But it was good news for composers who now could write music for something other than a standard chamber orchestra. (During the Golden Age, studio bosses would sometimes chafe at the notion of hiring extra musicians, since they were already keeping as many as fifty regularly on call.)

With more flexible options when it came to musical labor, composers began to experiment with more unusual combinations. Whereas the typical studio orchestra employed one or two keyboardists, Bernard Herrmann arranged one cue in Journey to the Center of the Earth for nine organs. Three organists played electronic organs and one played a cathedral organ.

In many ways, Herrmann’s experiments with orchestration provide an interesting foil for Morricone’s own flights of fancy. For two of the scores Herrmann wrote for Alfred Hitchcock, he self-consciously limited his palette to the sounds of a single section of the orchestra. On Psycho, Herrmann wrote only for strings, claiming that the more monochrome sound was fitting for a black and white film. Yet, within that uniformity, Herrmann wrought an extraordinary range of subtle differences in timbre through the use of pizzicato, mutes, and unusual bowing techniques. The famous bird shrieks produced by the violins during the shower murder recall the avant-primitivism of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But Herrmann achieved this effect only with strings rather than a full orchestra.

Herrmann did something similar in his unused score for Torn Curtain, which was written for sixteen French horns, nine trombones, two tubas, twelve flutes, two sets of timpani, eight cellos, and eight basses. For Torn Curtain, Herrmann’s restriction of his palette was inspired by the setting rather than the cinematography. By emphasizing the low brass and lower-pitched strings, the composer sought to find a sonic equivalent to the drab cheerlessness of life behind the Iron Curtain. Alas, Hitchcock rejected the score under pressure from Universal to produce a saleable music tie-in. The studio wanted something like the Beatles. What they got from Herrmann was more like John Philip Sousa on an acid trip.

If Herrmann’s orchestrations were the musical equivalent of a Mark Rothko painting, exploring a range of subtle shadings within a single color, Morricone’s were closer to the collage principles of Robert Rauschenberg. Just as Rauschenberg’s work juxtaposed unconventional materials and objects within a single canvas, Morricone enjoyed the wild, discordant collisions that could come by combining oddball instruments with one another. The composer is often described as a postmodernist because of his “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to orchestration. No doubt this is one of the reasons his work was so appealing to “downtown” musical avant-gardists like John Zorn.

Consider, for example, the way Morricone uses vocal textures throughout his score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It features Edda Dell’Orso’s gorgeous soprano, natch.  But it also features a variety of other vocal sounds, some of which border on the “unmusical.” These include the famous “coyote incipit” that has become something of a meme for the spaghetti Western more generally.

There are also plenty of other chants, grunts, and yelps that add their flavors to the musical stew.  Morricone even had his singers vocalize through various trumpet mutes to produce the “wah-wah-wah” that is a motivic counterpart to the coyote incipit.

Morricone also made marvelous use of library effects to incorporate the sonic iconography of the Western into his score. We hear gunfire, whipcracks, and ricocheting bullets as elements of rhythmic punctuation throughout the music of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Since cowboy yells and whipcracks both appear in the opening theme of Rawhide, perhaps both of these tactics are a sly reference to star Clint Eastwood’s television career.) Even these audacious touches are supplemented by simple, but effective solutions to musical problems. In need of a rhythmic pulse underneath the melody, Morricone coaxed Bruno D’Amario to tap the pickup on his electric guitar.

All of this suggests something very Cagean in Morricone’s approach to orchestration. It is though he took the idea of Cage’s “prepared piano” in which different objects could be laid on the strings of piano’s soundboard, and applied it to the full orchestra.

 

What is the sound of one wing flapping?

The Mission (1986).

Although Morricone’s spaghetti Western scores displayed his boldest experiments in orchestration, his interest in unusual sonorities continued throughout his career.  Some choices are a bit more conventional than others. But they always strike me as inherently right. The oboe seems like a fairly idiosyncratic instrument for an 18th-century Jesuit missionary. Surprisingly, though, its melancholic yet dulcet melismas are a perfect complement to the big sound of The Mission’s double chorus, the latter itself inspired by the luminous sacred music of Palestrina.

Or think of Morricone’s use of the panpipe.  He seems attracted to its airy timbre, using it in several scores throughout his career.  Yet, comparing its appearance in both Once Upon a Time in America and Casualties of War shows that the panpipe’s sound resists any easy associations. In Leone’s gangster epic, the panpipe is introduced in “Cockeye’s Theme” in a scene where Noodles buys a one-way ticket to Buffalo. After completing his purchase, his attention is drawn to a large poster encouraging tourists to visit Coney Island. The music suggests Noodles’ memories of childhood and his grief after hearing the news that his three childhood friends all died in a battle with federal agents.

It comes back, though, at the moment when Dominic is killed by Bugsy, a rival gang member. As Morricone noted, Leone identified this scene “as a definite point of no return in the story, the watershed marking the end of youth.”

In contrast, for De Palma’s combat film, Morricone used two panpipes in the theme he wrote for the young Vietnamese woman who is abducted, raped, and killed by US soldiers. Here the motivation was something that struck Morricone in the staging of her death.

She buckles her legs like a dying bird, before tumbling down from the high ground.  I imagined a theme based on just a few notes for two panpipes, which by ping-ponging their sound, evoke the slowing fluttering of a bird’s wings shortly before death.

At first blush, Morricone’s description of the scene sounds like “Mickey-Mousing” where the music accents a character’s actions, movements, or gestures.  But what Morricone actually gives us turns out to be much more sophisticated. A classical Hollywood composer like Max Steiner might have caught the girl’s collapse through a downward glissando or a rapid, descending scale run.  Instead Morricone gives us a different musical gesture – the alternation of two notes on the panpipe – to suggest an action not visible onscreen: a dying bird’s fluttering wings.


As is evident in the clip, we hear the two panpipes play over the image of the young woman’s broken body. Yet Morricone associatively links it to the birdlike movement seen about a minute earlier: the buckling of her knees as she falls.

A moment such as this one nicely captures Morricone’s gift for storytelling. Many of Morricone’s fans treat his scores as absolute music, often listening to them repeatedly without ever watching the films they accompany. But Morricone also had a gift for translating a film’s larger themes and meanings into musical forms.

Morricone achieved fame for his beautiful melodies, rich harmonies, and surprising orchestrations.  None of that would be very meaningful, though, if these elements weren’t firmly rooted in the composer’s extraordinary dramatic sense.

 

The greatest?

The Hateful Eight (2015).

At the end of Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, Alessandro De Rosa asks the composer if there was a specific moment when he realized he’d become one of the greatest, most influential composers of the century. Morricone gets flustered by the question, claiming such judgments are premature. In music, it takes hundreds of years to determine whether one’s work endures. He then adds a polite, but banal conclusion, saying it is wonderful to be appreciated and even better to have one’s music reach so many people.

Still disarmed by the question, Morricone continues hesitatingly:

The greatest of the century?  It is difficult to reply….Oh dear…. where did you hear this?

De Rosa responds, “It was just to provoke your vanity…”  Acknowledging the trap set before him, Morricone smiles and replies, “You don’t say….I figured!”

Morricone’s humility might be a tacit recognition that he’s had the great fortune to write music for the movies–one of the greatest engines for pleasure that the world has ever seen. A great film surely benefits from a great score. Yet it can seem that the composer is just along for the ride.

Still, Morricone understood that his music was often better than the films it accompanied. As he well knew, fortune gives with one hand and takes with the other. Morricone wrote music for masterpieces like Days of Heaven. He also worked on schlockfests like The Exorcist II: The Heretic.

Perhaps more than other craft positions, the lot of a film composer can seem unique. Music exists as its own formal system. But film scores are always written in the service of something else and judged accordingly. Directors often hope in vain that a composer can salvage a bad scene. Yet composers themselves will say they’re not miracle workers. And even when the score can stand on its own, some pugnacious critic will ask, “Should it?”

When I was doing the initial research for my dissertation during the early nineties, I recall some film music critics dividing the field into craft workers and stylists. The paradigm case for the former was a composer like Jerry Goldsmith, who subordinated his personality to the dramatic requirements of the work.  Goldsmith could write a bittersweet jazz melody for Chinatown, a stirring horn call for the war epic Patton, cartoonish “Mickey-mousing” for the comic fantasy Gremlins, and outré dodecaphonic themes for sci-fi adventures like Planet of the Apes and Alien. Binge-watch all five films and it would seem hard to believe the music was all the work of a single person.

Stylists, on the other hand, were composers who had created such a distinctive sound that their music could not be mistaken for that of another. All three of the composers featured in my book seemed to fit that rubric – Henry Mancini, John Barry, and Ennio Morricone – a factor that likely contributed to the popularity of their scores in ancillary markets.

Looking back almost thirty years later, the label of stylist fits the work of Mancini and Barry quite well.  In fact, I have anecdotal proof of the latter in my first viewing of Michael Apted’s espionage thriller Enigma. Halfway through film, I wondered to myself who had written the score since it sounded a lot like John Barry.  Checking the poster afterward, my hunch was confirmed; it was John Barry!

For Morricone, though, the “stylist” label seems misapplied. At the time, this was due to the fact that he was so strongly associated with the spaghetti Western. He had written music for more than thirty films in the cycle and had come to define it in the public imagination. It is telling that the scores written for other spaghetti Westerns by Luis Bacalov or Riz Ortolani sound like Morricone facsimiles.

Identifying Morricone so closely with the spaghetti Western, though, ignores the inspired music he wrote for so many other genres: horror films, gangster films, thrillers, historical epics, political satires, and even the occasional romantic drama.

     

Take five Morricone classics not so randomly selected: Teorema, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Cinema Paradiso, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and The Hateful Eight. Could any other composer have written the notes that we hear?  Probably not. They all seem to bear the distinctive Morricone signature. Yet they are also so unlike one another that it seems unfair to suggest that he didn’t mold his sound to the specific needs of each film. For Morricone, we have to throw out the “either/or” implied by the rubric. He’s both a craft worker and a stylist.

 

If that seems like a copout on my part, it’s one I will happily embrace. For me, like many others evaluating Morricone’s legacy after his death, his music is both cerebral and visceral. It warms the heart and tickles the brain, sometimes simultaneously. And that seems rare for much 20th-century concert music, which even at its best, can feel quite cold and analytical.

Thirty years later, Morricone’s music still enthralls me in a way that’s unlike that of any other film composer, especially when the score is heard coming from the big screen. I’ve had the great pleasure of screening a 35mm print of The Untouchables the past two years. Hearing Morricone’s main title played back in Dolby Stereo with a proper subwoofer, I still get goosebumps. I even anticipate the massive bass drum hit that punctuates the rhythms played by brushes on the snare. If the stinging guitar chord that introduces Frank was intended to sound like a stab, that bass drum sound is the musical equivalent of a gut-punch.

Ciao, Maestro! You will be missed. Yet your music will live on, perhaps even for centuries. For my part, you’ve given me hundreds of joyful moments at the cinema and a lifetime of wonderful memories.


Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words can be found here. If you want to learn more about his music, this is a great place to start.  It includes reproductions of Morricone’s handwritten musical notation.  It also includes a thorough survey of both Morricone’s film scores and his concert works.

My review of Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words is here. A brief discussion of Morricone’s score for The Hateful Eight can be found in my 2016 Oscar preview. Incidentally, Tarantino used Bernard Herrmann’s rejected score for Torn Curtain for the excerpt from Rick Dalton’s action film The 14 Fists of McCluskey in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. The cue can be found here and the scene from Tarantino’s film is here.

My chapter on Morricone’s spaghetti Western scores can be found in The Sounds of Commerce.

Henry Mancini discusses his score for Wait Until Dark in his autobiography, Did They Mention the Music? Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho has been analyzed by several film music scholars.  Among the best is Fred Steiner’s “Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Black-and-White’ Music for Hitchcock’s Psycho,” anthologized in Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Notebook: A Complete Collection of the Quarterly Journal, 1974-1978.  Details of Herrmann’s orchestrations for his rejected score for Torn Curtain can be found in the liner notes of conductor Joel McNeely’s recording. They’ve been posted here.

The chess portrait above is by Riccardo Musacchio.

Morricone waits backstage at a 2010 concert of his work at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Photo by Roberto Musacchio.

 

David Bordwell
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