The Great Silence: Mute Melody

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Writers: Mario Amendola, Bruno Corbucci, Sergio Corbucci, Vittoriano Petrilli

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli

Original title: Il grande silenzio

Italy/France 1968

105 mins

Two years after Django (1966), Sergio Corbucci returned to the Western with an even stranger, bleaker story about the uneasy compact between lawmen and bounty hunters. Up on the conductor’s podium this time was Bruno Nicolai and the name on the score was Ennio Morricone, the pair made famous for their work on Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, which had culminated in the same year Django was released. Corbucci was an old friend of Leone’s and shared his fondness for big zooms, bigger close-ups, and plenty of bright crimson, but the film is distinguished by its hazy, snowbound Utah setting, and its more explicitly radical politics (Corbucci was a communist, and apparently hated hippies).

Morricone likewise takes a different tack. Eschewing the soaring heroic melodies and pounding horse-hoof rhythms of the Leone films, the music looks forward to his horror soundtracks of the 1970s. The cascading pitched percussion and pealing guitar notes anticipate Florian Fricke’s music for Werner Herzog (especially Heart of Glass) while at other points atonal woodwind motifs align Morricone with modernist composers such as Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez.

Since the great violin concertos of the late classical era, the interplay between a solo string instrument and an orchestra has stood in for the conflict between the individual and society, and Morricone’s music here works in the same way. The film’s hero, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is a mute killer with a childhood vendetta against bounty hunters. He is known simply as ‘Silence’ because ‘wherever he goes, the silence of death follows’. Ironically, he is the only character in the film to have his own Wagnerian leitmotif. Upon each entrance, he is accompanied by a solo string instrument playing the interval of a fifth. When we see through his eyes and flash back to his childhood memory, the leap of a fifth is taken over by flutes, and as his father is killed before his eyes, the harmonisation turns gratingly discordant. A decade and a half after John Cage’s 4’33”, even silence has its own distinctive melody.

Robert Barry

Serie noire: Murder Goes Pop

Serie noire

Director: Alain Corneau

Writers: George Perec, Alain Corneau

Based on the novel A Hell of a Woman by: Jim Thompson

Cast: Patrick Dewaere, Andreas Katsulas, Myriam Boyer, Bernard Blier, Marie Trintignant

France 1979

111 mins

There is no non-diegetic sound in Série noire, and yet there is music almost constantly (especially in the first half). When Franck Poupart (Patrick Dewaere) isn’t singing in his car, or singing drunk with Tikides (Andreas Katsulas) in his flat, there is the radio. And the radio is like a character all of its own. In the very first scene, we see Franck alone with his car in La Zone, the wastelands beyond the city, dancing with the radio in his arms to Duke Ellington’s ‘Moonlight Fiesta’.

Alain Corneau transposes Jim Thompson’s harebrained tale of love, larceny and multiple personality disorder A Hell of a Woman to the Parisian banlieue. With the change in setting comes also a change of rhythm, from Thompson’s frantic hard-boiled Americana to the quickened pulse of late 70s urban France. Novelist George Perec’s dialogue, itself a kind of wild music composed of rapid-fire fragments of verlan and argot, is syncopated to the rhythms of French disco.

The film then becomes a kind of extended riff on Noel Coward’s thesis on the potency of cheap music, the songs acting sometimes in ironic counterpoint to the action – as in the use of Dalida’s Francophone Cockney knees-up ‘Le Lambeth Walk’ behind a tense scene in the office of Franck’s boss in which he airs his growing suspicions – at other times heightening the tragic pathos of the scene – Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’ as the young girl Mona (Marie Trintignant), prostituted by her aunt, strips for Franck.

Sometimes the choice of songs seems even to predict the action. As Franck fights with his wife, Jeanne (Myriam Boyer), in the bathroom we hear Sheila B Devotion’s ‘Kennedy Airport’, as if to suggest that Jeanne’s mind is already made up to leave – and that soon after she leaves she will start to think about returning (we hear the song one more time, later in the film, immediately before their relationship comes to a tragic end). But it is ‘Moonlight Fiesta’ that seems to represent the utopian element of the film. Both opening and closing the picture, it offers a glimmer of hope, the chance of escape, amidst the grim squalor of the banlieue.

Robert Barry

Reel Sounds: Ominous Silences – Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water

The story of Krzysztof Komeda provides a very good argument for US health reform. While in the States at the end of the 60s to compose the music for Rosemary’s Baby, the Polish jazz pianist sustained severe head injuries in a random accident. Lacking any health insurance, he was unable to get treatment and immediately put on a plane back to Poland. He died shortly afterwards without regaining consciousness. He had been one of Poland’s most celebrated jazz musicians, and the first to start a modern jazz group in Poland. His distinctive style was characterised by a mix of the cool school of Gerry Mulligan and the Modern Jazz Quartet, mixed with the bebop he’d witnessed at tiny jam sessions in a basement in Krakow. Under the influence of his years spent composing film scores, his 1965 album, ‘Astigmatic’, was noted for its unique approach to structure, and came to signal a whole new European influence on the development of jazz.

Markedly different from the Wagnerian approach of most Hollywood composers at the time, notably in the way it attaches leitmotifs to specific characters or themes and so on, Komeda’s music for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) acts more like punctuation, breaking up the tension of the dialogue scenes almost theatrically. But, as Steven Shaviro has commented, the most noteworthy thing about what he calls the ‘scansion’ of the soundtrack is its frequent recourse to silence. Tension is built up, not by the hysterical maximalism of Bernard Herrmann, but through gaps and absences. It is the horror of reading a crucial life-or-death document, partially blacked out by the censor’s pen. At what we might consider the dramatic climax of the film there are no swirling crescendos of discordant strings, no pounding brass or crashing cymbals, just a wandering bassline, circling, seemingly aimlessly, around some indistinct tonality, never quite resolving itself, or finding its home.

Robert Barry

Reel Sounds: Psycho Strings


Hitchcock once said that when the images of a film and its soundtrack are doing the same thing, one of them must be redundant. In the famous shower scene in Psycho, it is perhaps truer than ever. The superficial impression that image and music are simply ‘mickey mousing’ is a tribute to the effectiveness of the music. For all we see is a raised knife, a woman’s screaming face, blood around the plughole. The knife scarcely moves, and certainly never meets the flesh of Janet Leigh. It is Bernard Herrmann’s music that pierces the skin, plunges the blade and carries out the murder.

From 1-30 April the BFI will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho (1960) with an extended run of a new digital print and a season putting it in context – from cult classics Peeping Tom and Repulsion to traditional horror with screenings of Halloween and Deranged. More info on the BFI website.

By 1960 Herrmann was already an old hand, having started his own chamber orchestra at 20, before working for many years at the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles. The Psycho score was unusual for a horror film at that time in being only for strings, but this approach (with the addition of a little percussion) would provide the blueprint for many of James Bernard’s classic scores for Hammer Horror.

Heard in isolation from the picture, the prelude resembles at times the stringent sonorities of early Schoenberg only with added soaring, plaintive melody and machinic rhythms more akin to the work of Schoenberg’s student, Hans Eisler. Elsewhere, themes recall the sombre menace of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Snooping in Norman Bates’s bedroom, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) spies a copy of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on the record player, and Herrmann sneaks in a pastiche of the funeral march from the second movement.

Then there is the shower scene. Initially, Hitchcock wanted the scene to play just with sound effects and no music but Herrmann talked him round, creating in the process one of the most famous pieces of film music of all time. Working as a kind of expressionist intensification of Janet Leigh’s scream, it is the aural equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, and is culturally just as central. The reference to Eroica is apposite; just like Beethoven’s symphony, Herrmann’s score meant that things would never be the same again without sounding thoroughly old-fashioned.

Robert Barry

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