I kept thinking I should be writing more about music here than the occasional mention, but I don’t have Tom Flynn’s gift for explicating entire albums, and of course it’s supposed to be film-related if possible. Not surprisingly, I figured I’d fall back on the old reliable list format, so here, without further ado, are my Top Ten Favorite Film Composers. The examples I give are not meant to represent each composer’s best work by popular consensus, or even necessarily good movies per se, but rather, in most cases, those whose music most resonated with me. I often used the criterion of whether I could hear the score in my head just by thinking of the title.
Some composers earned runner-up status for solid bodies of work that included multiple favorites: James Bernard (Horror of Dracula and its sequels, The Devil Rides Out), Danny Elfman (Batman, Planet of the Apes), Ron Goodwin (Where Eagles Dare, Battle of Britain, Frenzy), Maurice Jarre (Is Paris Burning?, The Year of Living Dangerously), Michel Legrand (Ice Station Zebra, The Three Musketeers), David Shire (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; Farewell, My Lovely), Howard Shore (Ed Wood, The Lord of the Rings), Vangelis (Blade Runner, The Bounty).
Others rated an honorable mention for a single score that stands out in my personal pantheon, whatever their other notable efforts (if any) may be: John Addison (A Bridge Too Far), Malcolm Arnold (The Bridge on the River Kwai), Peter Best (Crocodile Dundee), John Cacavas (Horror Express), Don Ellis (The French Connection), Anton Karas (The Third Man), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Alfred Newman (Gunga Din), David Raksin (Laura), Nino Rota (The Godfather), Popol Vuh (Nosferatu the Vampyre).
Ron Grainer deserves special mention for his TV theme songs (Dr. Who, The Prisoner), which in my book surpassed his work in features (e.g., The Omega Man). So, too, does Akira Ifukube, narrowly edged out at #11 for the musical motifs that added so much to Toho’s Godzilla and other kaiju eiga films. But for film scores that most consistently plucked my heartstrings, got my blood pumping, or occasionally both, the following can’t be beat. Once again, I’ve listed them alphabetically, because getting the list down to ten was playing favorites enough.
John Barry (b. 1933) would deserve a place on this list for his contributions to the James Bond series alone. Although it is credited solely to Monty Norman, various accounts suggest that Barry had a major hand in creating the Bond theme as we know it, and he wrote the complementary 007 theme used in many entries. Barry’s scores for all but the first of the early Bonds (From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever) were uniformly excellent. Add to those his more desultory work on the later Bonds, the world-weary theme for The Ipcress File, the heartbreaking beauty of Walkabout, the underwater atmosphere of The Deep, and the lush romanticism of Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time, and you’re talking about some real range here.
One of my wife’s favorite credits on any piece of filmed entertainment is “Scary music by Elmer Bernstein” (1922-2004) from the video of the late Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” That bespeaks the diversity of Bernstein’s career, encompassing more than a dozen Oscar nominations over almost fifty years, although perversely he won only for Thoroughly Modern Millie. He’d be here just for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, but when you throw films as wide-ranging as The Silencers, Gold, and Ghostbusters into the mix, plus his many other collaborations with John Landis (including Trading Places), well, ’nuff said.
In addition to his outstanding feature-film work, Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004) wrote the theme music for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and scored such Twilight Zone episodes as Matheson’s “The Invaders,” returning to work on the ill-fated movie version of the series. A true Renaissance man, he applied his chameleonic style to thrillers (Seven Days in May, Seconds, Breakheart Pass), war movies (In Harm’s Way, Von Ryan’s Express, Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora!), spy spoofs (Our Man Flint, In Like Flint), Westerns (Hour of the Gun, Bandolero!, 100 Rifles, Take a Hard Ride), SF (the original Planet of the Apes [plus Escape from…], Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Leviathan), film noir (Chinatown), and horror (his Oscar-winning The Omen, Gremlins). And damned if he didn’t excel at all of them.
Although he was nowhere near as prolific as most of the others listed here, I’d be willing to entertain the notion that Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was the greatest film composer of all, making it utterly appropriate that his first credit was Citizen Kane. Certainly his work with Alfred Hitchcock ranks among the great director/composer collaborations, most notably on Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. But let us not forget his hypnotic The Day the Earth Stood Still, his foursome for stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen (including my favorite, Mysterious Island), his splendid Journey to the Center of the Earth, his quirky Fahrenheit 451, or…you get the idea. And, like Goldsmith, he scored one of Matheson’s Twilight Zone episodes, “Little Girl Lost.”
Henry Mancini (1924-1994) was best known for his decades-long collaboration with Blake Edwards, which produced his immortal themes for The Pink Panther and the series Peter Gunn (and, yes, okay, his Oscar-winning “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, if you insist). But those were just a drop in the bucket, since his work also graced everything from the dozens of films he worked on uncredited as a member of Universal’s music department during the 1950s (including several of Jack Arnold’s) to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, Stanley Donen’s Charade, and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce.
When it comes to director/composer collaborations, the one between Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone (b. 1928) is perhaps the most notable. It’s unthinkable to imagine any of Leone’s essential films without the perfect fusion of music and image in A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West; Duck, You Sucker; and Once Upon a Time in America. Tom will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe they reversed the usual process and had Morricone compose his major themes before shooting, so that Leone could play them on the set and get his actors in the mood. Fairly or unfairly, the results overshadow the hundreds of other scores he wrote for Mario Bava, Don Siegel, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Carpenter, Roland Joffé, et al. When I look back on the highlights of my life, hearing the Maestro conduct his own work at Radio City Music Hall will surely be among them, thanks to Tom.
Like Grainer, Goldsmith, and Mancini, Lalo Schifrin (b. 1932) created an immortal TV theme song, in his case for Mission: Impossible. Among his films are eight starring Clint Eastwood, e.g., Kelly’s Heroes—a Word-Man evergreen—and three of the five directed by Schifrin’s frequent collaborator, Don Siegel: Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled, and Dirty Harry, plus all of its sequels except The Enforcer. Other standouts include Murderers’ Row (featuring the only instrumental main-title theme in the Matt Helm tetralogy), The Four Musketeers, and The Fourth Protocol.
Written by Max Steiner (1888-1971), the score for RKO’s King Kong is considered a milestone in film music, and he also did an outstanding job on its companion piece, The Most Dangerous Game. Without taking anything away from those, it is for his work as a Warner Brothers mainstay in the 1940s that Steiner squeaked onto this list, since it was there and then that my favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart, did most of his best work. Steiner scored a whopping twenty-one Bogart films, and while not all of them were classics, they include three of the very best: Casablanca, The Big Sleep, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Among my other (non-Bogart) standbys are Arsenic and Old Lace and Mildred Pierce.
Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) also narrowly made it onto the list, partly because among his five features with Frank Capra (plus the “Why We Fight” series and other World War II documentaries) is It’s a Wonderful Life. But then there’s his work with Hitchcock (including Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder), and on SF (The Thing), and Westerns (High Noon, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), and wartime espionage thrillers (The Guns of Navarone, 36 Hours), and I guess it’s not hard to see how he slipped on.
In my book, the big dogs in the musical kennel of John Williams (b. 1932) are Jaws and Star Wars, but The Incredible Franchise Man also has Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark to his credit, along with the dozen-plus sequels to all four films. His relationships with blockbuster directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, each of which stretches back more than thirty years, are but the tip of the iceberg in a career also highlighted by the likes of The Fury and especially the riveting score for John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday.
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