A Train of Death

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The story is told, by Elmer Bernstein, that he once sent a tape of Sidney Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, figuring Richard Rodney Bennett’s score might appeal to the old guy. (Lumet says in his book Making Movies that this was the one film he made were he really wanted the audience to be aware of the score. Lush, romantic, exotic, period. The dubbing editor had laid an amazing bunch of tracks for the scene where the train starts its fatal journey with pistons and steam and even a TING as the light came on. Lumet threw them all out when he heard the score.

The score made the famously choleric Herrmann apoplectic with rage, “Did the composer not understand,” he asked, “that this was a Train Of Death?”

Bernstein’s point in relating this was that Herrmann, though a genius of film composition, was perhaps a little heavy at times and might take things over-literally. Lumet did not intend his all-star murder mystery to be doom-laden.

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I found myself using the expression “Did the composer not understand-?” while watching IT HAPPENED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT, a skillfully made Swiss thriller scripted by Friedrich Durrenmatt. FD later came to believe that the script he’d written was not plausible, and reshaped it as his novel The Pledge: An Elegy for the Detective Story.

In the movie, directed by Ladislao Vajda, a detective (Heinz Ruhmann, usually known for comedies) becomes convinced that the vagrant who hanged himself after confessing to a child murder (Michel Simon) was not actually guilty, and sets out to catch the killer using a forensic profile and live bait.

In the film, this succeeds, but the novel reverses this by throwing in the randomness of real life — the killer never makes it to the trap that’s been set, and the detective goes to his grave never knowing for sure if he was right. It’s an amazing book.

One thing that lets the movie down, despite a strong cast and good noirish visuals, is the score, which is fine to listen to and good and dramatic, but did cause me to utter the time-honoured words “Did the composer not realize-?”

In this case, what’s missing is dramatic irony. The composer — OK, let’s name the poor man, Bruno Canfora, he may still be alive — does good bombast for moments of straight-up shock, but let’s the side down when a more subtle effect is called for.

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Little girl playing in woods.

Looks up and sees Gert Frobe. Gert fucking Frobe. Being a puppeteer magician dude. This is how he grooms kids before killing them.

At sight of Frobe, Canfora lets out a shocking scream, via his orchestra. In principle, it’s effective. It’s playing along with what we know about this perilous situation. But how much creepier to play along with the little girl’s understanding? A strange, mysterious and magical man has suddenly appeared in the forest, and wants to play with her. Treat it like Disney, maestro Canfora, and we will be truly creeped out.

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A similar but opposite blunder — the danger is known and the kid has been safely locked indoors. But she escapes, to go playing. Canfora accompanies her exit with gentle, whimsical playing music. Maybe he would have got away with this if he’d kept to the child’s emotions earlier, but now we expect music of terror. We know this kid is potentially skipping to her demise. You MIGHT, as I say, be able to play this lightly if you’d established a capacity for lightness. But the music doesn’t even bring us into the little girl’s world. It’s sentimental, parental music, that looks at a playing child from a distance and says “Aww.” If we’re not going to be in HER world, we need to be in our own, in which case the music should now be screaming a warning…

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18 Responses to “A Train of Death”

  1. It’s called “Mickey Mousing” — going for the most obvious musical effect.

  2. chris schneider Says:

    What you write reminds me of a scene in Lillian Ross’ PICTURE, her book about the filming of Huston’s RED BAD OF COURAGE (heartily recommended to all who don’t know it). Unfortunately I don’t have a copy at hand, so I’ll write what I think I remember.

    A scene is screened with elaborately “ironic” music commenting on the action. Brilliantly so? Well, not according to the Executive Type who claims that that’s not what audiences want, what they want is something that makes an obvious statement — and then underlines it. Which is the sort of music they wind up with.

    Reminds me of my firm belief that when decision-makers use the phrase “the audience” they’re *always* using it as a synonym for “I.”

  3. Yes, everyone thinks they’re the audience, or the best possible surrogate for the audience.

    Mickey Mousing specifically means following the timing of the physical action — Orson Welles complained that when Rita Hayworth jumps in the sea in Lady from Shanghai, the studio added “plunge” music more suited to Goofy falling off a cliff, rather than anything attuned to the EMOTION of the scene.

  4. Mr. Herrmann had a prickly personality, for sure. He also had superb musical instincts, and without his musical participation CITIZEN KANE and THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR and VERTIGO and PSYCHO and 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD would have been significantly different picturegoing experiences. I don’t know what he could have done with with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS —he once turned down a scoring job with the remark, “I can dress the corpse, but I can’t bring it back to life’— but I am willing to bet he wouldn’t have made it any worse.

  5. Yes. Bernstein’s theory was that Herrmann would have overwhelmed the film and made it too solemn. But it’s a slightly clodhopping affair in some respects anyway, and Ms. Christie’s tasteless borrowing of the Lindbergh baby case does suggest a certain darkness at the heart of the story.

    Bernstein theorizes that Herrmann would have overdone the dramatics — but is there a single instance of him ever doing that?

  6. Well, arguably Herrmann had the occasional moment where the music fit the theoretical emotion of a given scene but perhaps was too strong for what was actually filmed (Lucy Muir learning that the man she loves is already married comes to mind, as do a few moments in MARNIE). But on balance he elevated anything he worked on, no matter how strong the auteur. And on a lesser film like THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER, he supplied delightfully light music when it needed to be light— as was often the case in that particular picture. Another of his achievements in the this rather low budget movie was the way his contrasting “tiny” music for the Lilliputians and sombre “big” music for the Brobdingnagians allowed the introduction scene each very different “world” to be shot on the exact same stretch of Spanish beach.

  7. Speaking of trains. . .

  8. Odd musical thoughts:

    Mel Brooks kidded Herrman’s scores in “High Anxiety”: After landing in LA and being followed by heavily forbidding music, he says “What a suspenseful airport!” A little later a conversation in a car is punctuated with ominous chords. Reveal a busload of rehearing musicians cruising alongside them.

    Laurel and Hardy thrive with insanely perky themes behind them — often cheerfully disconnected with very deliberately paced action or a long Hardy camera look. One tends to miss those jazzy little tunes when they’re absent, or replaced with conventional scoring (as in the Fox films).

    The Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges usually had no music at all under their actual comedy set pieces. With the Marxes it seemed to reinforce the feeling of stage comics ad libbing. With the Stooges it had the opposite effect, making their violence nightmarish and surreal. Paradoxically, Stooges with scoring would make the violence more realistic.

    The DVD of Lloyd’s “Girl Crazy” offered two scores. A piano score “Mickey Mouses” individual gags and reactions, and the whole film feels like a flat-out comedy with a touch of romance. A full orchestral score, highlighting an appealing waltz, makes it play like a light romance with a lot of gags.

    When TCM presented “The Red Mill” with an original score, the composer seemed to get that this was a Marion Davies comedy vehicle (early on she falls through ice and comes up looking like a snow woman). The climax has the villain trying to lock her up in an old mill. She escapes and he’s left whirling — a cartoony exit, but the sequence is scored as serious and dangerous.

  9. Pauline Kael remarked of OBSESSION that “the movie drowns in its score.” That’s the downside of Herrmann.

  10. If Kael was right — and I don’t think she was. That’s one of DePalma’s more likeable films (just a whiff of incest) and, though DePalma for me never achieves the “sweeping, Wagnerian romanticism” he claims is part of his vision, Herrmann ALWAYS does and that helps the film at least suggest where it’s aiming.

    I’ve noticed that with Harold Lloyd too — The Freshman with Carl Davis at the baton is quite emotional and dramatic… maybe too much?

  11. Herrmann had already done a great score for OBSESSION, when it was called VERTIGO.

  12. Yes indeed — but he managed not to repeat himself!

    Schrader’s original script took the story forward another twenty years, which would have possibly led it further from the Hitch original, or maybe it would just have protracted it bizarrely?

  13. Lloyd’s own 1960s release of “The Freshman” featured this score by Walter Scarf, which played up the romance and sentiment:

    Kerr’s “Silent Clowns” calls Lloyd the Architect of Pity. Most comedians do a scene of disgrace and/or heartbreak to give them something to bounce back from, as perfunctory as a heroine who’s there to be won. In “The Freshman” Lloyd goes whole hog: It’s ALL about the coming humiliation. “Girl Shy” touches on it, with pitiful Harold driving away the girl he’s not worthy of. Chaplin and even Keaton could shamelessly pluck those strings, but more often to provide a plot engine.

  14. Yes, and Kerr brilliantly diagnoses this as Lloyd compensating for the fact that, unlike Keaton and Chaplin, his personality is all sunshine. C & K “carried a shadow.”

  15. Don’t get me wrong, I love Herrmann, and I like the score for OBSESSION (better than the movie as a whole)—but Herrmann can be obtrusive, to the extent that, for instance, when I rediscovered THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD as an adolescent, and Herrmann set me on a ten-year exploration of classical music searching for things that sounded like Herrmann (the dividends paid by that quest continue on a daily basis), I was so gobsmacked by Herrmann’s score for the skeleton duel that I lost sight of the astonishing visuals.

  16. But that’s fine… it’s just called having an embarrassment of riches. It’s not that the score distracts or detracts, it’s just that you’re seeing and hearing something so wonderful in all its elements that you can’t take it in in one sitting.

  17. I’m happy I have at least a bit of Herrmann’s score for OBSESSION on disc. When I want a listen I don’t have to watch the film.

  18. Aww… but it has John Lithgow! And Genevieve Bujold is so cute.

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