Tag Archives: film scoring

The Music of the Coen Brothers – Part III

This is the third installment in a three-part series. Read part one and part two.

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“You should change into a suit.”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous film won four of its eight Oscar nominations. They followed the most acclaimed – and bleakest – film of their career with a return to what they do better than anyone – a screwball black comedy based on an original story.

In fact, Burn After Reading (2008) was the first film based on an original story by Joel and Ethan Coen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Part of Burn After Reading’s genius is in casting the A-list ensemble as total idiots. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins all excel as earnest people with small, insignificant lives.

The film is a playful homage to the genre of Cold War spy movies.

Civilians Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand accidently find a copy of what they believe to be top-secret information belonging to a high level CIA agent. In fact, their find is merely the inconsequential memoirs of a disgruntled analyst with a drinking problem and an abusive, philandering, wife.

The characters are all idiots, on an idiotic mission. But they believe they are in real danger, involved in high-level espionage. Continue reading →

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The Music of the Coen Brothers – Part I

Screen-Shot-2014-10-22-at-12-20-47From their debut, Blood Simple, through their most recent release, Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as one of American cinema’s unique voices.

Their films reveal a host of influences, especially an inimitable fusing of the absurdist screwball comedy of Preston Sturges with the dark moral lessons of film noir. The films of the Coen Brothers – whether dark and violent or roariously silly – share many themes and aesthetic traits. The comedies have a philosophical moral undertone and the serious films are peppered with comedy.

The Jewish brothers from Minnesota are essentially co-auteurs (if such a word is allowed). They write, direct, produce and edit their films together. (Early credits assigning direction to Joel and production to Ethan were required by rigid guild rules. They edit their films under the alias Roderick Jaynes.)

Their films share a unique visual tapestry and a careful attention to sound and music, often working in tandem. The atmosphere of their stories is accentuated by a combination of original score and perfectly cultivated source music.

“Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.”

The brothers’ first film announced the arrival of a new cinematic voice. 1984’s Blood Simple, a low budget neo-noir, somehow contains the multitudes of their entire body of work to come. Continue reading →

Psycho! – Music and Manipulation in Hitchcock’s Great Comedy

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Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating.  I was directing the viewers.  You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock

[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann

It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.

Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.

I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.

What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly?  He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.

It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.

Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.

That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.

Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.

Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he Continue reading →