Musical scores have become so ingrained in our cinematic culture that we often notice when a film doesn’t have one. And it’s easy to take such tunes for granted; they form part of the fabric of a picture and – at their best – provide definition, as well as texture. In thinking about what makes a great score, I’ve considered both good flicks and mediocre ones, theorising that oftentimes, a great movie will be paired with great music … and vice-versa, as if director and composer are of the same mind. But that isn’t always the case. In the following list, I’ve selected a group of little-known scores that mostly (but not always) accompany excellent films; these pieces of music are favourites of mine and generally fall by the wayside when the subject of great compositions comes up. They shouldn’t, though, and I hope I can share my feelings why.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941): Bernard Herrmann
The great Herrmann composed this lively, spooky piece of Americana, which perfectly matches William Dieterle’s film of the classic Stephen Vincent Benet tale. Don’t let this country go to the devil? Not with music like this, we won’t.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946): Allan Gray
What a fantasy this is, and what a score by Gray, whose creepy, piano-centric music accentuates Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s story of a British RAF pilot whose missed death gives him a new chance at life. Check out the escalator-like stairway to heaven in this scene – absolutely surreal.
Odd Man Out (1947): William Alwyn
Mournful and moving, Alwyn’s composition brings an Irish-tinged score to Carol Reed’s terrific, little-seen film about a wounded IRA gunman on the lam. It’s one of the great pieces of movie music in history.
The Red Pony (1949): Aaron Copland
Copland does it again, this time for Lewis Milestone’s not-very-good adaptation of John Steinbeck’s story. But the great composer’s score is an all-American masterpiece, a glittering piece with a domestic sound and orchestral pyrotechnics reminiscent of works such as Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. A truly brilliant, unheralded score.
Pather Panchali (1955): Ravi Shankar
This is a famous film, yet Shankar’s haunting, evocative music often goes unnoticed in light of the masterful images that director Satyajit Ray put to celluloid. Folksy and nostalgic, the score is just right for this sad, realistic story of childhood and tragedy.
Cartouche (1962): Georges Delerue
With Delerue, you know what you’re getting: terrific compositions that are attuned to the movies’ contexts. And that’s exactly what happens here: a rousing, neoclassical score set to Philippe de Broca’s flawed but fun period film about the legendary brigand. An unsung piece of music.
Kwaidan (1964): Toru Takemitsu
Cracks, creaks, blips and other eerie sounds characterise the great Takemitsu’s avant-garde score to Masaki Kobayashi’s ghost-story masterwork, adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of folk tales. And it is a score – not just noise – composed, arranged and crafted by a master craftsman. Unforgettable stuff.
Far From the Madding Crowd (1967): Richard Rodney Bennett
John Schlesinger’s film adaptation of the titular Thomas Hardy novel has gone, in my opinion, unfairly unrecognised, and Bennett’s gorgeous score should also be acknowledged. Folksy melodies and mournful orchestration add lustre, making it one of the most evocative compositions in cinema.
Frenzy (1972): Ron Goodwin
Alfred Hitchcock’s menacing film is given a thoroughly appropriate score by Goodwin, whose composition is alternately threatening and stirring. It works very well with this oft-unheralded picture, the director’s last masterwork.
Watership Down (1978): Angela Morley
Who knew that a cartoon about rabbits could be so … well, upsetting? Well, it is, and Martin Rosen’s adaptation of the Richard Adams novel remains, in my view, the best adult-oriented cartoon ever made. Augmenting it is a stunningly beautiful score by Morley, whose incidental music captures the joy and terror the bunnies in this tale experience, as well as the often-frightening mythological context in which they live.
Time Bandits (1981): Mike Moran
An engaging Terry Gilliam fantasy film – his best – that is accompanied by a wonderful score from Moran using electronic and traditional orchestration. It’s just right and may get you humming, too.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988): Michael Kamen
It famously bombed at the box office, but Gilliam’s mostly enjoyable movie about the legendary tale-spinner has an exceptional neoclassical score by Kamen. His waltz for Venus and the Baron is one of the superbly orchestrated melodic highlights.