1960 Film Scores: American Films

After ten articles summarizing jazz music created in 1960, we turn our focus to another genre of music that had many peaks in 1960. Great film scores were written to films produced on both sides of the Atlantic that year by some of the top composers for motion pictures. Due to the amount of wonderful film scores in that productive year, we need two articles to review them all. We begin with American films, and what better way to start than taking a close look at the winners of the Academy Awards.

In 1960 the category for what is simply titled today “Best Original Score” was called “Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture”. That year the winner and four nominees truly represented some of the best film composers of the time, all writing scores for timeless movies. And the winner was… Exodus – Ernest Gold.

In 1958 United Artists and director Otto Preminger purchased the rights to the Leon Uris novel Exodus a few months before it was published. The novel was an immediate success, remaining on the best-seller list for eighty weeks. It told in a dramatic fashion the story of the founding of the State of Israel following the Jewish Holocaust.

Preminger was well aware of the importance of a music score to the success of a movie. In 1959 he directed two movies that featured jazz music prominently, Porgy and Bess and Anatomy of a Murder. This time he enlisted Ernest Gold, who collaborated many times with another Hollywood great, Stanley Kramer.

Gold was born in Vienna to a Jewish family and attended the Viennese Akademie für Musik. His family migrated to the US following the Anschluss of Austria. He spent ten years composing music for B-movies before being asked by Stanley Kramer to orchestrate the film “Not as a Stranger” in 1955. In 1959 he created a wonderful score for the post-apocalyptic science fiction drama “On the Beach”.

Director Otto Preminger with Paul Newman on the set of “Exodus”, 1960

Gold joined Otto Preminger for much of the filming process, shot in various locations in Israel. He started composing the music while on location, incorporating many ethnic middle-eastern instruments to the score. Most of these instruments were dropped in the final recording, probably due to pressure by the studio to appeal to western ears.

Gold wrote one hour of music that is played during the three and a half hours of the epic movie. The iconic musical theme of the movie, which has since then been performed numerous time by a wide range artists, was used in various arrangements throughout the film. Gold conducted the Sinfonia of London Orchestra during the recording session.

In the book Scoring the Screen: The Secret Language of Film Music, Andy Hill writes about the Exodus score: “Gold is trying to evoke not the Israel of 1948, but an eternal Israel, as much one of biblical myth as biblical history. One that stands firm against all foes and bends only to the will of God.”

After accepting the Oscar from newly married couple Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin, Ernest Gold gave this short humble speech, thanking a friend who worked behind the scenes in the Hollywood music business: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a very great honor indeed and it is customary at this time to thank the many people that have contributed to such an achievement. But I would like to thank one man who, paradoxically, had nothing to do with ‘Exodus,’ but had very much to do with me being here tonight. A man who has cheered me on, who has restored my confidence when it was waning, and has been a great friend: our music supervisor, Mr. Bobby Helfer.”

Ernest Gold also won the GRAMMY for Song of the Year and Best Soundtrack of the Year. It is the only instrumental song ever to receive that award.

Ernest Gold, Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee at the 33rd Academy Awards

We move from one epic movie to another and come to a heroic battle that took place in Texas in 1836. John Wayne had a dream of making a film about the battle of the Alamo since 1945. Ten years later he almost realized that dream, but conflicts over budget with Republic Pictures resulted in him aborting the project. He then signed with United Artists, assuming full control as producer, director and a co-star in a monumental production of a movie about that battle. And who better to score an epic film full of Americana and western themes than Dimitri Tiomkin?

Dimitri Tiomkin (right) with John Wayne

Like Ernest Gold, Dimitri Tiomkin was born and educated in Eastern Europe. After studying at the Conservatoire in St. Petersburg, he moved to Hollywood in 1929. A perfect time with the onset of sound films that drove a constant need for dramatic musical scores ala the great classical composers. Tiomkin created the blueprint for dense orchestral soundtracks to accompany a Western. Films such as High Noon, Red River, Duel in the Sun, Gunfight at O.K. Corral and Rio Bravo all had his trademark symphonic composition style. Tiomkin found parallels between the Western and his country of origin: “The problems of the cowboy and the Cossack are very similar. They share a love of nature and a love of animals. Their courage and their philosophical attitudes are similar, and the steppes of Russia are much like the prairies of America.”

Tiomkin was the first Hollywood composer to write both a title song and a full score for a film. In 1952 he wrote the song “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” for the film High Noon, for which he won Oscars for the film score and the song. In 1957 he followed with another classic song, “Wild is the Wind”, the theme song from the movie of the same name. He continued this trend on The Alamo, writing the memorable tune “The Green Leaves of Summer” sung by The Brothers Four. The song and the complete magnificent score for the movie were both nominated for Oscars.

We come to another Hollywood epic, this one transferring us still farther back in time to ancient Rome. In 1951 Howard Fast published the novel Spartacus about the leader of a slave revolt against the Roman Empire. Kirk Douglass, who was passed on for the leading role in Be Hur in favor of Charlton Heston, found it a perfect alternative role as a challenger of the great empire. He enlisted director Stanley Kubrik, who directed four feature films by then, with a cast of over 10,000 and a budget of six million dollars. At the time, this was the most expensive film ever made in America.

Spartacus is a story of strong characters, a perfect fit for composer Alex North who demonstrated his ability to write music for exceptional characters in films such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Death of a Salesman (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952) and Les Misérables (1952). Noting that aspect of the film North said: “It’s a story of tremendous scope, but after all, when you have characters portrayed by Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis, the personal conflict must be predominant.”

North joined the movie production early on, providing musical cues to various scenes. He described the process: “The temp music was done to a click track. Metronomic tempo – so that when it was re-written to the final cut, it was mathematically accurate.”

The parallels drawn in Dalton Trumbo’s script between ancient Rome and the political atmosphere of the late 1950s in America were not lost on Alex North. Trumbo was famously one of the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted during the McCarthy era. North: “The story itself makes a comment. It has something to say about the world that existed then and which still exists. I decided to conjure the feeling of pre-Christian Rome in terms of my own contemporary, modern style – simply because the theme of Spartacus, the struggle for freedom and human dignity, is every bit as relevant in today’s world as it was then.”

Alex North

North’s soundtrack is an epic within the visual epic. It lasts over two hours, and about half of it is heard when there is very little or no dialog on the screen. North compared the effort to writing two full symphonies. It was the most demanding score he ever wrote: “More sweat and blood went into this score, and more pages were thrown away, than any other score I’ve done.”

The score includes one of the most moving pieces of music in film history, the Spartacus love theme. It was recorded numerous times by artists as diverse as Bill Evans, Yusef Lateef, Mark Isham, Carlos Santana and many others. Kirk Douglas summarized it well: “Alex North’s score is a beautiful score. It’s one of the most brilliant scores ever written. The love theme is so touching. It’s a beautiful piece of music and I think that Alex thinks of it as probably the best thing he‘s ever done.”

As with the previous three films in this review, the next is also an adaptation of a novel, this time by one of my favorite authors – Sinclair Lewis. In 1927 Lewis published a controversial book about religion and moral, or more accurately the lack of. Elmer Gantry told the story of an evangelist whose favorite pastime activities are booze and women. Needless to say the book caused an uproar in puritan America and was banned in Boston and other cities. Director Richard Brooks had to wait several years after he bought the option to adapt the novel to the big screen before a studio felt comfortable enough with the idea.

Like many other Hollywood composers, André Previn was born in Germany and came to the United States when his family escaped the Nazi regime. He started working in the film studios while still in high school and quickly moved up the ranks. He recalled: “Luckily or unluckily I was very successful. Of course, it helped me to develop a very fast rehearsal technique and gave me a secure knowledge of instruments.” In the 1950s he had parallel careers in film scoring and as a pianist of jazz recordings.

André Previn

Previn’s score for Elmer Gantry combines his classical and jazz interests, using orchestral arrangements for the religious themes while adding Dixieland in bordello sequences to create an atmosphere of sin.

One of the score’s highest achievements is the opening titles music, establishing a feeling of unease by using dissonant harmony and rapid call and response technique between horns and strings. The score remained one of Previn’s favorites among the many films he worked on, as he stated: “I was associated with 50 films, writing 35 original scores and arranging another 15 or so. I suppose the ones I remember most happily are Elmer Gantry, Two for the See-saw, Irma La Douce and Bad Day at Black Rock”.

The final nominee for “Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture” Academy Award in 1960 was perhaps the one that contributed the most memorable movie theme. Not many films rival the popularity of the exuberant and energetic music that Elmer Bernstein wrote for The Magnificent Seven. The American adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai transported the action to a Mexican village. Terrorized by Calvera and his gang, the villagers seek help from a group of seven outcasts who are quite handy with hand guns. Directed by John Sturges, who previously brought us excellent Westerns including Bad Day at Black Rock and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the film stars included Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Elmer Bernstein was not new to action or epic movies, having composed scores for The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955 and The Ten Commandments in 1956, but he turned it up a notch or two on The Magnificent Seven. He later recalled that, “The movie was shot in a kind of leisurely fashion and I wanted to muscle it up a little. If you watch the movie you’ll notice that the tempos are always faster than what’s actually going on onscreen.”

Elmer Bernstein with director John Sturges (right) during the recording session for The Great Escape, 1962

Bernstein developed a fantastic working relationship with Sturges, one that continued on to later movies such as The Great Escape in 1963 and Hallelujah Trail in 1965. He said of that collaboration: “John would never talk about music. We would sit in his office and he would tell me the story of the picture. He was a great storyteller, and the effect was really quite hypnotic. Once you were finished speaking with him you knew exactly what to do.”

Summarizing his passion of writing music scores for movies of the Wild West, Elmer Bernstein said: “I really loved the Westerns. They were fun to do, because they addressed themselves to a particular kind of Americana which started with Aaron Copland. Also, in my early years, I spent a lot of time with American folk music. It was like discovering a magic world. I think a lot of that stuck with me; it was part of my musical heritage.”

We come to a film score that was not nominated for an Academy Award in 1960, but is my favorite of all the fantastic scores in this review. By that year Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann have collaborated on some of the director’s best films including The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and North by Northwest. However as critical as the film score was to each of these films, none benefited from Herrmann’s music as Psycho. Faced with a tight budget, Hermann opted to use only strings for this score, but the limitation produced one of the most innovative and recognized scores in all of cinema. In a 1971 interview Herrmann said that he used only strings because he felt he could complement the black-and-white photography by creating black-and-white sound.

The mood of the entire film is set right from the beginning with the opening titles. In stark contrast to the common use of strings mostly for romantic scenes, the tone here is dark, brooding, and keeps you at the edge of your seat throughout the film. The titles music, named “Prelude”, works hand in hand with interlocking lines of the opening sequence, created by graphic designer Saul Bass.

Herrmann said of the opening titles: “The real function of a main title should be to set the pulse of what is going to follow. I wrote the main title to Psycho before Saul Bass did the animation. They animated to the music.  The drama starts with the titles. After the main titles you know that something terrible is going to happen.”

Notice the significant placement of Bernard Herrmann’s name in the credits sequence just before Alfred Hitchcock as director, a seldom spot for a film score credit.

The film was shot before the music was composed and was almost dropped by its director. Hermann remembers: “Hitchcock felt it didn’t come off. He wanted to cut it down to an hour television show and get rid of it. I had an idea of what one could do with the film, so I said, ‘Why don’t you go away for your Christmas holidays, and when you come back we’ll record the score and see what you think.”

The restrictions imposed on Herrmann due to his choice of a strings-only ensemble were significant, especially when it comes to this genre of a film. Composer and musicologist Fred Steiner: “Herrmann’s selection of a string orchestra deprived him of many tried and true musical formulas and effects which, until that time, had been considered essential for suspense-horror films: cymbal rolls, timpani throbs, muted horn stings, shrieking clarinets, ominous trombones, and dozens of other staples in Hollywood bag of chilly, scary musical tricks.” Indeed, throughout the film the strings play with a muting device placed on the bridge, creating a darker and more intense effect. All but one scene, that is. You probably guessed what scene we are talking about, for it is one of the most iconic scenes in the history of films, and thousands of film scoring students analyze it as essential part of their studies.

Alfred Hitchcock with Bernard Herrmann

Had it been left to Hitchcok’s initial instructions, that scene could have been long forgotten. When Herrmann proposed to write the music, Hitchcok answered: “‘Well, do what you like, but only one thing I ask of you: please write nothing for the murder in the shower. That must be without music.”

Hitchcock knew this was a key scene in the movie. He preferred to keep it silent, thinking that Janet Leigh’s screams alone will create the chilling effect he was after. The camera work and editing on that scene is fantastic, using montage to avoid crossing the nudity code in Hollywood at the time. The shock effect of that scene was unparalleled, not only because of the extreme cold violence but because Hitchcock eliminated the leading lady role a third way through the movie. And then there is the music with the stubbing violins. Herrmann talked about that scene: “Many people have inquired how I achieved the sound effects behind the murder scene. ‘Violins did it! It’s just the strings doing something every violinist does all day long when he tunes up. The effect is as common as rocks.”

From a low-budget Hollywood movie to the master of low-budget films. During the 4-year span between the years 1955-1958 Roger Corman directed and/or produced 28 films. That is an average of 7 films a year. Corman mastered the art of producing a film very fast and very cheap, with budgets rarely topping $50,000 a film. In 1960 he released 5 films, 4 of them as director.

One of the films started with the idea of cannibalism, which for obvious reasons was quickly tamed to a man-eating plant. Borrowing many ideas from a film he produced the year before called “A Bucket of Blood”, the story takes place in a single location. By Borrowing I mean he actually borrowed unused parts of the set to cut costs, proceeding to shoot the whole film in a few days. He shot with two cameras simultaneously to get more coverage in less time and paid the lead actor $400. The total spend was $30,000, resulting with the classic cult movie “The Little Shop of Horrors”.

The music score was written by Fred Katz, one of the earliest musicians to focus on the cello as a solo instrument in jazz. Best known as a member of drummer Chico Hamilton’s quintet, a group that was thriving in the 1950s West Coast chamber jazz scene, he started composing music for film in the late 1950s. Corman first called on him to score the music for “A Bucket of Blood” and continued to work with him on “The Wasp Woman”, “Ski Troop Attack” and “Battle of Blood Island” (I love those titles). Katz talked about the music for The Little Shop of Horrors: “The music was taken out of soundtracks I had written for Corman and pieced together by a music editor, so even though my name is on the credits I didn’t actually write music for that particular film – but it is my music.”

Fred Katz

This is a fantastic score, incorporating jazz, chamber music, horn arrangements and classical avant-garde. For innovative musicians low-budget films provided opportunities. Katz: “In some of the so-called low-budget films, some of the most experimental and avant-garde music came out of them because they figured, ‘what the hell, you’ve got nothing to lose, let’s try something different.’”

A curious fact in the collaboration between Corman and Katz is that the composer did not enjoy the end result, as he confessed: “Everybody seems to like The Little Shop of Horrors, but I hated it. I hated every picture that Corman did, but you’ve got to be a professional about this. This is what you have to work on, and you do it to the best of your ability.” Indeed.

One more Roger Corman film in 1960 started a great run of films based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. House of Usher is based on the short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”, first published in 1839. On this series Corman collaborated with composer Les Baxter, who scored a number of films for American International, the production company Corman worked with. Baxter is best known for the multitude of albums in the exotica genre he released in the 1950s, including the classic “Quiet Village” in 1951. Working for American International made Baxter a perfect match for Corman’s low-budget projects. Baxter: “We did the actual recording of each score in 4 to 6 hours. The major studios were taking weeks to record, some of my friends were taking all day to do a main title, but of course I would finish an entire score in half a day.”

Like Fred Katz who scored The Little Shop of Horrors, Baxter was on his own writing the music, with very little interaction between him and the director: “Roger Corman never took any interest in the music, never attended a recording session. I think he was more of a businessman than anything else. Roger and I were hired separately and we worked separately.” However fast and intense the score-writing process was, Baxter found it rewarding: “I would score it quickly while he went on to the next one. Even so, I do like to feel that I take a serious interest in every work I do, even though pictures I’ve done were quickie pictures. Every note that I write I’m very serious about. I feel that it represents me and it’s an original composition. So I took every movie no matter how small very seriously and tried to write a very good and original musical work.”

Les Baxter

Baxter wrote about 100 film scores during his productive career, and when asked about his favorites he mentioned a few, including this comment: “I think House of Usher has some certainly innovative sounds for a motion picture score.”

We close this review with one of my favorite combinations of visuals and music, a classic heist movie accompanied by great big band jazz arrangements. At the end of the 1950s the Rat Pack, led by Frank Sinatra, were at the height of their popularity. Their constant presence in Las Vegas made the locale a perfect setting for a film about simultaneous robbery of five casinos. It was only natural for Sinatra to hire Nelson Riddle to compose and arrange the film score for Ocean’s 11. Riddle worked closely with Ole ‘Blue Eyes since the mid-1950s and was responsible for the fantastic arrangements on classic Sinatra albums including “In the Wee Small Hours”, “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!”, “Close To You”, “A Swingin’ Affair!” and “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely”.

Nelson Riddle with Frank Sinatra

Like other films reviewed here the opening sequence was designed by Saul Bass, and Nelson Riddle created the perfect music for it, starting with percussion instruments and xylophone to accent the eleven credits of the main characters. Throughout the movie you can hear his fine jazz arrangements of original material and well-known tunes such as Ee-O-Eleven and Auld Lang Syne (played in a different key for each of the five casinos being robbed).

Nelson Riddle continued to score movies featuring Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack in the early 1960, none of them as memorable as Ocean’s 11. He will be best remembered by the classic albums he arranged for jazz singers including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee and others.

Categories: A Year in Music

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3 replies »

  1. There’s also “The Apartment” of which the main theme was composed by Charles Williams but the majority of the feature film was scored by Adolph Deutsch.

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