Monday, October 5, 2009

Underscoring by Miklos Rozsa

The website Chiaroscuro is a highly idiosyncratic collection of commentaries, critical quotes, stills, and posters for about 100 films. The site's owner is obviously a cinephile, and so one finds titles of films from American, European, and Asian traditions, including both famous (2001: A Space Odyssey) and not so well-known or early films of a variety of directors. (Caution, though: The site owner's own commentaries are usually in German.)

On the page for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), we find this critical comment embedded in a longer quotation from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's book Film Noir. An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (1992):

Miklós Rózsa wrote the music for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and it illustrates the conventional Hollywood leitmotif technique of film scoring. This technique associates a musical theme with each character, setting, or situation, thus heightening the dramatic flux and the audience’s unconscious understanding and expectation of the film’s story. It should be pointed out that the popular song "Strange Love" represents the sweetness of Toni and the happy ending, not the hardness of Martha. Rózsa over scores to the point that nonmusical moments in his films amount to negative emphasis. (267-268)

Much the same could be said of Rozsa's better known underscores for Double Indemnity and Spellbound. As an alternate to the two-film compare/contrast paper discussed in the first writing Interlude (HtM, 125) or in connection with the critical essays discussed in the second writing Interlude (HtM, 234), it might be a productive exercise for a student to compare Silver and Ward's evaluation with the glowing assessments of Christopher Palmer (who was Rozsa's assistant during the composer's last years), Royal Brown, Lawrence MacDonald, or Fred Karlin.

Palmer's book is The Composer in Hollywood (1990); the chapter on Rozsa is on 186-233 and starts with this sentence: "Miklos Rozsa is the complete professional, and without doubt one of the great musicians of our time." The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is mentioned on 189 and 201. Brown has an extended essay on Double Indemnity in Overtones and Undertones (1994), 120-133; see also his introductory comments at the bottom of 119. MacDonald has an essay on Spellbound in The Invisible Art of Film Music, 85-88; on the other hand, see his somewhat equivocal evaluation of Rozsa's music for films in the 1970s (270-272). Karlin also has a detailed analysis of Spellbound in Listening to Movies, ch. 6.