Today is my 60th birthday and it has been a hard year so I decided to do something I enjoy:
THIEVES AFTER DARK Les Voleurs De La Nuit Diverse Morricone #51
This series is inspired by a controversy thread where someone posited the idea that besides THE MISSION and some Sergio Leone westerns Ennio Morricone hasn't written anything great. Rather than making my usual comment that most of Morricone's great scores are from Italy and trying to get Americans to listen to them is like getting them to see movies with subtitles, I decided to take another tact. Since I am at an age where I will only be able to make my case a finite number of times I decided to turn this into a series presenting each great score one at a time, sort of like recordman.
Well in the first 50 of this series I did my best to try to sell Morricone to many who maybe were not exposed to much of his output. And if I didn’t with those first 50 I never will. The results of that endeavor ended up more edifying to me than to possibly anyone else. I wasn’t surprised at the guy who says he listened to all 50 clips and found nothing of value at all. I wouldn’t want to live in his world and he mine so we agree. It was the fact that many who are Morricone fans either loved or hated his works for the practically opposite reasons I did. That was the revelation. We are all on solitary journeys. So when I go to the Hollywood Bowl with 18,000 people to watch John Williams, those are 18,000 individual reactions, we only overlap when we applaud. (Oh, by the way I’ve found more and more people don’t applaud anymore. It is something alien to them possibly conditioned by TV. Some of those looks on those who don’t almost say “You’ve got my money, I’m not gonna give you anything more.) So in this part of the series I’m exploring a lot of music people hate Morricone for, but rather than tell me you hate it ( I never hear why) just skip these scores.
So this series continues with what attracts ME to Morricone. After just attending talks with Danny Elfman, Thomas Newman, Mychael Danna and Clint Mansell recently it re-inforces why I love Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Elmer Bernstein and, yes, even Alexandre Desplat more than ever. They practically talk a different language. They are classically trained for one thing, which doesn’t automatically make a good composer but when you are, you are much more formidable. My composer for my films Mark Tschanz long ago showed me how composition is like math. And once you’ve mastered the equivalent of Quantum Physics in music you have an arsenal that can take you anywhere in the universe. That’s where these, my aforementioned kings, have taken me. They have taken me on a journey and we are both learning at the same time. Now you don’t need a need to be a Juilliard to create a heartfelt tune but if you ever wanted to hear something else that goes beyond those simple borders you need something more.
Here is Morricone from his coffeetable book:
Question: There can be no question that you have revolutionized the orchestration of film music. How did you succeed in combating the old conventions? For example, that very Hollywood emphasis on strings in a film score. There seems to be a “rhetoric of the violins” which you have always despised, and yet a lot of your film music is based on the timbre of the strings.
Morricone: Let’s be precise here: the rhetoric you refer to lies in above all in having the melody played by the strings. I consider that quite simply to be a spineless method of composing, going for the easy effect by aping the Romantic composers. I loathe strings playing in unison or in octaves, just as I do in all forms of “doubling” in orchestrations, with the different sections performing the same parts. My compositions play a lot on counterpoint: the strings intersect with each other, they form a dialogue. Sometimes they even blend together, but never in canonical cadences. I use unusual forms of delay: notes held from the previous chords to be resolved later, or perhaps not at all. The effect for the listener is one of surprise and displacement of expectations. You yourself, when discussing my writing for strings, have talked about “a play of shifting levels, with the harmony being moulded and modeled through clear, onward propulsion.” But that does not mean that sometimes,if the film requires it, I myself have not used strings melodically-for example, in Sam Fuller’s THIEVES AFTER DARK.
In other words Morricone tends to want to get the same effect the hard way, by doing it differently. But it is not because he cannot do it the easy way. In this second score for Sam Fuller, after the powerful WHITE DOG, he does do a love theme that hearkens back to his early days of METELLO and LA CALIFFA:
But this time he uses it differently, almost as a commentary on those early scores, sometimes verging on lampooning them. This love theme is used for only the romantic ideal. The music both characters love. (Similar to what Elmer Bernstein did with FAR FROM HEAVEN where he did a version of his early scoring that had an eerie perspective to it. The melodrama of Douglas Sirk turned upside down and Elmer reflects that in his slightly different tinge)
He does that but the main theme is more along the surprising and uneasy lines that Morricone talks about above. Just 3 notes labeled “Lancinant for Two”. In French lancinant means stabbing pain but in context of music it also means “impossible to get out of one’s head”. Both ideas are encapsulated here. The stabbing notes tell you it is not safe out there for the protagonists while the strings are sympathetic to the their plight. Simple but effective. It expresses the romance and uneasiness at the same time.
The story of THIEVES AFTER DARK is of two musicians that fall in love but are treated badly by the world and come to a bad end. The film is not Fuller’s best and I got the feeling it expressed Sam Fuller’s total bitterness about how his last decently done film, WHITE DOG, was buried by the studios based on rumors of racism implicit in the story. But one other thing comes across and that is, after the great job Morricone did with WHITE DOG, Fuller gave Morricone free reign on this score. Among the variety of delightful cuts in this score that represent different aspects of the film are the absurdity of “Three Fragments” and “A Fake(The Receiver)”; the intrigue of “Counterpoints” and “A Fake”; and the romance of “Unconscious Happiness” and the many reworkings of the love theme. Plus there are the convolutions he puts the main theme through including my favorite “Theme for Young Lovers” (where he goes through 3 styles in one cut) and the “Deadly Conclusion” which one reviewer called “the outer-space sound effects over Ennio Morricone’s score on the final scene.” I love when Morricone strides upon a number of musical worlds in a score.
Here he talks about the electronics:
Question: And electronic music in films? By now it has become an established tradition; you yourself use it every now and again. What are your thoughts on it?
Morricone: Let’s be clear. For years, the use of a synthesizer rather than an orchestra to play a traditional score has been an expedient many have resorted to, partly for reasons of cost. One of the first to do so was Maurice Jarre in Peter Weir’s WITNESS. But I do not consider this to be electronic music; it is an easy way of “being modern”. Walter Carlos’s electronic arrangements of Beethoven and Rossini for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE were an entirely a different matter; they involved a deliberate interaction of the contemporary and the classical, even if only at the level of timbre. I am in favor of the use of synthesizers when they involve exploration of new timbres that can be used together with those of the traditional orchestra. I myself have done this – for example, in THIEVES AFTER DARK or even in THE SECRET OF THE SAHARA. In each case, the “concealment” of electronic sounds within the orchestra adds substantially to the composer’s palette.
This thoughtful mix is my type of Morricone score.
As I had mentioned in a previous posting on this site, this is indeed an absolutely superb score by the Maestro. I do believe this is one example where the expanded release works much better as a listening experience than the original, not only due to the additional music but also due to the great sequencing.