A Rage to Live

A Rage to Live (1965), an adaptation of John O’Hara’s 1949 novel, stars Suzanne Pleshette as Grace Caldwell, an affluent Pennsylvanian newspaper heiress and long-suffering nymphomaniac. When young Grace is raped by her brother’s friend, an animal instinct is triggered in her and she becomes addicted to casual sex with random partners. Her socialite mother (Carmen Matthews) is devastated by her behavior and suffers a fatal heart attack, for which Grace blames herself; as a result, Grace settles down on a farm and starts a family with Sidney Tate (Bradford Dillman), a decent real estate broker who forgives her for her past indiscretions. It is not long before Grace gives in to the advances of former acquaintance Roger Bannon (Ben Gazzara), a contractor Sidney hires to fix their barn. In addition to her ongoing affair with Bannon, Grace is propositioned by newspaper editor Jack Hollister (Peter Graves); she turns him down, humiliating him and leading his wife, Amy (Bethel Leslie), to believe he is in fact sleeping with her. The situation is further complicated when Grace attempts to end her relationship with the increasingly obsessive Roger, who goes on to kill himself in an alcohol-induced car crash. Sidney is crushed when he learns of Grace’s affair with Roger but he forgives her once more. When Amy turns up at the couple’s charity carnival and publicly denounces Grace for stealing her husband, Sidney finally abandons Grace, who is left weeping and ruined.

Unlike the similarly themed BUtterfield 8 (1960)—an adaptation of another O’Hara novel that earned Elizabeth Taylor a Best Actress Oscar—A Rage to Live was a critical flop after being shelved for a year prior to its release. Originally set prior to World War II, the story was updated to a contemporary 1960s time frame by screenwriter John T. Kelley, prompting the project’s first adaptor, Wendell Mayes, to decline a credit on the finished film. This alteration turned out to be a crucial misstep as far as critics were concerned. While director Walter Grauman (633 Squadron) kept the story’s conflicts coming at a brisk pace, reviewers and audiences found it difficult to relate to Grace’s plight, especially in the context of a contemporary drama; the novel’s examination of Grace’s promiscuity as a product of her high social standing is lost in the film’s translation, and the screenplay offers little insight into the mechanics behind Caldwell’s condition. Despite impassioned performances from Pleshette (in a role originally to be played by Natalie Wood) and the supporting cast, the film’s cliché-ridden dialogue drew laughter from audiences.

Pianists Arthur Ferrante (born 1921) and Louis Teicher (1924–2008) met while studying at Juilliard as child prodigies and began performing together as a duo-piano team in 1946. In 1952 they launched a remarkable recording career that initially concentrated on classical works and avant-garde arrangements featuring prepared pianos. When record producer Don Costa switched to United Artists Records from the ABC label in 1959, the pianists came with him, now with an emphasis on more traditional easy-listening arrangements of popular songs—often themes from films and Broadway musicals—for their recordings. They enjoyed their first breakout hits with instrumental arrangements of Ernest Gold’s theme from Exodus and the Charles Williams “Theme From The Apartment.” Over the ensuing two decades the duo would record more than 60 albums for the UA label, many programmed around hit movies of the day—everything from West Side Story, Cleopatra and Midnight Cowboy in the 1960s, to Rocky, Star Wars and Superman to close out the ’70s. The musicians curtailed their public appearances in 1989, both retiring to Florida.

Unique among the many film themes Ferrante and Teicher recorded is the earnest, bittersweet main title song for A Rage to Live, which they wrote themselves. Not long before his recent death at age 83, Lou Teicher recalled that the composition was inspired more by the O’Hara novel than the film itself (which neither musician much cared for) and that the duo flew from New York to Los Angeles to perform the tune for the film’s soundtrack. Composer Nelson Riddle weaved “A Rage to Live” throughout his underscore, generating considerable sympathy for Grace and painting the character as a victim of her own uncontrollable desires. Some of Riddle’s moodier developments of the theme are omitted from the album, but in the film the melody is appropriately corrupted as Grace struggles with both her desire for men and to keep her affairs secret.

Riddle contributed a jazzy diminished theme of his own, “Kiss Me Pumpkin,” (first heard as radio source music in the film) to give Grace’s sexual escapades an aura of sleaze; its use for Grace’s first rough encounter is provocative and saucy, though its playful nature removes some of the sting from an otherwise disturbing scene. Riddle’s other original contributions are largely non-thematic, effectively nurturing Grace’s guilt with anguished string writing and underlining the film’s more suspenseful sequences with fitful orchestral gestures. The Hollywood Reporter’s review cited the score as “helpful,” and indeed Riddle not only establishes a sense of elegance for Grace’s high-society lifestyle but lends a tragic, grand scope to her eventual downfall. The music is quintessential melodrama, as was the film it served. The album tracks are discussed below in film order.

1. Main Title
This rapturous arrangement of “A Rage to Live,” for piano, orchestra and wordless chorus is not heard in the film. The opening titles, which play out over shots of Grace’s (Suzanne Pleshette) peaceful Pennsylvania home town, are instead accompanied by the version of the tune from track 8. As heard in the film, the melody establishes a serene mood before young Grace’s sexual troubles emerge.
8. A Rage to Live
This graceful rendition of the main theme, emphasizing piano and strings, was used in favor of the album “Main Title” to underscore the film’s scenic opening credits.
7. Kiss Me Pumpkin
Riddle’s naughty jazz theme plays on the radio in Grace’s room as she prepares to take a shower. Her brother’s classmate, Charlie Jay, shows up and secretly watches her silhouette as she strips; after attempting to flirt with Grace, he forces himself on her. While Caldwell is initially resistant, she eventually gives in to his aggressive kissing. Nelson reprises his “Kiss Me Pumpkin” material for Grace’s various sexual encounters in several subsequent cues (not included on the album).
5. I’ll Never Leave You
Mrs. Emily Caldwell (Carmen Matthews) learns that underaged Grace has been caught having sex with Charlie Jay (Mark Goddard). When Emily visits Grace’s room at night and makes the accusation, the girl becomes insolent and denies it; she threatens to leave home and her mother apologizes, agreeing to take her word for it. Strings take up a warm version of the main theme as guilt-ridden Grace breaks down crying, implying the truth. Her mother comforts her and leaves after tucking her in, with a pensive version of the tune led by solo oboe as Grace contemplates her problem while lying in bed. The score becomes agitated with string trills and runs as she hears the housemaid screaming outside her room—Mrs. Caldwell has collapsed from stress at the foot of the stairs; Grace rushes to tend to her mother as the maid calls for a doctor.
3. Table Talk
This laid-back jazz source cue plays during an upscale dinner party at which young Grace is introduced to her future husband, Sidney Tate (Bradford Dillman).
11. A Two Hour Drive
After Sidney defends Grace’s honor at the party by beating up an insulting Charlie Jay, strings flirt with the main theme as she stares amorously at her new acquaintance. The warm writing continues when the scene segues outside after the party as they say their goodbyes, a pure rendition of the tune sounding for their first kiss. Enthusiastic brass and strings underscore a subsequent transition to the Bahamas, where Grace vacations with her mother.
6. Why Don’t You Tell Her
Sidney visits Grace at her house after the death of her mother. Introspective writing for strings and woodwinds captures Grace’s mourning as Sidney finds her in her room reflecting over a photo album and old letters. He persuades her to go for a car ride and the cue responds with a final optimistic turn: he plans to propose marriage to her.
2. Roger Bannon
Now married, Grace resides at Stone Lake Farm with husband Sidney and their baby son. The main theme is dressed with dreamy Lydian accompaniment as Grace relaxes outside with the child—her maid informs her that an old acquaintance, Roger Bannon (Ben Gazzara), has arrived to fix the barn. The writing thins out and takes on a precarious tone as Roger observes Grace from inside the house, the cue wavering uncomfortably as he creeps into the backyard to reintroduce himself.
In subsequent scenes (the music for which is not included on the album) Grace initially rebuffs Roger’s advances but eventually she initiates a sexual encounter, which develops into a full-blown affair.
9. I’ve Got a Husband
Grace breaks off the affair with Roger, who becomes jealous when he suspects (incorrectly) that she is now involved with newspaper editor Jack Hollister (Peter Graves). One night, Roger desperately confronts Grace in the middle of a deserted road: he wants to her to leave her family so that they can marry but she professes love for her husband and son. A tortured passage for strings combines elements from both “Amy” and “Kiss Me Pumpkin,” escalating through their heated exchange. The cue reaches an exclamatory, brassy conclusion as Grace drives off in anger and Roger calls out after her, “Slut! Slut! You rich, lousy slut!”
Later (in another scene not represented on the album) Roger beats up a girl at a motel—all the while shouting in a drunken rage about Grace—and dies in a car crash while running from the police. Jack rushes to the scene to cover up news coverage of Grace’s involvement in the matter.
4. Amy
Returning home late that night from the crime scene, Jack is confronted by his suspicious, antagonistic wife, Amy (Bethel Leslie). Jack’s sexual advances have been rejected by Grace, but Amy is still convinced that the two are carrying on together. The score mounts tension with a dissonant three-note motive and nervous trills as Amy interrogates her husband, who denies that anything has happened. She throws a glass of liquor in his face and he retreats to his room; as she pounds on his door, the cue’s dire resolution hints that the conflict will yield tragic results.
10. Mrs. Bannon
Amy becomes unhinged when she sees a newspaper headline announcing a charity carnival hosted by Grace; as she retrieves a gun from her closet, the score plays up her rage with agitated runs for strings, woodwinds and sinister muted brass.
The cue’s threatening tone is sustained as the film segues to the house of Mrs. Bannon (Ruth White), Roger’s mother, who informs Sidney of Grace’s affair with her son; Sidney returns home to confront Grace over her infidelity. The cue slowly builds tension with angry stepwise material developed out of “Amy” as Grace tries to cover for herself. When her husband produces evidence—in the form of her missing cigarette case taken from Bannon’s room—she must face the truth. A final outburst denotes Sidney smacking a statuette off of a table in frustration. Grace’s subsequent plea for one more chance is unscored.
12. End Title
The climax of the film has a hysterical (and armed) Amy creating a scene at the charity carnival. She accuses Grace of sleeping with her husband, and this pushes Sidney to his breaking point. He storms off into the night with Amy’s gun in hand. Grace calls after him, accompanied by a cathartic rendition of the main theme (not heard on the album), as the camera pulls back and a quotation from an Alexander Pope poem appears on screen:
Wise Wretch! with Pleasures too refin’d to please:
With too much Spirit to be e’er at ease…
You purchase Pain with all that Joy can give,
And die of nothing but a Rage to live.
The “End Title” (unused in the film) features a laid-back instrumental rendition of “A Rage to Live” that is eventually joined by a chorus singing lyrics provided by Noel Sherman. An alternate arrangement of the song (with lyrics) is heard earlier in the film as source music at the dinner party where Grace first meets Sidney and also runs into Jack and Amy Hollister. —