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‘Godfather’ Fear, ‘Leopard’ Pathos Fueled by Nino Rota’s Scores

Robert Mitchum as preacher Harry Powell in "The Night of the Hunter." The score for the film is by Walter Schumann. Source: Criterion Collection via Bloomberg

I hate being coerced by movie scores. Why must sad scenes call for sorrowful strings? Do romantic interludes really require soaring orchestral throbs? Most of the time I prefer the minimalist Antonioni route: No music at all.

Still, I realize that some of the most powerful moments on screen would be far less memorable without the music. A recap of my favorite original scores would be book-length, so here are just a few that resonate for me.

Probably the greatest movie composer was Nino Rota, whose marvelous works for the stage and concert hall include four symphonies and eight operas. But it’s his film scores for Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini that are the most stirring.

His soundtrack for Visconti’s “The Leopard” adds immeasurably to that film’s grandeur, especially in its incomparable closing sequence, when Burt Lancaster’s Prince Fabrizio recognizes that his way of life is passing before his eyes.

Fellini’s “La Strada,” the story of an innocent girl (Guilietta Masina) forced to perform as a traveling entertainer with a brutish strongman (Anthony Quinn), is graced with an equally extraordinary score by Rota. The pathos of the characters is evoked in just a few bars.

‘Godfather’ Saga

From Fellini and Visconti to Francis Ford Coppola, for whom he worked on the “The Godfather” films, Rota composed essential music. He and his directors shared the same muse.

Running a close second in my greatest film composer list would be Ennio Morricone, who has written hundreds of scores since the early 1960s. He’s had his share of popular success -- particularly his iconic theme for “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and his turbocharged music for Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.”

His score for “The Mission” confers epic religiosity on an otherwise middling movie about Jesuit missionaries in the Brazilian jungle, and his music for “Battle of Algiers” is a perfect sonic counterpart to its seething guerillas.

Plenty of famous composers have tried their hand in movies, not always successfully. I am not, for example, a fan of Philip Glass’s aural wallpaper in any of its incarnations. Of his film scores, I think “The Hours” and “Mishima” are the most fitting because the tonal repetition at least matches the obsessiveness of the characters.

Leonard Bernstein, surprisingly, wrote only one original movie score -- his brilliant moody soundtrack for “On the Waterfront.” Two of his stage musicals, “On the Town” and “West Side Story,” were turned into movies, though sadly the screen version of “On the Town” discarded most of the Broadway songs.

Shakespeare Soundtracks

David Amram’s score for John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” with its ominous, discordant air, is a chilling counterpoint to that film’s Cold War paranoia. Quincy Jones’s sad, swinging jazz for “The Pawnbroker” is one of his earliest and best contributions to the movies.

William Walton’s score for Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” has triumphal majesty to match Shakespeare’s poetry. (His less well-known score for Olivier’s “Richard III” is almost as good). And no movie music is finer than Ravi Shankar’s fragile, beseeching themes for Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali.”

Aaron Copland’s scores, particularly for “The Red Pony” and “Of Mice and Men,” stand by themselves in the concert hall. So, too, does Sergei Prokofiev’s music for “Alexander Nevsky,” one of the most imitated scores of all time.

Sometimes popular film composers like John Williams aren’t sufficiently recognized for their offbeat works.

‘Black Orpheus’

Williams’s scores for “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and “Jaws” are wonderfully accessible, but he’s at his most audacious in De Palma’s occult thriller “The Fury” and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” which spins its single lilting theme into multiple jazz-pop-swing-blues variations.

The lush Afro-Brazilian samba score for “Black Orpheus” by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim (who would go on to write “The Girl From Ipanema” ) fits perfectly with the film’s lush imagery. Walter Schumann’s infernal, lyrical music for “The Night of the Hunter” is as integral to its atmosphere as Bernard Herrmann’s famous scores are for “Psycho,” “Taxi Driver” and “Vertigo.”

What all the best scores have in common is this: It’s impossible to imagine the films without them.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

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