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8.556809 - Classics at the Movies: Thrillers

The Classics at the Movies

The Classics at the Movies

Ever since the advent of talkies there has been a continuing debate on the nature and function of film music. For many it should be heard but not noticed. It should induce certain emotions but not obtrude on the consciousness of the audience. Yet it should be able to invest a scene with a variety of feelings, terror, grandeur, misery or gaiety. To understand what good film music can do for a film there is a simple test. If scenes from a film are shown with and without music, it will immediately be clear that good music can affect the feelings of an audience, without their being conscious of it.

If the function of film music has been the subject of debate, there can, nevertheless, be no doubt that the nature of this music has changed very considerably over the years. Before the advent of talkies all cinemas had their own house pianists to provide music at every performance, illustrating the action on the screen. In the heyday of Hollywood film music was big business, with major studios turning out hundreds of films a year and having under full-time contract large orchestras. There were also many composers, orchestrators and song-writers attached to each studio. These were the golden thirties, forties and, to an extent, the fifties, with names like Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alfred Newman, all with a European background, writing big scores for a string of Errol Flynn pictures and for films like The Mark of Zorro and The Prisoner of Zenda.

Steiner, Korngold and Newman were followed by a succession of American composers like Henry Mancini, the composer of the Pink Panther music, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. Gradually, however, the really ambitious scores vanished or were reserved for multi-million-dollar projects. More and more films had to make do with loosely strung together pop tunes, or, in an increasing number of cases, more or less well chosen themes from classical music. In some cases the use of a piece of music in a film had a very considerable effect, as, for example, the use of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, now popularly known as the Elvira Madigan Concerto.

In the Naxos Classics at the Movies series we have gathered together many classical themes used in popular films. All of these well deserve a hearing in their own right, but they may also remind the listener of a favourite film or two.


Director: John Huston

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Charley Partanna), Kathleen Turner (Irene Walker), Robert Loggia (Eduardo Prizzi), John Randolph (Angelo "Pop"Partanna), William Hickey (Don Corrado Prizzi)

At a gangster wedding Charley Partanna, a hit man who is getting on in years, falls hopelessly in love. The object of his affection is Irene Walker and all seems well until he finds out that she is in fact employed by the mob and, what is worse, has actually cheated his own Mafia family, the Prizzis, out of a considerable sum of money.

The music is one of Rossini’s witty and exhilarating overtures, the one to The Barber of Seville.


Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Tom Berenger (Mike Keegan), Mimi Rogers (Claire Gregory), Lorraine Bracco (Ellie Keegan), Jerry Orbach (Lt. Garber), John Rubinstein (Neil Steinhart), Andreas Katsulas (Joey Venza)

Wealthy socialite Claire Gregory becomes sole witness to a brutal murder and has to have round-the-clock police protection. The night shift falls to Mike Keegan, a happily married man, who lives in Queens and who now enters a completely different world of luxury and culture. At first Claire is very distant to him, but eventually they fall in love. Mike is torn between conflicting emotions, but when the hired killer is foiled in his attempt on Claire’s life and when the murderer goes for Mike’s wife and son instead, he knows where his loyalties lie.

There are several pieces of classical music connected with Claire. The one you hear during a lull just before the killer strikes is the lovely Flower Duet from Lakmé by Délibes. This music has been used in several other films, including The Year of Living Dangerously, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and True Romance. It has also been in a commercial for British Airways.


Directed: Gregory Hobit

Cast: Richard Gere (Martin Vail), Laura Linney (Janet Venable), Edward Norton (Aaron Stanpler), John Mahoney (John Shaughnessy), Alfre Woodard (Judge Miriam Shoat), Frances McDormand (Dr.Molly Arlington)

High-flying lawyer Martin Vail is going places in Chicago. He knows everyone there is to know including the Archbishop whom he greets familiarly at a charity function at which the diocesan boys’ choir is performing. When the Archbishop is found dead after a particularly vicious attack, Vail, ever the self-publicist, gets to the prison first to defend the apparent culprit, the Kentucky adolescent Aaron Stampler, himself a member of the Archbishop’s choir. Whether Aaron is innocent or guilty matters little to Vail - he knows that such a high profile trial will gain him further notoriety. However, as the film progresses Vail begins to believe that Aaron is not guilty of the murder. Psychiatrist, Dr. Molly Arlington, is brought in and it appears that Aaron is a schizophrenic - the latent, aggressive character, Roy, is the real murderer. However, Vail is left with a real problem - having already pleaded not guilty his client cannot change his plea. All he can do is to try and move for a mistrial and, through deployment of somewhat dubious tactics, he then goes about creating a situation wherein the judge has no choice but to grant his request. In the course of the trial we learn that the Archbishop had been involved, along with several other leading Chicago figures including the District Attorney John Shaughnessy, in a failed land deal. He had also directed home videos of some of his choirboys (including Aaron) engaging in sexual relations with a girl who has now disappeared. In the end, the judge dismisses the jury and delivers a verdict herself - Aaron is to be committed to a psychiatric facility and thereby escape the death penalty. However, there is an unexpected twist in this tale - and Aaron is not whom he seems.

The boys’ choir sing the Byrd Cibavit eos at the charity function. The Lacrymosa from the Mozart: Requiem, included on this CD, is heard while the Archbishop is being murdered and, again, at the conclusion of the film’s end credits.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton).


Director: Phil Alden Robinson

Cast: Robert Redford (Bishop), Sidney Poitier (Crease), Dan Aykroyd (Mother), River Phoenix (Carl), David Strathairn (Whistler), Mary McDonnell (Liz), Ben Kingsley (Cosmo)

Friend or foe? It isn’t easy to know for former hacker Martin Bishop, now turned computer security consultant, and neither he nor his assistants have a completely blameless past. He has an offer he cannot refuse from what he believes is the NSA (National Security Agency) and enlists the help of former girl-friend Liz, now a piano-teacher at a high-class girls school. His prime suspect is the Russian cultural attaché, and they go to a party at the Russian embassy, but the attaché himself becomes the first victim and the chase is on. The secret is contained in a black box and once they have delivered it they realize it has fallen into the wrong hands.

When Bishop comes to visit Liz at her school her very gifted little pupil is playing the Chopin E minor Waltz.


Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Al Pacino (Lefty Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Joe Pistone/Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Sonny Black), Bruno Kirby (Nicky), James Russo (Paulie), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone), Zeljko Ivanek (Tim Curley), Gerry Becker (Dean Blandford)

"In 1978, the U.S. Government waged a war against organized crime. One man was left behind the lines", read the tagline for this film, based on a book of a true story. FBI agent Joe Pistone, under the assumed name of Donnie Brasco, infiltrates New York City’s crime world of Italian families. He gets to know small-time crook Lefty Ruggiero, who adopts him as his protegé and introduces him to a mafia group led by Sonny Black. To keep up his persona as Donnie Brasco, Pistone has to stop seeing his family and his married life threatens to fall apart. He is torn between this and his allegiance to Ruggiero, knowing full well that if he opts out, Ruggiero will shoulder the blame as he was the one who vouched for him in the first place.

The well-known Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's opera Nabucco is heard when Lefty Ruggiero comes out from a barber shop.


Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Anne Parillaud (Nikita), Marc Duret (Rico), Patrick Fontana (Coyote), Tcheky Karyo (Bob), Jeanne Moreau (Amande), Philippe Leroy Beaulieu (Grossman), Jean-Hugues Anglade (Marco), Jean Reno (Victor the Cleaner)

Stylish French thriller in which Nikita, a drug-addicted punk, kills a policeman in cold blood during a bungled raid on a pharmacy. She is sentenced to life imprisonment but supposedly dies in custody. Confined in a secret government agency headquarters, she is shown photographs of her own funeral and grieving family, and is given a choice: either to assume a new identity and be trained as an government assassin — or to actually die. Not unnaturally, she chooses the former. She learns how to live decently and is soon ensconced happily in an apartment with her new lover Marco, only occasionally being called upon to fulfil her part of the bargain. Then one assignment goes horribly wrong. Sickened by what she has become a part of, she reluctantly says goodbye to Marco and disappears, leaving behind two men who are hopelessly in love with her: Marco and her government mentor ‘Bob’.

During a martial arts class in the course of her training, Nikita, having bitten her instructor’s ear and floored him with a kick, performs a crazy little dance to the strains of the Allegro from Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik.


Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Al Pacino (Frank Serpico), Tony Roberts (Bob Blair), John Randolph (Chief Sidney Green), Jack Kehoe (Tom Keough), Biff McGuire (Capt. McClain), Barbara Eda-Young (Laurie)

When Frank Serpico joins the 62nd Precinct he is the source of endless irritation because of his careless way of dressing (and long hair) and his energetic way of hunting down criminals. It is soon obvious to him that many of his colleagues are taking pay-offs to turn their heads away from the scene of a crime. When he raises this with his superiors, he is immediately transferred to another precinct. In the end he is seriously wounded, when his fellow policemen refuse to cover him in a raid. The New York Times publishes his story, but when Serpico is offered a detective’s job he declines, resigns from the force and moves to Switzerland.

Sitting in his roof-top garden Serpico is listening to Cavaradossi’s last-act aria from Tosca, when his neighbour joins him asking "Is that Björling?" to which he replies "No, it is di Stefano".


Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), Andy Garcia (Vincent Mancini), Eli Wallach (Don Altobello), Sofia Coppola (Mary Corleone)

The final part of the Godfather trilogy based on the novel by Mario Puzo about a Mafia family in New York. The story is concerned mainly with aging Mafia boss Michael Corleone’s endeavours at making his business legal by doing a deal with the church. The film was generally thought over-long and its director stirred controversy by casting his amateur daughter Sofia in one of the leading rôles. The worst acting ever in a major movie, some thought.

The film features the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana.


Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Kevin Costner (Eliot Ness), Sean Connery (James Malone), Charles Martin Smith (Oscar Wallace), Andy Garcia (George Stone), Robert de Niro (Al Capone), Richard Bradford (Mike)

Chicago at the time of Prohibition. Treasury agent Eliot Ness thinks he has an easy task, trying to trap gangster boss Al Capone, but after his first spectacular and rather comical failure he realises how widespread corruption is, even among the police. His first recruit is a street cop, James Malone, and he then builds a small group of completely trustworthy men, the so-called Untouchables. They finally reach their goal after a grand shoot-out climax.

Al Capone is at the opera-house listening to Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci when the news reaches him that Malone has finally been eliminated by his men.


Director: Curtis Hanson

Cast: Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), Russell Crowe (Bud White), Guy Pearce (Edward "Ed" Exley), James Cromwell (Captain Dudley Smith), Kim Basinger (Lynn Bracken)

Set in Los Angeles in the early ’fifties the film traces the careers of three officers in the LA Police Department whose paths become increasingly intertwined as the story progresses. An officer, just sacked on the evidence of Exley, is killed in a massacre in the Nite Owl Cafe. Exley finds the perpetrators of the crime - three black drug addicts who have abducted a Mexican girl - and, while trying to arrest them, kills them in self-defence. In the meantime, White is on the trail of one of the other victims of the same shooting - this leads him to prostitute, Lynn Bracken with whom he has an affair. The Mexican girl who had been abducted then admits to Exley that she fabricated the evidence that implicated the three dead black men and this leads him to doubt their guilt. Vincennes agrees to help Exley find the real culprits. The film then moves up another pace as police corruption comes to the fore and Exley and White, previously sworn enemies, join forces in an attempt to overcome it.

An excerpt from the Hebrides Overture is heard when Exley enters the house where the Mexican girl is being held. One of her abductors is watching a cartoon to which this music provides the soundtrack.


Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert de Niro (Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein), Sharon Stone (Ginger McKenna), Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro), James Woods (Lester Diamond), Don Rickles (Billy Sherbert), Alan King (Andy Stone), L. Q. Jones (Pat Webb)

Martin Scorcese depicts two faces you find in Las Vegas, as in most other gambling cities: the glamorous glittering front, and the cruel, brutal one right below its surface. ‘Ace’ Rothstein is the operator of the Tangiers casino and Nicky is his boyhood friend and tough strongman, robbing and shaking down the locals. Considering the talents involved this was a disappointing film, with only Sharon Stone really outstanding as the hustler ‘Ace’ marries.

The poignant final chorus from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Rimsky-Korsakov’s light-hearted Flight of the Bumble Bee make a striking contrast to the brutal violence pervading this film.

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