Composers: Michael Small / David Shire
Label: Film Score Monthly
Suggested Retail Price: $ 19.95
Hollywood’s move into the 1970’s was a rite of passage in all of the best ways for discerning moviegoers and film music fans, a transition into cynical, edgy material that showed no one could be trusted – especially the business and ruling classes. Art would need to step up to the new political plate without being so easily digestible. And as the cinema images turned darker, the jazz and orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them would morph into new forms. It was music that demanded and pleased in equal measures, an adult suspense vibe that reached its 70’s apex with Klute and All The President’s Men, two conspiratorial grails that now get their complete, long-awaited release from Film Score Monthly.
Klute marked the real beginning of Michael Small’s career, whose masterpieces of melodic paranoia would include The Parallax View, The Stepford Wives, Marathon Man and The Star Chamber. But perhaps none of these scores would be as influential as Klute, whose chillingly beautiful tones showed how terrifying a score could be with the lightest of touches.
In the past, 1971’s Klute would probably have been just another thriller about a hard-bitten private dick saving a floozy from a fate worse than death. But it was director Alan J. Pakula who filled Klute with a low-key sense of dread, its jaded characters relishing the urban dark side. And Small responded to the film’s intelligent, near surreal approach with a studied creepiness all his own, twisting his Broadway background into a fertile ground of dark jazz and impressionistic chamber writing.
Klute’s suspense is all about lurking in the shadows – studying its prey like an elegant hunter. A piano deliberately tiptoes about with exotic, tingling percussion. Then the melody becomes filled out, the keys increasing with the killer’s presence, the threat twisted into the spine with the darkly erotic, wordless voice of Sally Stevens (who’d later embody the Scorpio Killer’s mania in Lalo Schifrin’s score to Dirty Harry).
If Dario Argento and Ennio Morricone had gotten the Giallo film started the year before with The Bird With The Crytal Plumage, the eerie, restrained suspense that Small and Pakula generate here make Klute the American answer to this sleek Italian genre of black-gloved killers and wanton victims. But where Plumage had your typical maniac, Klute’s killer was a businessman who represented all that was sacred about the American way. Small embodies him in neo-classical tones, while his prostitute target is heard with a yearning, jazz-blues sound. It’s one of the cinema’s great film noir love themes. And when she hits the town to do her business, Small unleashes down-and-dirty instrumentals that range from rock to Indian raga. Even then, Small is too smart to let this “hip” urban stuff fall into post-60’s Shagadelia. But Klute’s standout source cue remains “Goldfarb’s Record,” a Cimbalom and orchestra waltz that’s as atmospherically European as anything that Anton Karas wrote for The Third Man. It’s a striptease that speaks volumes for the sinister elegance that infuses Klute.
Ditto 1976’s All The President’s Men, where Pakula applied his dark touch to the halls of Nixonian power. This time he was accompanied by composer David Shire, who’d already made his conspiratorial mark with The Conversation, a score whose deceptively simple use of a solo piano and impressionistic jazz echoed the influence of Klute. While Shire’s remarkable work had also ranged from the sizzling crime jazz of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three to the doomed symphonic majesty of The Hindenburg, All The President’s Men would need his utmost subtlety. Pakula insisted that Shire’s music would fit his documentary approach to the story, one where the viewer would barely be aware of the music to begin with.
Given this restraint, and the fact that less than half of Shire’s already scant 30-minute score was actually used, it’s no small wonder how the music stands out here – most notably under the “God’s Eye” scene of Woodward and Bernstein doing research in the Library of Congress to the triumphant end where their efforts help drive Nixon from office. Thankfully, all of Shire’s score is present on the CD. And listening to his music makes you wish that Pakula had used more of it in his impressive, if often dry film. With light pianos, guitars and brass, All The President’s Men gets across an off-kilter, jazzy sense of patriotism. It’s the vibe of shaggy dog iconoclasts trying to fix the system. Shire signifies the kind of slow, dogged determination that will change the nation.
We might seem to go with the flow now, from a nation accustomed to murder and corrupt officials to a multiplex audience accustomed to the same pabulum. But in this new CD issue of Klute and All The President’s Men, we’re thrown back to a glorious time when art made us think and question, especially in how we heard film music. It was a distinctly 70’s pessimism that’s never sounded better than in these two landmark scores.
Seek out your copy of KLUTE / ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN here.