Composer: Michael Small
Label: Film Score Monthly
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Unstoppable killers with butcher knives and other various blunt instruments may have ruled the American cinema in the late 1970’s. But turn back the clock a few years, and you’ll find a wave of far more interesting, and troubling villains who were truly unstoppable by way of their political connections and business-driven pathology. These were real-life monsters whose mark could be found in everything from the Vietnam War machine to the forces that observed your every move with a malice that would put the invisible demon of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to shame. And perhaps no composer could put their sinister machinations to music like Michael Small. From the eerie voices of a corporate sadist in KLUTE to the chilling strings of conformist robots in THE STEPFORD WIVES, Small had a unique way of playing 70’s paranoia (be it government or crime-driven) with the kind of dark, simmering melodies that could just as well accompany any masked killer.
But if two of Small’s “horror paranoia” scores stand out, then they’d be the dental torture strains of 1976’s MARATHON MAN, and the dark patriotism behind 1974’s THE PARALLAX VIEW- both films released by Paramount Pictures. Now after too long a musical silence that some fans might think was the result of a soundtrack conspiracy, Film Score Monthly has taken advantage of the unexpected release of the mountain’s vaults to finally release these Michael Small classics in all of the dazzlingly subtle darkness. First up is MARATHON MAN, arguably the decade’s nastiest mainstream suspense film, in which copious amounts of grisly violence (bodily and oral) keep Dustin Hoffman on his feet from Laurence Olivier’s cautious, jewel-hunting Nazi and his minions.
For a film whose most famous line remains “Is it safe?” Small’s music gives us a definitively negative answer. Brilliantly constructing his score around a four note ascending, and descending theme, Small makes particularly good use of the piano’s range, throttling in its chords in with military timpani to give us a sense of its villain’s WW2 military past come to haunt the present. As harsh as its chords can be here, Small’s piano also gives an elegance to the proceedings, even conjuring a mini-Baroque symphony for its “Love Scene.”
Like most suspense scores of the mid-70’s (especially BLACK SUNDAY) MARATHON MAN is suffused with the subtlest of pop-jazz tones, especially in its use of the keyboard, strings and horns. It’s a contemporary vibe that gives Small’s music an almost languid sense of menace as scripter William Goldman’s intricate puzzle-plot reveals itself. And while shrill string and synth effects have the piercing intensity of a dental drill, the tone here is far more about lightly melodic suspense than symphonic shrieking. It’s a lesson that today’s dissonance-obsessed thriller scores could learn from, an elegant restraint that makes MARATHON MAN entrancing as a pure listen.
Though not truly a conspiracy film as such, MARATHON MAN has the same dark, psychological journey where a hero learns that everyone around him is an enemy. Small compliments this uneasy sense of discovery, his strings growing queasier, the orchestra’s fuller sound taking on a brooding, moral outrage- an emotional tone that uneasily mixes with the cold, calculating nature of film’s ersatz Dr. Mengele. Ultimately both tonal personalities collide to pounding, woozy and shimmering effects- the sense of all that glitters as pure evil. But for the film that truly made torture chic in mainstream Hollywood, Small’s balance between frenetic gestures and knowing when to pull the drill back gets the idea of pain, and emotional anguish across far better than a bigger stuff would have. So by the time that sanity is restored with a lush, placid reading of the main theme, one feels that MARATHON MAN has taken them on a truly unsettling journey, with some semblance of lyrical sanity lying at the end of its long chain of bodies.
If only there was a shining light that resonated from THE PARALLAX VIEW. But its uncompromising message of utter hopelessness in the face of the military-industrial complex is the stuff of the best Kennedy assassination-inspired conspiracy films, of which this one from Small’s KLUTE director Alan J. Pakula ranks at the top. Warren Beatty is the intrepid reporter who discovers a senator’s killing (brilliantly staged atop Seattle’s Sky Needle) is anything but an open and shut case. Like MARATHON MAN, Small’s music is all about peeling back layers of deception. But instead of a Nazi, PARALLAX’s villain is a security think tank who could care less about civilian casualties to cover up the truth- particularly when it comes to silencing anyone who talks to our hero. It’s evil that’s as American as apple pie in making the world safe for democracy, giving Small carte blanche to engage in twisted patriotism, from Aaron Copland-esque strings to an elegiac drum and trumpet and the echoed celebration of a march that takes John Philip Sousa giddiness to a lethally ironic place. But for all of its insistence that you fight the system, Small gets to have a bit more fun here than in MARATHON MAN, with country car chase music, as well as a jazzier “questing” theme that’s pronounced with an reverberating sax and keyboard.
But the undoubted highlight in this VIEW is the “Parallax Test” as Beatty’s reporter is subjected to the corporation’s unholy recruitment film. A humming voice, twangy guitar, oh-so patriotic brass, organ, Muzak-worthy strings and absurd Shagadelia build relentlessly, counter pointing images of God and Country with decidedly nastier stuff. It’s rousing enough to make any wannabe assassin stand up and enlist, which is exactly the point. For a composer who played The Man’s evil like no one else, “The Parallax Test” might be Michael Small’s most effective musical commentary on our true puppet masters. He may have brilliantly inhabited a world of shadows for too short a time. But in the end, nothing reveals the Big Conspiracy’s license to kill more openly than an explosion of musical kitsch.
Listen to Michael Small’s sweet sound for paranoia here
Composer: Michael Small