Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
rob + = email

2013 April 29 • Monday

Dimitri Tiomkin's score for 55 Days at Peking is the 264th Soundtrack of the Week.

The "Overture" begins with a blast of excited string playing and then runs through several of the score's themes, including an accordion-led, Mancini-like tune and some beautiful romantic music. It ends with a recapitulation of the initial theme.

The "Main Title" music has a surprisingly bucolic, peaceful feel. Suspense starts to build with "'Peking, China, the Summer of the Year 1900'" and "Order from a Prime Minister/In the Palace", the latter half of that cue resolving to a more peaceful theme.

"Oriental" has the expected pseudo-Asian exotica gestures, but the instrumentation and arrangement make it fresh.

An angelic choir accompanied by harmonica creates the ethereal "All Quiet on the Eastern Front". The harmonica returns for the beautiful and wistful "Moon Fire", at almost six minutes the longest cue on the CD

The motif at the beginning of the "Overture" appears as battle music in cues such as the richly orchestrated "Here They Come (Peking First Battle)".

It's a wonderful score, one of the finest I've heard from Tiomkin, and this expanded CD gives it a wonderful presentation.

Several of the cues are included in mono EP and single versions as well, including the great "Moon Fire", treated with jazzy piano, electric guitar and "easy-listening" strings. I wonder if you could hear this in a supermarket at the time!

2013 April 26 • Friday

[Miklós] Rózsa's style was dissonant enough to cause consternation with his employers on several occasions. The head of the music department at Paramount, Louis Lipstone, attempted in 1943 to persuade Rózsa to edit out a specific dissonance in his score to Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo ('Why don't you make it a G natural in the violas as well — just for my sake?'); he lost his temper when Rózsa refused, and Lipstone was curtly told by Wilder not to interfere (Rózsa 1982, 119–20).

— Mervyn Cooke, A History of Film Music, 2008

2013 April 24 • Wednesday

The tubes.

2013 April 22 • Monday

The 263rd Soundtrack of the Week is Armando Trovaioli's score for the 1960s spy thriller Rapporto Fuller, base Stoccolma.

I'd like to see this movie. I've been to Stockholm a few times and I'm always curious about these movies that try to catch some reflected glory from the James Bond franchise.

The music begins with a vocal number, "The Touch of a Kiss", which is like a hybrid of "Lullaby of Birdland" and John Barry's "My Love Has Two Faces" (from the movie Deadfall). The second track, "She, Dangerous Stuff", begins with a brief quote from that melody before going into a 5/4 piece that is extremely indebted to Paul Desmond's "Take Five". These two themes are used in one way or another for almost the entire score.

The theme first heard in "She, Dangerous Stuff" is reprised in "Feeling Like a Ball", "Suddenly an Old Friend", "All Filled Now", "The End of the Foul", "Trapped Again", "Half of the Report" and "The Puzzle of Memories".

Several of those cues also contain "The Touch of a Kiss", which is heard additionally in "Tears and Spies", "Unexpected Note", "A Forced Meeting", "The Unwitting Bait", "The Cottage Over the River", "A Bank in Zurich", "The Report Is Completed", "Just Pull the Trigger", "The Last Gift" and "Just Another Ending".

There's also a shorter vocal take and a couple of straight instrumental renditions of "The Touch of a Kiss", both with great saxophone playing.

2013 April 19 • Friday

No Highway in the Sky (1951) is an enjoyable drama based on a book by Nevil Shute, who is best known for On the Beach.

James Stewart plays a scientist who believes that a new kind of airplane will crash after a certain number of hours in the air, because vibrations will cause it to fall apart. To prove his theory he's got one of these airplanes hooked up to devices that simulate the effects of flight, including vibrations.

He's only running these tests about eight hours a day because the neighbors complain about the noise. When asked whether he shouldn't run it around the clock anyway, since the people in these planes will die if his theory is correct, he replies that he doesn't care about people; his only interest is in the science and his theory.

Once this happens, you know he has to have his comeuppance. Whenever you have a scientist in a movie who cares more about science than humanity, a lesson must be taught.

Just in case the audience missed this point, the story doubles its bet by making James Stewart a widower with a young daughter. He treats her like a peer and never does any fun, child-like stuff with her. Stewart's colleagues are baffled by how much this girl is their intellectual superior but of course at school she's despised as a nerdy freak.

Irony of ironies, James Stewart ends up as a passenger on the exact kind of plane he's testing and it's only got a couple of hourse until he predicts it will fall apart! This is where the movie looks ahead to things like Airport as well as to the great Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" with William Shatner (less effectively re-made for the Zone movie with John Lithgow).

Do you think our scientist cares about how his theories might affect people's lives now? Adding to the relentless humanizing of this character are the rather intense relationships he develops on the plane with a motherly flight attendant and a movie star played by Marlene Dietrich.

Both women want him but only one will get him. Will it be the sweet, nurturing one or the glamorous globe-trotter with a career and a divorce? If you've ever seen an English-language movie from the 1950s, you know the answer.

But the real story of the movie is how awesome air travel used to be. Just look at this luxury!

All that is in an airplane, during flight! And you can bet that nobody had to take their shoes off before boarding.

2013 April 17 • Wednesday

This 1957 novel was almost like the literary equivalent of that time's Douglas Sirk movies, but the drama is kept at a lower key, on a smaller scale. It has many of the same fascinations, though, particularly in its economical but powerful renderings of interesting characters in crises.

The motivations of the people involved are explored and invariably informed by Freud. Childhood experiences are found at the roots of almost everybody's problems. It is thus somewhat bizarre that the one character in the book who is a child, and whose parents are going through a rough divorce, is one of the only characters whose inner world is never visited. This boy seems more like a prop than a person.

There's also a Shakespeare theme running through the book, reflected in chapter titles like "Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On" and "Not in Our Stars", the latter also being the original title of the book, presumably in its original hardcover edition. Sara, the main character, at one point wonders what Shakespeare would have said about Reno.

Changing times are another focus. Most of the characters in the book meet in Reno, where they're all waiting to be able to get a divorce as new residents of Nevada. While they wait it out, they remark the atomic or hydrogen bomb tests happening in the nearby desert. "This is America," as Belle Rosenblatt recalls her daughter saying to her. "We got television and we got the H-bomb and we got divorce."

Later on, another character has this to say:

"Reno's the boil on the cover-girl face of our decadent western culture," he went on, as though thinking aloud. "The ulcer in the soft underbelly of our shining civilization, produced by our collective tension and greed and fear. Fear of the machines we have created and the knowledge that they will surely destroy us."

"Machines," Louis repeated. "You think it's the machines, eh?"

"Sure," Nick said. "And as we're marking time in our own self-created death house, we're all dying slowly of the same disease."

"Dying?" Louis asked. "Of what?"

"Loneliness," Nick said. "Today, in the atomic age, when we've developed the mechanics of communication to a degree undreamed of in the history of mankind, we are all dying from our inability to communicate with one another. Or God. Or the dumb creatures of the earth. Or nature. We can only communicate with machines. And the machines will surely destroy us, Lou."

It's also worth noting that the book demonstrates an awareness of the 1950s conformist fantasy that was supposed to be your goal.

And she wondered, then, how many millions of men and women in this great land of the privileged sit down each night to dinner across the perfectly appointed table settings prescribed by the women's magazines, eating the deliciously prepared food suggested in their pages and cooked in the immaculate, picturesque kitchens copied from the four-color advertisements; how many of them sit down thus, night after night, to face a stranger?

The book engages sympathetically with divorce, homosexuality and depression. I wasn't sure what to make of this bit, though: "He switched on the radio, twisted the dial till he caught a blaring jazz record, hectic and without melody, the kind he usually hated". This is happening on a Maryland farm in 1957. What jazz record could the radio be playing? It probably wouldn't sound very "out" to our ears.

The first line of the book is "She and Joey stood for quite a long time waiting for a taxi in the driveway outside of Pennsylvania Station".

2013 April 15 • Monday

John Barry's score for Ruby Cairo is the 262nd Soundtrack of the Week.

The album begins with the film's main theme, performed by Ottmar Liebert on flamenco guitar. It's a classic Barry piece, lush and darkly romantic yet also driving.

This is followed by "Opening Theme", a less rhythmic approach to the same material. The same melody returns in "Cairo, Kentucky" "Fergus Lamb", "Berlin Fashion", "Raking It In", "The Last Time" and "Closing Theme". The last track is a vocal version of this theme, "The Secrets of My Heart", sung by Kristina Nicchols.

The remaining cues are similar to other high points of Barry's career, mostly Body Heat and Moonraker.

2013 April 12 • Friday

In The Great Lie (1941) Mary Astor and Bette Davis are both in love with airplane pilot George Brent. The only reason Brent hasn't married Davis is because he likes to party. On one such drunken spree in New York he ends up marrying Mary Astor, a famous concert pianist who also likes to party.

Brent sobers up and realizes that he'd be better off cleaning up his act and marrying Davis, who is cast against type as a demure and wholesome young woman. (I don't think I’ve ever seen Davis "prettier" than she is in this movie. She can still do amazing things with a cigarette, though.)

Brent's marriage to Astor turns out to be void since Astor's divorce hasn't gone through yet. She'll be officially divorced next Tuesday. Brent, who is regretting his drunken nuptials, offers to marry Astor officially next Tuesday but Astor says she's got an important gig in Philadelphia. Brent insists that she has to choose between her performance and their wedding. She goes to Philadelphia and Brent goes to Maryland, where he marries Davis.

With Davis's encouragement Brent does some aviation thing as part of the war effort and ends up crashing, presumed dead in South America. (Much the same thing happened to Emma Peel's husband.)

Then Astor shows up pregnant, giving Davis fair warning that she intends to use the child to get Brent back. When she finds out that Brent is dead, Astor has no intention of keeping the child, but Davis makes a deal with her. Let Davis have Brent's child to raise as her own and Davis will provide for Astor's financial security later in life when her career as a pianist might dwindle.

And this is where the story really starts….

This excellent drama has a twist every five minutes or so and buries recent popular American dramatic television series that take a hundred hours to accomplish what The Great Lie does in about a hundred minutes.

But The Great Lie has its problems. Astor's character is a woman with a career who inhabits the city. Her name is Sandra Kovack, which signals recent European immigrant, probably Jewish. In case you miss this point, the only piece we hear her perform—and we hear it several times—is Dvorak's Symphony for the NewWorld.

She likes cities—New York, Philadelphia or Sydney, Australia—and the filmmakers make this association very clear.

She’s a rootless cosmoplitan, in other words, and she wants to wear the pants in her marriage. She's become a major player in a man's world. She's also just been divorced. In a 1941 Hollywood movie, these are not good things.

Davis's character, on the other hand, lives in an idyllic country retreat in Maryland. Davis's house looks like a former plantation and Davis herself is surrounded by simple-minded and idolatrous African-American servants, Hattie McDaniels chief among them.

Davis's character is a WASP goddess, representing a certain kind of old-fashioned, white, conservative American ideal. While Astor is always in some kind of gown, Davis is more often in riding clothes, all pure, rustic healthiness. No drunken binges for her.

The best scenes in the movie are those between Davis and Astor, both phenomenally great actresses. If you haven’t read The Maltese Falcon than you have to see John Huston's movie of it at least twice to realize what an amazing tight-rope act of a performance Mary Astor pulls off in it. Bette Davis's reputation speaks for itself.

In The Great Lie these two virtuosos work together astonishingly well, neither trying to steal scenes from the other. They both seem very secure in the knowledge that they complement and harmonize with each other.

It's too bad that they both have to love George Brent, who's rather dull. A stronger actor in the role might have proved distracting, though. This is what used to be called a "women's picture". Interesting men would just get in the way.

2013 April 10 • Wednesday

Dexter has been really into Portal and Portal 2 lately, and why not? They're just about the best video games I've ever played. They're actually more than that. They're something really special, artistic and brilliant. I've been enjoying going through them again (and again and again) with Dexter.

One result of this is that we've been swimming in Portal-inspired art (and home-made books and imaginative play). Here's one of Dexter's latest, an unusually minimalist portrait of turret and victim.

2013 April 08 • Monday

The 261st Soundtrack of the Week is this CD with two Ennio Morricone scores, Agent 505—Todesfalle Beirut and Il Successo.

Agent 505—Todesfalle Beirut is form 1966 and presumably one of the many spy films hoping to bask in some glory reflected from the James Bond industry.

The title music, "La Trappola Scarra a Beirut" is a weird mixture of blaring brass, frantic drum fills and slinky electric guitar. This is followed by "Inseguimento", driven by electric guitar and featuring the flute until the brass section comes crashing in again. It then inexplicably relaxes into a section that's similar to part of the score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Both of these cues feature occasional appearances of ethereal wordles vocals. There are also "Inseguimento Secondo" and "Inseguimento "Terzo".

"Relax Per Un Agent Segreto" expands upon the part of "Inseguimento" that's similar to part of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, while "La Trappola" is like a slowed-down variation on the title music. "Baci Dopo Le Palottole" is a Mancini-esque lounge ballad "Languidamente" is also a lounge ballad, but more Morricone than Mancini.

The main title music is reprised for "Agente 505 in Azione" Somewhere in between that theme and the "La Trappola" theme, or perhaps a combination of the two, is "Missione Pericolosa" and "Agente 505: Missione Compiuta". These cues sound a bit like John Barry's Bond music, but with a reverb electric guitar sound that could only be from Italy in the 1960s. The same musical idea, combined with the "Inseguimento" figure, shows up in "Attesa e Fuga".

"Tramonto Su Beirut" repeats some of these figures but adds whistle and organ. Again, a very nice electric guitar sound and echoes of the call-and-response horns from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly score.

1963's Il Successo has a trumpet-driven jazzy main title, alternating between combo and big-band sounds. "Per Vittoria" is a gentle but sprightly bossa, followed by the Mancini-esque background party music of "Con Eleganza".

A more serious mood is suggested by "Malinconico" while "Il Successo Twist" is (surprise!) a twist version of the main title music. "Malinconico" has some nice, almost subliminal organ playing and "Il Successo Twist" features the clarinet.

"Sarabande Triste" is a beautiful and sad piece for solo classical guitar. I wish I could play like that.

"Allegra Sambina" is, as the title suggests, an upbeat samba, almost annoyingly cheerful. This is followed by a melancholy, non-bossa version of"Per Vittorio" and, finally, a reprise of the main title music.

2013 April 05 • Friday

Dexter's kindergarten class is learning some basic music notation, which is really great, exactly the kind of thing they should be doing. At home, though, Dexter is putting this knowledge to use by writing his own original music! Here's a sample.

2013 April 03 • Wednesday

We're back!

Our DSL went down 17 days ago, which is why this site has been inactive. DSL is still down but around day 12 we decided to abandon Verizon. We've had this problem about twice a year but this time was worse than usual and we've had enough. I've never liked the cable company but I like them better than Verizon right now.