by Simon Ward
Many of the hugely successful and acclaimed movie composers from the pre-1960s are now forgotten. The Sixties onwards saw the emergence of superstar composers, whose work became indelibly linked to film franchises or to beloved directors. Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Goldsmith, Pino Donaggio, Giorgio Moroder, and John Williams are just some of the iconic film musicians whose key tunes are known the world over. But outside of the Golden Age musicals themselves, many cinephiles may struggle to name a film score composer from the 1930s through the 1950s, with perhaps Bernard Herrmann being the exception.
This means that someone like Miklós Rózsa and his massive contribution to film is rarely remarked on. In an extraordinary 70-year career, the Hungarian-born Rozsa worked on almost 100 movies, for which he earned 17 Oscar nominations and three wins. Below are just ten of his most memorable scores.
Rózsa already had six films on his resume by 1939, when The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was released. Indeed, in 1939 alone there are three other films he provided music for: The Four Feathers, On the Night of the Fire and The Spy in Black – a pace he rarely slackened, with the pinnacle being eight scores recorded in 1947.
The difference with The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, is that he was not brought in to record original compositions. The music featured in the film is stock music by Rózsa and he goes uncredited. Therefore, this gives us a taste of the other side of Rózsa’s career – his concert music, which was always as vital and important to him as his movie scores.
One of the most famous film noir scores for one of the most famous film noirs, perhaps because the music unexpectedly leans more into the melodrama of the affair onscreen than the danger. The second of five collaborations between the two, Rózsa and Wilder had to fight for the version of the score that they believed in and this finished composition was widely praised – and Oscar nominated.
In the words of the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, “I was fourteen or fifteen and I went to see Spellbound and I fell in love with Ingrid Bergman and I fell in love with Miklós Rózsa’s score. So I decided then I was going to marry Ingrid Bergman and I was going to write music for films. So half my dream came true.”
Creating the score was a prolonged and difficult one due to struggles between Rózsa, Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, but it is one of Rózsa’s most effective and popular scores, aided by the eerie use of a theremin. Rózsa would later create a concerto based on his Spellbound score.
“Mystery, thrills, romance and excitement!” boasts the trailer and the music lives up to the promise of this Technicolor extravaganza. The score does not take the obvious route of aping Arabian sounds and instruments, instead it is more purely fantastical, with angelic choral voices taking us to the same heights as Abu’s flying carpet.
On this, Rózsa was reunited with producer Alexander Korda, whom he had worked with on 1939’s The Four Feathers, and also with director Michael Powell, after collaborating on The Spy in Black in the same year.
Rózsa would go on to work with fellow Hungarians the Korda brothers (Zoltan and Alexander) many more times, perhaps most prominently on 1942’s Jungle Book, bringing over to that film their Thief of Bagdad star Sabu.
THE LOST WEEKEND
Actually recorded after Spellbound but released before, Rózsa’s use of a theremin was crucial and largely credited with communicating the tone of the film and the struggles of Ray Milland’s protagonist. The score was nominated for an Oscar but beaten… by Rózsa for Spellbound.
A monumental score, as grand, ambitious and (almost) as long as the film itself. Rózsa directed the 100-piece orchestra himself and the finished soundtrack won him his third Oscar and became a defining sound for Hollywood epics.
Ironically, the grandeur and celestial sweep of Rózsa’s score isn’t featured in the film’s most famous scene. The climactic chariot race has no music, better to highlight every whip crack and the thunder of horses’ hooves.
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
At once one of the most interesting examinations of Sherlock Holmes and a sadly missed opportunity. Billy Wilder had long wanted to make a Sherlock Holmes musical and in its original script the film contained four distinct stories and a prologue – or, as Wilder thought of it, a four-movement symphony. Opera is a motif throughout the film and Holmes’ own violin talent is featured. But much of the film was cut at the behest of the studio: down from 200+ minutes to 125. However, we are still left with Rózsa’s beautiful score, some of which is adapted from his 1953 Violin Concerto.
THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad – the second of three Ray Harryhausen Sinbad pictures – was a return for Rózsa to the epic adventure filmmaking which had delivered some of his greatest successes. Coming 11 years after his last foray into the genre, after Sodom and Gomorrah in 1963, it proved that Rózsa still knew how to write a captivating suite full of mystery and wonder.
TIME AFTER TIME
When the score won the Saturn Award for Best Music, Rózsa is said to have remarked that this was the score he had worked on the hardest. It is at once filled with drama, intrigue and the typical Rózsa orchestral swells. Bringing in the chimes of a pocketwatch is a lovely motif that ties into the movie’s premise.
DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID
This 1982 film noir spoof by Carl Reiner was the last of Rózsa’s film compositions. He suffered a stroke the same year, but continued to compose music until his death in 1995. As the composer of one of the defining film noirs in Double Indemnity, it is a pleasure to hear Rózsa riff on the danger and melodrama of that genre in this playful and lovable pastiche. And it serves as a remarkable grace note for someone whose career successfully spanned so many different eras in the movie business.
Simon Ward is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His books include The Art and Making of Alien: Covenant, Aliens: The Set Photography, Okja: The Art and Making of the Film and Making Moon: A British Sci-Fi Cult Classic. He also wrote the introduction to Modesty Blaise: The Grim Joker and has provided text and other materials for numerous Blu-rays.
Miklos Rozsa – International Film Music Critics Association
Some Like it Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder – Gene Phillips
Far from Elementary – The Vicissitudes of Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes – Philip Kemp