There couldn't be a more telling example of Jerry Goldsmith's range and dexterity as a composer of film music than the scores he wrote for the pair of films -- "The Detective" and "Von Ryan's Express" -- that are presented on this CD issued recently by Intrada. The folks over at Intrada devote themselves to releasing finely mastered soundtrack recordings from films produced all over the world, and their CD's are always attractively packaged with colorful graphic artwork, stills from the films, and insightful, entertaining commentary from knowledgeable observers of the film music scene.
Jerry Goldsmith's score for "Von Ryan's Express" -- a very entertaining movie about Allied soldiers making a break for freedom from a German P.O.W. camp -- shows-off his ability to blend elements of drama, humor and suspense into a musical whole. Limiting his use of strings to cellos and basses, he conjures up bright, sparkling and raucously rhythmic martial themes utilizing mostly brass, woodwinds, reeds and percussion that snap the filmic images of WWII conflict into sharp relief. But that's not say there's an absence of melody, which there isn't, as his main theme has the sparingly tuneful quality of his theme for "Patton", which he composed five years later.
Also notable in this score is a particular feature of his compositional method that always thrills me, and that is his dynamic and fluid use of shifting meters. Simply put, meter describes the way rhythmic patterns are expressed in music, such as 3/4 "time" for waltzes, 4/4 time for marches, and so on. Jerry Goldsmith experimented endlessly with the juxtiposition of these varying patterns and in such an aggressive and inspired way that you would think he had edited the films himself. The effect is kinectic and seamless. His amazing utility with musical time is vividly displayed in track 19, entitled "Ambushed". In the rest of the score you will find everything that an admirer of music composed for action films would seek, and in jubilant, go-for-broke quantities.
"The Detective" is a dark, gritty film, mired in a sense of hopelessness over the persistence of urban crime and the suffering it brings to its perpetrators and its victims. All of this cinematic despair casts an oppressive pall over the film that is mercilessly reflected in the swaggering, subterranean, symphonic blues that Jerry Goldsmith dredged up for it. The score throbs with the anger, loneliness and violence of the worst aspects of city life.
The main theme on its own is simply a knockout, featuring a searing, soaring, and tormented trumpet melody that aches with a profound sense of loss as it wails over a dirge-like saxophone chorus that descends like stairsteps into hell, while a keening strings section reaches and strains ever upwards for the light of redemption and release. As if that weren't enough, the whole thing struts in time to the rhythm of a dirty, slow-drag swing tempo spiked with the throb of what sounds like an electrified bass accompanied by some sort of vibrating reed instrument, perhaps a bassoon, or contra-bassoon that was modified electronically after its recording. This dramatic and affecting music makes you think that the composer must have identified quite deeply, and in personal way, with the characters and story.
Even the "warmer" cues are stained in shades of cool, jazzy blues, with their lush, brooding chordal harmonies in the strings, moaning tenor saxophones, haunting bass flutes, tinkling piano, and unresolved harp glissandos. The finer examples of this miasma of mood and feeling in Mr. Goldsmith's composition would be track 4, "A New Love", track 8, "Karen's Story", and track 9, "Night Talk".
There's a brief, startling action cue, track 6, "Beach Scene", that accompanies a foot chase involving the detectives and a murder suspect in one of the few scenes shot in the glare of day. The music perks up your ears and your attention with its escalating, syncopated pizzcato bass line and twanging guitar licks accompanied by driving, uptempo cymbal work in the drums section, punctuated by shrieking flutes that sound like a cry for help, while high-pitched, angular strings veer jaggedly all over growling brass section statements.
If you haven't seen "The Detective", please do so before you listen to this CD, because the score is inextricably connected to the film's style, its mood and sense of time and place. It's only more proof of the fact that Jerry Goldsmith must have been quite a sensitive man, and was a true musical "chameleon" whose compositions for films always demonstrated his love of what he was doing with music employed in the service of making our movie-going experience more entertaining, and perhaps more enlightening, even.