Herman Stein never sounded so good, and it's a crying shame The Intruder (1962) didn't raise his profile from a composer of monster flicks to hard social dramas, with similar projects to follow.
A lean, crisply written score, Stein followed a suggestion from director Roger Corman to write a title theme that established the arrival of a dangerous menace: a striking young man, all stitched up in a clean white suit and dark sunglasses.
On the one hand, Stein's title music provides contrast to what initially resembles a generic travelogue montage of Adam Cramer's bus ride to the sleepy town of Claxton, but the mounting tension from tightly-wound banks of strings and smooth integration of brass and woodwinds goes further in defining the community's shackled racism that Cramer liberates, setting in motion an unstoppable crescendo of mob fury.
Stein recognized the cue's momentum was also enhanced by edits of passing landscapes – visual additives to a cue already infused with a pinched tempo – but there's something more powerful in the way the composer applies brass and percussion in the final bars as the bus drives into town, enters Main Street, and makes its way towards the town core. The rebounds between rumbling tympani are crafted like a ballet, and there's a passing similarity to Franz Waxman's “Farewell and Frenzy” cue from A Place in the Sun (1961) which similarly matched a character's journey with a powerful orchestral drive; what's intriguing is how Stein arguably achieves more tension and drama in a scene where, if stripped of its music, nothing happens beyond some guy in shades riding in a bus.
(Whether or not Quincy Jones was influenced by Stein's approach is unknown, but the application of menacing music to a simple montage is what similarly rendered the opening of In Cold Blood (1967) into brooding portrait of primal rage headed straight into another city's core. The moment Robert Blake strikes a match, Jones' orchestral jazz score shimmers to life, and like Stein, Jones applies a brutal clash of orchestral elements, although he switches between stylized theme fragments in jazz and blues renditions, motivic devices like empty bottle taps, and a pulse that may not be balletic, but propels what's otherwise a simple scene of a grimy guy riding on a bus at night.)
The whole opening of The Intruder comes to a ferocious explosion of brass and percussion, and snaps back just as the bus doors rip open, revealing ordinary travelers, and Cramer, an itinerant agitator who reacquaints racists with their old feelings, and moulds them into a potential political force to quash the integration ruling.
Stein reprises a version of his title music when Cramer visits the black neighbourhood at the town's edge, and while it does feel like a directorial request to repeat what worked so well in the opening titles, it reaffirms Cramer's intrusion into the town's root system; getting a feel of the populace and sourcing its friction points before starting his schedule of disruptions.
Like Jones' In Cold Blood, Stein's Intruder title music seems to get the most kudos because it's so striking and so good, and because it's also part of a rich score that rarely strays beyond the parameters established by the composer. The source music – also jazz based – is a great collection of small combo pieces that show Stein's roots as a top arranger (including his work for icons such as Count Basie during the thirties and forties), although what's unfortunate is that in being source cues, there's little need to write more than what's required for a scene's duration. ”Like Noise” is one of the score's longer jazz cues (2:35) that bounces along with a fat sax duet before being literally switched off just as the musicians get cooking. (Some of the session musicians include saxophonists Buddy Collette, and M Squad alumnus Benny Carter.)
“Stranger,” for example, plays in the background as Cramer schmoozes and slick-talks the teenage daughter of the town's news editor; he's a naughty boy looking for raw tail, and Stein's short cue nails the casualness of Cramer's impropriety that leads to an affair, which he later exploits to turn daughter against father. The sharp sax wails mimic Cramer's smooth talking, yet they also mock the character as a juvenile huckster, which nicely ties in to the competition between Cramer and a local traveling salesman he's cuckolded.
Some of the score cues are very short (“Pre-March” runs 4 seconds) but like Monstrous Movie Music's CD of The Blob, the cues have been edited into a tight narrative, reducing any sense of fragmentation.
Unlike his monster music scores for Universal, which were often comprised of cues written by several composers assigned to specific reels or sequences, Stein had a whole movie to play with, and many of his cues show a wonderful knack for understatement, which seems atypical when one examines his horror and sci-fi cues.
“Disturbed” is a beautiful lament that presents a character's torn emotions via delicate swells from strings, and a melodic statement that remains exceptionally earnest; Stein avoids being maudlin or melodramatic, and his sensitivity to the characters ensures the scene feels like a distilled but real snapshot of an already divided family, comprised of a racist, a moral fence-sitter, a liberal, and a child with a malleable soul becoming increasingly adversarial in the film's first act.
“Guts” is used to underscore the marches of the black students as they head for the white high school while townsfolk watch in a mix of disgust, unease, and some who perhaps hope their town will survive this challenge to its self-styled, generational social order. Stein pits a simple two-note rhythmic motif, playing like a pall of sorts, against a strong melodic piece that emphasizes the fear and dignity of the kids; the addition of greater percussion, a more strained rendition of the melody, and harsh brass nicely encapsulate the rage the kids face when they have to walk through a wall of locals – a mix of the town's establishment and losers bearing ugly placards – before entering the school proper.
Just as powerful is a simple march that underscores a caravan of KKK members with Cramer at the center, driving to a church where they plan to erect a cross and burn the symbol right in the heart of a black neighbourhood. The sequence is admittedly even more scary because the actors were surrounded by rival gangs, and this was the last official footage filmed before the cast and crew drove right out of down, but even without knowledge of that added production material, it's a stirring sequence that blends docu-drama cinematography with Stein's brilliant writing which kind of expands on the ballet rhythm of his opening title music, yet keeps it low and steady while the tension and fury between races is fought out through strings and brass; it's a series of repeated phrases that are interwoven and played more imperatively, with the percussion beats given greater resonance by increasing their tonal density.
The march could also be read as a play on the Dies Irae, but Stein never directly references the popular liturgical piece that's oft-used in films to reference the arrival of death in many forms (such as the Black Plague in Erik Nordgren's choral-heavy score for The Seventh Seal, or as the main theme in Leonard Rosenman's giddy, guilty pleasure, The Car, about Satan offing cyclists and musicians via a customized Lincoln sport sedan).
Just as Stein avoids thematic clichés, he also chooses to end the film with a very simple cue, using solo flute for the ‘mob theme' heard with full brutal force in a preceding cue, and within the “Main Title.” The decision for subtlety works because esthetically it offers a balance between the full brass assault of the prior “Lynch Mob,” and because it punctuates Corman's decision to close the drama using a single high-angle shot of Cramer, alone in the playground where the black student could've been potentially hanged. The solo flute ends the score and film on a more gentle side, but it also illustrates how Cramer has been completely neutered, and the failure of his mission has undoubtedly affected his self-assurance in that he might succeed in another town.
Stein's cue works so well because its simplicity references very discretely the pivotal events that weakened Cramer in the preceding sequence: the loss of control over a fully enraged mob, being ridiculed for his impropriety with both a woman and a teenager, and the cuckolded salesman who warned Cramer of his inadequate salesman skills yet pretty much saves his life from the mob when Cramer was poised to become the mob's next target. Stein's cue is a great closing statement, and it illustrates how the powerful arguments and events within a social drama can be closed with a cue using nothing more than a solo flute.
(and other music by Herman Stein)
Stein's career was long, varied, and full of scores written for a diversity of projects, and MMM's CD concludes with a wonderful mix of archival recordings, beginning with Career for Two, Stein's first film score written for a 1951 industrial film about the virtues of using a savings bank.
The nearly seven minutes of score reveal a composer fully in touch with nuances, orchestral colours, and a knack for comedy and light drama. As the CD's co-producer David Schecter writes in the booklet's lengthy liner notes, the music is very jaunty, but its finesse and intrinsic dramatic nature made the score a perfect calling card, so it's unsurprising the score helped get Stein a long-term job at Universal-International.
The score's a lovely little piece that shows another side of Stein beyond the hard drama of The Intruder, yet it also reaffirms the level of talent that was admitted into Universal's composing talent pool; the studio's odd system of assigning several composers to a single picture brought many skilled minds together, but it undoubtedly must have been frustrating when few were given the chance to score a complete film on their own, particularly when seminal works like Career for Two were that good. You could argue Stein was over-qualified for the Universal-International team, but it was a steady gig that fostered career relationships which kept him employed after The Intruder faded into obscurity, leaving its composer without a prominent calling card as a solo composer for A-list pictures.
“Miscellaneous Pieces” finish off the CD, compiling various cues from a number of intriguing sources. The first set (3:43) come from an aborted film production from the fifties featuring another jaunty, briskly paced “Main Title” and bits of underscore that definitely recall some of his dramatic monster music (romantic segments, bearing a melodic similarity to Bernard Herrmann's plaintive Marnie, notwithstanding).
The standalone “Persian Beguine” is a fun piece of exotica (3:03) infused with a fluttering rhythmic section, and lush strings with flourishes from harp and vibes; and the CD's last cue is a goofy polka which, under the title “Pisha Paysha Polka,” played in the 1954 film Magnificent Obsession and was re-branded “The Pumpernickel Polka” when used on The Lawrence Welk Show.
The last goodie is a premiere recording with Brian Farrell performing “Suite for Mario,” a 1949 four-part piano suite comprised of a slow Prelude, a lofty Gavotte, a light Musette, and concluding Gigue. As the old Bay Cities Classical Hollywood CD series demonstrated, film composers could write some lovely intimate works, and Stein's suite, written when he was studying with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, is no exception. The emphasis is on light melodies, delicate, smooth technique, and one can feel subtle influences of jazz in the gentle Musette. The tempo is very loose and easy, but there's some sly shifts in moods before the suite concludes with the fast-moving, dense integration of notes in the Gigue.
With the exception of “Suite for Mario,” all cues are from original mono sources, and have good dynamic range, including the acetate sources for “Career for Two.” Like the simultaneously released album of The Blob, this is a mandatory addition, and another example of the skilled talent that was employed by the B-movie industry.
Note: to read an interview with producer David Schecter on MMM's CD and Herman Stein's career, click HERE !
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan