Composer Alex North has always acquitted himself well when scoring films, and certainly shook-up the Hollywood musical pepper pot with A Streetcar Named Desire, but has not been accorded quite all the kudos he surely deserves. Yes, most film music aficionados possess and merit his score for Spartacus, but then, although this is a politically astute film, and infused with personal drama, it is also demonstrably an action epic – with North’s vibrant music as easily accessible as the film’s bravura action episodes. Film music is often appreciated on or at a "schoolboy" level – where the merging of vigorous music and violent action pulses the blood and excites youthful male enthusiasm. But many, if not most of Alex North’s commissions have been for dialogue-led domestic dramas – and the appeal is less testosterone-fed, the music more introspective – but often more artful – the intricacies of scoring dialogue and reflecting the human condition more involved than providing music of cut and dash for brutish sequences.
One such intricate and involved score is that for John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down, an intimate family drama set in Ohio concerning a disconsolate drifter, Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty), who is idolised by his younger brother, Clinton (Brandon De Wilde), and worshipped by his alcoholic father (Karl Malden) and doting mother (Angela Lansbury), and whose affair with the spinsterish Echo (Eva Marie Saint) leads to disillusionment and tragedy.
Alex North approaches his subject with delicacy and panache – leading with an oddly accented main title composition at once bluesy and tropical in feel, the scoring a reflection of the film’s opening locale - the Florida Keys. We are immediately in the musical landscape of North’s Death Of A Salesman, The Children’s Hour and The Long Hot Summer, the compositions wistful, chamber-like, with select woodwind or soprano saxophone here most usually detailing what Hollywood had perennially delegated to the violin – although North also deftly deploys his strings to heartfelt effect in music expressing deep-felt emotion, as cue after cue descends via darker hues to compositions altogether more melancholy as the tale rounds to its bleak conclusion. The scoring has an almost ephemeral feel, conjured by orchestrations so exacting, so precise, so refined, that the music seems almost translucent, with each instrument and arc of invention delineated with crystalline clarity.
The Outrage is a fairly faithful Hollywoodian adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Japanese film Rashomon, which cleverly explained how sundry points of view on a single event can be contradictory and lead to differing conclusions as to veracity and fact. With its Americanisation the locale is shifted south of the border, down Mexico way, and to the 1870s, with Toshiro Mifune’s original alleged rapist and murderer recast in the guise of Paul Newman’s oafish bandit - here abetted by a sterling cast including Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey, Edward G Robinson, and a young William Shatner. If ultimately director Martin Ritt seemed too in awe of the Japanese matrix and too artful in his approach for American tastes, then Alex North was confidently in his milieu here – his early studies with the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas paying dividends in the vibrant colouring of North’s exotic score, alive throughout with the rattle of south-American percussive devices. Essentially a companion piece to North’s later Under The Volcano, this masterful score is presented here in chronological order as one continuous suite.
Although recorded in the early Sixties the music for both All Fall Down and The Outrage could almost have been taped last week – the stereo sound on each is so superlative throughout – an amalgam of initially excellent close-miking and deft recent re-mastering. The artwork for this disc reflects the gleaming black and white of the two films’ original monochrome cinematography - whilst the ample booklet is stuffed with stills plus a film and cue by cue analysis by Lukas Kendall and Geoff Bond which is wonderfully informative.
It will be noticed that I’ve awarded this album four stars. However, this is essentially a five-star disc – it is just that the standard of composition for Alex North is so high I felt I had to leave some headroom for other future North discs which might merit even more praise than this one!