The inside cover of this CD booklet carries the credit 'Album concept by Christopher Palmer' and at the foot of the same page there is the dedication: "This album is dedicated to the memory of Christopher Palmer (1947-1995) Film Music's greatest champion". Never was there a truer description! I would like to draw attention to the chapter on Roy Webb in Palmer's book, The Composer in Hollywood published by Marion Boyars Publishers Inc (distributed in the US by Rizzoli International Publications, New York.) Read in conjunction with this splendid compilation, it sheds light on one of the lesser known talents of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Webb wrote exclusively for RKO Radio. He began by orchestrating Rio Rita in 1929 and continued to work for the studio until its demise in the mid-fifties. He created over 300 scores. In his interesting notes, David Wishart suggests that Webb was overshadowed by the composers from rival bigger studios who had the stars and larger budgets. RKO invested in more intelligent, thought-provoking, often darker film noir stories with less popular stars, although they often used stars in the making - consider for example the 1947 film, Out of the Past (or Build My Gallows High as it was known in the UK) which boasted Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer above the title and Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming below it.
In writing for such story lines Webb eschewed the more opulent scores of say Max Steiner (who of course had scored King Kong while he was at RKO – and less famously, and without credit, Rio Rita!) and Alfred Newman in favour of a more astringent modern approach (in Crossfire and They Won't Believe Me for instance) also adopted by Miklós Rózsa for his film noir scores. Webb's romantic music is more subtle too, not so much on the surface; the big sweeping heart-on-sleeve gesture is rarely made - perhaps this is another reason for his music being overlooked? Having said that there is much to admire as this OST compilation shows.
The music for Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) is probably some of Webb's best known and many would argue his best score. It has one of his most memorable darkly romantic themes, offset with some eerily atmospheric material in keeping with the twists of the suspenseful plot in which the characters and their motives seem shifting and enigmatic. Yet there is also impressive scores mixing the lyrically romantic and starkly dramatic for Orson Welles's Journey into Fear a World War II spy drama set in Turkey, and the crime drama, Out of the Past.
Webb, like his colleagues at the other Hollywood studios was asked to turn his hand to all types of film. His versatility here is demonstrated in his eighteenth-century style music, again draped with shadows, for Bedlam and the exciting, sensuous music for Sinbad the Sailor which has a languid long-limbed love theme again edged by intrigue. There is an extensive ten minute suite from The Locket another sinister thriller about a mentally unstable woman (played by Larraine Day) who destroys three men; Webb's romantic music describing the woman's undoubted charms is tinged with a slinkiness, rather than genuine warmth, and is consequently vaguely disturbing. Another disturbing score is the claustrophobic mist-shrouded, creepy music for The Ghost Ship, full of bleak swirling undulating string figures.
The most expansive excerpts come from the Val Lewton production of The Curse of the Cat People. Beginning with the familiar RKO Radio four-note motif over the radio mast logo, the eighteen minute two-movement suite includes, in the first movement, 'Amy and Irena', homely, tender music for the relationship between the little girl Amy and her protector the benevolent ghost, Irena. There are also themes suggesting the child's world of wonder and imagination and 'friendly' ghostly music for Irena. In the second movement, for 'The Old House' cue, the music plunges into sinister depths as the child is threatened by the twisted and jealous Julia Faron and her tales of a headless horseman.
A valuable compilation that should be in every serious film music enthusiast's collection and very generous too at over 70 minutes playing time.