Suffering in Rhythm: The ‘Haunting Melody’ in Film Noir

Robert Miklitsch

Robert Miklitsch

The pre-title sequence of ‘Suffering with Rhythm’ opens with a scene near the end of Alan Parker’s ‘Angel Heart’ (1987) where Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) discovers to his horror that he is Johnny Favorite, the singer on the “blue” Vocalion record that the Mephistophelian Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) has just put on the phonograph.

The song is ‘Girl of My Dreams,’ which in reality was recorded on Decca in 1937 by Kenny Sargent backed by Glenn Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and its melody haunts Harry and is the soundtrack to his palpable suffering. As such, it is appropriate, not to say perfect, way to kick off Padraic Killeen’s video graphics essay, which is subtitled ‘The ‘Haunting Melody’ of Film Noir’ and which is inspired by classic and neo-noir as well as Theodor Reik, whose postulate — “the intimacy of musical experience […] cannot be caught in the paltry net of words we utter” — sutures the pre-title sequence.

It is worth noting that ‘Angel Heart’ is especially evocative in the context of audiovisuality since Parker’s film is in part about possession — music, of course, has long been figuratively linked to both divine and demonic possession — and because the Faustian bargain — Johnny Favorite has sold his soul to the devil for fame and fortune — has been mythologized in the Delta blues in the notion of the “crossroads” and in the person of Robert Johnson.

It is also worth noting that the scene from ‘Angel Heart’ anticipates the conclusion of Killeen’s essay, which is the execution scene from ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ (2001) scored to Beethoven’s ‘Sonata Pathétique’ (performed by Carter Burwell). However, whereas in the Coen brothers’ film the Beethoven tenders what Killeen calls a “strange sense of affirmation” — “a peculiar state of grace” — that was reflected in the pacific demeanour of the condemned man, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton), Harry Angel in ‘Angel Heart’ is not so much “suffering in rhythm” in the sense that Roquentin wishes to do in Sartre’s Nausea — “without complacency, without self-pity, with an arid purity” — as being subjected, to the point of torture, to the “sweet,” big-band strains of ‘Girl of My Dreams.’

The segue from ‘Angel Heart’ to the body of the essay — a shot from Black Angel of a record spinning on a phonograph — effects a transition from 1987 to 1946: from, that is, neo- to classic noir. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the clips that follow are not only from 1940s noirs but, given the role of the femme fatale in the genre, depict romantic idealisation and its dark twin, disillusionment. So, in the first of the two excerpts from ‘Cat People’ (1942), the female protagonist of Jacques Tourneur’s film, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), has brought an entranced Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) to her perfumed apartment — the lighting is crepuscular — where she hums an old French nursery song, ‘Dodo, L’Enfant do,’ a leitmotif that, arranged by noir maestro Roy Webb, captures her elusive feline charisma. However, in the second excerpt (and in a clever musical conceit), the very same motif is audible in the form of a record playing on a phonograph and Oliver, who has since learned about Irena’s fatal alter ego, switches off the record player like a light.

The music in the remainder of the essay is primarily diegetic where the sources are the human voice, humming (‘Shadow of a Doubt’ [1943]), whistling (‘Scarlet Street’ [1945]), or singing (‘The Lady from Shanghai’ [1948]); mechanical, jukebox (‘Detour’ [1945]), music box (‘The Locket’ [1946]), or record player (‘Scarlet Street’); and instrumental, i.e., the piano (‘Black Angel’, ‘Blade Runner’ [1982]). Given the preponderance of classic noirs and black-and-white film stock, the inclusion of a colour neo-noir like ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973) is startling, both aurally and visually.

In Robert Altman’s revisionist noir, a quintessentially ‘Altmanesque’ take on a late Chandler novel, the title song materialises first as a Clydie King ballad, then as muzak in a supermarket, and finally as a jazz-inflected tune on a car radio (performed by West Coast vocalist and trumpeter Jack Sheldon). The technique is not new (compare, for example, the use of monothematic source music in ‘Out of the Past’ [1947]) but the variety of sources — ten in all — is.

The fact that ‘The Long Goodbye’ was composed by a classic lyricist, Johnny Mercer, and one of the most celebrated contemporary Hollywood composers, John Williams, is a reminder that all of the music featured in Killeen’s essay has been composed. This is very much to the point not only with respect to ‘Angel Heart’ but ‘Black Angel’ since ‘Heartbreak,’ the ‘Express 78’ playing on the phonograph in the scene clipped from the latter film, was written by Edgar Fairchild and Jack Brooks but is composed in the film by Marty Blair (Dan Duryea), who was hopelessly in love with Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Blair’s romantic despair is dramatised in a second clip from the same film where he is furiously playing ‘Heartbreak’ on a bar piano — note the drink and burning cigarette on the lid — before he melodramatically collapses, his hand and head hitting the keyboard with a dissonant thud.

The issue of the composition is also central to the penultimate scene in the essay — from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir, ‘Blade Runner’. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is sitting at a piano that’s “decorated” with photographs and musical scores. The melody that he is plinking on the piano, ‘Memories of Green,’ was composed by Vangelis and it is the prompt for Deckard’s daydream, a fantasia in which an origami-white unicorn gallops through a glen. (The slightly “drunken” effect, which is intended to mime Deckard’s state, was achieved by playing a Steinway Grand piano through an Electroharmonix ‘Electric Mistress’ guitar flanger pedal accompanied by electronic noises from a 1978 Bambino handheld computer game, ‘UFO Master Blaster Station’.)

The tune conjures the sort of “green thought in a green shade” evoked in Andrew Marvell’s famous poem — a world diametrically opposed to the rain-swept, trash-littered mean streets of the metropolis that the knight-errant must traverse in ‘Blade Runner’ — and broaches a question that vexes Deckard like the melody from a half-remembered song: Am I human or replicant? Although Deckard may well be a replicant — a machine, as it were, in the garden — making music, as he does, is one of the most human things a being can do.

In conclusion, while I quite understand the author’s desire to let the clips speak for themselves (hence the intertitles), I wonder if there could not be a little more information about the music in each clip. I have tried to do some of this in my commentary by way of illustration and explication. Along these same lines, I might as well mention that there is also very little in the way of narrative context so that in some of the clips it is impossible to know what, exactly, is happening (unless, of course, one happens to know the film very well). The present format is fine for certain films like ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ where the use of the music is relatively self-explanatory, but I am not so sure the same can be said for the clips from ‘Angel Heart’.

Finally, two reminders. One, the music in a film is only one part of a soundtrack, which comprises, among other things, silence, dialogue (the exchange about King John in ‘Cat People’), and sound effects (the skipping record in ‘Scarlet Street’). I am thinking as well of the voice-over in the excerpt from Detour or the sound of Ed Crane being prepared to be executed in the concluding clip from ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There.’ In the former, the voice-over can be said to produce a halo-effect in which the “tune” on the jukebox is cocooned like a Chinese box within the narration. In the latter, the sound of the guards tightening the leather straps and the attendant using a razor to scrape the hair off Ed Crane’s leg provides a counterpoint of sorts to the transcendental tonality of the Beethoven sonata.

Two, music and sound in general possess, it seems to me, a transactional relationship, even “electric affinity,” with not only mise-en-scène — the “expressive objects” that the author notes (see, as well, the statue of the knight with his cat-impaled sword raised in the second clip from ‘Cat People’) but, inter alia, editing (the recourse to montage in the ‘Angel Heart’ clip), lighting (the blinking neon light in ‘Scarlet Street’ — a classic noir effect), camera angle (the extraordinary low-angle shot of Nancy [Laraine Day] in ‘The Locket’), camera distance (the canted, “choker” close-up of Elsa Banister [Rita Hayworth] in ‘The Lady from Shanghai’), and camera movement (the slow forward-tracking shot in ‘Angel Heart’ and the alternating reverse/forward one in ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’).

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