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Exploring the Artefacts #16: Unearthing Some Film Noir Music Gems

Exploring The Artefacts is a series in which I examine some unique and significant components, or by-products, of cinema storytelling that are often under-appreciated. 


The subject of Films Noir has experienced a renaissance in the past several or so decades. Often overlooked amongst the prolific discussion of this category’s visual aesthetics and their sophisticated evolution of criminal subject matter are the substantial creative contributions made by film noir composers.


These scores may remind us that fate will ultimately decide the characters' outcome and that it won't be "pretty." Perhaps they underline their subjects' hopes and dreams, a pronounced emotional attachment or the uncertainty of a harsh and unforgiving environment. They may even offer a combination of these and other important narrative descriptions vital to noir’s most intrinsic qualities.


In a Facebook chat room on Classic Film Noir, a member posted a stimulating question regarding which film of that type had the best musical score. The post garnered a flurry of well considered responses mentioning many well known, and a few not so well known, films and composers alike.


This brought to mind a handful of films noir (five to be exact) produced during the classic time period that went unmentioned, deserving of greater recognition for their distinctive depictions of heated reactions within noir’s fatalistic atmosphere of cold indifference. Although varied in approach, all of these somewhat neglected scores are truly inspired and provide a pivotal contribution to the film noir lexicon.


Here are the opening titles to five films noir deserving of more attention for their composers’ consequential input:

1. Ace in the Hole (1951) Composer: Hugo Friedhofer

There’s probably not much more that could foreshadow a film’s overall grim perspective than having its opening credits over dirt. Matching that rock bottom feeling of visual despair is Hugo Friedhofer’s music: impersonal, tragic but still compelling with notes of hopefulness, the last of which is shared by many a noir hero.

2. The Big Combo (1955) Composer: David Raksin

David Raksin’s bold and jazzy minor-key opening theme over an evening city skyline is noir personified, assuring us in no uncertain terms, this uncaring urban hustle won’t skip a beat no matter how many dark and dirty deeds are perpetrated within its surrounds.

3. Desert Fury (1947) Composer: Miklos Rozsa

Rozsa is no stranger to films noir having composed scores to some of its best including The Asphalt Jungle, Criss Cross and The Killers to name but a few. This is one of his lesser known contributions. Desert Fury still has his signature dynamic muscular framework only here there’s an underlying infusion of melodrama suggestive of the characters’ feverish passions in play, heightened sentiment being another noir trademark.

4. The Killing (1956) Composer: Gerald Fried

Gerald Fried’s wildly atonal, nonetheless exhilarating, score, announces its formidable presence even before the horses bolt from the gate. The composer’s chaotic fanfares signal the story’s off-kilter timeline and are creatively interspersed throughout a steady march toward this noir’s inevitable finale of destruction.

5. They Won’t Believe Me (1947) Composer: Roy Webb

The decisive hand of Fate is evident in Roy Webb’s haunting score by way of its ‘Brahmsian’ opening, specifically the use of steady timpani beats amidst the woodwinds’ swirling netherworld atmospherics, all perfectly suited to a film noir universe.