There are quite a few movies in which there is buried treasure. They fall a little short for a variety of reasons, ranging from too much ambition to faltering scripts, but you’re glad you dug around and discovered some gold. Seven of these are: A Matter of Life and Death, the audacious 1946 romantic fantasy by the remarkable British team of producer-director-writer filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger; The Big Country, an epic Hollywood Western from 1958 and directed by William Wyler and written by Robert Wilder; Captain Horatio Hornblower, a sea saga about a British warship in the Napoleonic era; St. Ives, a classic detective movie directed by J. Lee Thompson; the second Silver Streak, Colin Higgins’s 1976 comedy with Gene Wilder at his finest; and The Bad and the Beautiful, a self-referential Hollywood story with Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Gloria Grahame and other notables; and mainly, the wondrous score by David Raksin; and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a drama about Argentina focussed on the World War II years with Glenn Ford in the lead.
If you are in the mood for, and have the leisure time to pursue, a treasure hunt within movies through some occasionally rough country as well as through some contrived and sometimes very familiar country, and there is a fierce storm out there in the real world of the heathland and the logs in the fireplace are crackling, and you feel content and curious, and above all happily tolerant and of a generous spirit, then these might be for you. You will find some treasure.
A Matter of Life and Death. Powell and Pressburger have given us the great, flawless romance, I Know Where I’m Going!, and I don’t think they come close to it in any of their other handful of films, notable as their short oeuvre–if it can properly be called such–is to many film lovers. But their 1946 explicitly postwar movie, A Matter of Life and Death, has a great opening sequence, including a most urbane and effective voice-over, about the Universe and the tiny Earth within it and, a post war post mortem fantasy, asks: What if History weren’t so savage but were based on romantic love? Theirs is a most likely question to be asking in early 1946 after the global carnage; and the movie dramatizes a love story that simultaneously transcends that carnage and celebrates the precious Allied victory, so Powell and Pressburger do in their day follow the showbiz maxim, Timing is all. In a SETI moment for some extraterrestrial intelligence searching for other intelligent life and stumbling across Earth, the opening sequence surveys the Universe in the pre-Hubble fashion and then zooms in on Earth and finally on the firebombing of a German city and then to the cloud-veiled Channel just as many movies about romance in a big city start with the imposing urban skyline and finally zoom through the window of an apartment building and into the particular drama of the movie.
Immediately after the opening of A Matter of Life and Death, there is another great sequence in which RAF bomber pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) calls American WAC and ground-controller, June (whose last name is not given), and, just about to leap without a parachute to his death and escape the flames from his burning unreturning Lancaster bomber high over the Channel, makes a noble speech about being able to fall in love with her and the need for humans to become better; June is touched and smitten. What you expect and want then happens–a happy reversal of fortune. Unfortunately, in spite of an often witty and audacious script, and some surprising and entertaining movie gambits, the clunky old special effects technology of the day undermines your suspension of disbelief in some places. There is also a fair amount of preaching about the need for the Better and the Good. Maybe your phone will ring during some of those times. Go ahead and answer it, but don’t stay on the line too long.
For our other six movies, the musical scores are essentially interwoven with the dramatic action to create the joy of watching them.
The Big Country… well, there is the great Gregory Peck–he can make any movie work, at least during his scenes–and there is the excellent Jean Simmons and there is some beautiful great forspacious flat Western country–the Grand Range–Out There in Bygone Stirring Times and there is simply one of the best movie scores ever by the forgotten and gone Jerome Moross; wonderful movie music that just takes you over and perhaps even could stand on its own and, in fact, apparently has when played (and I think recorded) by a symphony orchestra in Prague as part of a classics program.
There is a charmingly romantic sequence when Peck (playing wealthy former sea captain, James McKay) and school marm Julie Moragon (Jean Simmons) visit at her ranch far Out There and which sequence has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s transporting and very, very entertaining and most classy. Unfortunately, it’s somewhere near the middle of the movie, so either you wait patiently or fast-forward. If the latter, stop when the scene ends in which the resolute Quiet Man Peck, as witnessed only by one ranch hand, breaks a stubborn, mean stallion in a corral after being bucked off that wild horse many times.
The worst news is Carroll Baker (she couldn’t hail a taxi convincingly) and Chuck Connors (he wasn’t a very good professional baseball player, either); Burl Ives…I don’t know; I keep trying to remember that Christmas special–is it Frosty or Rudolph? Charlton Heston is OK; I mean, Orson Welles thought Heston could act and he can; here he’s confined to a cliche Western type. And there is Charles Bickford as retired and very wealthy Major Terrill and, as usual, Bickford got up on the wrong side of the bed. He snarls a lot throughout. Ives, on the other hand, speechifies a lot. I think that what happens to Bickford and Ives at the end may happen because Robert Wilder just got fed-up (maybe with himself as well).
Beyond the excellent Peck-Simmons interlude, it’s ranchers fighting over water. Saddle up! Time to bring law and order to the range! (At least Moross’s music is a lot better than the Da-Ding! on Law and Order.)
Captain Horatio Hornblower is blessed with, first, Virginia Mayo; and, second, with a superb score by Robert Farnon. The stirring sea saga is more than nicely accompanied by Farnon’s stamping music. Peck’s English warship goes through several story passages in this movie, and each is well supported by the score. A triumph for Farnon.
St. Ives should have been better than it is. It opens with the hero, Ray St. Ives, one-time policeman and crime reporter and now a fledgling novelist in need of money, visiting a rich man in West Los Angeles to take on a sketchy mission for a nice fee–sound familiar?–and has a fine cast including Charles Bronson, John Houseman, Jacqueline Bisset, Maximilian Schell, Dana Elcar and Harry Guardino. Based on a novel by Ross Thomas, the story loses punch toward the end. But the movie has its moments. What makes St. Ives especially worth seeing, however, is the inspired score by Lalo Schifrin, one of the great composers of movie music. Notably wonderful is Schifrin’s music to accompany Bronson’s drives in his vintage Jaguar out to the mansion of his employer, Abner Procane (John Houseman).
Silver Streak was written by the late Colin Higgins. The movie is an uneven light comedic casserole of some of the major Hollywood storylines and motifs proven under heavy labor to work in all those Rialtos and Bijous and Capitols and Majestics and Century Domes and Jonesville 9 Mall Cineplexes down the decades of Tinsel Town. Silver Streak is a film fan’s Nostalgia Scavenger Hunt. The central inspiration is Hitchcock, especially The Master’s great train movies–The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. Higgins’s seriocomic train-adventure has allusions to: James Bond; America the Beautiful; America the Melting Pot; Cops and Robbers; the Buddy Movie; the Caper Movie; the Screwball Comedy; and the Disaster Movie.
The Mancini score for Silver Streak is for me his finest.
The Bad and the Beautiful has two wonderful things going for it. Gloria Grahame and David Raksin’s peerless score. Really, there’s nothing more to say.
The 1962 version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a better movie than critics have generally judged. It is a panorama of the bad times in Europe in the 1930s and 40s and an attempt at an epic of the New and Old Worlds and their differing spirits of place in that crucial period. But unquestionably fine is the haunting and beautiful love theme and overall score for the movie composed by Andre Previn. Barbara Streisand fell in love with that music, to which lyrics were added sometime after the film opened, and included it in her album of songs from movies. The music is transporting.
Here is Moross’s wonderful score for The Big Country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQTH3a0mjR8
And here is Schifrin’s superb score for St. Ives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ML57iY7kB8
And here is Mancini’s score for Silver Streak: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80afvthU834
And here is Raksin’s score for The Bad and the Beautiful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7AUCadYYuw
And here is Farnon’s score for Captain Horatio Hornblower: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVKlV3qJdHQ
And, finally, here is Previn’s score for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: NOTE: Click ONLY on the white Start Arrow in the image below which shows trains.