THE SERIOUS SIDE OF HENRY MANCINI.
By John Mansell. © 2021.MMI.
I have always loved the music of Henry Mancini and was thankful that the composer/conductor and arranger released so many albums of what is categorized as essentially easy listening music was but within these albums there were examples of film music and later the composer released a whole bunch of film music compilations, these included the compositions of Mancini and his own take on various themes by other composers. At the time of these albums being released which would have been the early to mid-1970’s, original soundtracks were few and far between and it was rare for a score to be released unless it was a big movie such as Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia or maybe something by Max Steiner and Miklos Rozsa. As in Ben Hur, El Cid, and Gone with The Wind etc. Mancini made film music accessible to fans via his various compilations, one of the most popular I think was his album that included Love Story, and one entitled Z and other film themes, these presented film music to collectors and music fans in the form more mainstream arrangements, and I think Mancini like British composer Ron Goodwin who did a similar series of compilations in the form of Adventure and Excitement on the EMI label helped film music become popular. Of course, there have been many compilations entitled The Best of Henry Mancini, that featured the composer own compositionsbut is there such a collection or indeed a collection big enough to encompass and cover the wealth of this Music smiths’ output, I think not.
Back in the 1970’s it was hard to find soundtracks as many shops did not stock them, until the emergence of shops such as Harlequin records in London and places such as Soundtrack run by Michael Jones and 58 Dean Street. Owned by Derek. Mancini was always it seemed popular and even today his music lives on whether it be a theme from a TV show or a movie or an arrangement of a pop song, there is so much of his material available as RCA released near on a hundred albums featuring his musical genius. But for a moment try and forget the sweet sounds of Mancini, blank out if you can Moon River, The Pink Panther, and the sad and somewhat lonely sound of the opening theme for The Days of Wine and Roses and look deeper and maybe enter the slightly darker side of Mancini’s music for film and TV. Because if you can do that there are so many classic works and powerful compositions that flowed from his ever-inventive mind.
I mentioned The Days of Wine and Roses, and yes, it is a sweet and sentimental theme that the composer fashioned for the movie, but the movie itself was a serious look at alcoholism, Mancini’s somewhat melancholy theme playing opposites to the storyline of the movie. The opening faraway sounding horn purveying a fragility, a feeling of desperation, loneliness, and of emptiness. The theme seemed somewhat out of place, but because of its lilting and haunting sound it became even more effective for audiences when watching the events unfolding in the movie. I suppose one of the prime examples of Mancini in dramatic mood is his score for Charade, again the soundtrack contained a syrupy sounding song, but the actual score was filled to overflowing with dramatic and powerful pieces, and even the opening of the title song had to it a sinister atmosphere about it. But the soundtrack when released contained many of the source music cues as opposed to the score, thankfully this was remedied much later when the score was issued in all its glory as part of Universals 100th Anniversary.
In the Aliquippa High School yearbook of 1942 there was an entry from a tutor that spoke of one of the students that attended the school, it read:
“ A true music lover, collects records, and has also written a handful of beautiful themes and compositions. He wishes to continue his music studies and eventually to have his own orchestra”.
The student that this referred to was Henry Mancini. Mancini, was born in Little Italy, which was a neighbourhood located in Cleveland. The young Mancini was brought up in West Aliquippa near the steel town of Pittsburgh. His parents were immigrants and moved to the United States from the Abruzzo region of Italy. It was Mancini’s Father Quinto who was a steelworker that encouraged his son to become involved in music and made him have Piccolo lessons from the age of just eight. From the age of twelve Mancini also began to take lessons for piano and after graduating from High School he attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York, these studies were cut short because Mancini was drafted into the army mid-way through 1943 where he initially served as an infantryman, later in 1944 he transferred to the Army Band and was also present at the liberation of the Mauthausen Gusen concentration camp which was located in the south of Germany. After being demobbed Mancini returned to his music and became a pianist and arranger for the newly re-formed Glenn Miller Band. His career for film music composition however began in 1952 when he was signed up by Universal Pictures and contributed music for some of that studio’s movies that have since attained something of a cult or classic status.
It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, (which also included an early acting appearance for Clint Eastwood), This Island Earth, and The Glenn Miller Story. After working for Universal Mancini decided to strike out on his own as an independent composer and soon penned a theme for a television series that endures to this day, Peter Gunn was the first time that the composer worked with filmmaker Blake Edwards and as we all are aware it was not the last time that this creative duo collaborated. Edwards turned to Mancini many times in the ensuing years and their collaborative partnership lasted for thirty-five years, with Mancini scoring films such as The Pink Panther, The Great Race, 10, Experiment in Terror, The Party, Days of Wine and Roses, Victor/Victoria and most notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The composer also collaborated with several A listed directors such as Howard Hawks, Stanley Kramer, George Roy Hill, Norman Jewison, Martin Ritt, Stanley Donen, and Vittorio De Sica. The composers score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy in 1971 was rejected by the filmmaker and replaced with a soundtrack by Ron Goodwin, the collaboration between Mancini and Hitchcock was said to be frosty at the very least, but I suspect this was more the director than the composer. And if you examine photos of the scoring sessions, one can see that Mancini was not at ease.
The composer has created wonderfully atmospheric scores for thrillers, horrors, and dramas, and in many of them there was no sign of a sweet little lyric, instead we were treated to commanding and highly dramatic themes and compositions as in Lifeforce (1985), for which Mancini provided a not only powerful but chilling soundtrack, the film itself was not that memorable and it is probably the music that is discussed more than the actual storyline.
The film had a plot that involved space vampires, probably not the type of movie that Mancini fans would have thought of him scoring, however his robust and highly dramatic opening theme soon became a firm favourite, and as I already said the music that Mancini penned is certainly more memorable than the film itself.
The movie was directed by Tobe Hooper and had an impressive cast that included Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Nicholas Ball, Peter Firth, and Mathilda May. The story starts with the space shuttle Churchill being assigned to observe Halley’s Comet under the command of Colonel Tom Carlsen. They see a strange form attached to the comet and Carlsen goes with a team to investigate. They find three humanoid life forms in caskets, and they transport these to the Churchill. However, Earth loses contact with the shuttle and the Space Research Centre decides that they must send another spacecraft to search the Churchill. They find the crew dead and the shuttle burnt and one rescue pod missing.
They discover the humanoids and take them back to earth. But soon Dr. Hans Fallada and his team discover that the Space Girl that they have brought to earth is a sort of vampire and drains the life force from people, transforming them into zombies. When the authorities find that Colonel Tom Carlsen has survived, they summon him to explain what happened in the Churchill. Carlsen tells an incredible story about the three aliens, and he teams up with Colonel Colin Caine to save mankind from the evil vampires from space.
So, a fusion of horror and Sci fi, the score was the work of both Mancini and Michael Kamen, with Kamen contributing additional music tracks. It is a powerful score, and the music works so well in the movie as well as being appealing to listen to just as music.
The Night Visitor is a score by Mancini that I cherish. Why? Well because if you were to listen to it and not be told who the composer was, I do not think anyone would be able to guess correctly, it is at various points in its development a complex score, with many atonal textures and colours, Mancini employing low woods, organ, and a slightly off kilter sounding piano that is spidery and chilling at certain points to create a dark and threatening atmosphere, the music being as bleak and icy as the location where the story is set. The central theme however is slightly more melodic, and theme driven which appears throughout in various arrangements, but it’s in no way lilting or emotional, the mood conveyed is apprehensive and tantalisingly shadowy, threatening, and malevolent which proved to be perfect for the movie. Mancini uses synthesiser/organ and harpsichord to great effect to create an eerie, cold, and unsettling atmosphere.
He did arrange the central theme and it appears on the Love Story album but it is far more commercial and melodic than it is presented within the score itself. The film which was directed by Laslo Benedek and starred Max Von Sydow, Trevor Howard, and Liv Ullman.
The film focused upon a convicted murderer named Salem, who after being found guilty is committed to a mental institute, set in Scandinavia, it tells the story of the man’s false conviction for a crime that he did not commit and his revenge on the people who he see’s responsible for him being locked away, venturing out at night from the asylum and exacts his vengeance upon them. The films tag line was “If your skin doesn’t crawl then its on too tight”. And this tag line and the overall mood of the movie was assisted greatly by Mancini’s score.
Nine years prior to The Night Visitor, Mancini scored the Blake Edwards movie Experiment in Terror, the film, which was a tense thriller starred Glenn Ford and Lee Remick, as a bank teller Kelly Sherwood who arrives home one evening from work to be threatened by a stranger who tells her he will harm both her and her sister if she does not do as he tells her.
He wants her to carry out a heist at the bank forcing her to take $100,000 otherwise he will kill her sister and then her. Kelly does not see his face but notes he has difficulty breathing as if he is asthmatic. Kelly succeeds in luring the criminal to where FBI agents are waiting. But when her sister is abducted by the stranger, Kelly tries to stay calm to help the FBI to catch the criminal.
At the time of the film’s release 1962, there was a trend to utilise auto harps, which is a type of Zither, that has a series of sprung and padded bars which allow the playing of chords by damping certain strings, it can create a somewhat sinister sound, and this is probably why Mancini decided to use the instrument within his score. He would be the first film music composer to do so, he used two in the main theme of the movie, one being strummed the other picking out the central theme both being punctuated by a bass electric guitar and augmented via big band influenced brass, romantic but at the same time apprehensive strings and a laid-back jazz slanted percussive backing track. Mancini experimented with the instrument and found the sound that he wanted was realised by the strings of the Auto Harp being stroked with a pick, its sound is in many ways similar to the cymbalom and at times it is rather stark sounding or malevolent.
The score also included a variety of musical styles with source music tracks leaning towards a big band sound and then there was a jazz or ragtime sounding piano piece that accompanied a silent movie chase sequence. The composer would also utilise the auto harp sound in other scores such as the John Wayne film Hatari in the same year, this time combining it with percussion and brass. Back to 1958 for the next example of Mancini in dramatic mood for the Orson Welles thriller Touch of Evil in which Mancini combined dark orchestral colours and styles with jazz influenced compositions.
The result was a score that still ranks as one of his best. The film which was set on the Mexican border, was a dark affair and Mancini’s music underlined and mirrored the brooding and moody atmosphere, the composer utilised the Universal International Orchestra for the score but also had accomplished west coast jazz musicians brought in to bolster the performance of the music, these included, Shelly Manne, Ronnie Lang, and Pete Candoli, on drums, saxophone, and trumpet respectively. It was an unusual score because the music for the film was made up in the main of source music cues, with a Latin style big band or at times rock flavour. With the Universal International orchestra being conducted by Joseph Gershenson who had assigned Mancini to score the picture.
Mancini commented on Orson Welles and a Touch of Evil, “Orson Welles had a perception of everything in the film, including the music. He knew. He truly understood film scoring. …Touch of Evil was one of the best things I’ve ever done”.
It was also in 1958 that Mancini worked on the TV series Peter Gunn, which was for Blake Edwards, the show ran from 1958 through to 1961, and the gritty and hard-hitting theme that Mancini wrote for the show was to become one of his signature pieces. Edwards decided that the show should have a jazz influenced soundtrack because the central character hung out in a jazz club.
So, Mancini once again turned to west coast musicians to perform his music, this time they included John Williams who played piano on the soundtrack. The album of the Peter Gunn soundtrack went onto become a gold record for Mancini and led to a recording contract with RCA. It was for this score also that the composer first used bass flutes, which since that day have me a sound that we associate with Mancini.
The soundtrack albums for Peter Gunn were also amongst the first to be recorded in stereo. In 1970 Mancini scored four movies and one TV series, Sunflower, Darlin Lili, The Courtship of Eddies Father (TV), The Molly Maguires, and The Master of the Islands, or The Hawaiians as it was entitled in the United States. The latter two titles called for more dramatic scores but also contained that Mancini sound.
The Molly Maguires particularly stood out I thought, it was and still is a powerful score. With Mancini fashioning traditional sounding Irish melodies and combining these with rich, vibrant, and commanding action cues for the movie. The Hawaiians too contained an adventurous sounding theme but had a few dark and more apprehensive cues as in The Streets of Chinatown and Pineapple Pirates. The movie which starred Charlton Heston, was directed by Tom Gries and based upon the 1959 novel by James A. Michener. It was the sequel to the movie Hawaii which was released in 1966 and scored by Elmer Bernstein. Just as a matter of trivia Bette Midler was in both movies as an extra.
“Day belongs to man, but night is theirs”.
Is the tag line to the movie Nightwing, as the title suggests a horror movie. Released in 1979 the movie was directed by Arthur Hiller, it was a film that took its inspiration from Jaws and dabbled with the idea of wild animals running amok at the expense of humans. There were a few movies of this persuasion during the 1970’s and 1980’s, which included and Grizzly in 1976, Orca Killer Whale (1977) and The Swarm from 1978. to mention but three. Nightwing, was not a high-profile movie and the cast although good was not particularly in the A list category, British actor David Warner featured as did Nick Mancuso, with appearances by vintage actors such as Strother Martin.
But it was watchable and at times interesting. The plot is pretty run of the mill and involves a colony of vampire bats that are terrorizing a small Indian community in New Mexico. It’s basically a standard “Nature goes berserk” scenario until the end of the movie when there is a twist in the tale that involves the discovery of supernatural forces that are driving the creatures. As always Mancini provided a score that worked well with the film and supported its often-flimsy storyline, again the music is possible better than the movie, but that is I suppose a matter of opinion. Mancini once again fashioned a dark sounding score, that at times was atonal and sinewy but with Mancini there is always a theme that stands out and Nightwing is no exception, because of the setting of the movie the composer provided an ethnic sounding them which was performed via a type of whistling realised on synthesiser, he underlined this with icy sounding strings and apprehensive brass, that themselves were underscored by dark and low string performances that are supported by harp that punctuates the proceedings.
Mancini also enlisted woods thus creating a wonderfully tense ambience but remaining melodic and melancholy at the same time. When you think about the film scores of Henry Mancini one invariably looks to the hit soundtracks with the songs and popular tunes, and the jazz flavoured works that have that infectious aura about them. But as we can clearly see from the few titles I have highlighted, Mancini was more than capable of turning his hand to any genre, dark, light, romantic/comedy, and even musicals.
Mancini’s musical expertise was never in doubt by anyone. His music elevated and supported, punctuated, and gave greater impact to scenarios, his music at times was the comedic punchline to so many on screen gags, and at the same time often sent chills down an audience’s spine, it was always appealing within the movies he worked on and satisfying and inspiring away from them.