Film is the most collaborative of the arts (well, comic books have to rank up there, too, but that discussion is for another time). When you think about great movie partnerships, you usually think of actors who are magical together. I’m thinking here of the screen pairing of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in movies such as The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940), and Penny Serenade (1941). Or Robert Redford and Paul Newman’s two classic pairings in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973).
Or you may be thinking of the classic director/actor pairings, like Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who both started their careers with memorable work together in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull (1980). Another great director/actor combo was John Ford and John Wayne, who worked together regularly, but most notably in Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956). The longest partnership of this type may have been Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, who worked together on sixteen films, including such masterpieces as Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961).
But some of the most deeply entwined partnerships are actually between directors and composers, especially when considering how much of a difference it makes to the audience experience. For instance, it’s hard for us as moviegoers to think of a Steven Spielberg movie without a John Williams score. Today, I am going to look at some of the best of these pairings. Many of these duos have worked together on many films, so I will be examining the films that provide the best example of how they work together to tell a story.
Williams has scored all but three of Spielberg’s movies in a collaborative adventure that began almost forty five years ago with Jaws (1975) and continued through the next several decades, including such diverse films as Star Wars (1977), E.T. (1982), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Catch Me If You Can (2002). For me, their finest collaboration was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The five-note motif that the aliens use to signal their arrival and which the scientists use to beckon the aliens has become what Spielberg described as “a character in the movie.” This simple motif goes like this: Start with a tone, then go up a full tone, then down a major third, then down a full octave, then up a perfect fourth.
It was that simple. Williams reportedly presented Spielberg with nearly 100 different possible musical motifs to be used as signals, and this is the one they settled on. It’s hypnotic. The rest of the score is magnificent, stirring, frenetic at times, powerful, and full. My favorite part of the score, however, is a tiny moment at the end. I have always believed that Close Encounters isn’t really about space aliens; it’s about the dreams we each have for our lives, about how we sometimes feel out of place and lost and feel we belong somewhere else. And there it is. As Richard Dreyfuss’s character enters the spaceship and it begins to leave Earth, Williams quotes the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” This is the moment when director and composer mesh into a quiet statement of the theme: wishing upon a star. That’s what this movie is about, and they reveal it to us in that moment. It’s perfect.
All of Tim Burton’s first six movies were scored by Danny Elfman. They are two peas in a pod, artistically, and it’s hard to imagine two artists more in sync with the other’s vision. Burton has a vividly visual and eccentric style of filmmaking that is both amusing and heartfelt. Elfman came out of the avant-garde art-rock movement of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Their collaboration started with the up-tempo, quirky, amusing score Elfman wrote for Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), but reached its apogee in Burton’s spectacular The Nightmare Before Christmas, a wildly inventive film that blended Halloween with Christmas in a daring stop-action animated style that had seemingly gone out of style with the demise of the “Gumby” cartoons. Elfman’s spidery, experimental, and exuberant score perfectly matches the tone and style of this film. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine the film working with anyone else composing for this endlessly entertaining movie.
In one ten-year period, Bernard Herrmann composed the scores for seven Hitchcock films, including North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and Marnie (1964). In each of these films, Herrmann captures the psychological tension, terror, and anxiety of Hitchcock’s visions. The best example of their partnership, however, in my mind, is Vertigo (1958). First of all, let’s just say this: Vertigo is one of the strangest American movies ever made. It’s a festival of Freudian psychoanalytic theory. While the film has been highly-regarded for many years, I find its psychological terror increasingly less convincing and the actions of the main characters (James Stewart and Kim Novak) implausible in almost jaw-dropping ways. What makes this movie still work for me, however, is Herrmann’s brilliantly dissonant and eerie score. Honestly, the score carries the film and makes rewatching still worth it.
Elmer Bernstein is widely regarded as one of the titans of film composing, up there with John Williams and Bernard Herrmann. After a career spent writing scores for such serious films as The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963), Bernstein was asked by John Landis to score the opening theme and the incidental music for his college fraternity gross-out comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). The studio was opposed, but Landis was convinced that Bernstein’s serious music would heighten the comedy. He was right. It marked the beginning of a 15-year collaboration between the two. The high point, for me at least, was Landis’ 1981 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London. This is a much better movie than you might think it’s going to be. It’s genuinely scary, tremendously witty, and visually spectacular. The special effects are great. Bernstein’s score, which is orchestrally spare and piercing, ramps up the tensions to terrifying heights in several scenes. A marvelous soundtrack overall.
It’s very early on a summer Sunday morning in Manhattan, and a lone cab comes driving down Fifth Avenue and stops in front of the Tiffany’s & Co. store. Out steps Audrey Hepburn in a full-length Givenchy gown and enormous sunglasses. Her hair is perfect. She walks over to a window, gazes at the diamonds on display, and takes a cruller and a cup of coffee out of a paper bag and nibbles on breakfast. All the while the song “Moon River” by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini is playing. It’s a completely ridiculous scene, but it makes you wonder what’s next. Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini worked on numerous projects together, including Operation Petticoat (1959), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Experiment in Terror (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), and Victor/Victoria (1982). But was there ever a moment as transcendent as the swell of “Moon River” as Audrey Hepburn walks up to the Tiffany store? You’re humming that tune right now, aren’t you? Of course, you are. So am I. Watch it again and sigh…
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.