In 1939, queen of Hollywood melodrama Bette Davis starred in Dark Victory – the tragic story of a wealthy party girl dying of a brain tumour.
The audience knows that death will follow quickly after blindness. In the finale, her character’s vision begins to falter and she moves slowly up a grand staircase.
Davis knew this moment would secure her chance of a third Academy Award.
She asked the director, “Who’s scoring this film?” and was told it was the supremely talented Max Steiner.
Steiner had composed the revolutionary score to King Kong in 1933. It was the first full Hollywood soundtrack, and one that allowed its fans to empathise with the fate of a plasticine gorilla.
Davis was a clever woman. She understood the value of a soaring musical score, but feared its ability to outshine a performance.
“Well,” she declared, “either I am going up those stairs or Max Steiner is going up those stairs, but not the two of us together.”
Davis’ opinion was ignored and two Oscar nominations were created in that scene. One for her and one for Steiner.
It demonstrates the importance of music in film, and the power a soundtrack can have over audiences.
Composer Neil Brand, presenter of BBC Four‘s The Music that Made the Movies, believes our senses are already heightened as we enter the cinema.
“The darkness, the strangers, the anticipation, the warm comfortable embrace of the cinema seat. We’re ready to experience some big emotions,” he says, “and the minute the music booms out, we are on board for the ride.
“Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. Right back to when our prehistoric selves will have heard a twig snap in a forest and thought ‘that’s it, I’m dead’.
“We have a very deep understanding of what music is doing, and it’s very physical,” adds Brand.
“We can feel it going into our ears via sound waves and it can produce all sorts of physical responses, including in the right circumstances an actual thud to the stomach.”
Sound of the Cinema
The Godfather – 1972
Nino Rota wrote the renowned score, but there is no recognisable music in the famous restaurant scene. When Michael Corleone shoots his father’s rival, sound designer Walter Murch heightens panic with the noise of a train screaming to a halt outside.
Psycho – 1960
Alfred Hitchcock initially told composer Bernard Herrmann to leave the iconic shower scene unscored. But Herrmann went ahead and wrote the jarring, jabbing notes, so redolent of screaming animals. Hitchcock, of course, changed his mind.
Bullitt – 1968
Composer Lalo Schifrin refused to write music for Steve McQueen‘s ten-minute chase through the streets of San Francisco. He felt twisting tyres and roaring engines would do the job for him. Schifrin is frequently complimented on his excellent scoring of this entirely un-soundtracked section of the film.
A Streetcar Named Desire – 1951
Hollywood’s first drama with a full jazz soundtrack, but its ripe sensuousness angered self-appointed moralisers The American Legion of Decency. Composer Alex North was forced to tone it down.
Taxi Driver – 1976
Bernard Herrmann initially refused to look at the script, telling director Martin Scorsese: “I don’t do films about cabbies”. But his attention-grabbing percussive sound overlaid with smooth saxophone became a key part of the film’s success.
Continue reading the full story: BBC Culture