Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Scenes to Remember John Barry By

The title sequence of The Ipcress File is the perfect marriage of music and action. Barry is keenly attuned to the small details observed in the banal and seemingly inconsequential morning routines which Michael Caine’s character Harry Palmer goes through with mechanical reflexivity. The very ordinariness of these actions, and the unconscious way in which they are carried out, gives us our first glimpse into the nature of our protagonist: the fastidious manner in which he measures out his coffee; the way he automatically turns to the racing pages in his paper, circling several possible horses to back, as if he needs the extra money; the fumbling around in the bedroom for clothes, amongst which a bracelet and gun are the final accessories, both swept up and donned without pause. Barry’s music does so much to capture the everyday nature of this batchelor pad morning. His scoring picks up on the rhythm of the scene. It is cued by the drilling ring of the alarm clock (an old fashioned bell and clapper job), and goes on to make space for and include extraneous sounds such as the grinding of coffee beans and the rustling of the newspaper. Barry uses twinned vibraphone and flute, with loping bass and short hints of melody resonating with metallic thickness on the cimbalom, to evoke the first shuffling steps out of bed in the morning.

Choreographed breakfast
The cimbalom was a signature Barry sound, and became almost a spy movie cliché. It’s a Hungarian instrument, a form of hammered dulcimer, and was prominently used by Zoltan Kodaly in his Harry Janos Suite, as well as bringing added local colouring to the orchestra in the original scoring of Stravinsky’s evocation of a Russian peasant wedding, Les Noces, and in Bartok’s first rhapsody for violin and orchestra, in which the composer included the folk tunes of his native land. In the context of the cold war 60s, the slightly blunted ring of its strings created an atmosphere of melancholy menace, suggestive of betrayal, subterfuge and exile. Here, it also hints that there is more to Harry Palmer than originally meets the eye. A trumpet, muted, of course (it’s early yet) joins in on top of the other instruments, suggesting a mind beginning to buzz and flow with coherent thought. As his morning coffee has its effect (he doesn’t seem to bother with any other breakfast) and he begins to fully wake up to face the day ahead, the music also begins to cohere, its disparate elements drawn together by the chords of a brass arrangement, whose mass seems to push the airier elements towards a greater sense of urgency. Finally, it reaches a jazzy swing as he strides down the street to confront the first business of the day.

Hitching a Lift - The Knack
The bed ride through London in The Knack is a summation of the youthful joie de vivre of swinging sixties London, at least as represented on screen. It is a characteristic Richard Lester scene, allowing him to take his camera out on to the streets and film set ups which have a feeling of playful spontaneity. The city is ours, it seems to say, even if we haven’t got a brass farthing between us and are reduced to pushing an old bed frame scavenged from a scrap yard through the streets back to our shared house. The haphazard and larky progress of the youthful trio of characters across the Smoke is accompanied by an audio collage of grumbling and grudgeful comments from representatives of the elder generation. Given that Michael Crawford, whose character is a teacher, wears a tweed jacket and tie, Rita Tushingham sports a check cap and drab woollen coat, and Donal Donnelly a white arran sweater, they hardly seem like the mods and rockers who these onlookers seem to believe herald the twilight of British civilisation. Ray Brooks’ (the voice of Mr Benn, no less) Tolen fits the profile rather better, but is depicted as a rather joyless and empty character, caught in the trap of his own studied cool. Barry’s scoring of the mobile bed scene, which is effectively silent, starts with twinned xylophone and plucked strings, the rusty vehicle setting off slowly at the start of its journey. A jazz trumpet is added, and then strummed guitar and funky organ as the bed builds up momentum. The trip also finds the three characters getting to know each other, having a lot of fun and a few mishaps along the way. This is also suggested by the music’s growing confidence after its initial hesitancy. Brass chordal arrangements are added beneath once more, and then the John Barry strings weave their spell. Barry’s string arrangements are lush and seductive, but never descend into easy listening insipidity or muzak valium. They are always instantly recognisable, and add a radiant corona to whatever they accompany.

Barry’s theme for Midnight Cowboy, with its tremulous, emotive harmonica, is simply gorgeous, uplifting and with the buoyancy of the most memorable and natural melodies, and yet at the same time achingly sad. It sounds like the kind of tune one might whistle in order to summon up good cheer in the midst of a bleak mood, or to ward off loneliness, but which ends up subtly permeated with such feelings anyway. It’s one of Barry’s characteristic descending melodies, a series of falling sighs which can express the polarities of autumnal melancholia and woozy, sun-drenched contentment. Here, it grants humanity and gutter romance to characters who might otherwise be seen as just a couple of low-life deadbeats. We first hear the theme as Jon Voight’s dim-witted country cowboy, Joe Buck, wearily walks the midnight streets of New York, his transistor radio perched on his shoulder like a jabbering metallic parrot. Barry’s theme has a strummed guitar backing which carries echoes of the bright and upbeat wanderer’s anthem Everyone’s Talkin’, written by Fred Neil and sung in the film by Harry Nilsson, which had lent a sunny serenade to Joe’s departure from the South and excited arrival in New York.

Lonesome cowboy
The plangent fall of harmonica notes and the steady, settling descent of the string harmonies in Barry’s theme lend Joe a tragic aura, a pathos which results from his loss of innocence, and the decay of his dream of the city. It’s a fall into self-knowledge which is loaded with symbolic weight; the dissipation of his proud self-image and the simple verities upon which it was built represent, in a wider sense, the loss of the self-image and self-belief of an older and seemingly less complex America. His is the widespread longing for an ideal of an American past which has become saturated in its own self-created mythologies. In New York, Joe finds out (with his perched radio demon permanently placed to drive the point home with incessantly intruding ads) that everyone is hustling and trying to sell something, be it novelty distractions, diverting entertainments, religious salvations, the instant solutions of politics or simply their own selves. He is lost in the bewildering cacophony of competing messages, unable to comprehend the rapidly transformations of once-stable cultural iconographies. An immaculately tailored cowboy with polite Southern manners no longer sends out the same signals of old-fashioned, manly values. The decency at the heart of this simple, uncomplicated lunk shines through at the last, however. Joe tenderly shields his friend Rizzo (not Ratso, now) from the disapproving clucks and stares of his fellow travellers on the Greyhound as the bleached white of the beachside apartments of Florida are reflected in the bus windows. Barry’s theme provides an unbearably poignant accompaniment to the ride South towards warmth and sun (and untold wealth) which is Rizzo’s dream destination, never to be arrived at.

You Only Live Twice is perhaps the most beguiling of Barry’s Bond themes (it’s certainly my favourite), and perhaps the ultimate example of his signature string sound. Its use whilst the camera circles down like an executive’s helicopter towards the luxurious Hong Kong hotel where we will find Bond and his latest disposable conquest (and there’s that descending melody line again) sums up all the alluring glamour and poolside glimmer of the jet set worlds in which the films are set. Also, with its hints of disillusioned resignation in its minor key shifts, it alludes to the corrupt power and casually murderous violence (qualities shared by ‘hero’ and supervillain alike) upon which such worlds are founded. There is the occasional upward sweep of a harp chord in the background, subliminally audible behind the shimmering surface of the strings, which suggests the distant, gentle susurration of ocean waves seen and heard from a balcony in the upper reaches of a plush hotel. The plucked strings of an exotic-sounding lute (a pipa?) give a touch of far eastern shading.

At the beginning of the same film, we find ourselves in the black abyss of space. Barry’s ‘Space March’ theme creates a sense of impending menace as we watch an astronaut take a space-walk outside an orbiting capsule. A snare drum rattles quietly but insistently behind a rising melody played on piano and flute. These are joined by strings and harp in another example of the way in which Barry slowly built up his instrumental forces. The rippling arpeggios of the harp evoke the cold glimmer of the starfield. Bernard Herrmann used harps to similar effect in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Indeed, he also used them to conjure the glittering luminescence of the subterranean world in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and the sun dappled coral colours of the subaqueous environment in Beneath the 12 Mile Reef (for which he amassed a 9 harp force). As a technological leviathan with a gaping (though toothless) crocodile maw approaches the capsule, causing much incredulous panic, Barry introduces his underlying brass harmonies again. They rise in power and force, accumulating rising pitches, the snare drum also growing louder and more dominant. The music creates the sense of a relentless and unstoppable force looming ever nearer. Finally, the monstrous space machine reaches its helpless prey and scoops it up. The tether of the space-walking astronaut is clipped off, sending him spinning into the cold embrace of oblivion. It’s the moment which, as a child, disturbed me more than any other in a Bond film – except perhaps for the crushing of a hapless henchman behind the massive bank vault door in Goldfinger. Barry’s music reaches a crescendo and then explodes in a chord of crashing chaos as the devouring collision occurs. There is a pause, and then a concluding, low afterchord as the beaky maw snaps shut on the minnow capsule. The original theme, with its rippling starlight harp, then reasserts itself as the predatory craft continues its slow and steady orbit against the backdrop of an indifferent cosmos.

Moved along outside Alvaro's
There are many more scenes in which Barry’s music plays an integral part, of course. These include later scores using more conventional orchestral forces in music of sweeping, romantic grandeur designed for big-budget Hollywood epics such as Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves. Music for wide-open landscapes. I’ll include one final scene in which Barry’s music doesn’t feature at all, however, from a film which he played no part in scoring. In Jack Bond’s Separation, from 1968, Jane Arden’s character is having an awkward meeting with her ex-husband in a restaurant in Chelsea. It’s a place called Alvaro’s, an exclusive and forbiddingly fashionable hang-out in which the select coteries of the swinging sixties in-crowd gather. We see them here in all their youthful and prosperous vitality. A car pulls up outside and a passing policeman leans in to consult with its driver and tell him that he’ll have to move on. As Bond tells us in his commentary, this marks the near-appearance of John Barry and his then-wife Jane Birkin in his film (although if you look closely you can see Barry lean across from the driver’s seat, so I suppose technically he does appear). Watching this scene again, this absence now has additional resonance. John Barry has driven on to destinations elsewhere.

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