23 August 2014

Play It Again

My home office, as you might imagine, is stuffed with books. Two of the walls are floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with hardcover novels, and an unfortunate number of books and story manuscripts are usually piled on the floor and all other flat surfaces.

My wife has said she's afraid to come in without a machete and a hard hat (I tidied things up a bit before taking the photo shown here), and she remains convinced that the weight of all my reading material is one reason we had cracks in our foundation years ago. But what can I say? There's something oddly comforting and peaceful about being surrounded by books.

A friend asked me recently why I have so many. He says he understands why I buy them--I can't seem to wait for the library, or for the paperback versions--but why keep them? My standard answer (that I sometimes re-read them) is only partially true. The real answer is that, God help me, I just can't make myself part with most of my books. I like being able to look up from my computer anytime I want to and see them there, and recall the pleasure it gave me to read them. It's one reason I own more printed books than e-books. I like to touch them and feel them and smell them.

The second time around

The fact is, I often do read them again, especially if my un-read cupboard is bare or unpromising. I chain-read the way folks used to chain-smoke: I light up a new one off the butt of the one I just finished, with scarcely a pause in between. And I often find myself remembering some little something I liked in a book long ago and going back and finding that chapter or that passage and reading it again. (I know, I know . . . that's weird. But it's true.)

I do the same thing with movies. I also own DVDs, you see, a lot of them, and I sometimes watch them over and over again. I was thinking about that the other day, and a strange thing occurred to me:

The movies I re-watch the most often are the ones with great soundtracks.

Mad for music

Several years ago I wrote a column for Criminal Brief called "Strike Up the Band," about movie music. Writing that piece was fun for me, because even though I am no music expert and am only an amateur musician, I dearly love movie scores. (Former mystery blogger James Lincoln Warren and I have spent hours e-discussing this subject.) I honestly believe the right kind of music can not only make a bad movie good, it can make a good movie great and a great movie unforgettable.

But why watch a film again, one might ask--unless it's a musical--in order to hear the music? Wouldn't it be quicker and easier to just buy or download the soundtrack and listen to it while doing something else? Sure it would. I do that too. But what I really like is hearing the music along with seeing the action on the screen. That kind of thing was so important to some directors, like Hitchcock and Sergio Leone and others, that they often filmed scenes to fit the already-written music, rather than doing it the other way around.

Perpetual emotion

I doubt that anyone could say he or she didn't brush away a tear during the final theme of Gone With the Wind, when the camera pulled slowly back from the silhouette of Scarlett under the live oak to reveal Tara in the background--or get goosebumps from the scene where Charles Bickford and Charlton Heston and all their men ride into Blanco Canyon in The Big Country. Without that blaring symphonic music, those great moments would have lost much of their impact. 

For anyone who might be interested, here is a quick list of movies (excluding musicals) that I have seen several times--and will certainly watch again in the future--primarily because of their soundtracks:

Once Upon a Time in the West -- music by Ennio Morricone

Psycho -- Bernard Hermann The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones

Superman -- John Williams Cool Hand Luke -- Lalo Schifrin Legends of the Fall -- James Horner

The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith Dick Tracy -- Danny Elfman The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand

The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach The Molly Maguires -- Henry Mancini Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer The Natural -- Randy Newman Amelie -- Yann Tiersen The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel King of Kings -- Miklos Rozsa Shane -- Victor Young

Signs -- James Newton Howard The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti Escape From New York -- John Carpenter The Godfather -- Nino Rota A Summer Place -- Max Steiner The Sting -- Marvin Hamlisch The High and the Mighty -- Dmitri Tiomkin Lonesome Dove -- Basil Poledouris Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre The Big Country -- Jerome Moross Forrest Gump -- Alan Silvestri

Somewhere in Time -- John Barry

Closing notes (pun intended)

I included only one score by each composer, but I've found that I like almost anything by John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith. (Several by Barry--The Lion in WinterBody HeatGoldfingerOut of Africa, The Ipcress FileSomewhere in TimeDances With Wolves--are among the best soundtracks I've ever heard.) Of those five composers, I think Williams is the only one still alive and working.

Please add your favorites to this off-the-top-of-my-head list. If you do, I'll happily fetch them from my stacks or grab them via Netflix and give them another look-see (and listen-to).

Question: Do any of the rest of you suffer from this addiction to movies and movie music? (I know Stephen Ross and Jeff Baker do.) If so, I warn you, it can be an embarrassment to friends and family.

Excuse me--I think I feel the urge to go watch the opening credits of Top Gun . . .


  1. Nice piece, John.

    Raising my hand... Completely addicted.

    May I recommend "Below". A nice little WW2 thriller/ghost story set aboard a sub. I love the music in this movie. And after six viewings, I learnt that the composer, Graeme Revell, is from my home town.

  2. McCabe and Mrs Miller - Leonard Cohen
    Batman - Danny Elfman
    Picnic at Hanging Rock - Bruce Smeaton

  3. John, not long ago, I thought, "John hasn't given us a list lately." I identify with the books. I send a lot of what I read to a local nursing home, but there are many that I just like to see, touch, and read again. On the movie list, several are favorites that I revisit, but for me, it's never the sound track. Usually, what makes a movie really memorable to me is the dialogue, and I go back to some films just to hear certain lines and how they were delivered.

  4. Love the bookshelves which are appropriately stuffed with books and nothing else!

  5. Thanks, Stephen. I have NOT seen Below, but that will soon change. I remember Revell from (I think) the Riddick series. And I believe he did the music from From Dusk Till Dawn. (At the mention of Salma Hayek I always think first of that movie.)

    Rob, I saw McCabe at the base theatre in the Air Force not long after it first came out, and I've always thought it's one of the most realistic westerns ever. And Hanging Rock has become something of a classic. Good suggestions.

    Fran, I don't know what the deal is, with all these lists. Maybe I feel that my life should be more organized. As for books, I do donate some to the library now and then (when my wife makes me). Recently I bought a book at a library book sale, got home, and realized it was one I had given them a few weeks earlier. Good grief.

    Thanks, Janice. I'm always disappointed when I see bookshelves that have other things on them besides books. That's precious space . . .

  6. It made me smile to see "The High and the Mighty" on your list. I was a two year old child when that move came out in 1954. I sometimes heard the theme to the movie on the radio in our car. Without fail, when I heard it, I cried. My parents couldn't understand why. And I was too young to find the words to tell them it simply filled the inside of me with so much emotion that it had to spill out somehow. It was that beautiful, powerful, and moving. Music has done this to me all my life since then. At the time, I didn't know what was going on -- and I don't think my parents ever understood it.

  7. So well said, John. I think the music of a movie is like the cover of a book. It's a big part of the experience. I love to hold a book with a cover. Reading from a kindle doesn't give me that.
    My personal opinion is the best music being composed now is movie music. It's the classical music of today. And yes, my name is Melodie :)

  8. Anon, I truly LOVE that music from The High and the Mighty. I find myself whistling it now and then, and while I'm not as good at it as John Wayne was, it still brings back good memories.

    That's the thing about movie scores--they bring back images that allow us to (in a small way) re-live those moments.

  9. Thanks, Melodie. (Would this be a good time to mention "Merrie Melodies"??)

    I think what's really cool, and probably a little surprising to the moviemakers, is when a movie them rises far above the film and becomes a part of our culture, recognizable by everyone, moviegoer or not. Examples: themes from The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars, Jaws, Goldfinger, Rocky, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Superman, The Pink Panther, etc.

  10. Sorry. I meant "movie theme," not "movie them." Jeez Louise.

  11. John, I chuckled at your mentioning buying back one of your own books. It sounds like something I might do. Love your bookshelves! I used to want to have rooms full of books, but that doesn’t work well for people who move a lot. Over the years I’ve had to part with many of my book friends like it or not, but still keep plenty of them. I’ve also gone back to books I’ve loved and reread favorite parts. I’ve had people ask why I keep books and I always wonder what universe they came from-certainly not mine. Books attract writers like magnets. Anything connected to the written word or writing attracts me. I can’t walk through a store and not stare longingly at pencils, pens and paper-things I have plenty of. Thanks for the great article!

  12. Thank you, Vicki -- My wife and I probably NEED to have moved more often, in order to be forced to change our pack-rat habits. Yes, I think writers are always drawn to books, and that they treasure them far more than non-writers do.

    I'm always amazed that there are a large number of people who, when they pass a bookstore in a mall, seem to veer away from the entrance as if the store contained Kryptonite, until they're safely past. I love browsing bookstores anyplace and anytime, whether they're local or unfamiliar.

  13. I lost the majority of my book collection during the storms I wrote about, some 8 or 9 bookcases worth. I always wanted a library with a fireplace, overstuffed chairs, and a sliding ladder. Definitely need a ladder.

    While I rarely rewatch films, I hadn’t thought about why I rewatch the few I do. You’re right– the music is unusually great. The same is true of the few television shows I rewatch: Perry Mason, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, maybe Peter Gunn.

    I also agree with your choice of composers. I’d add Philip Glass. Although he’s a prolific soundtrack composer, only a few appeal to me, but I like those few a lot. The Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, etc. soundtracks are nothing but Glass music and it’s so compelling, the film’s message can be easily overlooked. Sometimes I tune in The Hours to fall asleep by… and I haven’t seen the film!

    For years, the Ipcress File topped my soundtrack list. While I don’t consider myself as much a Western fan as mystery and SF, Western soundtracks appeal to me: A Fistful of Dollars; A Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and Lee Val Cleef’s The Big Gundown.

    Hmm… I’m starting to think of another list… films with great opening sequences, like the Bond franchise.

  14. No bones to pick with your great list. On my personal list, I think I'd add the soundtracks of Patton, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Lady in the Water and Dead Poets Society. Additionally, I'd say I also really like the music in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

    Interesting trivia note: While John Lee Hooker sings "Boom Boom" in the movie The Blues Brothers, his song is not on the soundtrack that was released after the film. Guess sometimes you just gotta see the movie!

  15. Leigh, I was afraid to include TV shows in my list--I wouldn't have been able to stop.

    I think The Hours is my favorite of Glass's movie music, and I like Neverwas as well.

    As for the Westerns you mentioned, all four of those were composed by Ennio Morricone, who in my opinion never wrote anything bad. (He even scored some non-Westerns that were terrific.)

  16. Dix, I enjoyed all seven of the soundtracks you mentioned. (I even liked the movie Lady in the Water in addition to its music, and I've always been surprised at how many friends did NOT like it. I thought it was a nearly perfect scary-fairytale story.)

    As for pieces of music in a movie failing to be featured on its soundtrack, that unfortunately seems to happen a lot. Sometimes, as you said, you gotta break out the old DVD.

  17. Okay, all six, not seven. Not only can I not proofread, I can't count.

  18. We had Mystery & More bookstore for nine years and at home we had probably 5k to 6k worth after we liquidated and closed the store. We bought an RV and after 3 years we decided to move into it full time. We gave those books to a nearby library we had supported for years...except I kept about 800 that were autographed to us and stored them at my sister's which was our old house. But after the first year she complained about them...they were in large plastic box and weren't bothering but I cried and cried and took them to the same library. It was almost like losing a child to give up those last few books. Of course, I did keep a few in the RV and added to them. Now that I'm in a house again, I'm trying not to add books but I do. I just don't understand people who don't read.
    The movies I can pass the rewatch on altho many of these you mention are great and I remember the music of some. The only non-musicals I rewatch are Casablanca and The African Queen and Gone With The Wind. Okay maybe the Harry Potter movies.

  19. Jan, I will NEVER understand folks who don't read. Sounds as if both you and Leigh have had huge collections of treasured books that you (for different reasons) lost. It's hard to bear.

    I bet I've watched Casablanca ten times. It never gets old.

  20. Inception
    All the music created at Full Sail in Winter Park. Incredible to listen to.

  21. John, I've always said you can tell a B movie in a moment just by the soundtrack. A really great movie has music that transcends you subtly, teasing you until it suddenly explodes and you are carried away usually by something tremendous in the storyline. And, of course, you can't talk too much about TV's background music... meaning we can never speak too much about LOST and it's beautiful music because you can never say enough about how marvelous it was... GREAT BLOG as usual!

  22. Deborah, you're right. And yes, if we started in on TV music we'd be at it awhile. You and I have discussed Lost a lot in the past, and I still think Michael Giacchino's music in that final episode is among the best I've ever heard. (I taped it and re-watch/re-listen to it now and then--how's that for being addicted??)


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>