ALEX NORTH - TRANSFORMING AN ART
By Michael McDonagh
Alex North is revered in film music circles because he changed the way composers wrote for the screen. He did this in several different ways, beginning with his first fiction film, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951). Kazan's version of his stage production of Williams' play shook up Hollywood, and so did North's music. Why? Because here was a score that fit the film like a glove, and here was music that didn't just underline, but counterpointed, probed, and magnified the onscreen drama, without ever getting in the way of the story and its characters. North wrote from deep inside them. And it didn't matter to him if they were good, bad, or misguided-he wasn't in the judging business-and even if they were, he treated them equally and felt empathy for them all. Blanche Du Bois, Stanley Kowalski, his wife, Stella, and Blanche's suitor, Mitch. And so North's first and foremost innovation was a deeply psychological approach to character. His second innovation was to write economically. He made his points quickly, and his textures were uncommonly lean.
Much has been made of North's use of jazz in STREETCAR. But that misses several essential points. No one, after all, would have sat up and paid attention to North's score if it had failed to communicate. And communicate it did. North also achieved an exquisite balance between the said and the unsaid here, which was to be a central hallmark of his art. His music in STREETCAR and elsewhere always sounds instinctive and psychologically right, and penetrating too. So North's contributions to the art of film music were basically twofold. He wrote from inside the characters. And he did this with the utmost economy-not a note was wasted-and in a completely straightforward yet highly sophisticated way.
But doing things simply was a radical idea when North came to town. The Vienna-born Max Steiner (1888-1971), who virtually invented American film music, often wrote wall-to-wall scores, like GONE WITH THE WIND. But many others by him, and Austro-Germans like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1898-1957), were just as big and assertive, with the parts frequently doubled so that textures were thick.
But North's training, aesthetic outlook, dramatic instincts, and personality made him write music of an entirely different character. He had, after all, studied with modernist masters like Aaron Copland (1900-1990). North's varied work in dance with Anna Sokolow (1910-2000) in the 30's, and his study with Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), and Ernst Toch (1887-1964), in New York, seems to have deepened his liking for vibrant colors and highly linear counterpoint. He also developed the theatrical genre called "psychodrama" with the psychiatrist Karl Menninger in 1944, which surely influenced his approach to writing music from inside a character. North once used the phrase "the ambivalent nature of human behavior" to describe his music in STREETCAR, which is as good a description as any for the labyrinth of the human heart.
He explored that labyrinth in many ways. One was to write against the audience's expectations. A good example is his score for Mervyn LeRoy's cult classic THE BAD SEED (1955). A normal composer would have written standard thriller music for this tale of child murderess Rhoda Penmark. But North chose to write from inside the characters in a highly original way. His main title depicts her with gleefully mad music in 2/4-with sudden willful changes of texture and speed. The French folk song, " Au Claire de la Lune, " which she plays in several key scenes, collides with North's bitonal music-it's in two keys at once-thus suggesting her split and deeply conflicted nature. He also uses instrumental color in an intensely psychological way.
"The Locket", for example, has ethereal runs on celeste that indicate that Rhoda is in some way innocent, and that her murderous impulses may not be who she really is. North contrasts this aspect of her personality with a rapid, skipping theme for flutes in a scene where she practices the song on the piano as the handyman LeRoy burns to death in the basement in a fire she started. This shows yet another aspect of Rhoda-perhaps she really couldn't care less. North characterizes her with an economical double portrait-her possible innocence is seen under a "charming" nonchalant fašade. Whatever the verdict-and you could make a strong case for either side-he leaves the conflict between these psychological aspects ambiguous, as if to say that maybe we can't really know. And, as always, North extends his sympathy to the most hapless character, Mrs. Daigle, in a touching, but non-sentimental way, by having the violas play a sweetly rocking lullaby, with violins above, when she pays a drunken visit to the Penmark house.
North's score for Joseph Anthony's THE RAINMAKER (1956) is equally psychological. And though N. Richard Nash's play about charming con man, James Starbuck, and repressed spinster, Lizzie Curry, is basically a comedy, North adds further dimensions, which only he can see. These enlarge and interiorize the story and give unexpected shadings to its characters. The composer empathizes with Lizzie's plight-she wants to believe she's desirable-and makes it sweetly urgent. A cue like "I'm Pretty" becomes a highly moving study in closely harmonized string sonorities with an almost vocal quality, while " Starbuck's Confession" is a tender exquisitely balanced series of variations with sharply contrasted part writing. North's feeling for the psychological permeates "Golden Fleece' with its delicate substitution of glockenspiel celeste and harp for the music box in the film, and lifts this scene into an almost dreamlike realm.
North was preternaturally sensitive, and much of his music does seem like it came from a dream. Take, for example, the long ambitious "Decision" in Henry Hathaway's THE RACERS (1955). North establishes an intense psychological atmosphere-the hero may get his leg amputated-by highly expressive writing for lower strings, piano and percussion, with winds and brass frequently muted. The form is that of a passacaglia, which brightens only when the love theme comes in, though some of the main material here is actually subtly disguised parts of it. North's music for Martin Ritt's THE LONG HOT SUMMER (1958) is just as penetrating. "Ashamed" goes with a long sequence in which hardboiled hero Ben Quick is head over heels-though he doesn't say so-for Clara Varner. North describes their liquid, slowly shifting emotional states with pellucid strings, and indulges in one of his trademark moves here-the main theme is stated, accompanied and commented on by divisi violins and violas, with cellos and basses treated as two distinct yet complementary bodies. He also writes countermelodies that are really bits of the main tune, and these move and in dancelike, but deeply internal way. The music hovers, floats, in a world all its own.
North continued to mine psychological depths even in mega pics like SPARTACUS (1960), CLEOPATRA (1963), and THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965). An obvious example is his use of the French keyboard, the Ondioline, to portray Crassus' growing madness in the first. But North also writes harsh marches with suitably demented rhythms and torturous harmonies to show how unhinged Crassus has become, and this approach reappears briefly in Michael Campus' uneven but striking 1976 film THE PASSOVER PLOT, based on Hugh J. Schonfield's revisionist book on the Jesus story. North's battle music in SPARTACUS is completely ostinato-based, and easily the best and certainly the most internal ever written, superseding even Prokofiev's for Eisenstein's ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938). The "Spartacus Love Theme" is justly famous, its E-minor modality endlessly suggestive. And of course there's the spectacular and spectacularly internal music for CLEOPATRA, which is fiercely intimate. Why fiercely? Because it goes almost dangerously in, especially in the music for the relationship between the queen and Mark Antony in the second half which goes way beyond a just for hire underscore. And who could ever forget Cleopatra's entrance into Rome, driven by the serpentine theme of her ambition, in all its raucous glory?
North's discoveries were in full flower from the start of his fiction film work, and each subsequent effort put out further shoots, each with a distinct bouquet. Music this deep and beautifully made is meant to stay. And stay it has. It inspired many composers of North's time-Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin are but two-and continues to set the bar for those living now. Its subtleties are myriad, its depths unknowable as human behavior itself. True revolution always comes from deep inside, and North's revolution was no different-the whole landscape changed and opened up.