Classic Music for the Val Lewton Films/Webb

January 3, 2012

Considering that Roy Webb(1888-1982) scored 300 films, was nominated for an Oscar seven times, and had his piano concerto from Enchanted Cottage performed at the Hollywood Bowl, his nickname still has become “The Forgotten Man” as far as Hollywood film composers are concerned. He composed the majority of his material for RKO and only freelanced when they closed their doors in 1955.

If you were to purchase (4) CD’s, FILM MUSIC OF ROY WEBB (Cloud Nine Records CNS 5008), MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (Monstrous Movie Music MMM 1953), MURDER IS MY BEAT (Rhino Records R2 72466), and FILMS OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK (Varese Sarabande VCD 47225) along with this Marco Polo Release (8.225125) you’d have the majority of what is available. The Marco Polo release from 2000 features only material from Val Lewton (1904-1951) films. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by William Stromberg with score reconstructions by John Morgan for Cat People, Bedlam, The Seventh Victim, The Body Snatcher and I Walked With A Zombie.

CAT PEOPLE (1942) is very loosely based on the novel Black Alibi from another forgotten man, Cornell Woolrich, who was responsible for a lot of film noir screenplays. The first of eight films Val Lewton did for RKO from 1942-1946 was directed by Jacques Tourneur and starred Simone Simon as a Serbian girl who was convinced she would turn into a werecat. Co-starring were RKO regulars Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, and Kent Smith. There are many who feel that this was the finest in the series as it emphasized the premise “it’s what you don’t see” to scare you. The score from Webb is based on a tune, “Do-Do,” used by Debussy in Children’s Corner and Stravinsky’s Berceuse du Chat (Cat’s Cradle Song). It was scored for the 40 piece RKO orchestra.

1… Main Title (1:20) begins with a Roy Webb fanfare of Beethoven’s Fifth and the morse code for the letter ‘V’ (victory) combined to introduce RKO Studios. It seamlessly gives us a six note motif “Cat Theme,” from the trumpets and then a very dramatic playing of the “Do-Do” theme with mysterious strings ending the cue. The motif, a scary one, is similar to what Hans Salter did for the Frankenstein monster.

2… Irena (1:55) begins with the “Cat Theme” from the clarinet which is quite ominous. The theme for Irena is a very delicate, romantic melody that Webb offers as he cleverly mixes in the “Do-Do” theme along with another playing of the cat theme from an alto flute. This track positively shows how effective his orchestrations are. I’ve included this clip as an overall example of the score. 02 – Irena

3… The Cat People (2:26) begins with the cue “Cat Theme” from the clarinet and then offers a “King John” theme which is quite religious and becomes the good and God fearing melody. Irena is telling the story of how the Serbian village she comes from believes in the evil of the werecat. The cue changes and we hear the “Irena” theme at the end.

4… Irene and Oliver (2:20) is a delicate version of “Do-Do” without brass and percussion. The andante pace is quiet and soothing. The mood changes to a Universal style motif while there is a frightening offering of the “Cat Theme” from an alto flute.

5… Need For Help (2:49) Begins with soft underscore followed by a solo violin, a tragic bassoon solo of the “Do-Do” theme and then a brief eerie clarinet solo. The track ends with a short repeat of the “King John Theme.”

6… Evil Cat (1:38) is an extremely suspenseful underscore that offers the “Irena” melody in a harmonic variation along with a minor key version of the “Do-Do” theme. Webb offered this theme in many variations and keys.

7… The Aftermath (1:12) opens with a Schubert Unfinished style beginning, very dark, a few bars of “Irena” followed by a fifth theme “Escape.”

8… Dream Sequence (1:14) provides a scary underscore with swirling strings, distant horns, “Cat Theme” from the organ, and a distorted version of the “Do-Do” theme.

9… Too Late (1:51) A soft introduction with tranquil flutes leads us to a subdued and peaceful version of “Irena.” The cue ends with a tragic rendition of the “Do-Do” theme.

10… Horror Sequence” (1:06) begins with the organ offering the “Cat Theme,” and then builds tension to a dissonant version of the “Do-Do” theme.

11… Dr. Judd Murdered (1:23) begins with a quiet tremolo from the strings building to a rare somewhat loud statement from the orchestra.

12… End Title (2:30) mirrors the tragic ending of Irena and Dr. Judd with a sad version of “Irena” melody, a brief appearance of the “King John” theme and a happy crescendo for Oliver and Alice.

Total Time is 21:49

If you listen to this score repeatedly you will become aware of how well thought- out this score is. It is actually complex, with a lot of counterpoint using the different themes as well as harmony. John Morgan did a fine job with his re-construction to keep this the understated soundtrack that Roy Webb composed, a well schooled musician from Columbia University. The digital recording is crystal clear and the orchestra has rehearsed it well to give it a strong performance. When you listen to it remember Val Lewton wanted subdued music which would enhance  his movie at the same time. Webb did it perfectly.

BEDLAM (1946) a nickname for St. Mary’s of Bethlehem tells of the happenings in the madhouse in Eighteenth Century England also known as the “Age of Reason.” Both Bethlehem  and age of reason are contradictions as we soon find out. The warden in charge of the facility is Simms, played by Boris Karloff, who is cruel and evil to the inmates but comes across as a charming personality to the upper class, a level in society he wishes to attain. Enter Nell Bower (Anna Lee) who truly knows the mistreatment Simms is up to. As a result she is made a prisoner in the asylum until the patients revolt, let Nell go, and put Simms on trial for his crimes. His sentence is death by being walled up. The film was directed by Mark Robson, another Selznick employee who defected to RKO. The idea for the screenplay written by Val Lewton came from a set of 8 engravings by William Hogarth, done during 1732-1733, one of them called Bedlam. This was the last of the nine films that Lewton did for RKO.

13… Main Title (2:12) Period type music begins the track which changes back to a dreary tie theme “Bedlam” which includes a four note motif repeated through the brief arrangement. The arrangement ends with an air of mystery, only a pause, and it continues with a very religious statement before it returns to a chamber arrangement of the “main title,” a very Mozart sound. It returns to the “Bedlam” motif and ends on a tense moment.

14… The Quaker (1:51) has a very religious and stately opening before returning to the main theme and ending on an upbeat note. Listen for the organ offering harmony to the theme with a brief fugue.

15… Nell’s Escape (1:07) begins with ominous strings and brass fanfare making this a scary track but retaining the subtle nature of Webb.

16… End Title (1:48) is a mixture of material. We hear a tragic end with minor variations, a few religious organ bars before ending with the main theme. I’ve included the end title  track.  16 – end title Bedlam

Total Time is 6:58


THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) was #4 of the nine films that Val Lewton did for R.K.O. and his personal favorite. This was not the case with the public and the movie quickly disappeared. It was filmed as an ‘A’ picture but company politics prevented that from happening and it was only given ‘B’ status. In addition (4) scenes were deleted to reduce the time to ‘B’ release and this resulted in some confusion to a storyline that offered suicide, lesbianism, lusting for an underage person, all taboo subjects at the time. The reason it passed production code standards had to do with the fact Joseph Breen had recently spent a failed year as a producer for R.K.O. The film starred Tom Conway who re-visited his role of Dr. Judd from Cat People, Jean Brooks as Jacqueline Gibson the missing sister, Hugh Beaumont as Gregory Ward the boyfriend, and Kim Hunter (her acting debut) as Mary Gibson the sister looking for the other sister. The search revealed that Jacqueline was part of a satanic cult, the Palladists who were trying to get her to commit suicide as she wanted to leave the group. There is a shower scene involving Mary Gibson and Mrs. Redi that some feel is where Hitchcock got the idea for Psycho. Webb composed his usual subdued psychological score, to write some of his best music.

17… Main Title (1:11) Morse Code/Beethoven’s Fifth introduces us to a melodramatic 6 note theme which also features harmony from strings and brass. 17 – main title 7th victim

18… Principal’s Office (1:50) is an adagio with very soft, sad, and yearning strings. No distinct melody but the mood is made quite evident. There is no brass on this track.

19… Mary Sees Jacqueline (3:31) continues with the yearning music, written without melody for mood. We do hear a few brief bars of the main melody and a bit of tension.

20… Jacqueline is Found (1:36) begins with a danger motif to get your attention which includes a rare use of the drum. The track is extremely subdued until the two note danger motif is repeated.

21… Jacqueline (0:57) A tension building track that offers a dreamlike sequence.

22… The Pallidist’s Trial (3:04) Low register strings, dissonant brass, a creepy sounding organ, and a harp are featured in this very complex track. This could be as loud as you ever hear from Roy Webb.

23… The Chase (2:24) offers frantic strings, dissonant piano chords, a brief reference to the main title, all precede a section of gaiety for an acting troup. It ends on a note of gloom.

24…Desirous of Death (1:42) is an eerie beginning with tremolo strings, dark woodwind chords, and the danger motif all contributing to the bleak music.

25… Love Scene (2:10) has a dark beginning which turns into a majestic “sun appears from behind the clouds” cue which is the happiest moment you’ll hear from this dark score.

26… End Title (0:25) begins with the two note danger motif a prelude to the final use of the main title melody.

Morgan did a special job in creating the fine complexities of this Roy Webb score. His orchestrations certainly enhanced the material.

Total Time is 18:51

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) was based on the short story from Robert Louis Stevenson and was the eighth in the series of films Val Lewton made for R.K.O. Directed by a young Robert Wise the film starred Boris Karloff as Gray, Bela Lugosi as Joseph and Henry Danielle as Toddy MacFarland. The film dealt with grave robbing so a doctor/teacher for a medical school could teach surgery. The story took place in Edinburgh in 1831 so much of the musical material is source adapted from the time period by Roy Webb.

27… Main Title (1:32) begins with a swirling mysterious sound followed by a very Scottish melody, proud and military. What follows is a very short courtly dance and the track concludes with a snare drum which continues without pause to the next track. 27 – main title body snatchers

28… Edinburgh (1:17) is a short cappella sung in the film by a blind street singer. Strings are added to accompany her part way through. The song is “We’d Better Bide a Wee,” which dealt with a young woman wanting marriage but also having to help her elder mother and father.

29… The First Body (3:43) is dark, mysterious, with ever changing tonal ideas and tempos. You’ll hear creepy notes from the oboe, bassoon, and lower register sounds from the strings and brass. The track finally returns to the main theme played in a minor key with an oboe solo.

30… Finale (1:56) a rare loud forte for Webb begins with an agitated orchestral sound of yearning strings, dissonant brass, and timpani all contributing. As it quiets down there is a return to the main theme in a major key to end the all too brief selection of material from the film.

Total Time is 8:31

Film-music historian Bill Whitaker, who did many liner notes for Morgan reconstructions, was quite the champion of this score. He considered it one of the finer efforts of Roy Webb. I had a bit of problem with the Slavic accent in a song clearly defined for a Scottish brogue.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) was lurid sensational title that didn’t represent the film at all but an idea conjured up by the executives at R.K.O. This was the third film in the series for Val Lewton that was directed by Jacque Tourneur who also did his first two films Cat People and Leopard Man. Tom Conway starred as Paul Holland, Betsy Connell as Frances Dee, and James Ellision as Paul Rand. Curt Siodmak who was responsible for a string of Universal horror stories did the screen play. The story involves a nurse Frances who is hired to take care of Holland’s wife who is in some sort of a trance. Voodoo?

31… Main Title (1:38) Begins with Morse Code/Beethoven’s Fifth R.K.O. introduction followed by a prelude reminding you of the sea. There is a hint of the “O Marie Congo” theme which you’ll hear throughout the score the main title.  31 – main title I Walked With A Zombie

32… Chant (1:55) is from a bass male quartet singing without orchestra the “O Marie Congo” sad sounding Caribbean song.

33… Fort Holland (0:55) is an instrumental version of a vocal that was sung in the film by calypso singer Sir Lancelot. This track is peaceful with soft strings and flutes.

34… Zombie (3:22) offers underscore with a somewhat bright sound which is a prelude to a short crystal clear bass clarinet solo of “O Marie Congo.” The second section begins with a bassoon solo followed by the “Fort Holland” theme from the flute. The third section gives you a sense of mounting tension.

35… Dr. Maxwell (2:22) is a somewhat upbeat cue with flute solo followed by a feeling of yearning.

36… End Title (3:23) begins with swirling and mysterious sound backed by excellent harp harmony with references to “O Marie Congo.” There is a brief return to the bass male quartet and it crescendos forte with the congo theme to end the soundtrack.

Total Time is 13:35

Total Time for Entire CD is 69:53

In my opinion this is a must have CD for your soundtrack collection. It is the best recorded example of Roy Webb. In addition the 36 page booklet offering extensive information from historian Scott McQueen is a must read. The nine R.K.O. films of Val Lewton are all available on DVD at reasonable prices. The Bratislava Orchestra has done their homework and gives an excellent performance of a superb John Morgan reconstruction.

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