In last month’s communiqué I talked about noir. One of the movies I mentioned was The Long Goodbye, the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name.
The movie is a very light take on the novel, but to my mind this is a good thing—the movie stands on its own merits without slavishly following the book and without needing to blindly adopt the Chandler tropes (Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is about as far away from Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe as you can get).
However, what takes the movie from simply being good, to being excellent—for me, at least—is the music. To my ear, this movie has one of the best scores. Ever.
The score was composed by John Williams.
But this movie was made in 1973, in other words, before John Williams became the icon of modern cinema that he is today. This is John Williams before he created the music for Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, ET, Home Alone, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and the first three Harry Potter films.
There’s a simple theme—a melody—which is repeated throughout the movie. Some of the versions have lyrics, and those were written by Johnny Mercer (who also wrote the lyrics for Moon River and Hooray for Hollywood).
If you want to hear the tune, sung by Jack Sheldon, head over to YouTube.
So What Makes this Score So Good?
The first aspect that makes the score so good is the melody—the main theme that is used throughout the movie. The melody simultaneously soars while being cut by a melancholy undertone.
It’s also memorable—the tune is one of those earwigs that will stay with you all day. The combination of notes and rhythm for the words “long goodbye” is the sort of perfection that, in retrospect, seems obvious, and makes you think there could be no other combination.
But it’s not just a great melody (although the melody is great), it’s that the melodic theme is so well integrated into the movie, and into the story within the movie.
At this point, some explanation of terms might be helpful…
In movies, broadly, there are two types of music:
- underscoring—music that is played over the action of the film, and
- diegetic music—music within the movie, so if a character is listening to the radio or a band is playing in a bar, then that is diegetic music.
As a crude distinction, if the character can hear the music, then it’s diegetic. And there’s a lot of diegetic music in The Long Goodbye…
And as an aside, being diegetic, or not, is neither good nor bad—it’s just a term to describe a way that music can be used in a movie. It also doesn’t require a purist approach—for instance, in The Long Goodbye some of the music from car radios continues to play after the car is switched off and the character gets out of the car.
The Musical Theme
So now we know what diegetic music is, we can look at how well the music is integrated into the movie. A sequence of early scenes when Marlowe goes out to get cat food illustrates how subtly the music is brought in.
- We see (Marlowe’s friend) Terry Lennox leaving the Malibu Colony estate where he lives. On his car radio The Long Goodbye, sung by Jack Sheldon, is playing.
- The scene then cuts to Philip Marlowe in his car (going to buy cat food). On his car radio is The Long Goodbye; a different, slower and sparser arrangement, and this time sung by a female singer.
- Marlowe then enters a local mini-mart to buy cat food. Muzak-style music is playing over the speakers—in this case, an instrumental version of The Long Goodbye.
- The scenes cut between Marlowe and Lennox several times, each cut with an associated change in music.
- Back home, Marlowe hums the tune to The Long Goodbye.
There is no break in the music—it changes, but there is continuous music, and the same theme (The Long Goodbye melody) plays, but with a different feel and a different arrangement on each cut.
Wherever Marlowe goes, there is the theme.
When he goes to Mexico, the music moves from diegetic to underscore (so Marlowe doesn’t hear it). But it’s the same melodic theme, although with a different arrangement (on his arrival in Mexico, the theme is played on a Spanish guitar with a castanet rhythm).
Later Marlowe visits a bar where the piano player is working on a new tune he’s trying to learn. And on a rickety honkytonk piano, the pianist plays The Long Goodbye theme.
Returning to Mexico, Marlowe is in the street when a funeral procession passes. The Mexican musicians play a mournful tune…The Long Goodbye.
When Marlowe meets Eileen Wade, the ostensible femme fatale who is luring him, there is another piece of underscore. Of course, the tune is The Long Goodbye, but this arrangement has much more of a romantic feel to it, suggesting something about the relationship—or the possible relationship—between the two characters.
Each time the arrangement perfectly fits the context. But each time, the melodic theme reminds us about the theme of the movie…this is about a goodbye that takes a long time to happen.
But Why the Focus on Music?
You might be wondering why music interests a novelist.
If you’ve been around for a while, then you’ll know music matters to me. (In case you don’t know, I have written a number of music-related books.)
But more significantly, music is another way of telling stories. It’s different to writing words and gives a very compressed form of story. But music has a richness—and, if done well, an emotional gut punch—that is much harder to achieve with words alone in such a short space.
Whenever I find anything that creates an emotional resonance—a book, music, film, or other form of art—I always ask myself how the creator evoked the reaction. So often what has been created seems so simple, but the reaction is so profound.
If you get a chance, watch The Long Goodbye and listen to the score. For amusement, keep paying attention for the (very brief) appearance by a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his earliest screen roles.
And, of course, remember where the story started and check out Chandler’s book.
That’s me until September. Until then.
All the best