The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies, from Hitchcock to High Fidelity. We asked him to share five of his favourite uses of sound or music in film.
1. The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) has one of those instantly recognisable cowboy themes by Jerome Moross, a popular hit in its day. It speaks to us of wide open prairies, mountains, canyons, tumbleweed – clichés, in other words, and fifty years on we might think of the music as clichéd too. But Wyler's most impressive use of the landscape has no music, indeed no sound. The dawn fist-fight between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston is shown from a great height and a great distance, physically and theatrically. We see little and hear nothing. Wyler refuses to allow us to get involved in this futile punch-up. A Cold War parable? You bet!
2. There are dozens of examples from Hitchcock in the book, but here's one I didn't include. If the music Bernard Herrmann wrote (against Hitchcock's wishes) for the shower scene in Psycho (1960) is too well known to require comment, what happens next is very interesting indeed. As Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lies on the bathroom floor, we hear the distant voice of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) – 'Oh God, mother! Blood!' – and then, for the next ten minutes, there is only music as we watch Norman mop up the bathroom, tidy the bedroom, wrap the body in the shower curtain, drag it out of the motel room, put it in the boot of the car, drive it to the swamp, push it in and watch it sink. During those ten minutes, something very interesting occurs. We change our allegiance. Having been hoping that Marion would get away with her theft, and been horrified at her murder, it takes only ten minutes for us to hope Norman will succeed in disposing of her body and to share his feelings of panic when the car roof pokes out of the swamp.
3. The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964) has a strikingly bizarre score by Dimitri Tiomkin, but the sound that never fails to raise what remains of the hair on my head, is the voices of the Roman legions standing in a snow storm, moaning in chorus. They are bewailing the death of Marcus Aurelius, their mouths hidden behind their long shields. It is a chilling noise.
4. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) is based on the simple conceit that we are watching documentary footage shot on two cameras by three film students. They have disappeared, their cameras have been found, the film and video have been edited and this is the result. As they meet their sticky ends in the final minutes of the picture, we are shown images from one camera but hear sound from the other. The images are shot by Heather running downstairs into the cellar where Mike has been killed or at least knocked out. From the audio on his camera we hear Heather's screams coming closer.
5. There are dozens of sonic masterstrokes in Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), some of them musical, some not. Beneath the freeway where Samson and Delilah camp out with Gonzo, the distant thumps of car tires hitting a join in the road form a continuous counterpoint to their fragmented conversations. My favourite moment, though, is when the film's sound design takes us inside Samson's head. As Samson (Rowan McNamara) lies on his mat, he has country music playing on the radio next to his left ear. Outside on the deck, his brother's band is going over and over its reggae riffs, an accompaniment in search of a tune. Samson covers his ears and the sounds become very distant. He uncovers first one ear, then the other, and we hear – in extreme stereo – the band, then the radio.
The Sound of Pictures is available now in all good bookstores.