by Dan Goldwasser
In the 1970s and 1980s, Brian De Palma was an A-list director, bringing us such acclaimed films as Sisters, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables and Casualties of War. In the 1990s, he started to fall from grace, with The Bonfire of the Vanities, Raising Cain and Snake Eyes. Only Carlito's Way and Mission: Impossible stand out in that decade. The new millennium brought his Misson to Mars, which was ultimately a mission to failure. Two years after that, he tried his hand at a sexy noirish thriller, Femme Fatale, which while it had it's moments, did dismally over here in the USA. Regardless of the outcome, most of his films have always featured excellent scores by their respective composers. Pino Donnagio, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, Patrick Doyle, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Danny Elfman - all of them provided solid works for the films that De Palma hired them for. It goes to reason that he's a demanding director, who insists on the best from his team.
So now, in 2006, we have a new Brian De Palma movie about to hit the screens. This time he's going back to the classic film noir style, and bringing us a stylish film version of James Ellroy's novel, The Black Dahlia. Based on the infamous murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles, The Black Dahlia features Josh Hartnett as Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, Aaron Eckhart as Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard, Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake, and Hilary Swank as Madeline Linscott. While it remains to be seen if this will be De Palma's "comeback" film, early buzz on the picture is quite favorable. Contributing in no small part to the stylish noir setting is composer Mark Isham's score, which he recorded in London.
Isham says he was inspired by the genre of film noir writing, and composers like David Raksin and Bernard Herrmann. More specifically, he points to Leonard Bernstein's On the Waterfront, and the continual influence of the work of John Adams on his score writing. There is a touch of Jerry Goldsmith in the score as well, which listeners might find enjoyable as Goldsmith had scored another noir film adaptation of an Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential back in 1997.
Isham wrote many themes for various elements of the score - some of them are recurring, and others only show up once on the soundtrack. All of them are strong, and range from sultry lush romantic themes, to strong brass dramatic melodies. Isham performed all of the trumpet solos in the film, and even made use of a synthetic theremin sound in certain passages to add to the noir quality of the score.
The soundtrack album to The Black Dahlia runs nearly 48-minutes long, and will be released on September 5, from Silva Screen Music. Please note that we have not seen the film, and what follows is a track-by-track analysis of the soundtrack album.
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1. The Zoot Suit Riots (2:14)
A solo trumpet (performed by Mark Isham) somberly plays the Dahlia Theme. A burst of timpani and percussion is followed by dissonant short string chords, as the brass strongly plays a building theme. Punctuated and rhythmic strings and brass play off each other, as a steady ostinato keeps the momentum moving forward. As things calm down, horns slowly play the melody down, and the track comes to a close.
2. At Norton and Coliseum (4:06)
The main love theme is heard softly on flute as the track opens. Smoothly backed up by strings, there is an underlying darkness to it as strings swell, and then with a percussion crash, soft high strings hinting at the Dahlia Theme, along with bursts of brass keep the tension going. A piano adds a splash of color, and then after another burst of tense percussion and strings, bits of the Dahlia Theme is heard prominently on solo trumpet, as the orchestra keeps riding the tension. A roll of timpani, and then tremolo strings and muted brass build up a sustained tension, which then erupts into a strong string rhythm playing off the percussion. Another build, and pounding drums and punctuated brass bring the track to a climax.
3. The Dahlia (3:08)
Sustained strings with softly plucked harp slowly reveal the Dahlia Theme on vibes. The strings grow slightly stronger with a secondary Dahlia Theme, before the main Dahlia Theme is reprised again. Now the theme is gently heard in the strings, and the track closes with the harp and piano.
4. The Two of Us (3:36)
The Love Theme is heard again, this time on piano. With backing strings, it's lush and tender. A solo trumpet joins in, providing some color and a little variation. Now the strings start to build slowly, up to a descending motif, using a theremin to add a bit of otherworldly texture. The strings work their way up again, and then as percussion starts to bring some rhythm, the solo trumpet is back, and after a passage with a very Goldsmithian rhythm, we are back to strong lush strings and brass, ending the track.
5. Mr. Fire versus Mr. Ice (3:15)
The track starts off with what Isham calls the "Tough Cops Doing a Hard Job Theme". Rhythmic orchestra and percussion play off each other, building to as solo French horn, descending. This gives way to Bucky's Theme, another strong melody performed on solo trumpet. Dramatic string chords arrive, and build up to another burst of the Tough Cops Theme. It drops away again, and we're given a slightly faster version of Bucky's Theme, which leads into soft piano and strings, and we come to a close.
6. Madeline (3:05)
There seem to be two parts to Madeline's Theme. The first part starts off with a lush string-heavy melody, accentuated with trumpet, before giving way to strings, piano, and solo trumpet. The second part is a great throwback to the types of musical scoring done in the classic noir films, a sweeping love theme with all the flourishes and crescendos that one would expect. The track comes to a close with a soft string and brass denouement.<#GOOGLEAD#>
7. Dwight and Kay (3:11)
We start off with piano and strings, much like we did in "The Two of Us". A new theme, Dwight and Kay's Theme, is heard. Soon an oboe comes in, and the piano gets stronger, and then the solo trumpet returns, with a triumphant and stirring rendition of the Love Theme. As it approaches a climax, the horns and brass join in, and then thing settle down back into the piano finishing off the cue.
8. Hollywoodland (2:53)
Percussion and suspenseful low strings start off the track, with muted brass adding to the tension. Dissonant piano and harp build off the staccato brass bursts, and then a variation of the Dahlia Theme is heard on oboe. Low stirrings and high strings give way to a crash of percussion and then the oboe is heard again. The tension suddenly builds with strings and piano, and then we hear the descending theremin motif again. Now a rhythm is established, as the descending motif is heard a few times, sans theremin. Another crash, and the orchestra builds into the start of a rhythmic melody, but it all falls off as the track comes to a close.
9. Red Arrow Inn (1:35)
A new theme for Madeline and Dwight is heard, comprised of solo trumpet with strings and piano. It builds very quickly into the second part of Madeline Theme, which builds to a strong climax.
10. Men Who Feed on Others (4:24)
A percussion crash opens the track, which uses a variation of the Dahlia Theme in the celli. The orchestra slowly builds up and then the main Dahlia Theme is heard on the horns, the rhythm picks up, and Betty Short's theme is heard on the trumpets as the strings begin an ostinato. It soon yields to the Dahlia Theme on oboe, and soon things calm down into the strings. A new Goldsmithian rhythm builds up, and a new motif is heard, first in the French horns, and then repeated on the trumpet. After an orchestra hit, and tremolo strings, there's a swell followed by staccato brass. The tension rises again as the strings build into the descending theremin motif, which ends the track.
11. Super Cops (2:00)
Soft strings and piano reprise Dwight and Kay's Theme. It's tender and orchestrated lushly with harp and strings. Soon it ends, and the orchestra slowly builds up into another brass rhythmic climax, similar to the one heard in "The Zoot Suit Riots".
12. Death at the Olympic (3:32)
Muted brass and tense strings are overlaid on top of rhythmic percussive crescendos. There's a quiet moment where we hear a piano and low strings, with slowly building rhythms. A cymbal swell, and there's a burst of orchestral action, and then another tense rise, and then pounding percussion and rhythmic brass are heard over a dramatic rise in the French horns. It builds to flighty flutes and a strong variation of the Dahlia Theme in the brass. It builds to a sustained note, which breaks into a few rhythmic bursts. Three large timpani and percussion hits are heard, over a minor variation of the Dahlia Theme before coming to a close.
13. No Other Way (2:06)
Bucky's Theme is heard on solo trumpet, with soft strings backing it. As the track progresses, the orchestra slowly comes in, providing a complementary underscore. It all leads up to a sweeping climax.
14. Betty Short (2:16)
Quiet brass and strings open the track, which showcases a theme for Betty Short on violin (heard previously in "Men Who Feed on Others"). Soon the theme is heard in the strings, backed by piano and vibes and harp. It's a somber melody, full of dourness and longing, and the track ends on a dissonant minor chord.
15. Nothing Stays Buried Forever (6:26)
The final track of the album starts off with Bucky's Theme on solo trumpet, but it doesn't last long. Tense short strings and punctuated brass build slowly into an apprehensive version of Betty Short's Theme. Now the tremolo strings sustain as an oboe slowly builds with the orchestra from a variation on Madeline's Theme into a variation on the Dahlia Theme. It's a slow moving track, as the swelling chords are now heard in the brass and strings. Slowly ascending, the tempo build, to a false climax, where a lone flute is heard lingering over the strings. Dwight and Kay's Theme is now heard on solo trumpet, with backing strings and brass. It builds up to a dramatic swell and percussion hit, but that is quickly resolved, leaving us with a dramatic conclusion of the Love Theme heard on piano and strings.
Special thanks to Rick Clark at Silva Screen Records, and Rachel Weston at Wetdog Studios for their assistance with this article.