In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I pay tribute to the underappreciated Roy Webb. Here’s an excerpt.
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Here’s a pop quiz for film fanatics: What do these 10 movies have in common? No cute answers, please:
• “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”
• “Back to Bataan”
• “Blood on the Moon”
• “I Remember Mama”
• “Kitty Foyle”
• “The Leopard Man”
• “Love Affair”
• “My Favorite Wife”
• “The Spiral Staircase”
Don’t blush if you came up blank—this one’s for specialists only. All 10 films were scored by Roy Webb, who served as RKO’s chief staff composer from 1936 to 1955. A kindly, soft-spoken craftsman who died in 1982 at the age of 94, Webb is the most obscure of the major film-music composers. He never won an Oscar (though he was nominated seven times) and published only one article about his work. Today he is mainly remembered for “Notorious,” his sole collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Only two CDs of his scores have been released, and he mostly figures in passing, if at all, in published histories of film music. Yet Webb was the peer of such better-known contemporaries as Alfred Newman, Max Steiner and Dmitri Tiomkin, and there is no good reason why his name and work aren’t far more familiar.
Among connoisseurs, Webb is best known for scoring Val Lewton’s horror films and, a few years later, virtually every top-flight film noir released by RKO in the ‘40s and ‘50s….
At first Webb cranked out whatever RKO needed. Then he found his voice in Lewton’s “Cat People” (1942) and “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943). In these low-budget, high-impact shockers, incomparably directed by Jacques Tourneur, nothing is shown and everything is suggested. As a result, they necessarily rely on music for much of their dramatic effect, and Webb obliged by ratcheting up the suspense with biting dissonances, leavened with a yearning tenderness…
But Webb was at his best in film noir, above all in “Out of the Past,” Tourneur’s 1947 masterpiece, in which all of his stylistic traits were fused into a tightly unified score. Robert Mitchum plays a small-town gas-station owner whose violent past catches up with him at last and sweeps him into a deadly whirlpool of big-city turmoil. Unlike less perceptive composers, Webb sensed that film noir is rooted in a bruised, disillusioned romanticism, and so the main-title theme of “Out of the Past,” which is woven throughout the film (Mitchum even whistles it), is not a piece of pounding musical excitement but a warmly outdoorsy theme whose unexpected changes of key hint at trouble ahead….
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Read the whole thing here.
Six excerpts from Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past that illustrate Roy Webb’s use and development of the film’s main-title theme, which is heard both as underscoring and as source music:
UPDATE: A reader writes:
The melody that Roy Webb uses throughout “Out Of The Past” is “The First Time I Saw You,” a song that was written by Nathaniel Shilkret and Allie Wrubel and first performed by Frances Farmer in an earlier RKO movie, The Toast Of New York, in 1937.
How about that? Believe it or not, I actually know who Nat Shilkret was—among many other things, he conducted the first and still-unrivaled recording of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris—but I’ve never heard the song or seen the earlier film.