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Stunner from Isham leans on, extends noir classics

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Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Asymptotote Music; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall

Say what you want about the films of Brian de Palma (and people do tend to have views at one extreme or the other), surely nobody can deny that they look and sound extremely striking.  Just look at the cast and crew for The Black Dahlia - cast including Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank (and, OK, I suppose I can't just gloss over Josh Hartnett); production design by Dante Ferretti; photography by Vilmos Zsigmund - there's no expense spared.  And just as visually striking as his films always are, so too do de Palma movies generally boast extremely striking music - from his early collaborations with Bernard Herrmann (never a composer prone to understatement) on Obsession and Sisters, through Pino Donaggio's gloriously overdone Carrie, John Williams's The Fury, Ennio Morricone's The Untouchables and Mission to Mars... this is not music which is designed to sit in the background, it's music designed to be up front and arresting.  And boy, it is.

I love Brian de Palma's work - so many people seem to see it as being somehow vacuous and style-over-substance, but for me he's one of the few mainstream Hollywood directors who really exploits the medium of film and uses its unique possibilities in great ways.  Despite what all the "How to write a screenplay in four minutes" courses might tell you, there's far more to filmmaking than adhering to three-act scripts which see characters go on arcs, and de Palma recognises that, always emphasising both the visual and aural, occasionally to the detriment of particularly meaningful narrative, but rarely to the detriment of the audience's enjoyment.

With all these great scores from up-front film composers in the past, it was something of a surprise when Mark Isham was announced for The Black Dahlia, based on James Ellroy's superb novel about the infamous unsolved 1947 murder of Betty Ann Short.  Isham's a brilliant, underappreciated film composer, but not one who generally writes dynamic music which lives at the forefront of films, usually preferring far more subtle material that weaves its way in and out of the audience's consciousness.  However, when you stop to think about it, Isham's a pretty obvious choice for this - his jazz background and splendid trumpet playing (giving him a rare insight into writing solo music for that particular instrument) make him the ideal candidate for a modern noir.  And so it proves.

Echoes of past noir classic scores (particularly On the Waterfront and its spiritual successor LA Confidential - itself an Ellroy adaptation) abound.  The album opens with the sensational "The Zoot Suit Riots" - the splendid main theme is heard, played in mournful style by Isham himself, before the trumpet suddenly gets blown away by a violent explosion from the full orchestra, recalling LA Confidential's blistering "Bloody Christmas", arguably the single finest piece by Jerry Goldsmith during that decade.  But this is no rip-off - Isham goes into his own territory, with ferocious brass and choppy strings which might follow the path previously trodden by Messrs Bernstein (Leonard) and Goldsmith, but which goes off in its own direction.

"At Norton and Coliseum" isn't nearly so visceral in its explosiveness, but there's a constant rumbling of timpani which creates that perfect noir mood, and indeed towards its conclusion once again it develops into a brilliant all-action rollercoaster.  Isham deftly blends the fireworks in with some extremely low-key, subtle stuff - the third piece is the gossamer-thin "The Dahlia", virtually gentle enough to be a music box theme, but still orchestrated so cleverly that it is simply a continuation of the organic whole previously explored in pieces which were at ten times the volume.  The piece also serves as the real introduction (brief passages in the opening two cues notwithstanding) of the plaintive, beautiful main theme, heard here played by strings.  The love theme follows shortly thereafter, a jazzy piece explored by piano and Isham's trumpet in "The Two of Us" - it's got the kind of smokey atmosphere which so many listeners (myself included) find completely irresistable, and it's as sexy as hell.  I've seen Isham playing live - quite an experience - and his exquisite touch is very much in evidence here - there's a deftness to his handling of the playing which perhaps wouldn't have been there if a session musician, however talented, had been given the job.

"Mr Fire versus Mr Ice" marks a return to harder-hitting territory, with the timpani returning in a more up-front role and some powerful English horn playing by Jane Marshall - half-way through, once again there is an explosion, this time a prototypical blast from the whole brass section which is something of a calling card for the composer.  There's a beautifully old-fashioned hue enveloping "Madeline", including shimmering string writing like Bernard Herrmann at his prime, before the track swells into perhaps the most romantic presentation of the love theme on the disc.  A slightly bluesier take on the romance follows in "Dwight and Kay".  "Hollywoodland" is perhaps as close as the score comes to suspense - but this is suspense, Brian de Palma style, so the music remains stylish and dynamic, which Isham adding a subtle synthesised touch to his live percussion and low, rumbling piano.  The 1940s effect is completed when a theremin appears out of nowhere - and blends right in.

The bluesy love theme returns in the brief "Red Arrow Inn" before another glorious exposition of noir in "Men Who Feed on Others", the choppy strings, driving rhythms and great sense of urgency returning again.  Once more the impressive album sequencing comes through when this is followed by the gentle jazz of "Super Cops", with the piano solo here conjuring a real sense of warmth and homeliness.  "Death at the Olympic" reprises the riot music from the start of the album, and once again its raw, visceral energy is like a blast of a chill wind on a summer's day.  After the power come two more low-key pieces, the two main themes of the score being presented in "No Other Way" and "Betty Short", the latter a beautifully mournful piece brimming with emotion.  The album concludes with its longest piece, "Nothing Stays Buried Forever", which like the score's first cue opens with that plaintive trumpet solo, but this time the piece takes its time to develop into the urgent material before ending with a surprising burst of dissonance, presumably to acknowledge the open-ended, frustrated nature of the film's ending.

This is dynamic, exciting, grown-up film music.  They just don't write 'em like this any more! - and yet somebody has.  While it's anticedents are fairly clear, in fact this is a far more consistent and impressive listen overall than Goldsmith's LA Confidential.  Isham has written some wonderful music in the past, and indeed is going through a real purple patch at the moment, but excellent though the likes of Racing Stripes and Eight Below might be, The Black Dahlia is a considerably more substantial and ultimately rewarding work.  Any fan of the great noir scores of the past, or indeed Isham's slightly darker scores (like Quiz Show perhaps) will surely love this.  It's clearly not a score for everyone - it's emotionally-complex music which makes demands of the listener.  But it's certainly a score for me - in my opinion the best score of 2006 to date, and the best score by Mark Isham to date.  Sumptuous.


  1. The Black Dahlia / The Zoot Suit Riots (2:14)
  2. At Norton and Coliseum (4:07)
  3. The Dahlia (3:09)
  4. The Two of Us (3:37)
  5. Mr Fire versus Mr Ice (3:16)
  6. Madeline (3:05)
  7. Dwight and Kay (3:12)
  8. Hollywoodland (2:53)
  9. Red Arrow Inn (1:36)
  10. Men Who Feed On Others (4:24)
  11. Super Cops (2:01)
  12. Death at the Olympic (3:32)
  13. No Other Way (2:07)
  14. Betty Short (2:17)
  15. Northing Stays Buried Forever (6:26)