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Artwork copyright (c) 1959 Twentieth Century Fox; review copyright (c) 2003 James Southall


A sultry, sexy masterpiece

Of all the Golden Age masters of film music, the only one really admired and appreciated by young fans today is probably Bernard Herrmann.  I'm not entirely sure why Herrmann is so frequently singled out.  Other younger fans might be a little familiar with the likes of Rozsa, Korngold and Steiner, but one composer who seems very little appreciated today is Alex North.  Sure, when anything is said about him, it is in the most glowing of terms, but the point is that barely anything is ever said about him, save for predictable requests for a longer version of Spartacus every few weeks from the usual suspects.

And so, if any film composer of the past deserves to be "discovered" by a new audience, it is Alex North.  Arguably the most brilliant of all film composers, he completely revolutionised the art form in the early 1950s, showing that it was possible to score films in a different way from that employed by the European immigrants who had so dominated the field since it was invented.  He introduced jazz into the fold in A Streetcar Named Desire, but not as any kind of source music, but instead as real dramatic underscore offering arguably far more intelligent and relevant support to the film than had been heard in anything previously.

His achievements on epics like Spartacus and Cleopatra or westerns like The Wonderful Country and Viva Zapata! must never be underestimated nor overlooked; but for me, his most invaluable writing came on more intimate, dialogue-based pictures.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably the most famous - and it is brilliant, simply brilliant film scoring - but it would be easy to argue that The Sound and the Fury marks the pinnacle of his achievements in the genre - perhaps in any genre.  Based on William Faulkner's novel, Martin Ritt's film concerns a family in the Deep South being torn apart by internal disputes, and particularly the father/daughter relationship within the group (they are played by Joanne Woodward and a hirsute Yul Brynner); it was perfect territory for North, able to exploit both the geographical location and emotional undercurrent to produce a masterpiece.

The opening cue, the main title, is one of the most memorable I've ever heard.  Essentially a combination of three ideas, it starts as a sort of rock-and-roll / jazz hybrid, slightly similar to North's theme from The Long, Hot Summer a couple of years previous, for the same director.  Then comes a sultry theme for trumpet, fiendishly complex but brilliantly played by the Fox studio musician under Lionel Newman's baton.  Finally comes some trademark North rhythmic figures, in that unmistakable stop-start style of his.  The highlights come thick and fast, with the next couple of cues also being highly-impressive.  "Quentin's Theme" is one of those subtle pieces North wrote so often for wordy films that manages to stay under the dialogue and have an almost subliminal effect during the film, but away from it makes for fascinating, moving listening.  Then comes "Sex Rears", a truly sultry piece that reprises the trumpet theme from the main title in an even harder-edged way.

The whole score is wonderful.  In keeping with the majority of North's work, each of the thirteen pieces is a masterful, self-contained piece of music; and when heard together, the effect becomes even greater.  The emotional side of North has never been fully appreciated, I don't think - he never resorted to trying to manipulate emotions from the audience by relying on the wash of strings favoured by his contemporaries (and, indeed, successors) but instead built emotion somehow from within.  His music is always awash with feeling and passion; and I'm not sure I've ever heard another film score with quite so much passion as The Sound and the Fury.  This is a score that is rarely mentioned, but belongs alongside the very best ever written.

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  1. The Sound and the Fury (4:25)
  2. Quentin's Theme (1:52)
  3. Sex Rears (3:33)
  4. Caddie (2:17)
  5. What's His Name? (3:43)
  6. Ben Spies on Lovers (1:58)
  7. Southern Breeze (2:45)
  8. Hot (2:39)
  9. Jason and Quentin (2:59)
  10. Sweet Baby (3:51)
  11. Do You Love Me, Charlie? (3:53)
  12. Ben Departs (2:16)
  13. Too Much Woman (4:31)