Film Studies: My top 10 film scores? Tell you what, let's make it 50...

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I sometimes wonder if I started going to the movies to find a way of listening to music. When I was a kid, my family hardly knew the way to concert halls, or how to gain admission there. But before I was 10 I had heard William Walton's score to Henry V and Vaughan Williams' music for Scott of the Antarctic - it was virtually the first "classical" music I had listened to, and I did listen because sometimes, at least, that music spoke to me about the plight or the glory of the characters in the films I was watching. Years later, I learned that Walton and Vaughan Williams were "respectable" music, too - they played in concert halls. But as a child still, I felt that their music was "atmosphere", just like Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz, or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St Louis.

I sometimes wonder if I started going to the movies to find a way of listening to music. When I was a kid, my family hardly knew the way to concert halls, or how to gain admission there. But before I was 10 I had heard William Walton's score to Henry V and Vaughan Williams' music for Scott of the Antarctic - it was virtually the first "classical" music I had listened to, and I did listen because sometimes, at least, that music spoke to me about the plight or the glory of the characters in the films I was watching. Years later, I learned that Walton and Vaughan Williams were "respectable" music, too - they played in concert halls. But as a child still, I felt that their music was "atmosphere", just like Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz, or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St Louis.

The idea of this column is that I list my 10 favourite pieces of movie music, and I have actually listed four already which ought to give you a clear signal of what I intend. I am going to cheat. Ten is absurd.

I heard jazz in small concert halls or pubs in London but then, at the movies, I found the sumptuous score that Duke Ellington had written for Anatomy of a Murder - there's a great swoon in the sax section the first time we see Lee Remick that explains better than anything how tough that trial is going to be. Or think of the shots of Jeanne Moreau walking the streets of Paris at night in Louis Malle's L'Ascenseur pour l'échaffaud (Lift to the Scaffold), and the way Miles Davis went into the studio with just his trumpet and improvised to those shots, saying just the same thing as the whole Ellington band was saying to Lee Remick - "Oh, baby!"

Of course, there has to be something from Bernard Herrmann, a serious musician in his own head, who had to live with being known as a great movie composer, and did it for over 30 years. Here's 10 from Herrmann alone: all the music in Citizen Kane; the urban nocturne of Taxi Driver; the music for Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo; the soaring strings of On Dangerous Ground; the mad composer music from Hangover Square; the ballroom lament from The Magnificent Ambersons; the sinister bass-accented tune at the Stork Club in The Wrong Man; and the underwater cascades from Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. But if you want one, and only one, go to Kane and hear the rising emotionalism of the last few minutes.

I want to have Franz Waxman's score for A Place in the Sun - but do I have to give up Rear Window, Humoresque and Sunset Blvd? I will insist on Max Steiner, the father of mood music as every historian will tell you, and I want his Gone With the Wind score, even if at the expense of King Kong, The Big Sleep and The Searchers. I can't get by without the David Raksin music for Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful (in every recollection of childhood movie houses it is always that score playing). And I will not forget how to spell Miklos Rozsa or to thank him for Spellbound, Criss Cross or Lust for Life.

I hardly dare get into the list of musical numbers, for that is the doorway to the musical. But still there are a few songs that rise above the rest. Take "The Man That Got Away" - music by Harold Arlen (he wrote "Over the Rainbow", too), lyrics by Ira Gershwin - in George Cukor's A Star is Born. It's the song Judy Garland is singing after-hours at the club when James Mason comes to find her, and it's about the best collision of music, song, drama and character I know. But then how would you compare it with the sudden eruption of beauty in the mundane Picnic when Kim Novak and William Holden dance on a deck by a lake on a summer night to the tune "Moonglow"?

There are no comparisons. Just think how far-fetched it must have seemed one minute and how obvious the next that on The Third Man the music would just be the zither - what the hell is a zither? you can hear them asking - as played by Anton Karas. Or recollect that on Chinatown they realised about two weeks before it would be too late that the score they had was not working. So they showed the picture to Jerry Goldsmith and asked him to do his best and in 10 days he had that bitter-sweet refrain and the whole smoky haze of the 1930s was locked in.

Are you keeping count, because here is Dmitri Tiomkin from whom I want High Noon, Giant, Rio Bravo, The High and the Mighty, Duel in the Sun and Shadow of a Doubt. And still Tiomkin is giving me that aghast look as if I short-changed him - what, he says, no Strangers on a Train? Make nice to him, someone, tell him I need room for Erich Wolfgang Korngold and The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Wolf and Anthony Adverse. If these seem like old-timers, here is Michael Small with Klute, and The Parallax View. Plus the refrain to Altman's The Long Goodbye. And while you're asking, yes I do want Michael Nyman, but Philip Glass - no thanks.

I know, you're going to say stop running off lists - we're in the high thirties by now - what are your favourite scores? Very well, I take you seriously and so long as you know I'll cheat, I'll tell you that my favourites are... well, they'd have to include Georges Delerue for The Conformist, Antoine Duhamel for Pierrot le fou, Maurice Jaubert for L'Atalante, Nino Rota for The Godfather, Joseph Kosma for Une partie de campagne and...

Finally? Well, I never really saw any good reason why in great movies the music had to stop - I suppose I'd be happy for the whole medium to shift away from theatre and the novel towards opera. So there are two names I revere above all, though one has hardly worked for the movies beyond a song here and there. That's Stephen Sondheim, who has invented our modern notion of musical drama. And Michel Legrand, the master of the unending melodic line. He worked in American film: he did the music for Yentl, and he wrote "Windmills of My Mind" for The Thomas Crown Affair. But in France he was in a pact with Jacques Demy, perhaps the movie director with the best understanding of music. Together they did Lola, La Baie des anges (just consider the racing piano score of the first shot as it hurtles away from Jeanne Moreau walking on the promenade at Nice) and two films that are music all the time, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and that perfect musical, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.

I also love the logo music that used to go with Twentieth Century Fox movies - in the 20th century - and the astonishing, rising chords that signalled a CinemaScope picture. You see, that is really the answer: it only works in the dark and with music where there are no players in sight. It has to be magic. It is the film singing.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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