Film Score Friday #1: “On the Waterfront” (1954)


Leonard Bernstein at work.

[The musical examples referred to in this article are taken from the original soundtrack album reissued in 2015 on Madison Gate Records. Also worth a listen is Bernstein’s own Symphonic Suite arrangement of music from the film, of which his 1961 recording conducting the New York Philharmonic is my preferred version.]

Much as director Elia Kazan reportedly solicited Marlon Brando’s involvement in his seminal 1954 drama On the Waterfront in the hopes of securing a larger budget (there was already an implicit agreement in place with Frank Sinatra to play Brando’s Oscar-winning role of Terry Malloy), producer Sam Spiegel saw the need to broaden the film’s commercial appeal by attaching a similarly big name to provide the music – hence his decision to seek the services of Leonard Bernstein. While initially reluctant to participate in a project that would require him necessarily to rein in his own musical ideas, one might not have guessed this from some of the reactions to his score in later years from Kazan and from scriptwriter Bud Schulberg, both of whom considered portions of it obtrusive and distracting. Certainly, Bernstein’s sensibilities as a well established classical composer and conductor mean that the music in On the Waterfront is often not content merely to occupy a background role, but, as film music historian Jon Burlingame asserts, it does not so much jostle for attention as engage as ‘a full partner in the filmmaking process, matching the script, direction and acting in conveying the essence of the drama’, something that was unusual for the period and would go on to revolutionise the practice of film scoring.

In an essay published in a 2003 Cambridge University Press essay collection on the film (chapter 6), Burlingame identifies three main recurring themes within the score. As well as the film’s famous ‘love theme’ that follows Terry and Edie’s growing affections (see below), the first of these is a main theme that comes to be associated with Terry and, in Bernstein’s words, his ‘tragic nobility’ (p. 135) (“Main Title”). Introduced on solo French horn and subsequently picked up in canon form by two flutes and trombone, it is the first sound the viewer hears at the opening of the film, and Burlingame identifies in Bernstein’s sparse instrumentation an almost complete antithesis of the declamatory orchestral style that was common for cinematic opening titles at the time. Indeed, its combination of harmony, dynamics and instrumental timbres are at times more redolent of the quieter sections of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring than of a big-budget Hollywood drama.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

As the credits fade to reveal the film’s establishing shot, and as the minor third that begins the theme offers a glimmer of optimism by extending upwards to a major third, this title abruptly shifts gear to establish a far more menacing tone, appropriately indicated by Bernstein’s own tempo marking of Presto barbaro – a “barbarous” Presto (“Main Title”, 1’26”). While the mafioso crime lord Johnny Friendly and his cronies, Terry among them, file out up the gangplank towards the camera, timpani and a piano set the mood with a jagged, syncopated but quietly threatening ostinato in 7/4 time, beginning the third, so-called ‘violence theme’. In another (upcoming) article on this blog, I write about how Kazan and cinematographer Boris Kaufman use elements of space, staging and mise-en-scéne to underscore and reinforce the film’s overarching themes of entrapment and constraint, themes that are reflected musically even in this short opening segment of Bernstein’s score, and furthermore utilising staple techniques of classical composition. (See below for a score excerpt from the Symphonic Suite that also includes these motifs.)

For one, this ostinato is comprised of only three pitches – G, B-flat and B-natural – from which, despite some rhythmic alterations, it never deviates. Furthermore, as well as building up the music’s dramatic intensity by gradually adding voices to the orchestral texture one by one, Bernstein goes one step further by doing this in the form of a fugue, re-introducing the motif in a second timpani part in a modified version that employs the same rhythm but different pitches (C-sharp, F-sharp and G-natural) and then again a third time on tuned drums. Rather than ceasing to play once the next voice enters, each of these previous parts continues to play as an accompanimental “countersubject”, but still within a similarly rigid and prescribed framework, building an intricate but dense web of counterpoint from which the only means of escape is for all the individual lines to resolve in a satisfactory manner. The resulting effect is that this theme’s second subject (“Main Title”, 1’52”), in Bernstein’s words ‘a tugging, almost spastic motive of pain’ (Burlingame, 135) that enters first on solo alto saxophone and then on high woodwinds, strings and trumpet, is neatly contained within it. Though it nimbly ducks and weaves with its syncopated and accented rhythm, much like Terry in his former life as a semi-professional boxer (indeed, its entry on the film’s soundtrack coincides with Terry’s), it remains unable to break out of its confines even in terms of pitch, its range restricted to an eight-tone scale.

This is not the only point where Bernstein’s music conveys the film’s themes of restriction and confinement, however, but rather it is a pervasive feature throughout the entire score. Much of the musical material, for example, revolves around the interval of the major second (for example, between C and D). Although lacking the immediate, jarring atonality of a minor second (for example, between C and D-flat), the dissonance that it produces effectively conveys a sense of tension and limitation that emphasises the way in which certain of the film’s characters, through a combination of bad luck and their own bad choices, are left boxed in.

As Terry confesses to Edie his unwitting complicity in her brother Joey’s murder, for example (“Confession Scene”), not only do the insistent iterations of the major second heighten the drama of this wordless scene (the dialogue famously obscured by the ambient sounds of the waterfront), but, as Edie flees and leaves Terry alone on the shore, the two notes of the interval, with the minimal space between them, now seem to resemble the jaws of a vice that close in and threaten to crush him between them. Even the film’s famous ‘love theme’, mirroring Terry and Edie’s growing affections, first introduced in “Glove Scene” is not immune from this, rarely jumping in pitch by more than a major third; indeed, the ascending minor seventh with which the melody begins (D to C) is merely the octave displacement of a descending major second (again, D to C). Other iterations of this theme, are marked by the same suspended major second dissonances, such as the opening of “Saloon Love” where this is held for almost a full thirty seconds.

Terry (Brando) and Edie (Eva Marie Saint) enjoy a drink.

In much the same way as the subject of violence continuously pervades the film’s narrative, the violence theme recurs constantly in different guises, with Bernstein writing that its two subjects ‘are responsible for much of the following music’ (Burlingame, 135). To give one example, rather than resolve the situation posed in the previous bars of the Presto, Bernstein compounds it by reintroducing the first subject, but this time spread out and harmonised through the entire orchestra (“Main Title”, 2’48”). At this point in the film, the camera begins to track up to reveal the mob heavies on the roof waiting to seal Joey’s fate, and the reinforced muscularity of this re-entry, although as a musical cue perhaps better suited to a chase scene, helps to emphasise both the physical and psychological superiority enjoyed by Friendly’s gang. Additionally, the material that accompanies the mobsters’ raid on Father Barry’s church meeting (“Riot in Church”), as well as Terry’s emotionally charged rapprochement with Edie (“Cab and Bedroom”), is derived almost entirely from the violence theme’s second subject, this time harmonised in discordant tone clusters and stabbed out by the brass against flurrying high strings and woodwind.

Other instances within the score do much to reinforce the notion that Bernstein is concerned less with working to task in his role as a composer for film (and in the process adhering more to the conventions with which studios and audiences would have been most familiar) than bringing his own compositional style to what for him was a new medium. For instance, as Charley, Terry’s brother and Friendly’s right-hand man, is despatched with instructions to find the errant Terry and either rein him in or bump him off, while Bernstein’s score ratchets up the dramatic tension by building up two discordant orchestra-wide chords note by note (“Kangaroo Court”), culminating in a violent, machine gun-like ‘rat-a-tat’ figure, this idea is somewhat out of keeping with the long, static shots under which it plays that show Charley’s exit. In the knowledge of the film’s later events, however, this moment seems not so much to underscore the drama of the present scene as to presage what lies ahead, as it is this mission, and his failure to fulfil it, that ultimately gets Charley killed.

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra play Bernstein’s score as a live accompaniment in a 2015 concert (photo © Chris Lee).

Similarly, the film’s ending, with Brando’s Terry seemingly leading the dockworkers into a new era of optimism, has provoked a great deal of debate as to its true meaning, helped in no small part by the differing intentions of its creative team. While Kazan and Schulberg wanted to emphasise the conclusion’s open-endedness and raise questions of what the future now holds for the film’s subjects, Spiegel sought to make this more unequivocal and optimistic so as to give the film’s audience a greater sense of satisfaction. To be sure, Bernstein’s music for this section undoubtedly underscores the notion, at least to some extent, of Terry’s apotheosis and of the dockworkers’ long sought-after freedom having finally been achieved, but this is not without some notable musical caveats.

As Terry is roused back to consciousness and to one last stand by Father Barry, for instance “Walk and End Title”, rather than employing the excessive sweetness of vibrato violins in order to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings (reserved instead for Terry’s discovery of his (“Dead Pigeons”)), Bernstein instead opts for rather more understated textures of woodwind and brass, through which Terry’s ‘nobility’ theme eventually breaks through in subdued form on solo French horn. As he stumbles defiantly up the gangplank, the mood of the music shifts from swimming haziness, the warbling tremolo of a vibraphone the perfect parallel to his blurred, punch-drunk vision, to plodding tenacity, with the combination of the pentatonic melody and the more exotic instrumentation – replete at this point with extra percussion, brass and gongs – giving it the character of a forced march. While the unabashed major key triumphalism of the film’s final shot comes seemingly as the final resolution to this arduous journey, the inclusion in the harmony of an A-natural, however, and furthermore one that stridently rings out in the trumpets’ high register, creates an audible double dissonance – a tritone against the tonic E-flat (equal to three full tones, the furthest possible removal from the root) and a minor second against the B-flat fifth – and consequently renders this sense of certainty far more ambiguous.

* * *

On the Waterfront would be Bernstein’s one and only foray into original film scores; although nominated for Best Original Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture at the 1954 Academy Awards, it failed to add to the film’s eight other category wins, losing out to the more established Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for The High and the Mighty. Nevertheless, it would go on to become not only a popular staple of Bernstein’s own compositional output in its Symphonic Suite form, but an enduring example of film music in its own right. Indeed, as Jon Burlingame again asserts, it speaks volumes that, with the generous exception of Tiomkin, the other contenders for that Best Score Oscar have been largely forgotten, their “safe bet” efforts overshadowed by Bernstein’s brilliant originality and, furthermore, desire to be original. While its influence may have diminished somewhat in the more than 60 years since the film’s release, the context surrounding it provides essential insight into both its effect and its staying power as a film score, ensuring that it will continue to appeal to both concert- and cinemagoers alike for many years to come.

Bernstein in repose – complete with dachshund.


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