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Russian-born Dimitri Tiomkin is one of Hollywood's most highly regarded composers. Receiving a staggering 22 Oscar nominations, he is most well-known for his soundtracks to Westerns and Hitchcock movies, including High Noon, The Alamo, Rawhide and Dial M for Murder. He was also a gifted songwriter, writing standards such as the theme from Wild is the Wind.
The Alamo: Suite
The 13-day siege of the Alamo Mission has been the subject of at least a dozen movies, not the least of which is The Alamo (1960), starring, directed, and passionately produced by John Wayne. To score this romanticised look at the battle for Texan independence, Wayne turned again to Tiomkin who received an Oscar for his score for Wayne’s The High and The Mighty (1954). For The Alamo, the composer produced a rousing score, highlighted in the suite by the Overture, the Davy Crockett theme and the Battle music. Wayne and Tiomkin also knew a song was needed for the last goodbye as Santa Anna’s forces make the final assault. Wayne said, ‘We need a serious song, a song that says it is time to die, time to leave’. Tiomkin and lyricist Paul Francis Webster wrote ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’: ‘A time just for plantin’, a time just for plowin’ … A time just for livin’, a place for to die’. Tiomkin was nominated for an Academy Award for his score and, with Webster, for the haunting song.
The Old Man and the Sea: Theme, Cubana and Finale
Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella about the epic battle between a poor Cuban fisherman and a giant marlin resulted in a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and revived its author’s career. When The Old Man and the Sea (1958) came to movie screens under the direction of John Sturges, it starred Spencer Tracy as Santiago, its central character: ‘I have never seen or heard of such a fish … but I must kill him’. Sturges had replaced Fred Zinnemann, who felt the story was pointless, ‘with a robot pretending to be a fish in a studio tank pretending to be the Gulf Stream with an actor pretending to be a fisherman’. Nonetheless, over the years, audience appreciation has grown for Tracy’s compelling portrayal of the old man’s grace in coping with adversity. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, ‘Credit Dimitri Tiomkin for providing a musical score that virtually puts Mr Tracy in the position of a soloist with a symphony’. Tiomkin was honoured with his fourth and final Academy Award for the original score.
The Four Poster: Overture
Adapted from a 1951 hit Broadway play, The Four Poster (1952), starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, is a wistful tale of a 35-year marriage. The two-character movie—three if you count the ever-present double bed—is played out in eight bedchamber encounters, each bridged by a cartoon sequence created by animators at United Productions of America. Producer Stanley Kramer again called on Tiomkin to provide an overture that he hoped, along with the gaily animated cartoons bridging the time gaps, would draw attention away from what the producer called ‘the localised talk, talk, talk between one man and one woman [which] quickly becomes monotonous, then suffocating’. Tiomkin succeeded in delivering what one reviewer described as ‘a bright and energetic overture [that] captures all the chaos, joy and love of newly wedded marital bliss’. When Ned Washington added lyrics, The Four Poster theme became the song ‘If you’re in love’.
Giant (1956), directed by George Stevens and based on the Edna Ferber novel set in Texas, is another of Tiomkin’s large-scale scores. Using full orchestra and choir against the opening credits, he wastes no time in presenting an expansive musical statement. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor play husband and wife, while a moody ranch hand played by James Dean completes the emotional love triangle. Tiomkin provided a recurring love theme to aid the amorous relationships, to which Paul Francis Webster added lyrics for the song ‘There’ll never be anyone else but you’. Tiomkin wrote more than two hours of music for Giant. ‘I sat in a projection room for nine hours’, said the composer, ‘watching herds of cattle crossing the screen, cows going from left to right, cows going from right to left’. Tiomkin’s wife jokingly quipped that the director ‘is waiting to see a cow wink at the camera’. Giant received ten Academy Award nominations, including direction and music. Stevens was the film’s sole Oscar winner, but Tiomkin could take consolation that his scoring fee was the highest to date for a Hollywood composer.
The Fall of the Roman Empire: The fall of love
Tiomkin’s affinity for scoring heroism and pageantry, played out on the broad stage of history, was never more fully realised than in director Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), with Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd and an all-star cast. With the murder of Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), his unstable heir Commodus (Christopher Plummer) claims the throne, and the decline begins as a tarantella-like motif gives way to the ‘Fall of Rome’ theme. The epic movie offers barbarians at the gates, death raining down by fire and spear, poison and plague, all aided by Tiomkin at his ominous best. His Oscar nomination was the only one the three-hour epic received.
High Noon: Do not forsake me
‘Is melody, Ned. Is melody for you writing words’. With that introduction in broken English, Tiomkin played his musical theme for High Noon (1952) for lyricist Ned Washington, who then penned the lyrics ‘Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’, on this our wedding day’. The soundtrack—featuring cowboy singer Tex Ritter—plays a complex role, providing a unique single-theme underscore throughout the film. Starring Gary Cooper as town marshal, and the then unknown Grace Kelly as his young Quaker bride, High Noon deals with the ominous arrival of a group of outlaws on the noon train, set against the timeless theme of courage and a man overcoming his own fear. There are no fancy edits in this mythic story, just an endless flow of tense images. The constant tick … tick … tick … of the town’s clock foreshadows the impending doom emphasised by Tiomkin’s music and Washington’s words, ‘Look at that big hand movin’ along, near-in’ high noon!’. Tiomkin won Oscars for score and song, the latter shared with Washington. It is arguably the composer’s best-known western theme, and one that opened the musical floodgates to the title song as a separate commercial product.
When the slice of western Americana known as Rawhide (1959–62) first thundered onto television screens, the cattle drive’s odyssey was accompanied by Tiomkin’s music, Ned Washington’s lyrics and Frankie Laine’s resonant voice proclaiming ‘Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, though the streams are swollen, keep them dogies rollin’, Rawhide!’. The show made a star of Clint Eastwood as the drive’s ramrod, Rowdy Yates, who, along with the Tiomkin-Washington theme song performed by Laine, were the only ‘cast members’ to survive all 217 episodes. The song went on to be recorded by such diverse artists as Liza Minelli, The Jackson Five and Oingo Boingo. It was also sung by Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers (1980), as well as Donkey (Eddie Murphy) in the animated Shrek 2 (2004).
The High and the Mighty: Suite
When aeroplane engines still had propellers and flying times were much longer than they are today, the imaginary Trans-Orient-Pacific Airline sent one of its flights into movie history. It was producer and star John Wayne’s The High and the Mighty (1954), based on Ernest K Gann’s novel, in which, under William Wellman’s direction, the plane carried an all-star collection of crew and passengers in the first of many cliché-ridden aerial disaster films. If there ever was a movie where music played such a profound role in lifting the emotion of the story, it is in Tiomkin’s soaring score for this dramatic film. The composer described the theme as ‘a symphonic expression of sublime strength rising to the heavens!’. Wayne can be heard whistling the tune a few times in the film. For his score, Tiomkin received his third Academy Award.
Hitchcock Suite: Dial ‘M’ for Murder and Strangers on a Train
The Hitchcock Suite presents themes from two of the four movies Tiomkin scored for the ‘master of suspense’: Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954) and Strangers on a Train (1951). The first opens with a close-up of a telephone dial, accompanied by a few sinister musical notes that soon evolve into a waltz theme. The theme continues as we see Grace Kelly, kissing first Ray Milland, then Robert Cummings in different settings. The romantic interludes suddenly escalate into an elaborate murder plot. Strangers on a Train’s main title is not one theme but a collection that is reprised in this tight thriller. Using a large orchestra, Tiomkin reinforces images of Robert Walker and Farley Granger’s walking feet and crisscrossing rails, calling attention to one of Hitchcock’s favourite plot points of double motif or identity transference (‘I’ll commit your murder if you commit mine’). Hitchcock’s cameo in this film shows him boarding a train carrying a double bass.
Wild is the Wind: Theme
Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani! These names alone inspire images of unbridled passion, and that’s what audiences were given in Wild is the Wind (1957). Directed by George Cukor, this lustful tale of a Nevada ranch owner whose volcanic Italian wife falls in love with a younger man, played by Tony Franciosa, lent itself perfectly to Tiomkin’s romantic scoring inclinations. Working with lyricist Ned Washington, he also produced a title song, heard over the opening credits as sung by Johnny Mathis, ‘For we’re creatures of the wind, and wild is the wind!’. The film received four Oscar nominations, including score and song. Mathis even performed the song live at the Academy Awards ceremony.
The Sundowners: Theme
The Sundowners (1960) is a spirited love story of a hard-drinking Irish-Australian ‘sheep-drover’, his wife and son, and their nomadic family life in the remote Australian Outback. Starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, its warm-hearted images are interspersed with scenes of the sheep-shearers brawling, gambling and pub-crawling. For the Irish connection, Tiomkin applied a lighthearted Gaelic touch to his main theme, weaving it throughout the movie along with traditional melodies like ‘Moreton Bay’, ‘The Lime-Juice Tub’ and ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. The latter is sung full-throated by Mitchum in one of the many pub scenes: ‘He was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name’. A Tiomkin biographer called the score one of ‘folksy innocence’.
Circus World: The John ‘Duke’ Wayne march
Circus World (1964), released in the UK as The Magnificent Showman, reunited Tiomkin with producer and fellow Russian immigrant Samuel Bronston, for whom he also scored The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and 55 Days at Peking (1963). Circus World, directed by Henry Hathaway, stars John Wayne, Rita Hayworth and Claudia Cardinale, with Wayne as an American circus impresario who takes his ‘big tent’ on a disastrous European tour. The early 1900s setting allowed Tiomkin to write an original score which tapped into the American folk-song idiom, incorporating such tunes as ‘Oh! Susanna’, ‘Turkey in the Straw’, and ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike’, as well as music by John Philip Sousa and Stephen Foster. Tiomkin dedicated the toe-tapping, circus-flavoured march in the score to his friend Wayne and fittingly titled it ‘The John ‘Duke’ Wayne march’.
Land of the Pharaohs: Theme and Pharaoh’s procession
Land of the Pharaohs (1955) featured Jack Hawkins as the ‘living god’ Khufu preparing his vast treasures for his ‘afterlife’, and 22-year-old Joan Collins as a cunning and treacherous princess who desires the treasure for herself. Directed by Howard Hawks and filmed in Egypt with widescreen pageantry, this ancient ‘soap opera of palace intrigue’ is memorable for its spectacular scenes of pyramid building and the epic Tiomkin score. The soundtrack is exotic, lush, and majestic, and features an 80-voice chorus directed by the choral director and arranger Jester Hairston, whose association with Tiomkin began with Lost Horizon (1937). While working on the music in Rome, Tiomkin had a chance meeting with the exiled Egyptian King Farouk, who asked to see scenes from the movie. Tiomkin declined, knowing Land of the Pharaohs was being filmed with assistance from Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, who helped overthrow Farouk in 1952. The vocal theme is arranged by Daniel Chan.
Friendly Persuasion: The fair and Thee I love
Friendly Persuasion (1956), based on the novel by Jessamyn West and directed by William Wyler, is the story of an Indiana Quaker family played by Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire and Tony Perkins. Touched by the Civil War, they struggle to remain true to their pacifist ideals. In this exploration of the American folk idiom, the melodist Tiomkin was at his creative best, producing the tender theme song ‘Thee I love’, with poetic lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, sung during the opening credits by Pat Boon. The memorable melody weaves its way throughout the score.
Jim Brown © 2011