Chinatown / by Charlie Brigden

chinatown_isc350_600a The movie or the music do not need much introduction, both famous and lauded for their combined and individual merits and there is still a mesmerizing haunting quality to this Roman Polanski directed 1974 film noir. It so well captures the Los Angeles of 1930's with its light and darkness, the familiar genre trope of a lonely private detective becoming entangled in events that are far bigger than he had initially anticipated handled masterfully by Robert Towne's layered script. Jerry Goldsmith's score is such an indelible part of the film's landscape, nostalgic in its trumpet-led romance, sparse and gritty as the drought that plagues the sun parched city of angels and sparkling at times like the water that forms integral part of the central mystery of the plot. And behind everything it is all about the slowly unfolding tragedies that lie hidden in the film's title, Chinatown, that in Towne's script stands as a metaphor for good intentions gone horribly awry.

Jerry Goldsmith's first challenge as composer came even before had written a note of the score as the producer Robert Evans came to him only after the film's original score by composer Phillip Lambro had been jettisoned from the movie and Goldsmith had only 10 days to create and record his replacement for Polanski's film. In this punishing time frame Goldsmith truly rose up to the occasion and produced one of his most lauded creations, a tightly spotted, evocative and daringly written masterpiece. The complete score for the film runs only for 31 minutes yet seems to contain a whole world of the movie. And even though the schedule was tight, the composer, who was always searching for a way to give each of his scores a unique sound, created for Chinatown something singular that would in part help to define the film. This is very much thanks to the ensemble he envisioned for the score, which was an unorthodox one indeed and consisted of strings, four pianos, four harps, two percussionists and a solo trumpet, which was to play a central role in the score and would indeed almost become a character in its own right in the film.

The score for this classic neo-noir has been released numerous times on LP and CD, the latest one before this new Intrada release being the straight up re-release of the 1974 soundtrack album in 2012 by Varese Sarabande. But this time the fans of Goldsmith and Chinatown are finally getting what they have been clamouring for in the past decades, namely the complete film score cue-for-cue paired with the original album fitted snugly on a single disc. The new presentation however opens with the classic original 30+ minute soundtrack album (in stereo) which has ever since 1974 been a fan favourite that mixes period standards like ”Easy Living” by Ralph Rainger & Leo Robin and ”I Can't Get Started” by Ira Gershwin & Vernon Duke with selections from Goldsmith's score, the tracks often combining shorter film cues together for longer listening friendly medleys.  It is still undeniably a fine distillation of the score's central moments into a great listening experience that runs the gamut of the moods and themes of the music and tells its own story. But the main interest for most fans will surely lie in the latter half, the complete film score on which this review will focus.

The complete and chronological programme of Chinatown does feel like a different beast from the previous album everyone was so used to but it does give us for the first time a chance to experience the score's drama, its impulses and dramaturgy in the way it was conceived for the film itself. Although the soundtrack album is heard in crisp remastered stereo here, the film score's recordings were available only in mono elements but this does not diminish the appeal of the music as it sounds as fine as it ever could on the lovingly restored presentation Intrada has produced. The score opens just like the album does with the ”Love Theme from Chinatown” where hazy gossamer thin whisper of brushed piano strings and parched high strings moan eerily before the warm trumpet solo (skilfully played by a veteran musician Uan Rasey) combined with piano and harp take over and present the love theme full of longing, nostalgia and a hint of mystery. A perfect musical curtain opener.

The romantic nostalgia represented by the love theme is tied more closely to the time and place of the L.A. of 1930's but is often paired by the composer with the 20th century orchestral techniques with which he was so well versed that really give the score its timeless quality. A good example of the union of these elements comes in the following ”J.J. Gittes” where the same brushed piano strings effect and sparse rolling piano notes and string chords evoke the mood of the opening titles and actually become thematic in themselves, before solo harp intones the love theme (or the main theme) of the film, suspense and mystery readily conjured up with a suggestion of danger by the trumpet that first takes over the love theme but ends in a terrifically ghostly solo over a parched string section. The economy of the soundscape of the score suggests almost subliminally the drought that has struck L.A. in the film and adds an additional layer of sweltering summer heat to the already accomplished and atmospheric cinematography of the film.

”Noah Cross I” is the first true piece of the suspense writing of the score, where guiro, harp and pulsing bell-like effect meet high strings and piano to create some very unique sounding mystery that seems to adhere to “less is more” philosophy and works wonderfully in the film as wellas on disc. “Mulwray's Office” continues the sneaky mood with atmospheric low end piano thumping and uncomfortable moaning strings that further lay groundwork for the style of the suspense scoring. “A Late Swim” is another short previously unreleased moment from the score, a musical splash of water in the form of plucked violently jabbed piano strings as the police discover drowned Hollis Mulwray.

The singular uneasy and parched dry sound Goldsmith elicits from his unusual ensemble is showcased in “The Boy On A Horse” that features sparse piano chords rambling over a bed of high string effects and peppered by the rattling guiro. Low piano, single plucked harp notes and pizzicato from bass and celli all give a wonderfully offbeat support to Gittes' exploration of a dry riverbed, where the detective discovers a drunkard who drowned there rather inexplicably. It is here he all of a sudden also encounters a young Mexican boy riding an old nag of a horse, a true film noir moment of off-kilter imagery scored to perfection by the composer.

“Noah Cross II” again returns to the raspy sounds of the guiro and pulsing orchestral chimes but this time darker string harmonics inform the listener that something sinister is going on as the mystery deepens. “No Trespassing” is a short but evocative musical miniature, the lean and weary trumpet solo emerging from the established plucked avant garde sounds as our hero follows the leads to the orange fields outside L.A., the music giving a surprising foretaste of the composer's haunting and impressionistic trumpet writing later heard in his score to Alien.  One of the score's few quick moments of action comes in “The Last of Ida II” with low thumping piano chords that jab sharply and urgently before rapt snare drum hits and high piano runs meet with a hint of the love theme on the trumpet and surprisingly delicate harp when Gittes and Evelyn flee from the orange orchard guards at the nick of time. Again it is all very tightly scored, economic but truly memorable material.

What follows is the most straightforwardly romantic almost erotic piece of music in the score as “Jake and Evelyn” opens with expectant serene chords that melt into a tender trumpet reading of the love theme, warm and inviting before swooning string section blooms, the celli and piano creating such delicate intimate sound for the couple's lovemaking although the composer masterfully ends the piece in tremoloing strings and ominous deep rumbling piano underneath to suggest ambiguity and darker secrets these two emotionally wounded people hold on to.

“The Captive” further expands the suspense elements established earlier, the low piano particularly noteworthy as it paves way to a classic expansive film noir travel montage reading of the love theme where the trumpet leads it over rhythmic pulse of the piano, the harps again used for good measure as rhythmic supportive effect. It is followed by “sneaking around” scoring that is very sparse but superbly unnerving, the literally moaning sounds of piano strings scraped with the super ball especially creative touch towards the end. “Second Thoughts” introduces a short but beautiful trumpet variation on the love theme, now decorated with glittering harp notes and showcases the composer's ever keen orchestrational skills to elicit an emotional response.

The whole brief score is very much like a text book on “how to write music for a film noir” with Goldsmith both evoking the past masters and in part creating some of the tropes that seem to belong to the oft-quoted musical vocabulary of the genre to this day. “The Last of Ida I” underscores another of those travelling transition sequences where ingenious syncopated rhythms from harp and percussion support the trumpet as the piece moves from the love theme to steely and eerie suspense material where metallic bowl percussion sounds and the jabbing edgy angular piano chords alternate with high string stingers for the horrific discovery of the body of Ida Sessions.

“The Wrong Clue II” and “I”continue the same uneasy atmosphere of tension but the drama and foreboding only increases as Gittes slowly unravels the convoluted mysteries surrounding the case. The tragedy is now almost complete as driving and mournful variations of the love theme culminate into “Not Worth It” that unleashes most violent version of the low piano jabs and percussion ideas heard in the score to increase the foreboding of the film's ending in Chinatown. And while much of this shocking and typically film noirishly cynical ending is left unscored, everything is finally brought to a bittersweet conclusion with the last reprise of the “Love Theme from Chinatown” that manages to express the main character's regret and longing in equal measure as it passes from the solo trumpet to sultry strings before returning to the smoky brass solo for its final inevitable sounding chords. Here Uan Rasey's performance has such beautifully expressed world weariness, a perfect expression of the emotional turmoil of Nicholson's character and at the same time a cathartic musical release for the audience.

Chinatown is an undisputed Goldsmith classic and a lesson in effective and memorable musical economy. The Intrada release only enhances the appreciation for this score and the programme put together with loving care by the label is excellent and the sound quality is surprisingly good considering the age of the source materials and this whole package is further complemented by the typically insightful and entertaining liner notes by Jeff Bond. If you don't own this score in any form, this is the version you should get as the new album is basically the definitive edition of the score and the presentation with the original soundtrack album and the complete film score offers the best of both worlds on one disc as you can choose which of two ways to experience this masterpiece. While for a more casual fan the original soundtrack album might be enough, to the devoted fans of Goldsmith and this score I heartily recommend an upgrade even if you already own any of the previous releases. Intrada has done a fine job polishing this gem and now all of its facets shine all the brighter.

-Mikko Ojala

Chinatown is now out from Intrada Records