June 19, 2024


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Johnny Mandel’s music for Harper and Point Blank: Video, Photos

The following article was completed shortly before Johnny Mandel passed away on June 29 at the age of 94. Naturally, most of the obituaries focused on hit songs like “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Emily,” and the theme from M.A.S.H., “Suicide is Painless.” Although not intended as a memorial, a salute to some of Mandel’s most memorable work not connected to his most familiar standalone songs offers a chance to round out an appreciation of Mandel’s phenomenal contribution to American music.

Two of Johnny Mandel’s best film scores grace a pair of famous neo-noirs made just one year apart. Harper (1966) was an immediate hit while the reputation of Point Blank (1967) has steadily acquired heft over time.

Both films were freely adapted from important fictional debuts. The Moving Target (1949) by Ross MacDonald introduced private detective Lew Archer, who was changed into “Harper” for the movie. The Hunter (1962) by Richard Stark (the pen name of Donald E. Westlake) introduced virtuoso thief Parker, who became “Walker” for Point Blank. Parallels don’t stop there: California locations, gunfights, double-crosses, car crashes, jazz clubs, go-go dancing, and femme fatales can be found in either film. Both movies also center the lead: Without Paul Newman there is no Harper, and without Lee Marvin there is no Point Blank.

The parallels are fun to enumerate, but the souls of the two movies are very different. Harper begins as glamorous romp, an attempt to get back to Humphrey Bogart and an old-fashioned detective tale. (Lauren Bacall’s appearance in Harper is a direct homage to The Big Sleep staring Bogart and Bacall.) Point Blank’s existential ethos foreshadows later, bleaker, and more violent revenge movies. (It is easy to draw a line from Point Blank to Death Wish to John Wick.) Director Jack Smight plays it reasonably straight for Harper, while John Boorman’s staccato editing intentionally confuses the narrative in Point Blank.

Jack Smight is in the history books for directing The Sound of Jazz (1957), one of the greatest jazz documentaries, boasting priceless footage of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk. Smight also directed the most famous episode of Route 66 (1961), featuring a major performance by Ethel Waters and acting roles by Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, and Roy Eldridge.

Considering Smight’s illustrious history with the music, it makes sense that he would look for someone conversant with jazz when hiring a composer for Harper.

Johnny Mandel began his career in the late ‘40s as a big band arranger and composer, working with the likes of Woody Herman and Count Basie; Mandel’s first movie score was I Want to Live! (1958), now regarded as both a classic film noir and a classic jazz score with great solos from Art Farmer and Gerry Mulligan.

The music in Harper can be easily seen as an extension of the swinging I Want to Live! ethos, although Mandel is now commanding much larger forces than a conventional jazz band.

After a single dissonant fanfare, the music begins from nothing, mirroring Harper getting out of bed and starting his day. Pointillistic stabs slowly build into a bachelor pad groove with bongos, tympani, guitar, keyboards, frantic woodwinds, and anything else that might be required for a demonstration surround-sound LP from the era. (The ace rhythm section includes bassist Carol Kaye, part of a famous posse later dubbed the Wrecking Crew.) Finally, noble French horns declaim an intervallic theme that would later be packaged as a standalone song, “Sure as You’re Born,” although the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman aren’t used in the movie. This over-the-top orchestral frenzy eventually threatens to overwhelm what is a rather basic visual, Harper driving his Porsche Speedster to meet a prospective client.

Throughout the movie the cues remain gorgeous and richly textured, but Mandel also shows restraint, especially when Janet Leigh is in the scene.

Something is off with Harper, especially when he is shown interacting with his soon to be ex-wife (played by Leigh). These scenes run the gamut from hostile to goofy to sexy to cold. Not once does Mandel offer any underscoring when Newman and Leigh are in the frame together. We are left to decide for ourselves about this complicated couple.

The “Sure as You’re Born” theme is exploited further for action and transition. At the Temple in the Clouds, a bogus site of worship overseen by Claude (Strother Martin), that melody is transformed into high mysterious strings, answered by a low brass melody reminiscent of Dies Irae.

One the best cues is after a murderous ransom handoff, where Mandel lets his hands go with some outrageous “danger” jazz replete with wailing horns and skeletal xylophones. Mandel also supplies some amusing original music in the style of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, first heard on the radio for poolside go-go dancing by the client’s stepdaughter (Pamela Tiffin) and later for denizens at the nightspot The Piano. However, the song sung at The Piano by Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), “Livin’ Alone,” is by Dory and André Previn.

It’s a long film, two hours of complicated plot, with perhaps one or two twists too many for complete satisfaction, although every single frame is simply gorgeous to look at.

As with any crime story authored by Ross MacDonald, there’s no good news to be found at the wind-up. Around the three-quarter mark, Harper cooly interrogates Fraley while driving in his Porche. When Harper says, “The happiness market has crashed, baby,” the music becomes dissonant, almost atonal. Mandel’s jazz vocabulary drifts away, replaced by solemn orchestral counterpoint in wide-spaced orchestration and a ghostly flute lofting above a dismal abyss.

The suddenly dismal score supports a disintegrating narrative. We never see the face of Ralph Sampson (the missing millionaire Harper was hired to find), and the movie even ends on cliffhanger: We don’t know what ethical choice Harper will make concerning an old friend. For the final sting, Mandel cues the same kind of dissonant fanfare that began Harper’s journey.

The kind of slow, dissonant counterpoint haunting the last quarter of Harper is where Mandel’s next noir score begins.

Point Blank was the first movie to use Alcatraz Island as a location, and the opening image of the famed prison is scored for full orchestra in suspended harmonies. In an interview with Bill Kirchner, Mandel says that Point Blank was, “Totally a twelve tone score, I wrote it around a tone-row and a motif.”

Rigorously atonal movie scores are rare. In terms of basic difficulty level, Mandel’s Point Blank is situated somewhere between the full-on expressionism of Leonard Rosenman’s The Cobweb (1955), which explicitly honors the tradition of Arnold Schoenberg, and David Shire’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), where a brassy tone row swings over a funky vamp.

(For a time, edgy and dissonant scores were a popular choice for gritty crime dramas. Mandel supplied something on the tuneful side for The Seven-Ups (1973), but that was replaced with a more Schoenbergian score by Don Ellis. It’s almost like the Seven-Ups production team wanted Point Blank, and Mandel gave them Harper instead. However, from the same year, Mandel’s jazz theme for the retro Quinn Martin production Banyon starring Robert Forster was perfect. Mandel also scored episodes of the late-’50s series Markham starring Ray Milland.)

Irwin Bazelon’s 1975 book Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music includes an illuminating interview with Mandel and even reproduces several pages of the Point Blank score in the composer’s own hand. When Bazelon asks why the score features alto flute, Mandel responds by praising director John Boorman: The entire beginning of the film was in blues, grays, and greens; he kept all the primary colors out of it. Then he started adding some white; then, around the time Angie Dickinson came into the picture…red, oranges…[Boorman] used color emotionally. That alto flute playing that line felt extremely gray and disembodied…I was in on the picture from the beginning. I was on Alcatraz while filming was taking place. And the feeling, the vibes, that place gave off contributed a lot to the way I actually scored those scenes. It’s the eeriest feeling in the world.

The unexpected final freeze frame of Harper seems almost normal compared to the ending of Point Blank, where Walker vanishes from the movie at the moment of completion with no adequate explanation, prompting some commentators to wonder if the whole movie was the hallucination of a dying man. Boorman has never confirmed or denied this interpretation. However, it is perhaps worth noting that the alto flute mentioned by Mandel as ground zero for the feeling of Alcatraz begins right when Marvin whispers “Did it happen? A dream…a dream,” five minutes into the film.

Point Blank enjoys cult status today partly because the whole creative team wanted to make a genre film as arty as possible. Lee Marvin is strong and taciturn but he’s also wounded and vulnerable, a decorated war veteran who thrives on subverting expectation. In the original novel, Stark’s Parker kills easily, but Marvin’s Walker doesn’t kill anybody, at least not intentionally.

In rehearsal with Walker’s wife, played by Sharon Acker, Marvin refused to look at Acker or even speak his lines, forcing Acker to recite her half of the dialogue into a void. The final result is breathtakingly original, with conventional conversational beats deconstructed onscreen.

Mandel’s music is also surreal and disconnected. Electronic drones, clicks and pops turn up for suspense — Mandel credited Quincy Jones for recommending synthesizer pioneer Paul Beaver — while a disembodied and wordless female vocal was supplied by Acker herself. Walker’s footsteps in a long airport corridor offer a drumbeat of doom; another kind of fierce percussion is heard when Angie Dickinson pounds the chest of an indifferent Marvin thirty-five times in a row.

As with Harper, there is a scene in a club with live music not by Mandel, in this case “Mighty Good Times” by Stu Gardner. Gardner yells and encourages the audience to yell as well, leading seamlessly into the screams of a go-go dancer who has discovered bloody wreckage backstage.

A love scene is accompanied by the kind of lush aesthetic that comes to mind when remembering a Mandel song like “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Yet even these conventionally romantic sounds have a convoluted aspect, partly because the action onscreen is anything but obvious. Mandel explained: You get this series of flipovers where it’s him, then it’s his ex-wife, then his lover — that was a tough scene to write, it really was, because I overlaid it with organ and the only way I could figure out how to do it was to make a thirty-six-foot loop…you never have anything longer than an eight- or nine-foot loop…to feed the loop through, I had to have about four sound men just holding the stuff — it went through three rooms, and they were just passing it back and forth! That one worked very well, I thought.

Like every other aspect of Point Blank, Mandel’s score is unique, and much later in life Mandel would say it was one of his favorite projects. He even gets to sneak in the kind of big band writing he did for Woody Herman and Count Basie with “Count Source,” a diegetic moment from a reel-to-reel tape player while Angie Dickinson dances.

The musicians participating on the Point Blank soundtrack include many jazz greats: Red Mitchell, Ray Brown, Red Callender, Mel Lewis, Victor Feldman; Bud Shank plays the solo flute parts. (Shank would also command the alto sax lead for “Harlem Nocturne” featured in the 80’s Mike Hammer TV series with Stacy Keach.)

These were glory years for Hollywood soundtracks, in part because the musicians on call for the studio sessions were so good. All these magnificent jazzers left the rat race of the New York club scene and moved to California, where — when they weren’t hanging around the pool — they could make serious money recording TV and film dates.

Mandel says: I think that a jazz background is the best possible background anybody could have in this film age, because you start from a flexible base. It can lead you into symphonic music, it can lead you into contemporary pop music — you can go in a lot of directions. What’s worse than a symphony trumpet player? They’re good with standard repertoire, but when you come right down to it, it’s much easier to take a good, well-schooled jazz-first trumpet player.

The trumpet part at the conclusion of Point Blank is “straight,” but the stepwise notes are rendered in a cup mute and performed with a hint of blues. The setting has returned to mysterious Alcatraz, and trumpet has replaced the alto flute over that haunting chromatic web. Boorman gives Mandel a lot of time as the movie slows to a finish, and Mandel responds with one of the most gorgeous play-outs in noir history.

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