20 Great Movie Scenes Made Perfect by Its Music

14. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)

Rupert Questions Philip at The Piano – Perpetual Movement No. 1

Perpetual Movement No. 1

As is now common knowledge, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film, Rope, was an experimental film that attempted to reproduce the experience of live theater. There are 10 segments, or cuts, from 6 to 10 minutes each. When the film stock would soon run out, the cuts would be disguised, frequently focusing on the back of an actor (wearing dark clothing) at the end of each segment.

Whether the technique was ultimately successful would be for the viewer to determine. However, the attempt was there, and its objective was to give the impression that the camera was constantly filming, attempting to establish a sense of “perpetual motion.”

The choice of music, then, is fascinating, clever, and ultimately ingenious. When Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) walks over to the piano to speak with Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), who the audience knows is one of the murderers, Cadell has already sensed that something is not right about Phillip. He is a concert pianist who is at the party that Brandon Shaw (John Dall) arranged prior to Shaw and Morgan’s leave to the country in order for Phillip to prepare for his upcoming piano performance.

Phillip is playing Francis Poulenc’s “Perpetual Movement No. 1”, written in 1919, which, at just two manuscript pages in length, demand several repeats to complete. The music has various speeds during its length, is frequently bitonal (two musical keys played simultaneously), and sounds both frenetic and light or capricious at the same time.

If performed correctly, it sounds as if it has no beginning, middle or ending. As Rupert talks with Phillip and reminds Phillip that he “was really good at choking chickens,” Phillip reacts through the music, bringing out the less stable parts or the piece, playing louder, and increasing the music’s tempo. This serves ultimately as an aural rather than a visual cue for Rupert, and in the end, Brandon confesses the murder to him, seeking Rupert’s approval of the act.

During other scenes in Rope, the music is in the background, and fits perfectly, its lack of formal structure and sounding infinite and never ending, matches perfectly with the fluid camera movement and scenes.


15. Once Upon a Time in The West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

Harmonica Meets Frank

The western films of Sergio Leone are unique, radically different that a John Ford, William Wyler or Howard Hawks, and they have become, ironically, iconic. This may be due, in part to the music that Leone chooses for his films, such as the recognizable main theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The composer for that film as well as Once Upon a Time in the West, is Ennio Morricone. Brian DePalma chose Morricone to compose the film score for The Untouchables, the director clearly paying homage to Leone for his gangster version of a large, picaresque story.

While most composers score specific musical themes which identify individual characters in film (leitmotifs), and which describes through the medium of music the unique attributes of each character, when the leitmotif which signifies the appearance of the character dubbed “Harmonica,” (Charles Bronson), it describes not only him (the harmonica theme expresses “sly”, “elusive”, “wise to Frank”), it also predicts what he wishes to do to Frank; the music theme, three long notes played on a harmonica, sound like the music that would be played at the funeral of a bad man.

Indeed, at the end, as Frank is dying, Harmonica soundlessly places the instrument in his mouth. Through a flashback, Frank recalls that after he killed his father, he forced a harmonica in the son’s mouth, breathing in and out on the ground, labored, blowing through the harmonica’s air chambers.


16. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)

Captain America, Billy and George En Route to New Orleans – Born to Be Wild

Originally planned to played only at the film’s screening for Columbia Pictures, the soundtrack for Easy Rider became a sensation, containing music from The Band, Roger McGuinn and The Byrds, among others.

In a film that contained themes such as living off the land, alternative living and freedom, it was totally aware of itself, of the excesses of the characters, especially Billy (Dennis Hopper), and aware that is characters believed in an illusion, and that, if dreams are not planned wisely, and too many ingredients are added to the mix (i.e. drugs), then not only will the dream be unreachable, but the attempt to be free on your own terms could be fatal.

As Fonda and Hopper ride towards New Orleans for Mardi Gras, they meet George Hanson (played by Jack Nicholson in a role that defined his persona for the rest of his career) before bailing out of jail. On the way, with no dialogue, Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” is heard as the motorcycles drive down the highway, the lyrics, whose first verse is “Get your motor runnin/Head out on the highway/Lookin for adventure/And whatever comes out way”, seem to have been written for this particular scene, though it was not.

The lyrics and the motor sound of the organ in the music suggest movement and travel. The sentiment of the music, whether sardonic or real, is that freedom is there for the taking, and those who do attempt a life outside the box will have the feeling of flight, of lightness. Although Easy Rider can seem dated today, it was no doubt a film for its time, expression the exuberance of the 1960s as well as the difficulties of the alternative so desired by so many.


17. West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961)

The Sharks Dream of “America”

There is no question that Leonard Bernstein’s music for West Side Story has become a landmark of film soundtracks. Bernstein, in the 1960s was riding a wave of popularity, for his work as conductor of The New York Philharmonic (and stints with other orchestras in Germany, Austria and Israel), his nationally syndicated television “Young People’s Concerts” program that brought Classical music to a popular level accepted by a larger audience, as well as his own music (which after West Side Story would stagnate for over a decade due to time constraints).

His non-classical compositions, such as the music for this film, proved to many that this was an especially gifted artist, extremely versatile, able to communicate strong emotion extremely well through music.

During a gathering of fellow Puerto Rican immigrants (including the Sharks gang), Bernardo (George Chakiris) and Anita (Rita Moreno) have a quarrel, following the discovery of Bernardo’s sister Maria’s (Natalie Wood) involvement and love for Tony (Richard Beymer), who is white. As Bernardo parries with girlfriend Anita, she mocks Bernardo’s old-fashioned perspective on Latino values and his nationalistic pride. She tells him she wishes never to return to Puerto Rico, and,unlike Bernardo, she prefers America, specifically Manhattan.

Anita, the gang and Bernardo begin to move, in one of the film’s memorable dance sequences, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, as Anita (and the other women) sing the praises of America, while the gang’s men deride the country. As they go back and forth, in lyric statement and reply, the music’s melody and rhythm, in triple meter, is rhythmically Latin, while being harmonically American.

This wonderful combination of musical styles has great appeal to the listener, the rhythm providing the means to dance, and the melody and harmony giving a feeling of exuberant joy. Though the racial profiling of Latinos and Americans is dated, the music itself is memorable and timeless.


18. Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)

Opening Credits – Stayin’ Alive

As the opening credits appear on screen, Tony Manero John Travolta), portraying an Italian-American youth from bay Ridge, Brooklyn, walks down the sidewalk, paint can in hand on his way to work, is dressed in clothing he will soon change out of before returning to work and providing his waiting customer a discount on the purchase of the paint.

Within the first few minutes, with only “Stayin’ Alive” playing while Manero walks, or “struts” in rhythm to the music, the audience sees clearly a young man having questioning his identity, wishing to change his place on the socio-economic ladder, and his unhappiness with his dull, mundane life.

He is, in a sense, the character that the lyrics of the song are speaking of, though it was recorded by the Bee Gees almost two years earlier, and not intended for the film soundtrack (in fact, it almost did not make the final cut for the film). Yet, even as recent as 2004, “Stayin’ Alive” was ranked 189th by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the best recorded songs in popular music.

The main character, Manero, longs to cross the bridge, both figuratively (to become upwardly mobile) and literally (to cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan permanently). The road there, making it in the society, achieving goals, is full of anger despair, loss of friends, and most important, the necessity to play roles, to act the part. Saturday Night Fever is Tony’s rite of passage, and the words to the first verse of “Stayin’ Alive”, in their naive perspective, describe who Tony feels he is, and who he wishes to be, with little time and a lot to do: “Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk/Music loud and women warm I’ve been kicked around, since I was born.”

Manero wishes to be somebody, needs to, like so many who leave for the big city, re-create himself. The dancing numbers in the film portray a young man who, through movement on the dance floor, achieves the adulation and the recognition he so desires. In 2001 Odyssey, he is the center of attention; outside, he’s just another guy walking down the sidewalk, desiring beautiful women and connections but without the means to get there.


19. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Zither Music of Anton Karas

By a quirky twist of fate, director Carol Reed overheard zither-player Anton Karas in a beer hall in Vienna, then approached him and asked him to compose the soundtrack to The Third Man. This collaboration is even more interesting due to the fact that what Karas sees in his music is radically different than what Reed (and the audience) heard.

The labyrinthine plot, the search for Harry Lime (Orson Welles), whom his friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to Vienna to visit on an invitation by Lime, is being buried at the time of Martin’s arrival. The film is about the search for Lime by Martins and others for various reasons, and clues to his whereabouts lead Martins through alleyways, demolished houses and places destroyed by the war. Rumors of Lime’s war crimes arise, his illicit affairs, and other questions about his character fuel Martin’s search.

Throughout can be heard the Karas’ zither music: disjointed, unmelodious, frenetic, and reaching a pitch that it becomes difficult to continue to listen to as the action unfolds. The music actually serves to heighten the suspense of the film, and the necessity to find Harry Lime, while the instrument’s tone seems a perfect complement to a visual of a city wracked by war, not put together according to any blueprint or grid.

The architecture of the city is as unstable and disconnected from reality as the characters that inhabit it, and the music perfectly underscores the feeling of unbalance and derangement.


20. The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)

Franz Kafka “The Law” – Adagio in G Minor Remo Giazotto

The novels of Franz Kafka are filled with dark imagery and themes of alienation, are metaphorical and even mystical. His best known work, “The Trial,’ tells the story of Joseph K., who was accused and arrested for a crime, without ever discovering the crime he was charged with. The book is about a nightmare bureaucracy, and at every step in his attempt to discover the charges against him, he is never given a direct answer. He does not have access to the truth, or to the law. He is eventually executed.

Orson Welles’ The Trial so completely captures the utter chaos of the story, the impossibility for K to get answers, his eventual realization that he may not even exist, the word of jumbled riddles at every step in his search. It is a testament to Welles’ genius, so accurate is the film to the feeling the reader has when reading the story, that The Trial becomes difficult to watch.

The novel, and the film, are in a way a reflection of Kafka’s personality. It has been theorized that, based on his journal writings and personal notes, Kafka himself may have been schizophrenic, or at the very least delusional with strong feelings of persecution. Anthony Perkins, portraying Joseph K., brilliantly portrays K as a frustrated man, incapable,even impotent, in his struggle to claim his rights.

In the introductory scene, Welles reads a section from the novel regarding The Law, a short prose piece about a man who spends an eternity waiting to speak to The Law, but the doorway to be seen is blocked by a guard, who tells the man that the door has always been open.

Such alienation and lack of logic is captured beautifully during Welles’s reading by the somber and starkly poignant “Adagio in G Minor,” a forlorn piece of music that has been heard and used so many times, but perhaps never as fittingly as in the introduction to this disturbing, disillusioning, and ultimately sad film.

Author Bio: Joseph DeGregorio is a pianist, composer, freelance composer of music for TV and Radio. You can contact him at musiciwritr@gmail.com.