For many silent film fans, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 feature film The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog doesn’t really need an introduction; it is Hitchcock’s signature silent film for many and one of the key British silent films produced in this country.
So you would have to forgive us for being a tad excited when we heard that the brilliant The Criterion Collection were going to release the film on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday 27th June in the USA! Our excitement then went into over drive when we heard that our very good friend Neil Brand was signed up to write a new score for the film!
Like The Lodger, Neil really doesn’t need an introduction as he has been a key figure in the silent film world for the past 30 years, accompanying the most obscure to the most celebrated of silent films throughout the world. Aside from the silent film world, Neil has been the face of film music (and music in general) for the past few years due to his successful BBC Four series’ Sound of Cinema: The Music that Made the Movies, Sound of Song and most recently, Sound of Musicals with Neil Brand, all three of which are produced by BBC Bristol Arts.
We were very lucky to catch up with Neil between a very busy schedule to give us a few words about the new Criterion release and specifically talk about his new score.
You’ve accompanied many silent films with on the spot accompaniment as well as your own written scores. Which is harder to do? The improvised scores or a written a score for a silent film?
Writing a score is much harder. An improv is like stage acting – its in the moment and then the moment is gone and only the people in the hall know about it. Writing a score there are potentially generations breathing down one’s neck. Also, there’s no audience to perform for, so the adrenaline’s not there. The heart and emotions are replaced by the head and boring, intellectual decisions which can be the death of exciting music. Having said that, with the exception of Robin Hood (1922), most scores I’ve written have come after years of playing the film as improv, so some scores (like Lodger and Blackmail) are well-trodden improvs.
You have accompanied many silent Hitchcock features over the years; how did you approach The Lodger compared to your other scores for other Hitchcock films, The Ring for example?
With great caution – I have always felt that the Lodger is the most problematic of the ‘great’ Hitchcocks – by comparison The Ring (1927) is a walk in the park and Blackmail (1929) is, quite rightly, a masterpiece. Lodger has some very uneven pacing and mood changes which are very hard to read. I’m sure this is as a result of Novello’s character being the actual Ripper in the novel (and potentially in H’s mind as well, at least until Balcon told him he couldn’t be) and the fact that he also has to be the matinee idol that sells tickets. Add to that Novello’s own idiosyncrasies (campery, at times) and the character flies away from reality, and real music. That, at least, is my feeling about it. Also, the family, the policeman boyfriend, there are multiple focusses in the film which Hitch will strip away in later years, as well as focussing Novello vastly better in Downhill. So I made the score shift continuously under the narrative, playing around with the audience’s expectations, keeping them, as much as I could, on the back foot and filling the whole score with dark and light melodies which would, I hope, focus the audience into the film a bit better. I couldn’t give it the light and shade of Blackmail because its a totally different film, a chamber chiller rather than an operatic suspense film.
But where do you start? Do you start at the beginning of the film or pick a scene and work your way around it?
I really do start with the title and write to the end. For my money the composer’s greatest priority is momentum – you can’t judge the overall pacing of a movie by dropping in and out of it, you have to build the score up like a building on a foundation. That way you also make the musical ideas that can be varied and reworked as the story progresses. It also means the hard work comes in the first half of the film, the last twenty minutes is always easiest to write as the film is virtually scoring itself by then!
You have introduced modern movies themes to silent film accompaniment screenings over the years… will Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette (Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme) make an appearance in your new score?
No, although I liked slipping that and Dixon of Dock Green into Blackmail. What there is, recognisably, is some Herrmannesque slow suspense stuff and some nice piano, the first time I’ve used piano in a Hitchcock score. I have really enjoyed working with a much smaller ensemble. I’ve orchestrated this film myself, to Timothy Brock’s recommended 12-piece forces (six strings, three woods, horn, piano and percussion) and really loved hearing it go from computer to live via the fantastic playing of Orchestra of St Pauls (OSP) and their conductor (who actually did conduct the recording) Ben Palmer. I’m ready for more small ensemble stuff, and will next make a start on getting my Oliver Twist score and a couple of my Keaton shorts playable by 12 players.
What next? Are there any silent titles you are eyeing up to score next?
Oh yes. There’s a list! Certainly Les Deux Timides (1928) and Hell’s Heroes (1929) (I’m desperate to do a Western) but I have to add, I’m not scoring anything new for at least a year. The 9 month back-to-back scoring of Robin Hood and The Lodger has left me with RSI I’m still trying to shake off, and I REALLY don’t want to sit writing at a computer and keyboard for at least another year!! 2018, I’ll try something new!