Tuesday, May 10, 2011

John Barry


"I was brought up with movies. They've always been extremely special to me. It wasn't like I wanted to write a piano concerto, I wanted to write a symphony, or whatever. I've always been a movie composer. That's what I like doing more than anything else." (John Barry from a 2006 interview)

While preparing my tribute to John Barry a few days after the announcement of his death, I was sidetracked by something I felt was more pressing and never got around to paying my respects. Since such things always seem to come too late, I feel it wouldn't hurt to offer my valediction this late to the late Barry. Recording artists and movie stars are never really gone, if they're any good. Small comfort for the ones who knew them, but a comfort to all the rest of us who only knew their work.

The best way to remember John Barry's music is to simply look at a list of his credits. IMDB lists 110 titles, among which are eleven James Bond theme songs (my favorite is You Only Live Twice), Born Free, The Appointment, Midnight Cowboy, The Glass Menagerie (the Katharine Hepburn version), Body Heat, The Cotton Club, Out of Africa, and Indecent Proposal. I suppose the worst you could say about Barry's characteristically lush film music is that it added too much sail for the films' hulls.

He also composed music for six films directed by the shamefully underrated Bryan Forbes, among which is my favorite, Deadfall (1968). When it was released, it was probably called "stylish noir", which means it was filmed in Europe with picturesque locations, beautiful clothes and cars. A British Thomas Crown Affair without "The Windmills of Your Mind".

For Deadfall, Barry wrote a theme song, "My Love Has Two Faces", with Jack Lawrence, sung by Shirley Bassey, the English Ethel Merman. The perils of an ambitious burglar, played by Michael Caine in his post-Alfie prime, are given a depth of fate and feeling by Barry's music that was a little unearned by the potboiler plot, in which an old man's beautiful wife, played by Giovanna Ralli, turns out to be his daughter. A hidden Nazi past makes the old man (played by the great Eric Portman) less sympathetic, if that were possible. But Caine's thief is clearly in it for the sport, and not the money, and preys on people who are so ridiculously wealthy they barely feel the loss.

Barry proved that he could compose a concert piece when Forbes asked him to come up with an original composition for orchestra that would be used, as in Jules Dassin's Topkapi, to coincide with the scene of an elaborate robbery. The result, a "Romance for Guitar and Orchestra" (you can see and hear it here), is intentionally programmatic, but it could stand on its own in any orchestra repertoire. The concert, conducted by Barry himself, features Renata Tarrago on guitar and the London Philharmonic.

On a personal note, the film contained a mystery for me until I found an explanation for it in Michael Caine's marvelous autobiography, What's It All About?. There is a fancy dress ball in the film and there is an old man sitting at the table with the rich man who is the target of Caine's last attempted theft. When I first saw the film in the late 1970s, I recognized the old man as the English poet and author of the novel I, Claudius, Robert Graves. But his name was nowhere in the credits.

It remained a mystery for me for the next twenty years, when I finally read Caine's autobiography. In it, he describes the shooting of the film in Spain and a cameo appearance at the fancy dress ball by Graves. Graves approached him between takes and introduced himself as a fellow veteran of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

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