Friday Film (56)

The US actor John Hillerman died yesterday, at the age of 84; and since it so happens that I was thinking about one of his film performances a couple of days earlier, I’m going to withhold my planned follow-up to last week’s posting and say a few words about that other movie instead.

To most people my age and older, Hillerman is best known for his (and his fake accent’s) co-starring role as former British Army Sergeant Major ‘Jonathan Quayle Higgins III’ in the detective series Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988). But since that was a programme I didn’t watch (a few odd moments aside), I myself remember him more as the ‘radio detective’ Simon Brimmer, who sometimes showed up to compete with the titular character in the short-lived detective series Ellery Queen (1975-76).

Most of all, however, I remember Hillerman’s 95-second-long appearance as Kaltenborn in What’s Up, Doc — a comedy from 1972 that I saw in the cinema as soon as it arrived, and which I enjoyed so much that I went back the very next day to see it again.

And it’s this film that I want to discuss now — albeit briefly, for reasons that will become apparent. For a start, it stands out in my mind as literally the only comedy film in history to have a musicologist as its central character…

What’s more, he is even in San Francisco for a musicology-related reason — since he is attending the ‘Congress of American Musicologists’…

(Speaking of musicology… The music heard at the very start of that clip is a distinctly eccentric arrangement of a tune found in Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie, a manual of Renaissance social dance published as long ago as 1589: for some reason its second phrase is here made to arrive at the relative major by way of that key’s sharpened fourth degree — as if it’s trying to move from D minor to F major without leaving the Dorian mode — which struck me as obtrusively weird in 1972, and still does today.)

Another small clip…

And, yes: before you ask, that really is a young Randy Quaid in the role of ‘Professor Hosquith’…

Another few amusing clips before we arrive at our main point…

… including the scene in which we meet John Hillerman (to whom our thanks for all the laughs…)

Next, one of Ms Streisand’s several sung contributions to the film… (Yes, she does tell him which harmony to play: this script is one of the most musically literate I have ever encountered…)

And now a clip from a scene that will surely clarify to every reader that the mainspring for most of what has happened in the plot is the state of confusion caused by a set of identical overnight bags having become mixed up…

And, as you would perhaps expect, events finally conspire to engineer a chase


Well, as you probably guessed — especially once the VW’s radio was turned on and you heard a rather clumsy overlap between diegetic and non-diegetic music (‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ in my own, vastly less pretentious terminology) — that single clip is something of a fake: someone has added a ‘comedy’ music track to it for purposes of study (and rather skilfully, too — within the inevitable constraints: see how ‘responsive’ it still manages to be to pauses and changes within the narrative structure?)

For — as every regular reader will by now have twigged — in spite of its musical literacy and its abundance of musicologists, this film is remarkable for not utilising a composed ‘film score’: all the music heard within it — and there is a fair bit! — is presented (explicitly or implicitly) as originating within the depicted scene, and thus (to put it another way) as something that one would suppose the characters themselves are able to hear.

Here’s some of that sequence again, with no ‘extrinsic’ music at all…

There aren’t a great many post-1930 films in our ‘mainstream’ (read: ‘commercial’) tradition that eschew all ‘non-realistic’ music in this manner — so far as I remember, a very early one was the original Scarface (1932), and a precisely contemporary one was The Day of the Jackal (1973) — and they are always worth noting. And indeed scoring: every musical person should have a go, now and then, at finding or composing something to fit one or other of these deliberately un-scored sequences — and seeing what does and doesn’t work acceptably.

Of course, I mustn’t over-simplify… In the case of Day of the Jackal — and indeed What’s Up, Doc, though more containedly — there’s a relatively ‘standard’ film-with-music opening: only once the introductory function is fulfilled, and the story gets going in ‘real time’, do we (eventually) realise that there’s no ‘background’ score as such…

Which, in the case of Jackal, is rather handy: for this week’s homework, why not take the various motivic and textural elements from those opening minutes of music and use them as the basis of your own ‘extrinsic’ accompaniment for, say, the following two scenes…? And if you don’t want to go quite that far all at once, why not work out — and tell us! — the particular ‘spots’ where you’d have the music start and stop…? After all, that’s no minor decision, is it…?

Hand it in Thursday…


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