Chinatown: Film Score Sets the Mood

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974)
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, [1974]

The success and lasting popularity of the 1974 neo-noir classic, Chinatown, are often credited to Robert Towne's screenplay, Roman Polanski's direction, Robert Evans' production, a cast including Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and director Polanski himself in a memorably ominous cameo appearance. Perhaps not as immediately singled out for attention is Jerry Goldsmith's score, which, arguably, plays at least an equally important role in setting the mood, atmosphere, and style of this film. Goldsmith was nominated for Original Dramatic Score at the Academy Awards for his work on this film, though the Oscar went to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola for The Godfather Part II. Remarkably, Goldsmith composed this classic film score in only ten days, using, rather than a full orchestra, an ensemble consisting of a string orchestra, percussion, pianos, harps, and a trumpet.

In order to quickly construct his score, Goldsmith employed an economic ingenuity with his musical materials. The way that he put this score together out of a few seemingly simple elements can be observed by comparing the first phrase of the famous trumpet solo which opens the film to the scoring for the 'Boy on a Horse' scenes. The opening trumpet solo is based on two intervals: a rising major second followed by a rising then falling perfect fifth. This sustained second, against an e minor background creates a suitably jazz-sounding 9th chord. Development of these two motifs creates the famous melody associated with the film.

In the music to the "Boy on a Horse" scenes, Goldsmith spins out the opening trumpet theme's two-note motif in languorous quarter note triplets into a whole different mood. In the first "Boy on a Horse" scene—where Jack Nicholson spies on a meeting between two characters at the L.A. River—Goldsmith makes use of an aural accident in the recording. A buzzing fly was picked up in the soundtrack, and Goldsmith blends and augments this fly sound with his instrumental ensemble. By expanding and sustaining the major second, he creates whole-tone clusters in the violins to echo the insect's buzzing. The atonal sound which results, functions as a background for the high, staccato piano grace notes & repeated notes.

The music to the longer "Boy on a Horse" scene starts with a single harmonica tone on a high E. This tone is taken up and sustained by the violins, and then by the piano, in double-octaves. The piano moves from the E, spinning out rising & falling melodic major seconds from it, resulting in fragments of both whole tone scales. The violins follow and sustain the pitches hit by the piano, creating whole tone and cluster chords, reassembling the sounds echoed from the fly in the previous scene.

The "Boy on a Horse" music continues with musical sound-effects, including clusters on the strings, and sharp, staccato notes on a prepared piano, and on the harp. The violins play the rising second interval from the trumpet theme, but sustain the pitches and sequence the motif, to create more whole-tone passages and clusters. The passage ends with violins playing sul ponticello (with the bow close to the bridge) to create a metallic, arid sound. The lower strings play, in pizzicato, the whole tone-like theme with which the piano opened this section. Fitting with the Eastern/Western theme of Chinatown, these clusters relate to both the higher chords (9ths, 11ths, 13ths) of American jazz and French Impressionism, and to Asian-influenced music, such as the film scores of the Japanese composer Tôru Takemitsu.

Unfortunately, a full printed album of Goldsmith's score from Chinatown does not appear to have been published, though the library does have a reference copy of the main theme in a piano arrangement. Whether you are watching Chinatown for the first time, or you have visited it many times, while you are wrapped up in Polanski's masterful direction, Towne's perfect screenplay, and the onscreen performances, make a point of noting the way that Goldsmith's masterfully constructed score helps create mood and enhances atmosphere to this classic film.

Related Event

March 16, 2019 · 1 - 3:30 p.m., Central Library

Join us for a free film screening of the film Chinatown (1974) as part of our Big Read 2019 celebration. The film screening will take place after a brief presentation touching on stories of immigration and gentrification.