Gilbey on Film: the greatest movie scores

And does "A Single Man" boast this year's finest music?

If you find yourself losing faith in the subtlety of film music, allow me to suggest a few composers with restorative powers. Like the couple in a recent New Yorker cartoon who stroll unwittingly from the pastures marked "rock" through to "pop" and then "easy listening" (caption: "They never even knew"), the once-intriguing Danny Elfman, a regular Tim Burton collaborator, has lapsed -- perhaps irretrievably -- into mediocrity.

But Carter Burwell is still on the money. Burwell is best known for his work with the Coen brothers -- he's scored every one of their films, from 1984's Blood Simple to last year's A Serious Man.

My favourite scores of his can be heard in Rob Roy (this is how good he is: he makes Celtic pipes palatable), Adaptation and especially Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (where Burwell was called in at the 11th hour to replace another composer's score).

I was going to add The Hi-Lo Country: I can still hum that one despite not having seen Stephen Frears's film for over a decade. But on reflection, it's not a good fit. It's very grand and rousing, whereas those descriptions don't pertain to anything in the characters or story; you can't tell what the music is expressing.

It's not Burwell's fault, nor is it a slight on his work. Pure speculation alert: I wonder if the music was brought in once everyone realised that no one in the movie was particularly heroic, nor did they want to be. The idea may have been to get the audience excited, and hope they wouldn't realise until they got home that there was nothing on screen to be excited about.

Surely a fundamental rule of any score is that it has to have a correlation to what we're watching; otherwise it floats free of the movie, and can be as incongruous as an unnatural light source or a visible boom mic. Stuart Staples of Tindersticks has done some incredible work for Claire Denis, including her new film White Material (which I review in the next NS).

Check out the Tindersticks' score for Denis's last film, 35 Shots of Rum, where it ebbs and flows in gorgeous synchronicity with the performances, camerawork and editing -- a model not only of how to compose great film music, but of how to weave it into the action.

I also rest easy when I see on the opening credits of a film the names Alexandre Desplat (best scores: Birth and Lust, Caution) or Mychael Danna (The Ice Storm, Capote and 8MM -- the latter a classic case of great score/dud movie).

A contender for the finest film music of this year is the score for A Single Man, Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel about a gay professor in early 1960s Los Angeles, mourning the death of his lover. (The film has just been released on DVD.) I should clarify "finest" by explaining that this score seems to emerge fully and organically from the movie, with no suggestion that it wasn't in fact generated spontaneously by the images, or vice versa.

"The music was an extension of George," Ford told me last year.

I was thinking about it as I was writing and shooting. Violins I knew I wanted to be prominent because they're the most human instrument; they can convey the most incredible sadness and also joy. Shigeru Umebayashi, a brilliant Japanese composer, wrote three pieces; he works with Wong Kar-Wai a lot, he's incredible. And Abel Korzeniowski is a Polish composer in Los Angeles, he's also incredible: he scores not just action but emotions. That's a crucial device in helping the audience know what George is feeling. Abel is the difference between someone scoring and just composing. When I was working with him, I was saying, 'This is great, but I need more.' And he said, 'More? Usually I get asked for something that just goes away into the background.' That's incredible! Why have music that just fades away, fills space?

"Often a finished film can be a slight disappointment," Firth chipped in,

or it might go off in a different direction to the one you'd anticipated. But the musical choices in A Single Man conformed to what I felt the film should be. Very rarely have I heard music on a score that reflected what the film felt like to make. If the music is an extension of George's thoughts, then it's bang on. It could not be more right. When I heard it for the first time, I had this strange idea that I'd sung it or something because it felt like it had come out of the character. To feel that this was what Abel was doing, following the thought processes of the character -- well, that really made sense. I want to meet this guy, because I really feel like we worked together. And you almost never feel that.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge