The music of Bach’s Goldberg Variations acquires for some viewers of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) a perhaps unwelcome significance. . . More on that in a moment.
First, there’s news of the recent release on Blu-ray of Albert Lewin’s 1945 horror classic, Picture of Dorian Gray, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel. This is welcome, indeed. But the new release of this underrated MGM film is guilty of one glaring omission. Nothing is said about the music by Chopin that literally underscores the disturbed mind and divided soul of the eponymous Dorian Gray. I refer to the 24th Prelude from the Opus 28 set, which evokes the hammer blows of Jove’s thunderbolts. Heard throughout both diagetically and extra-digetically, and in a variety of instrumentations, the brief piano piece undergoes shape-shifting variants, some languid and dreamy, others brutal and sinister, like the inner confusions of Gray himself.
The use of classical music in the aural depiction of all manner of cinematic villains, rascals, and homicidal maniacs has been going on since the so-called “silent” days, when pianists dutifully quoted from their catalogues of classical pieces.
For now, however, I restrict myself to the sound cinema. When Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme is heard under the opening credits of Lugosi’s Dracula, the die (as it were) was cast. And just a few years later, Lugosi and film composer Heinz Roemheld worked together in another horror film, The Black Cat, which featured a non-stop compendium of classical allusions to music by Liszt, Schumann, Schubert and virtually every other composer of a romantic stamp. The Black Cat still holds the trophy for the sheer clever audacity of its exuberant catalogue of musical horrors.
I pass by the references beyond counting to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and the traditional Dies Irae. Needless to say every fiend incarnate sitting at the Wurlitzer has belted out one or the other.
Specifically, I note here a few examples of how certain classical tunes have been used as themes, or “signatures” for some of the great monsters in movie history. In Fritz Lang’s M, for example, Peter Lorre’s child molester whistles Edvard Grieg’s ”In the Hall of the Mountain King as his musical calling card. Gangster Tony Camonte is another whistler, whose rendition of the ”Sextet” from Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermore, is heard several times in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). More recently, Julia Robert's abuse at the hands of her deranged husband in Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) is accompanied by Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Every time he puts a record on the turntable, you want to scream out warnings to his hapless bride. The same year of the film’s release turned out to be a banner year for sinister music. Joseph Ruben’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle features the aria “Poor Wand’ring One” from Gilbert and Sulllivan’s Pirates of Penzance as the musical analogue for the pathological nanny, portrayed by Rebecca DeMornay.
We observe that this last music is hardly sinister at all; rather, its sweet plaintive strains impart a disturbingly poignant quality to DeMornay’s horrific acts. Which is the point. Indeed, classical music is frequently deployed as a counterpoint to the villains depicted on screen. Take a look again at the main title sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, where the graceful measures of Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana counterpoint De Niro’s slow-motion shadow-boxing in the ring.
Which brings us back to Hannibal Lecter and the music of Bach’s The Goldberg Variations. Why did Jonathan Demme have Lecter select a recording of the opening “Aria” as he chewed the face off a prison guard? You would think a more brutal, even savage choice would have been more appropriate. In response, pianist Jeremy Denk offers this insight: “Cunning, evil directors almost always use classical music as an ironic foil, a tool for dissociation. This perpetuates a stereotype: classical music is unnatural. It is not the music for normal events.”
Such an unfortunate stereotype undoubtedly exists, and it has been proven over and over again, for better and worse, in the movies, to the er, delectation of us viewers.
Now pardon me a moment, those ambivalent opening measures of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor are going ‘round and ‘round in my head. . . waiting for some sinister image to ground it in some horrible reality. . .