(Sixth in an occasional series on Tiomkin’s lesser-known film scores)
by Warren M. Sherk
The entire plot of the 1949 film Red Light, featuring an evocative score by Dimitri Tiomkin, revolves around a Gideon Bible.
Travelers are no strangers to Gideon Bibles ubiquitously found in hotel rooms around the world. The Gideons, dedicated to Bible distribution and evangelism, have had them placed there for more than a 100 years.
Red Light, produced and directed by Roy Del Ruth—who came a long way since he began his career in silent film comedy with Mack Sennett and Keystone films—focuses on businessman John Torno played by George Raft. The supporting cast includes Carla North, a sassy blonde showgirl played by Virginia Mayo; Gene Lockhart as Warni Hazard; and scheming embezzler Nick Cherney, portrayed by Raymond Burr before he became a household name due to his television roles as the title character in Perry Mason and Ironside. Arthur Franz has a brief role as John Torno’s brother, Jess.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for this unusual film noir drama was composed in 1949 and sits amidst his eight efforts for the genre.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
When Strangers Marry (1944)
The Dark Mirror (1946)
Red Light (1949)
Guilty Bystander (1950)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Angel Face (1953)
An enterprising graduate student would do well to take an in-depth look at Tiomkin’s approach to scoring noir over the course of this ten-year period during which his style underwent a maturity brought on by experience scoring U.S. government documentaries during the Second World War.
Tiomkin embraced modern music—his 1927 Carnegie Hall recital introduced contemporary works by Alexander Scriabin, Francis Poulenc, Alexandre Tansman, and Maurice Ravel to American audiences—and this film serves as a prime example of his use of dissonance in a film score to heighten the drama. On the opposite side of the musical spectrum, Tiomkin underscores the biblical element with traditional pre-existing music by Franz Schubert. The inclusion of Schubert results in an abundance of music cues that incorporate a wordless chorus. Tiomkin often incorporated a choir and vocal music in his film scores.
For Red Light, Tiomkin called on arrangers Herb Taylor and P. A. Marquardt for the orchestrations.
As Los Angeles Examiner reviewer Sara Hamilton synopsized the film, the plot “tells the story of a young chaplain, just back from war in the Pacific, who is murdered in a hotel room. He gasps out the statement that the clew [sic] to his murderer can be found in the Bible which upon search, is found missing from the room.”
Red Light opens (00:00:00, all timings refer to the 2014 Warner Home Video DVD) with a dramatic musical surge featuring soaring strings and brassy counterpoint punctuated by percussion. As the main title hits the screen Tiomkin quotes the Latin hymn, Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath or Reckoning. This to foreshadow the film’s theme of vengeance, or more accurately, vengeance best left to a higher power. The Dies Irae incorporates chimes that presage two musical devices employed in the film: a musical clock and carillonic bells. The carillonic bells featured so prominently in the story that they merit a call out in the main title to the manufacturer, Schulmerich Electronics. The company, established in 1935, still operates in Eastern Pennsylvania and is now one of the world’s largest producers of electronic carillons.
Nearly 80 years ago, founder George Schulmerich discovered that tiny rods of cast bronze struck with miniature hammers produced barely audible, but pure, bell tones, and that these sounds could be amplified electronically to produce a rich, sonorous tone. He called his invention carillonic bells. Soon after, Schulmerich electronic carillons were being implemented by churches across the country seeking the rich tone of the finest cast bronze bells at a fraction of the cost.
The main title concludes with the reverberation from a chime stroke that segues into the “Foreword” (00:01:19). Hints of Dies Irae underscore this vocal cue. Tiomkin deftly scores the ensuing newsreel footage (00:01:49) in the style of the period.
Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is introduced through a musical clock (00:06:00), pictured at right, a gift from John Torno to his brother, Jess, which held specially meaning harking back to their childhood. After its introduction as source music here, “Ave Maria” becomes a recurring theme throughout the film in both instrumentally and vocally as it punctuates the film’s underscore, to serve as a reminder of Jess, after he is gone. Schubert’s popular 1825 song was notably used earlier in the decade by Walt Disney in the animated feature film Fantasia.
The Schulmerich carillonic bells ring out (00:07:36) as we view the exterior of St. Mary’s Church in San Francisco Chinatown. picture at left. (This is typical of Hollywood filmmaking, creating a fictional world based on the real world. There is no evidence that the St. Mary’s bell tower contained a Schulmerich carillon.) Tiomkin wrote a two-minute cue to stand in for the organ at St. Mary’s, probably as source music, but it appears to have been dialed out.
Red Light was one of the film’s Robert Aldrich cut his teeth on as a second unit assistant director during the 1940s, as he worked his way up the ladder from production clerk. He went on to direct notable films from Kiss Me Deadly (1955) to The Longest Yard (1974).
Tiomkin’s own start as a composer came through providing music for ballets choreographed by his wife, Albertina Rasch. The movement inherent in ballet would later influence his film-scoring sensibilities, as he came to think of movement within the film frame as dancers on a stage. In Red Light the opening and closing of doors, turning on lights, and other onscreen movements, such as when characters are walking, result in corresponding changes in the underscore and music composition.
“Johnny Loads Gun” (00:13:25) illustrates Tiomkin’s deft scoring of a pivotal scene. Foreboding music accompanies Johnny as he walks with a fixed gaze to his office after his brother’s murder. Timpani and fluttering brass give way to calmer tones as soon as Johnny opens his office door. A flourish when he turns the light on is followed by perfectly timed music as he pulls a revolver from a desk drawer and puts a clip into the gun. Tiomkin’s music expertly finds its way between the metallic sound effect of the clip going in and the unexpected calling of his name by one of two detectives waiting in the wings. Holding back on the music at this key point accentuates and dramatizes the sound effect and dialogue, allowing all three to work in tandem.
In another scene, “Miss North’s Room” (00:25:35), the music enters and exits with the opening of a Samson hotel room door. A slow and continual musical build intensifies Johnny’s search of the room until he finds a photo of his brother, at which point the music changes character as “Ave Maria” returns on a close-up of Jess, with a plaintive melody on flute accompanied by a bed of strings. The strings tail out, interrupted when Carla North opens the hotel room door and confronts John.
The screenplay by George Callahan; with additional dialogue by Charles Grayson contains some memorable lines:
You know Johnny, when you play solitaire, you can only beat yourself.
Liquor doesn’t drown your troubles, it only teaches them to swim.
Don’t eat there, they serve bicarbonates for dessert.
When Nick shows up at John’s office looking to return to his job (00:35:51), close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack. The underlying tension in the scene is heightened by the short atmospheric cue, “Nick Wants a Job.” Notice how Tiomkin deftly places the movement in the music between the lines of dialogue.
“Juke Box Music” (00:41:48), a three minute and thirteen second discontinuous music cue, opens with lively lighthearted dance music ostensibly emanating from a juke box on the counter at a Reno diner, pictured left. The line between this source music and dramatic underscore begins to blur when John goes to the diner’s restroom. Later, when Rocky, played by Henry Morgan, goes to the same restroom the source music plays out and dramatic underscore takes over as Rocky spies on John and the short order cook, Wallace Stoner. When Rocky thinks he see a Bible being wrapped in paper, the music recalls “Ave Marie,” taking a suspenseful harmonic wrong turn as John exits the kitchen. From here to the end of the cue, Tiomkin weaves strains of “Ave Marie” in and out of the underscore on four prominent occasions in sync with views of the stolen “Bible,” which turns out to be a cookbook.
(Two other film scored by Tiomkin during this time period use juke box music to similar effect.)
According to a Hollywood trade publication, Red Light would be one the first features to make use of magnetic sound recording. In lieu of optical sound, the standard, cheaper, format, producers were seeking to improve sound quality by placing the film’s soundtrack on a magnetic strip on the film.
Leading noir expert Robert Porfirio remarks on the film’s “classic noir scene” in Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style.
Warni, in a state of abject fear, goes down to the darkened truck garage and discovers the distributor wires of his car have been cut. …he runs in fright, stumbles, then climbs under a truck trailer. We see the legs of his pursuer, who walks up to the trailer and kicks out one of the jacks…
The montage for the above described scene begins (00:51:27) with Warni leaving his office, at left, sans music or dialogue, only footsteps and natural or sound effects. After Warni fails to start his car engine, as the sound of the motor attempting to turn over cuts out, the sound elides with the bold entry of Tiomkin’s underscore (00:53:13). Music that is in turn dramatically dissonant, with timpani glissandi, and quietly and harmoniously suspenseful, with flutter-tonguing flute. Throughout the cue the music changes character and accentuates the movement onscreen. Each time the dramatic music builds, Tiomkin pulls back to play the suspense, until the brutal end.
The film includes a plethora of Northern California locations, beginning with the opening shot, a first person view of driving on the Golden Gate Bridge. Set in San Francisco, as the story plays out there are establishing shots of San Quentin prison; Hollywood; Reno, Nevada; Monterey; and Carmel.
The wordless choral passages interspersed throughout the film are performed by the Jester Hairston Choir featuring 40 mixed voices. The latter half of the film features five minutes of vocal cues: Johnny Loses Faith, Remorse, and Jess’ Message.
One newspaper reported that George Raft would “talk” the Yiddish sacred hymn, “Hear Me, My Child,” underscored by Tiomkin’s musical arrangement; however, the work is not listed on the film’s music cue sheet.
The denouement begins with “The Chase” (01:18:28) wherein Tiomkin interweaves the film’s themes with several statements recalling Dies Irae from the film’s opening and a prominent vocal rendering of “Ave Maria” to indicate musically that John is letting go of his vengeance.
The cue for “Nick’s Death” (01:21:39) ends with a spectacular vocal effect, a musical fall-off—think of it as visual text painting—as Nick plunges from the rooftop signage.
Fittingly, the “End Title” (01:23:05) concludes with its own vocal flourish.
“Where’s the Bible?”
“Yeah, the Gideon Bible. There’s one in every hotel room.”
© 2015 Volta Music
- The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the University of Southern California
- The Core Collection files at the Margaret Herrick Library
- Red Light, Warner Bros. Archive Collection DVD, Warner Home Video, 2014
If you enjoyed reading this article, check out some of the others in the series: