I’ve been watching a lot of old films lately and I’ve discovered a genre of soundtracks from the late ’50s/early ’60s movies where jazz is the main influence. Instead of sweeping orchestral pieces and music that sounds like the story, jazz-based scores seem to work on a different level. They seem to act more like diegetic music and place the story firmly in the time that it was made, as if Ben Quick himself might be hearing the tune that we can hear as we watch his story unfold, or C.C. Baxter in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) might switch on the radio to hear Adolph Deutsch’s Lonely Room from the film score.
Alex North was considered to be the first composer to write a jazz-based film score for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and indeed it was his music in The Long, Hot Summer (1958) that first captured my attention. However, it’s John Barry’s score to the ’60s spy film The Ipcress File (1965) that I’m reviewing today, not in the least because it stands up as a great record outside of the fact that it was written as an accompaniment to something else.
John Barry is perhaps the UK’s biggest and best ever film composers. He wrote the music and iconic theme to the James Bond films which is interesting because The Ipcress File was seen to be antithetical to the fantastic and glamourous Bond-style portrayal of British espionage. On the contrary, the real life of a spy is supposedly nothing short of drudgery as the Sidney Furie film suggests. A BBC review describes it as “grimy brutalism, mundane bureacracy and the vividly realistic, morally-empty, quotidian horror of Cold War espionage”. The same reviewer also felt that the soundtrack was supposed to work in contrast to the mundanity of the life of the spy portrayed in Len Deighton’s story, and yet it also hinted to the exotic inner-life of the protagonist Harry Palmer.
And the score is exotic. It might not be as extravagant as Barry’s Bond music, but it is striking and alluring, playing in and around the main theme in a jazz-infused exploration of timbre and tone. Barry uses the mysterious and appropriately Eastern cimbalom to full effect, producing a sound cold and hard, just like the agents in the story. The flutes are playful, reminiscent of the Bond music and some breezy piano and vibes conjures up the jazz genre nicely. I’ve not yet heard a soundtrack that can be played without needing the context of the film to inform it, not like this. Barry’s score is a jazz classic, regardless of the fact that it’s also is a film score.
If you want to read more about jazz inspired film scores and the films that went with them, there’s a good article here at MoMa. You can also listen to each track of the score on Tinfoilunicorn’s YouTube channel, otherwise you can buy it, as with everything else, on Amazon.