Miklós Rózsa, Composer

(18 April 1907 – 27 July 1995)

My great affection for music has not translated into great attention to film scores and soundtracks. A few motifs and songs have penetrated, announcing themselves so potently or poignantly that they fuse with film content. No one who watches High Noon (1951), for example, can ignore the way Frankie Laine’s “Do Not Forsake Me” actually tells the story of the film from the opening credits, nor how its rhythm penetrates the tense moments of the picture.  And Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo is unforgettable. Yet, when I began studying film noir, investment in exploring its music came long after content and style, from mise–en–scène and cinematography to character types and themes.

Eventually, I did begin to consider the impact of music on classic noir, with particular attention to ornate classical scores by talented composers. In addition to noting the effect of certain motifs, instruments, and styles on film content and mood, I also just listened to scores for their power and beauty.

In addition, I noted how often the noir composers I enjoy most are émigrés, much like most of the best noir directors. Rózsa was born in Budapest (Hungary), studied in Germany, left before the rise of the Nazis to compose in France and England, and then found continuous employment composing film scores in Hollywood while he continued writing “serious” classical music. His last film score was for Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a comic homage to noir.

In total, Rózsa composed music for nearly 100 films, and was nominated for more than 25 awards. He won three Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture:

  • Spellbound (1945)
  • A Double Life (1947)
  • Ben-Hur (1959)

The first two of these three are identifiable today as film noir. His other classic noir scores include  Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Criss Cross (1949), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and The Red House (1954).

As David Amos has written of Rózsa, “To the music world, he was recognized as one of the greatest film composers of all time. He […] stands together with an elite group of composers of film music, together with Bernard Hertmann, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, Bronislav Kaper, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of the industry’s founding fathers.”

Amos thus advises, “Most of the time when you and I are watching a movie, we get carried away with the drama or the comedy, and the music, as good as it might be, adds to the moment, but becomes only a support to the scene we are seeing. It stays in the background. Try once in a while to separate yourself from what is on the screen, and listen to the sound track. You may be amazed at what may be there. Hollywood has turned out many wonderful film scores, but Míklos Rózsa’s creations are indisputably among the best.”

I so agree. Moreover, if not for noir, I’d never have connected the dots between so many great film scores and come to appreciate the depth and diversity of this incredibly talented and prolific composer.


For more information, please visit The Miklós Rózsa Society.