Orson Welles as newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, a classic that Danny Elfman lists among the "greatest of the greats."
Orson Welles as newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, a classic that Danny Elfman lists among the "greatest of the greats." Keystone/Getty Images
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Danny Elfman says Bernard Herrmann's music is what makes the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho so memorable.
Danny Elfman says Bernard Herrmann's music is what makes the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho so memorable. Paramount Pictures/Getty Images
Note: This scene may be disturbing to some viewers.
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Composer Danny Elfman says film music should be noticed, not subtle.
Composer Danny Elfman says film music should be noticed, not subtle. Donald Weber/Getty Images
Danny Elfman has created the music for dozens of movies and TV shows, from Tim Burton's Batman to The Simpsons. But when NPR asked the film composer to name his favorite movies to watch, he couldn't quite decide.
"I realized I can't make a list. It's an impossible thing," Elfman tells Steve Inskeep.
Elfman wanted to include a Stanley Kubrick film, but he couldn't choose between Dr. Strangelove, a light-hearted movie about the nuclear destruction of the world, and The Shining, the Jack Nicholson horror classic ("Heeeeeere's Johnny!").
"How could one decide? The Shining was always one of my favorites. I loved the way [Kubrick] used the music in it, although it wasn't an original score. And Dr. Strangelove is just one of the best movies ever made on every level."
So it's no surprise that Elfman is drawn to movies in which music leaves a strong impression.
"We'll Meet Again," Dr. Strangelove's "inappropriate and perfect" ending tune, was "the best use of a song I had ever heard. It was so perfect. Nothing else could have worked better than that," Elfman says.
Alfred Hithcock's Psycho is another classic film in which the music played a crucial role, Elfman says. "I can't imagine almost any of the scenes in the movie working as well without the music — not just talking about the famous shower scene."
Elfman says Hitchcock toyed with the idea of making a scoreless movie. The director thought about having the shower scene play with only the sound of the running water. But the composer, Bernard Herrmann, convinced Hitchcock to include the now iconic slashing of strings.
Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia are tied on Elfman's list of "greatest of the greats."
Of Citizen Kane, Elfman says: "It's Orson Welles. He's brilliant, the script is brilliant, the photography is brilliant, the score."
Citizen Kane was the first score written by Herrmann, who inspired Elfman to become a film composer himself. Herrmann's scores were "so perfectly laid out and up front and in your face," Elfman says.
"Every now and then, somebody says, 'You know, the thing about film music is you really shouldn't notice it. It's best when you don't notice that it's there.' And I go, 'You're crazy. Go check out Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane. Those scores are so there.'"
"It's an art, and just like the photography, you notice it."
Following are some other films on Elfman's list, which he titles: "The Danny Elfman Gemini No Way Can I Ever Decide Anything List."
Alfred Hitchcock tie: Psycho / Rear Window / North by Northwest: In addition to Psycho, Elfman gives high marks to Rear Window, starring Jimmy Stewart: "It'll get you right on the edge of your seat and hold you through the whole film, just with good storytelling, good acting, and economic but really, really well-done directing." And North by Northwest offers "a great score and a great action movie ... a lighthearted, fun action movie."
Federico Fellini tie: Juliet of the Spirits / 8 ½ / Casanova: Elfman says 8 ½ offers "some of the most haunting images; some of the best pure Fellini." And in Casanova, Donald Sutherland plays "a wonderfully sleazy version of Casanova, but kind of pathetic and heartbreaking at the same time."
Robert Wise tie: The Day the Earth Stood Still / The Haunting: Watching The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first time Elfman noticed that "the music wasn't just there by accident, that the score [by Bernard Herrmann] really moved me."
Roman Polanski tie: Chinatown / Rosemary's Baby / The Tenant: "These are films of my youth. They're brilliant. They helped to form me. [Polanski] has a wonderful sense of creepiness that no one else was able to quite do the same way. And he's also a brilliant director."
Greatest of the Greats tie: Lawrence of Arabia / Citizen Kane: For both films, Elfman says: "I just wouldn't change a note of it; I wouldn't change a frame of it. The scores were up front and in your face. These are the scores I grew up on."