A quartet of riders on horses racing towards a lone man going hell for leather. Frank Sinatra facing the sheer depths of addiction. A paranormal incursion into the Big Apple. These are classic images of cinema, but their power owes a great deal to the accompanying music by film composer Elmer Bernstein, who wrote classic scores for True Grit (1969), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Ghostbusters (1984) among more than 200 screen credits.
While he was nominated for Oscars 14 times (he was successful once – for 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie) and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Bernstein never became a household name. But there’s no doubt you’ll recognise the music he composed. From finger-clicking jazz to thrilling, galloping brass to sumptuous classical, he was one of the best.
Born in New York City, he studied with Aaron Copland before joining the army, where he was asked to write patriotic folk music. After leaving he began writing for low-budget films such as Saturday’s Hero (1951) but eventually graduated to working with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille.
From there his career flourished. He won plaudits for scoring every kind of film, from Disney animation to frat comedies, all helping further the legend of Elmer Bernstein.
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
Two of the most recognisable elements of Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel about heroin addiction are the Saul Bass-designed opening credits and Bernstein’s swinging jazz theme, both indelible cinema moments that seem destined to forever be intertwined.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille’s only instruction to Bernstein was that his music for this Biblical epic shouldn’t sound like screaming jazz. On the contrary, Bernstein created a huge leitmotif-driven golden age classic, which rivals Miklós Rózsa’s music for Ben-Hur (1959) as one of the great epic scores.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Keen not to get pigeonholed as a jazz composer, Bernstein asked Charlton Heston to help recommend him for westerns. He would go on to write perhaps the most famous theme from the genre, infusing the score with as much energy as possible to drive the narrative along. The Magnificent Seven theme is still widely performed today.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
For this acclaimed adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, Bernstein languished for weeks trying to come up with a sound for what is perhaps his greatest work, before realising he needed to go through the eyes of the children. What followed was an incredible musical vision of the things our kids represent the most: innate goodness and hope.
Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
Like The Man with the Golden Arm before it, this star-studded drama was adapted from a novel by Nelson Algren. Designer Saul Bass again provided a stunning main title sequence, involving prowling cats, while Bernstein’s thick brass created a smoky atmosphere perfect for the steamy melodrama.
The Great Escape (1963)
Director John Sturges trusted Bernstein so much that he didn’t give him the script for his war yarn, instead just telling him the story. Bernstein more than justified his trust with an insanely catchy melody that still remains a kind of sonic shorthand for making an escape today.
It may be a comedy but you need to play it straight. That’s one of the rules Bernstein stuck to for this infamous spoof, writing not only a hilarious straight disaster theme but also a beautiful love theme that suddenly drops the serious side when the angelic chorus breaks out of tune.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Bernstein had collaborated with director John Landis on the cult college comedy Animal House (1978) and they reconvened to make sure this lycanthropic tale was as scary as possible, even with only nine minutes of score. Bernstein would go on to work on the incidental music for Landis’s subsequent horror short, Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982).
While having a big symphonic sound and a wonderful love theme for Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, Bernstein otherwise kept to his jazz roots with a jaunty riff that played on the paranormal investigators’ quirky reputation.
Far from Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes’ homage to 1950s melodrama master Douglas Sirk is the last picture Bernstein wrote for before his death in 2004. His score is an absolute wonder, full of effervescent emotion to match Edward Lachman’s wondrous cinematography.