supermangraphics

9 Favorite Main Titles

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, movies used to have main titles that were scored. For two minutes, the composer laid the musical groundwork and set the tone for the film to follow. Then along came main title songs, sometimes written by the score composers, sometimes not. If not, the composer usually weaved that song melody (a la “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” etc.) into the fabric of the score.

Come the ’80s and ’90s, it was all about marketing the soundtrack and pop songs (new or not) took their place. In today’s cinema, apparently audiences don’t have the patience to sit through two more minutes after being bullied and beaten by 20+ minutes of commercials and trailers. So many filmmakers forgo the main title sequence (and often the title itself) and take you straight into the movie. Sometimes it’s a valid creative choice. But invariably I miss the opportunity for the music to create the musical palette that we’re about to experience.

So this month, “9 on the 9th” is back after a summer hiatus, celebrating some of the best main title sequences. As usual, I set some ground rules for myself, primarily that a) it was a proper main title (credits and all) and b) no songs (sorry Bond movies). Why? Because I said so.

This alphabetical list (which consists of the first nine that came to me) doesn’t even begin to cover the many decades of great main title music. Feel free to add your favorites—and the many omissions—in the comments.

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

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No need for anything fancy here. Just a serviceable period background, text credits and Alfred Newman’s rousing two-minute theatrical curtain raiser for my favorite film.

THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)

Those furious strings and one of the finest theme’s ever composed for film gives this classic Western a rousing start, courtesy of the underrated Jerome Moross.

ELMER GANTRY (1960)

Saul Bass’s violent crucifixes and an equally violent musical backdrop by Andre Previn set the stage for Sinclair Lewis’s brutal take on evangelicalism.

FORREST GUMP (1994)

Thank you Robert Zemeckis for the memorable image of the floating feather and thank you Alan Silvestri for the equally memorable theme that carries it to earth.

GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

Windy text graphics, amber-hued cinematography and the immortal music of Max Steiner are “not long forgotten.”

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Saul Bass’s clever graphics melding into midtown Manhattan office buildings and Bernard Herrmann’s rousing fandango set the perfect stage for my favorite Hitchcock film.

THE OMEN (1976)

You knew it had to be on here. That memorable shadows and the blood-red backlight underscored by Jerry Goldsmith’s creepy chorus of “Hail Satan” still sends chills down my spine nearly 40 years later.

SUPERMAN (1978)

Even if those swooping graphics get old after a while, it’s one of the most thrilling main title sequences ever, especially on the big screen. I guess part of the credit goes to some dude named John Williams as well.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)

Film music as childlike innocence, thanks to Elmer Bernstein.

What are some of your favorite main titles?

About Jim Lochner

Jim has been writing about film music for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Music from The University of Texas at Arlington and a Master of Music from The University of Texas (Austin), both in Clarinet Performance. He has written soundtrack CD liner notes for Intrada, Varèse Sarabande Records, Film Score Monthly, La-La Land Records and Disques Cinemusique. Jim has been a bimonthly guest on BBC-Kent’s Drive Home at the Movies radio program and has been interviewed by a number of online and print outlets, including The Toronto Globe and Mail and the Los Angeles Times. Jim served as the managing editor of Film Score Monthly Online (FSMOnlineMag.com) and is currently writing a book on Charlie Chaplin's film music. For more information, visit JimLochner.com.

20 comments

  1. My favorite Main Title is from Psycho. I’m really surprise you didn’t put Vertigo in the top 9 :o

    • I stated right at the beginning that I would be leaving a bunch of out. Psycho was on there and so was Vertigo. However, I couldn’t put ALL the Herrmann/Bass collaborations on there. Or maybe I could have. :) Either way, essential main titles, both of them.

  2. Excellent selection Jim, nice to see 9 on the 9th back. Some additional ones that sprang to my mind that fit your self imposed rules:
    1. The Age of Innocence (Bernstein) – One of Saul Bass’ last efforts, text, lace and flowers combined with Bernstein’s longing theme.
    2. Batman (Elfman) – That camera move to reveal the Batman logo whilst Elfman’s majestic Batman theme build and builds.
    3. Catch Me if You Can – (Williams) one of the most Saul Bass-like sequences of the modern era.
    4. Mars Attacks (Elfman) – the Martian invasion march combined with the retro visual effects is lots of fun.
    5. Planet of th eApes (Goldsmith) – Charlton Heston fades to blue and Goldsmith experimental tones take over.
    6. Psycho (Herrmann) – My pick of the Bass/Hitchcock efforts.
    7. Sweeney Todd (Sondheim) – The Ballad of Sweeney Todd stripped of its lyrics and most of its melody, Sondheim’s Herrmann like music is great underscore and certainly does lay the musical foundations for the film.
    8. Touch of Evil (Mancini) – although it is largely cut from the “restored” version of the film, the music is the ticking of the bomb waiting to explode as Wells’ genius single take title sequence plays out.
    9. King Kong (Steiner) – just title cards but that music and those art deco graphics, but mostly that music.

    • All excellent choices, Simon. Though I haven’t seen the TOUCH OF EVIL example since I’ve only seen the restored version. And who can argue with KING KONG? :)

  3. Love GWTW — for Steiner:Since You Went Away, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and many others were always on my list. BUT, my 2 favorites haven’t changed in 40 years —
    Peyton Place — the perfect Waxman score, great theme, those Copland touches, and they way it works with the images and titles.
    and my favrorite — David Raksin
    The Bad and the Beautiful — try to get the full score CD and hear the other 3 versions, the theme is so long that the original cuts off the middle of the bridge.

    • Forgot PEYTON PLACE. That’s a good one.

      Haven’t seen BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL in years though I listen to the CD quite often. Have to check it out next time it’s on TCM and see how it works in the titles.

  4. Well, it’s no classical score, but it’s no song either: Fight Club (with main titles by the Dust Brothers)

    You could literally add any David Fincher film, that hasn’t a song over it’s opening credits. (I want to highlight The Social Network and Panic Room here).

    Others that come to mind right now:

    Signs
    Terminator 2
    The Shining
    Knowing
    Star Wars (of course!)
    And a cult favourite: The Naked Gun ;-)

    Have a look at this awesome website:
    http://www.artofthetitle.com/titles/

    • Ooh, SIGNS is a good one. Forgot that one. (Because I try and forget that I ever sat through the movie.)

      I personally can’t in good faith do STAR WARS since it doesn’t fit my criteria of a proper main title sequence with credits, since it’s saved until the end. But it is, of course, a legendary opening. Can’t argue with that. :)

  5. Superman you named. The great story on that was when John Williams first played it with the orchestra live to Director Richard Donner he ran down to Williams and embraced him almost at the very beginning of the score in the studio. He loved it that much just from the opening moments.

  6. Gone with the Wind has possibly the most beautiful and heart wrenching main title music I’ve ever heard, and totally transports me to late 30′s Hollywood every time I hear it :)

  7. First of all — thanks for a wonderful site!

    Second, _West Side Story_ is my favorite pick (along with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which you’ve included).

  8. As an Elfman fanboy, I have to appreciate a main titles sequence. I absolutely love Edward Scissorhands’ opening titles score. Psycho’s is excellent too, though I haven’t seen North by Northwest yet. Speaking of both Elfman and Hitchcock, what did you think of the “Hitchcock” score from the year before last?

    I miss 9 on the 9th! Hopefully we’ll see some more entries soon!

  9. Uh….The Wizard of Oz, even after a gazillion viewings of the film, in the proper setting still gives me goosebumps and a lump in my throat.

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