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)
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.
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.