50 Favorite Film Scores, Part 4: #20–11

If you want to refresh your memory of earlier entries in the list, check out the past few posts—Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. We’re coming into the home stretch but not just yet. Herewith are the next batch of some of my favorite scores…

To Kill a Mockingbird soundtrack
Spartacus CD


The romantic side of Bernard Herrmann. The fantastical story of a young widow in love with a dead sea captain features arguably Herrmann’s most ravishing work (and Herrmann’s personal favorite). The score beautifully captures the crashing waves and swirling emotions inside these two stubborn characters. Heartbreak, heartache, and loneliness have never sounded more lovely. I still think this would make a great musical. Somebody should grab those rights. Who knew Benny had a heart?


Americana film music at its peak. Channeling his inner Aaron Copland, Elmer Bernstein portrays a world of prejudice, danger, and innocence with a childlike musical wonder that is as moving today as it must have been in 1962. One of the few scores that seem to cross all boundaries and musical tastes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read a harsh word against this score. The violin solo when Scout meets Boo will break your heart.

18. SPARTACUS (1960)

The perfect blend of Alex North’s mid-20th century atonalities and lush film music idioms. Capped by a deservedly famous love theme, this is North’s magnum opus and crowning achievement. North takes the music beyond the expected Hollywood sword and sandal trappings to create a true classic that remains remarkably fresh in its musical approach. An epic score for those who hate epic scores.

A Streetcar Named Desire soundtrack
Mutiny on the Bounty soundtrack


Imagine what audiences in 1951 must have thought when they first heard Alex North’s sleazy wailing trumpets. Every bit as groundbreaking as Marlon Brando’s signature performance, North’s music drips New Orleans humidity and Tennessee Williams animal heat. North’s groundbreaking score ushered jazz into the world of dramatic underscoring.Sexy, sensual, and violently decadent. Nothing was ever the same.


The film that almost bankrupted MGM almost broke Bronislau Kaper. With numerous problems and delays, changes and edits, Kaper composed enough music for three epics. FSM’s stunning 3-CD set provides a fascinating glimpse into how a score morphs and changes over the course of a film. As for the music itself, BOUNTY is Kaper’s finest hour. Grand, sweeping and dramatic, Kaper captures the drama of this classic mutiny at sea and the exoticism of the Polynesian islands. The sailing of the BOUNTY is one of the great moments in film music.

15. RETURN TO OZ (1985)

When Disney flops, they flop bigtime. Though this wasn’t a remake of MGM’s classic film, audiences were expecting the candy-colored Oz they had grown up with. Alas, this tale is far darker with characters that just couldn’t match the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, much less Judy Garland’s Dorothy. If the film suffers in its conception and execution, it did provide David Shire with the crowning achievement of his career. Filled with memorable themes, soaring musical set pieces, and a heartbreaking finale, the score reveals a side to Shire I wish we’d heard more of during the course of his career. A beautiful composition from beginning to end.

The Boys From Brazil soundtrack


Where would we be in life without our guilty pleasures? There is something so appealing about watching Gregory Peck’s evil Dr. Mengele chew scenery and Laurence Olivier giving the first in a long string of Jewish-inflected performances (even when the character wasn’t Jewish!) throughout the rest of his career. But the real star of this Hitler-cloned tale is Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping Viennese score. A memorable main title waltz and terrifying action cues have brought me years of listening pleasure. One of those scores from my early years of film music discovery in the late ’70s that I know backward and forwards. Now when will this film come out on Blu-ray?!


Warner Bros. had to coax Erich Wolfgang Korngold into writing the score. But thank God for film music posterity he did. Korngold’s score is as colorful as the three-strip Technicolor process featured in the film. One of the few scores that come close to the level of a classical masterpiece (not surprising given Korngold’s prowess in the concert hall). Grand great fun now and forever. The first and last word on swashbuckling.

The Big Country soundtrack
Ben-Hur soundtrack

12. THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)

Primarily known for its classic main theme, no other score captures the energy and expansiveness of, um, “the big country” than Jerome Moross’s Oscar-nominated score. Western to its core and brimming with great melodies and explosive rhythms, Moross’s music takes the genre to a whole new level far beyond campfire harmonicas and lonesome cowboy tunes. Every time I listen to this score I’m reminded anew of what an underutilized talent Moross was. The Western score to end all Western scores.

11. BEN-HUR (1959)

The epitome of Miklós Rózsa’s epic style. Biblical without being cloying, grand without being over the top, and a marvel of compositional and orchestrational skill, Rózsa transports us back to a time just before A.D. Rich, colorful, and monumental, Rózsa’s Oscar-winning classic is just the tip of the iceberg in a career full of highlights. You could substitute a dozen other titles. I just happened to pick this one. A classic from first note to last.

Tommorrow: 50 Favorite Film Scores, Part 5: The Top 10

  1. You definitely have some all-time, top-5’ers here.

    By the way, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is on an all-region blu-ray via ITV/Granada in the UK (and it’s reasonably priced on Amazon by US sellers); best of all, it looks and sounds like opening night 1978, so you won’t regret grabbing one up.

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