Before there was John Williams or Hans Zimmer, there was Henry Mancini—the first film music superstar. Through a string of chart-topping studio albums, Mancini’s indelible tunes were played on hi-fi’s around the world, and his songs and themes were sung and recorded by the top artists of his era. But that popularity came at a price.
“A problem arose from the re-recording of those scores,” Mancini said in his autobiography, Did They Mention the Music? “The albums were made up of the most melodic material from the films. A lot of the dramatic music—which is what I really loved to do and really thought I had a feeling for—was left out….The albums gave me a reputation, even among producers, as a writer of light comedy and light suspense, and at that time it was not easy for them to think of me for the more dramatic assignments. I did that to myself.”
In recent years, the boutique soundtrack labels have begun to rectify Mancini’s undeserved reputation, releasing a slew of proper scores that showcase Mancini’s versatility composing for comedy and drama. With such a dynamic musical range, choosing nine titles was difficult and my list leaves out some classic scores. And while I may not always enjoy some of the films he worked on, Mancini’s music always elevated every project.
9. SILVER STREAK (1976)
The unlikely trio of Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, and Jill Clayburgh proved to be box office gold. This comedy-thriller about murder on a train from Los Angeles to Chicago didn’t exactly appeal to my 14-year-old self in 1976. But Mancini’s delightful score makes me want to revisit it. With its charming chugga-chugga main theme and a pair of delightful melodies for Clayburgh, Mancini’s music captures the film’s comedic and dramatic elements with his trademark ease.
8. THE PINK PANTHER (1964)
With nearly a dozen films, over 100 cartoons and product placement galore, the character of the Pink Panther has saturated pop culture, as has Mancini’s ubiquitous theme. Much like Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek main theme, it’s hard to think there ever was a time when that sneaky sax melody was fresh and new. There is much to enjoy in the score beyond the main theme, and Mancini would have fun tweaking the tune over the years, but the original is a true film music classic.
7. SUNFLOWER (1970)
There are few finer Italian pairings than that of Sophia Loren and Marcelo Mastroianni. While SUNFLOWER is not one of their stronger outings, this tale of love and separation set in WWII Russia and beyond is greatly enhanced by Mancini’s lovely score. A heartbreaking main theme and subtle Russian orchestrations accentuate the film’s amber haze of memory.
6. JACQUELINE SUSANN’S ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH (1975)
Jacqueline Susann was known for her doorstop bestselling romans a clef full of sex and love among the rich. This 1975 film may be missing the prurient joy of Susann’s intricately plotted prose. But it’s still fun to watch old pros like Kirk Douglas and Alexis Smith. Plus a young Brenda Vacarro chews the scenery to an Oscar nomination as a foul-mouthed, sexually ferocious magazine editor. Mancini deserved better but his professionalism shines through with one of his most lovely—and least well-known—themes. An undiscovered gem.
5. THE WHITE DAWN (1974)
Mancini’s excellent score from this small film about the clash of cultures between Eskimos and Europeans should be better known. The music is a prime example of Mancini’s range and use of orchestral color. The rousing whale hunt is the orchestral high of the score. But the score is a model of dramatic musical economy, exemplified by the tender recorder theme for the Indian boy. Both the film and the score are highly recommended.
Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick find joy and disillusion at the bottom of a liquor bottle. Mancini gives poignant voice to their descent with one of his best known—and Oscar-winning—tunes. From the lonely French horn solo to the murky alto flute, Mancini uses the orchestra sparely. The music never overtly tugs at the heartstrings and yet still manages to wring more than a fear tears.
3. TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967)
Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn dissect their married life in cool ’60s fashion, thankfully with Mancini at the wheel. One of my favorite Mancini themes highlights the couple’s highs and lows. Other cues provide comedic musical counterpoint to the bitterness onscreen. Kritzerland’s release finally gives the score its proper due.
2. VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982)
The LGBT community took potshots at the film. But this gender-bending musical was a surprise crossover hit. Julie Andrews is delightful, and James Garner, the hysterical Leslie Anne Warren, and the elegant Robert Preston lead valuable support. Like all Blake Edwards films, some jokes landed and others did not. But Mancini’s rich melodic score (with help from lyricist Leslie Bricusse) gave the characters a handful of memorable songs. From rousing production numbers like “Le Jazz Hot” to charming duets (“You and Me”) and the heartbreaking ballad “Crazy World,” Mancini’s seemingly infinite gift for melody was on full display. Forget the misguided stage version and stick to the movie.
1. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961)
TIFFANY’S bears faint resemblance to Truman Capote’s original novella. But it is one of those rare movies whose images and music have entered the pop lexicon. Everyone knows “Moon River,” but Mancini’s score is much more than that deservedly famous song. With its mixture of ’60s pop swing and delicate underscoring, Mancini straddles the film’s many moods with a breezy ease that belies how intricately woven into the fabric it is. Mancini’s one-two punch at Oscar time for Best Song and Best Original Score were fully deserved. Now, Intrada’s release of the score can now sit alongside the classic LP rerecording. The quintessential Mancini score.