In a flurry of remarkable creative inspiration, Jerry Goldsmith had only ten days to spot, write and record the music for CHINATOWN after Philip Lambro’s original score was rejected. The atmospheric 1974 film noir stars Jack Nicholson as private investigator J.J. Gittes who is hired to get the skinny on Water Department chief engineer Hollis Mulwray’s (Darrell Zwerling) mistress. In the process, Mulwray is murdered and Gittes is enmeshed in deceit between Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), and her father (John Huston).
With a complex and intricate (and Oscar-winning) screenplay that contains an unforgettable twist toward the end, the film boasts smooth direction by Roman Polanski, unforgettable performances by Nicholson, Dunaway, and Huston, and sleek cinematography, art direction, and costume design. But for us film score fans, Goldsmith’s evocative score is the pièce de résistance.
As Goldsmith explains in the CD liner notes, “CHINATOWN takes places in the thirties and the producer and the director wanted music of that period for underscoring…I told them that I didn’t think that kind of music would be right for the picture in that the visuals already established the setting as 1933 Long Angeles… It would be too much of a re-emphasis of the thirties with that kind of music…When I first saw the film I immediately got a flash as to the orchestral fabric I wanted. I had no idea musically what it was going to be but there was a sound in my mind and I wanted to use strings, four pianos, four harps, two percussionists, and a trumpet.”
Goldsmith’s unique combination of instruments provides a unique timbre to the music. Interesting instrumental devices, such as plucking the strings of the piano, heighten the mood of suspense. But the anchor of the score is the memorable trumpet love theme for J.J. and Evelyn.
Goldsmith’s score is a model of spare film scoring and contributes immensely to the atmosphere of the film. It’s a shame that the original soundtrack CD is out of print. I have no doubt that it will reappear someday, and hopefully Lambro’s rejected score as well, if for no other reason than comparison purposes. But it’s hard to imagine a more perfect fit for the film than the classic that Goldsmith composed.