CD: Certain Smile, A (1958)

December 16, 2011 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Label: La-La Land Records / Released: August 17, 2011

Tracks & Album Length: CD1: 24 tracks / (54:06) + CD2: 15 tracks / (44:42)


Special Notes: 20-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 2500 copies..


Composer: Alfred Newman




This is one of Alfred Newman’s final scores – he would technically “retire” in 1960, but still compose a handful of works, including the sleek, airborne soap opera Airport in 1970 before his death shortly after – but A Certain Smile is one of his most melodic & luxurious works, matching the picturesque beauty of director Jean Negulesco’s sprawling CinemaScope film. Newman would also score The Best of Everything for the director the following year, but unlike that maniacally mono-thematic score, the extra thematic material in Smile offers listeners more rewarding dramatic meat.

The lilting main theme is central to the soundtrack, with sleek harmonics that undoubtedly gave Johnny Mathis a perfect vehicle to exploit his remarkable voice, but Newman also composed a semi-classical, wholly wistful secondary theme which is also reworked into his brand of ‘fat melodrama,’ with pulsing brass and plaintive strings in “Romanza,” or more gentle strings and lovely woodwinds in “Francoise,” a cue that briefly segues into a light, Wagnerian trembling strings.

“The Bus” is a perfect snapshot of old European charm mixed with youthful naivete, whereas “The First Kiss” is oddly Herrmannesque in the way Newman shifts the mood of his theme by playing with the sonic density of various string instruments. (The swerving high notes at the beginning of “Disillusionment” are also quite similar, although it’s likely a classic case of Fox’s house composers writing in an agreed-upon style when it came to specific blockbuster genre entries.)

Amid the romantic and genteel tone of Newman’s writing, Smile does have a discrete brooding quality which begins to materialize in subtle gestures as the conflicts between the characters and consequences of actions & manipulations start to cause further issues for the film’s so-called ingénue. A sudden plunge into grungy tones in “The Letter” marks the first signs of unease, whereas “Dominique’s Collapse” immediately restates the main theme in some weird middle ground of sonic instability before some eerie variation sharpens the mood into steeped grimness.

La-La Land’s 2-CD set offers both the complete original score, and the edited soundtrack album (premiering here in stereo) where cue orders were shifted around, and the film’s vocal single paired Mathis with a more robust stereo mix of orchestra and chorus. Both CDs present perfectly fine versions of the score, but CD 1 is more satisfying, being in chronological order, and benefitting from the interpolation of Mathis’ film version of the main theme (in mono) and a light jazz source cue by veteran pianist Jimmy Rowles to add some thematic diversity.

LLL’s track list features a somewhat apologetic producer’s note for what’s termed “damaged recordings,” but the affected tracks are either lightly affected by surface noise (such as the Mathis 45 single), some minor wow (noticeable at the beginning of “The Dance,” a bouncy jazz orchestra theme version featuring a rather Manciniesque flute solo), or a slightly warbling in “Don’t Leave Me Francoise.” In other words, the surviving material sounds perfectly fine; the differences in quality only become apparent when a damaged cue’s surrounded by otherwise near-pristine tracks.

The blazing colour booklet is filled with gorgeous production stills from the Fox Photo Archive (if only samples were made available online for fans to relish), and Jim Titus’ art direction is one of LLL’s best, balancing crisp fifties commercial images with the hysterical cut & paste poster art for the cover. (The original Columbia LP is still worth framing, however, sporting a simple graphic design of an amber-hued headshot, film perforations to the right, and clean, simple text to the left.)

Actress Christine Carère demonstrates the simplicity of graphic design with her perfectly fine noggin'.

Julie Kirgo’s deliciously informative and funny liner notes mention both the ‘Fox Sound’ and related / perhaps interchangeable ‘Newman Sound’ that’s prevalent in Smile, but this recording is also an ideal sampling of the stellar sound engineering that went into Fox’s soundtracks. Newman may have been a brilliant composer surrounded by superb musical and technical talent, but the implementation of stereophonic and surround sound audio in ‘scope films mandated top-notch recording and mastering. There’s a specific sonic breadth that’s unique to the Fox scores, capable of delivering plenty of bass-friendly boom for action scenes yet enhancing the inherent intimacy of a simple theme played on chamber strings.

Whether Newman was one of the chief discriminating ears or simply had a knack for exploiting recording technology, he was an important figure in the art of film scoring and its exploitation in commercial recording, which is why A Certain Smile still sounds rich, warm, and amiably contemporary.



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


External References:

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