Film Music Evangelism: Exhibit 3 – “Main Theme” from The Usual Suspects

Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2

Exhibit number three: “Main Theme” from John Ottman’s The Usual Suspects.

Ah, the main title. It seems most movies these days opt to jump right into the action. I don’t necessarily take issue with that approach, but I do miss the possibility of great main title sequences—as do, I’m sure, today’s aspiring Saul Basses—and primarily because of the musical opportunity they afford. A good main title sequence gives the film’s composer a chance to establish a central theme (or several of them) up front like an overture, establish the mood of the movie, or plant the beginnings of an idea that will be developed or evolved throughout the course of the film. Along with a good old montage, it’s one of the few sequences in a film when the composer is (generally) not held captive by the picture and not restricted to hitting specific beats. They can thus write a complete piece of music, sometimes upwards of three minutes in length, with its own internal logic and form. For the composer (and film music fan), this is glorious. (We’ll talk about the demise of the original end credits music some other time.)

Ottman_1In his wonderfully entertaining and informative commentary on The Usual Suspects DVD, John Ottman extols the value of main title sequences (for basically the same reasons I just listed). In the case of this 1995 film—a great ensemble, neo-noir thriller with one of cinema’s classic twist endings—the tone Ottman wanted to set with his title music was that this was an elegant, romantic take on the genre. It was intentionally not a “hip” ’90s score or tone, because the whole film wanted to reach higher than that.

During the opening titles (which is nothing more than the nighttime reflection of lights shimmering on black water), Ottman’s main theme for the movie plays in its entirety. Most of the other themes in the score derive from this piece of music, but here it is in its richest, most elegant wardrobe.

Main Theme

A simple, repeated piano figure ferries the theme, also played on piano. Navigating a succession of mysterious, almost magical chords, the melody evokes a sad and beautiful story, embellished with little flourishes. Strings roll in like the tide, a mournful cello line and then oboe glide under and through the openings of the piano’s song. A solo French horn punctuates the phrase.

Celli bow a stately fragment of the arpeggiating melody, the piano remaining present in the periphery. Then strings and flute return to the original statement of the theme, climaxing and splashing into a state of calm—the piano all the while still twirling, still moving. The piece seems to peter out, but morphs into another statement of the theme—performed by strings and a French horn—raising again the urgency and energy of the piece.

Still drifting along, the music then slips into the shadows, strings oscillating like the dark water as a lone oboe slithers on top, joined by a French horn and a slinking bassoon—like the unusual cast of suspects about to be introduced in the film. The title ebbs out with high flute and strings repeating echoes of the theme, with the low line of a contrabassoon adding nuance to the beauty with its dark mystique. A piano flourish appropriately caps the piece over a sustained minor chord.

Mystery, noir, elegance. This piece is proof that a good main title sequence can hook you right into a film, and that such sequences offer an opportunity ripe for a composer to establish a theme or mood. It’s also proof that John Ottman has great talent up his sleeves, and will hopefully have more chances to write this kind of classic film music.