Program notes written by Daniel Robbins for The Red House soundtrack CD
Intrada/Bel Canto Recordings
Music score by Miklos Rozsa
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Allan Wilson, conductor
Miklos Rozsa once commented that during the filming of The Red House, actor Edward G. Robinson envisioned the story’s emotional depth as comparable to the great French play Pelleas et Melisande. Written by the noted playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, Pelleas et Melisande stood at the heart of the symbolist literature of late-19 century French impressionism. Symbolist plays superimposed everyday happenings over powerful symbolic images born of the author’s free flowing subconscious imagination. In an essay description of his literary aesthetic, Maeterlinck asserted that, “beneath all human thoughts, volitions, passions, actions, there lies the vast ocean of the Unconscious.” Viewed from this perspective, Edward G. Robinson was not far off the mark in his comparison. Arguably, the core dramatic scenario of The Red House can only be understood in terms of the love and passion, fear and superstition, guilt and masochism entrenched within the dark subconscious of the central character, Pete Morgan.
Throughout the history of music other notable composers who composed music along the Pelleas et Melisande narrative include Claude Debussy, whose opera of the same name was given its Paris premiere in 1902. Whereas in The Red House Rozsa favors easily identified musical phrases and motives in lieu of Debussy’s less defined melodic style, both composers share a common goal: the total subjugation of all musical elements-melodic, as well as harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral-to the dramatic force and momentum of their respective stories. Pertaining to his music for Pelleas, Debussy proclaimed, “I wished-intended, in fact-that the action should never be arrested; that it should be continuous, uninterrupted.” Comparably, the uncompromising flow of programmatic energy in Miklos Rozsa’s music for The Red House approaches the musical dimensions of a full-fledged symphonic poem.
The Red House, based on a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain and directed by Delmer Daves, tells the story of Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson), a reclusive farmer who harbors grim secrets and memories of long ago love, passion, and murder. He and his devoted sister Ellen (Judith Anderson) have lived years trying to prevent their adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts) from learning the truth about her real parents. Meg comes of age, and with the help of her newfound boyfriend Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), becomes determined to unearth the connection between her childhood past, Pete’s tightly-kept dark mysteries, and a forbidden red house lodged deep within the surrounding Oxhead Woods. A subsidiary love relationship involves Tibby (Julie London) and Teller (Rory Calhoun), who both become unwittingly enmeshed in the conflicts and intrigues of the Morgan saga.
The film needed music capable of rich scenic imagery, unnerving mystery and suspense, and potent lyrical passion. Consequently, the fertile arsenal of Rozsa cinematic scoring devices for The Red House included: literal underscoring, wherein all dialogue and action were strictly reinforced; directing the viewer’s reactions to dramatic elements not explicitly shown on screen; and the depiction of widely varying moods and feelings, either all at once or in rapid-fire succession.
Invariably, the most poignant literal underscoring is in scenes involving Pete’s volatile and mentally unstable personality. His primary theme, aggressive and unsettled in its halting angular rhythm, is delegated to the dark colors of the orchestra. His delusional insanity, to which he ultimately succumbs, is represented by fearsome polytonal chords scored for vibraphone, celesta, novachord (electric organ), and tremolo strings playing sul ponticello. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is the expressive warmth of muted strings that signify Pete’s abiding parental love and affection for Meg.
Pointing our emotions in a specific direction is tellingly achieved in Nath’s two journeys through the dreaded Oxhead Woods; in both instances Rozsa’s music dictates audience response completely independent of any explanatory dialogue and with a bare minimum of pictorial clues. In the first scene, Nath’s terror of the woods is represented by taut harmonies over a low insistent rhythmic ostinato. The imaginary “screams” he perceives are musically personified as an ominous upward-lurching motive sung by a chorus of unison female voices, which were enhanced by spine-chilling echo effects in the original film recording. Contrastingly, in the second scene, we know Nath has lost his fear of the selfsame Oxhead Woods, musically evidenced by tuneful melody, consonant harmonies, and pastorally evocative birdlike woodwind figurations.
In the climax of the film, Pete returns to the Red House with Meg in hopes of ending his guilt and psychological torments, only to lapse hopelessly and permanently into his paranoid delusions. Rozsa’s scoring is an uninterrupted flood of contrasting moods and unending symphonic development. The frenetic truck ride through the woods is fueled by obsessively repeated brass chords that become a full orchestral statement of the sinister theme signifying the Red House. As Pete and Meg somberly enter the forlorn and abandoned building, soft mysterious harmony lay foil to disembodied fragments of the Red House theme. Then the truck ride music returns as softly whispered chords in the horns, muted trumpets, and theremin underneath repeated celesta figurations, revealing Pete’s terrifying candlelit facial expressions of impending violence. Suddenly, a gentle yet strangely disconcerting lullaby signals Pete’s rediscovery of the baby cradle which once held Meg. However, his psychotic intensity accelerates and in his delusional madness he nearly suffocates Meg to death. A momentary reference to Meg and Nath’s love theme offers a temporary reprieve as Nath rescues Meg. Pete desperately flees the Red House to seek his own self destruction by ramming the adjoining water-soaked ice house with his truck. As we hear impassioned descending violin arpeggios that sink into the subterranean depths of the orchestra, Pete Morgan sinks to his final demise beneath the murky icy waters of the Red House.
Within the extensive filmography of Miklos Rozsa, The Red House stands as one of the most substantial opuses. In no other film of his psychological genre had the composer been offered such a wide spectrum of cinematic pictures to paint musically: from broad pastel scenes of Nature, to intimate relationships between the dramatis personae, to moments of exciting physical action and suspense. Most significantly, because it brought the thoughts, fears, and passions of the human subconscious into sharp focus, Miklos Rozsa’s music for The Red House must truly be considered the most psychological of all his “psychological” film scores.