Wednesday, 7 November 2018

The Rise of the Theremin: 1949 and 1951 ensured a decade of creepy movie soundtracks

I've always responded like a Pavlov dog to the sound of a theremin on a movie soundtrack.There's something about the instrument's quivering, imprecise, other-worldy tone which causes instant cognitive dissonance. We know that something abnormal and possibly dangerous is happening, either inside the head of the character we're watching, or, in the case of science fiction films, to our planet. The Soviet inventor Léon Theremin patented his creation in 1928, and it was first used in a film score by Shostakovich for 1931's Odna. But it was eighteen years before it graced a Hollywood movie: Miklós Rózsa used it for Hitchcock's Spellbound (1949) to convey Gregory Peck's psychosis:

Two months later, the theremin reared its creepy head in another mainstream film - Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend. The score was again composed by Miklós Rózsa, who once more employed the instrument's ability to convey the sense of a mind which has slipped its rational moorings - especially  in the pant-wettingly horrible sequence in which the alcoholic writer played by Ray MIlland, suffering his first attack of the DTs, "sees" a mouse emerge from a hole in a wall in his apartment, only for a bat to swoop on the shrieking rodent and send slashes of blood spearing down the wall... the actual sequence isn't available on YouTube, which is probably just as well, but the musical accompaniment to it is:

If 1949 saw the first two uses of the theremin to suggest the mental disintegration of an individual, 1951 saw it used in two major science fiction films to suggest wrongness, uncertainty and threat on a cosmic scale. April saw the release of The Thing from Another World (which was either directed by Christian Nyby with considerable input from the producer, Howard Hawks, or directed by Hawks with some input from Nyby - take your pick). Dimitri Tiomkin used the instrument as a sort of tension-ratcheting underlay in any number of scenes, starting with the main titles:

My favourite use of the theremin in the film comes just before the existence of an enormous flying saucer under the ice is revealed: it signals that some of our fundamental assumptions about the universe are about to be overturned (it appears at 2'06", as a party of military men, scientists and a reporter approach the site of the UFO):

Perhaps the most influential use of the theremin came five months after The Thing, with the release of  The Day the Earth Stood Still. in which Michael Rennie's rather dull extraterrestrial technocrat, Klaatu, visits Earth in order to warn the human race to mend its warlike ways... or else! Even as a kid, I found Klaatu a bit of a pompous, self-regarding bore. The giant robot, Gort, is the true star of the film: whenever the big silver lug appears, composer Bernard Hermann lays on the theremin with a trowel, inadvertently turning it into the go-to instrument for science fiction film soundtracks for almost a decade:

The theremin continued its triumphant progress through most of the '50s - it even appeared on the soundtrack of The Ten Commandments in 1956 - but it had all but disappeared from film scores by the start of the '60s. A variant of the instrument, the electro-theremin, appeared on the Beach Boys tracks "Good Vibrations" and "Wild Honey" in 1966 and 1967 respectively, but the theremin would have to wait until the 1990s to enjoy a movie revival, when it was mainly used in a semi-ironic way to evoke cheesy '50s science fiction films (stop - my sides are splitting!).

Coincidence Corner: I started writing this post yesterday, but ran out of steam. About an hour later, I was trawling the web on an iPad when I came across an article about the film, First Man, which is about the astronaut, Neil Armstrong. The article praised the film's director Damien Chazelle for not showing Armstrong listening to standard late '60s rock tracks: instead, Armstrong is shown enjoying a track he actually listened to in space - "Lunar Rhapsody" by Dr Samuel Hoffman/Les Baxter, a 1947 hit prominently featuring (you guessed it) a theremin! Here it is:


  1. A few years ago I discovered a shop in KL of all places that had a tiny section devoted to films like these sandwiched between vast ranks of Bollywood and Canto pop.
    I bought Sunset Boulevard, and The lost Weekend (all smartly packaged) plus a few others. Not one to fill my boots with stuff I may never see, I resolved to return the following month and grab another movie or two, one of them featuring the excellent Welsh actor Ray Milland (again) The Man with X-ray Eyes.
    I should have known better, the shop had been turned into Starbucks and there was a brand new Victoria's Secret nearby - I don't know why I recall that.
    There's a moral there somewhere.
    Mr Gronmark please tell me The Man with X-ray Eyes is rubbish and I would've been wasting my money.
    At least I now know what a theremin is.

  2. Evidently Brian Wilson experienced the same sense of cognitive dissonance when confronted with a theremin. About an hour into the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, he describes vividly his first experience of hearing one. I suspect it was filmed at a time when he was not at his best. It's on Youtube.

    If you have about £400 lying around you can still buy one, but the technology has moved on. Recent electronics developers like Imogen Heap have developed more sophisticated polyphonic glove versions, which should appeal to the more nerdish of your followers.

  3. I watched The Man with X-ray Eyes last night you all will be glad to know, with finger hovering above fast forward. Some good bits and yes there was a theremin involved (I think) but nothing compared to the brilliant Lost Weekend.