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THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – Dimitri Tiomkin

November 17, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The Old Man and the Sea was a novel written by Ernest Hemmingway in 1951 during his stay in Cuba. Warner Brothers Studio purchased the film rights, selected Fred Zinnemann to direct, hired Paul Osborne to adapt it to the big screen and used Hemmingway as a technical consultant. When live sea filming failed and Hemmingway raged against both the script and marlin prop, Zinnemann and Osborne resigned from the project. John Sturges took over directing and at Hemmingway’s insistence Peter Viertel reworked the script. Given that this was an intimate story of a man’s personal struggle, veteran actor Spencer Tracy was hired to play the lead role of Santiago, with Felipe Pazos Jr. playing the boy Manolin.

The story opens with Santiago down on his luck, having gone 84 days without catching a fish, which in Cuban culture is called “salao”, the worst form of unluckiness. His fellow fishermen mock him and his young apprentice, Manolin has been ordered by his family to cast his lot with more successful fishermen. Determined to end his draught at all costs, Santiago informs Manolin of his bold plan to sail far north into the Straits of Florida. The next day he sets sail and by high sun his draught ends when an enormous marlin hooks his line. Yet all is not well as Santiago lacks the strength to land the great fish. For two days he suffers injuries as he is relentlessly pulled out to sea. The struggle causes him to bond with the fish whom he refers to as his brother. Fortune however finally smiles upon him on the third day when the fish weakens and he is finally able to subdue it with a spear. As he ropes his prize to the hull and sails back to shore he is forced to fight off unrelenting attacks by sharks. He manages to kill several of them, yet his valiant efforts fail, his great catch reduced to bony remnants of the fish’s head, spinal column and tail. Upon his return to port he collapses from exhaustion only to be awakened the next day by Manolin and his fellow fisherman who have measured his catch at 18 feet, a record! All ends well as he regains the respect of the town and Manolin promises to once again go to sea with him. We conclude with images of Santiago asleep dreaming of his youth — of lions on an African beach. The film was a commercial failure but won critical success earning three Academy Award nominations with Dimitri Tiomkin securing the award for Best Film Score.

Zinnemann had collaborated with Tiomkin for their Oscar winning “High Noon” and he was the natural choice to score the film. Tiomkin recognized that the film’s narrative was narrowly focused on a man’s personal struggle to regain his pride and responded with a lush string laden and intimate score. As was his customary practice he also felt that the film needed a title song and advocated for one sung by Mahalia Jackson but was overruled by Sturges. For the film Tiomkin provided two thematic identities; Santiago’s Theme serves as the score’s main theme and animates the film. It is composed in the finest traditions of the Golden Age, expressed with a pure and unabashed romanticism. Replete with gentile woodwinds and secondary statements by saxophone, this piece flows with a wondrous lyricism and perfectly sets the mood for the film. Tiomkin related that the lyricism of the theme was inspired by his fishing trips with his old friend Frank Capra. Manolin’s Theme is a delightful woodwind carried statement that dances to and fro with a youthful joie de vivre. It perfectly captures the youth and playfulness of the boy.

“The Old Man and the Sea” plays as the opening credits flow with vista shots of the Caribbean Sea and Santiago sailing into the harbor. Manolin who is devoted to him greets him as he again returns empty handed. Tiomkin offers a score highlight where he introduces his lush string carried Santiago’s Theme. Composed in the finest traditions of the Golden Age, the theme is unabashedly romantic. Replete with gentile woodwinds and accents by saxophone, this piece flows with a wondrous lyricism and perfectly sets the mood for the film. Bravo! In “Cojimar Harbor and the Old Man” Santiago and Manolin carry his gear and relax to a beer and soda at a bar. Manolin comforts the old man who now earns only derisive laughs from his fellow fisherman. We are treated to another score highlight that offers sterling thematic interplay. We open with a horn carried statement of Santiago’s Theme that transitions atop a woodwind bridge to the Manolin’s Theme. Tiomkin provides a tender and carefree ambiance of woodwinds, which speak to us of Manolin’s dedication and affection. The interplay of the string and horn carried Santiago’s Theme and the carefree woodwinds of Manolin’s Theme are just wondrous!

“The Boy” reveals Manolin running through town on his way to buy dinner for Santiago. The cue features Manolin’s Theme that dances to and from with a simply delightful youthful joie de vivre. “Fishermen’s Cantina” has a wonderful vibrancy that speaks to us of the exotic tropical beauty of Cuba. Imbued with Spanish accents this piece is warm and full of life. In “The Old Man Loved The Boy” Santiago and Manolin share dinner and we see that the Old man feels truly blessed by the boy’s loyalty and tender heart. Tiomkin once again graces us with truly touching interplay of Santiago’s and Manolin’s Theme. “The Fishermen’s Lament” reveals the sad resolve of Santiago as Manolin once again sees him off in the wispy red skies of dawn. Tiomkin provides a lament that perfectly captures the sadness of a man who is questioning himself for the first time in his life. In “And the Old Man Rowed Out to the Ocean” we see Santiago who has moved off alone rowing ever onwards toward the salvation of the distant Florida Straits. His theme carries us with him in tender and sometimes playful fashion. Amidst this vast expanse of sea with its flocks of birds Tiomkin provides warmth that draws us in and binds us to Santiago.

“The Old Man Catches His Bait” reveals Santiago having the good fortune of catching fish bait that will aid him in his quest for a Marlin. This really is a wonderful piece where Tiomkin sets the perfect ambiance. We open with playful woodwinds, which dance to and fro, creating a tender and endearing ambiance. Warm strings join with comic horn accents, which draw us into Santiago and bind us to his quest, In “Sunset and Red Clouds” Tiomkin provides a passage of exquisite beauty. Santiago has hooked a great marlin, which to his amazement drags his boat ever northwards. Amidst the vast expanse of sea we see the horizon ablaze with the crimson auras of sunset. Woodwinds pastorale and gentile strings create a wondrous ambiance and exquisite beauty that more than matches the sunset auras. “I Am Your Dream” offers a very pleasant pop version of Santiago’s Theme for which Tiomkin had planned for Mahalia Jackson to sing as a title song until over ruled.

In “A Small Bird Came Toward the Skiff” a small bird lands on his boat and provides a brief, though most welcome respite from his grueling struggle with the marlin. We hear trilling woodwinds dance aloft Santiago’s Theme in beautiful interplay. As the bird flies off the music’s mood darkens as the old man’s battle with the marlin is renewed. How Tiomkin uses harsh tones and an orchestral descent in register to emote Santiago’s physical pain and weariness from the struggle is just superb. “In The Tavern at Casa Blanca” reveals the physical toll upon Santiago’s body whose strength is ebbing. To bolster his tiring body he recalls a day in his prime when he waged and won a daylong hand-wrestling contest is Casa Blanca. Tiomkin offers traditional festive music of the Caribbean, which ebbs and flows as each man gains and loses advantage. It becomes celebratory when at last Santiago prevails. The marriage of imagery and music here is nicely done. “Just Before It Was Dark” reveals a refulgent fiery sunset ushering in the second night of Santiago’s struggle. Tiomkin offers an exquisite passage of woodwinds pastorale joined with strings gentile to create the perfect ambiance. A tender rendering of his theme as he drifts of into a series of dreams crowns the perfect moment of this exquisite cue.

“The Duel With the Fish” is a score highlight that reveals Tiomkin’s ingenuity and mastery of his craft. Santiago and the marlin wage a fierce battle as the great fish makes a final and valiant attempt to free itself. Tiomkin provides his most impassioned writing for the score as the orchestra rises and ebbs in a series of crescendos and decrescendos, mirroring the great fish’s leaps and descents back into the watery depths. Strings furioso and horns triumphanti inform us of the marlin at last succumbing to Santiago’s harpoon thrust to the heart. Bravo! “The Shark Fight” reveals to Santiago’s worst nightmare come true as a massive Mako shark launches an attack on his prized marlin. Santiago valiantly succeeds in harpooning the great shark, but its strength breaks his line taking his only weapon with him. As the marlin bleeds out from the massive bite we see despair in Santiago’s eyes, for he knows what will soon be coming. Harsh horns barbaro and strings furioso propel the great shark forward in the finest traditions of a militaristic onslaught. A diminuendo of strings usher in a plaintive string line, which informs us that Santiago has won the battle, yet will soon lose the war. Once again Tiomkin achieves an exceptional synergy of film imagery and music! Santiago resolves to create a weapon to make one last effort to defend his prize against the oncoming onslaught of sharks. He takes his carving knife and fastens it with rope to his oar thus making a crude spear. Regretfully the fierce militaristic orchestral frenzy Tiomkin wrote for Santiago’s two epic battles are not included on the score release. The music for these two scenes is a marvelous tour de force and testimony to Tiomkin’s compositional gift. I would hope that any future reissue of the score would offer the score in its complete form.

In “The Lost Fight” we see Santiago resigned to his fate, completely exhausted and a defeated man as the safe refuge of Habana harbor at last beckons in the distance. He has lost all his gear and we see him question himself as to whether his old body can ever recover. Tiomkin provides the necessary sentiment for us to feel Santiago’s pain. Plaintive strings and woodwinds are joined with an elegiac trumpet, which inform us of his defeat, and the unbearable sadness of his heart. “Cubana” reveals tourist in a harbor cantina viewing the skeletal corpse of Santiago’s marlin that lay on the harbor beach. Tiomkin provides traditional Latin Caribbean rhythms to provide the ambiance of these cantinas. Unbeknownst to Santiago his fellow fisherman have measured the marlin and he is credited for catching the largest marlin ever recorded. We conclude with “Finale” where we see a dutiful Manolin at Santiago’s side as he lay dreaming of his beloved lions playing on the white pristine sands of a far distant African beach. Tiomkin closes our journey with a sumptuous rendering of Santiago’s Theme, with fleeting statements of Manolin’s Theme, which culminates with a splendid orchestral flourish. Bravo!

Allow me to thank Varese Sarabande for issuing this wonderful classic score of the Golden Age. Tiomkin perfectly captured the emotional core of this intimate narrative. His writing for woodwinds and strings are of the highest order and perfectly attenuated to our beloved Santiago and Manolin. Each theme beautifully captured the essential goodness and humanity of these two characters, bringing them to life and endearing them to us. His music time and time again fully matched the cinematic splendor of the wondrous sunset auras that graced this film. In my judgment this score fully warranted its Academy Award and stands as one of Tiomkin’s greatest achievements. I highly recommend this for your collection, but be advised you will most likely have to go to secondary markets to acquire it. Pray that a record label soon releases a complete version of this timeless score. Until then!

Buy the Old Man and the Sea soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Old Man and the Sea (2:39)
  • Cojimar Harbor and the Old Man (3:24)
  • The Boy (1:15)
  • Fisherman’s Cantina (2:42)
  • The Old Man Loved the Boy (1:58)
  • The Fisherman’s Lament (1:57)
  • And the Old Man Rowed Out to the Ocean (1:40)
  • The Old Man Catches His Bait (2:34)
  • Sunset and Red Clouds (2:17)
  • I Am Your Dream (2:42)
  • A Small Bird Came Toward the Skiff (3:20)
  • In the Tavern at Casa Blanca (2:17)
  • Just Before It Was Dark (2:41)
  • The Duel With the Fish (4:44)
  • The Shark Fight (1:53)
  • The Lost Fight (1:50)
  • Cubana (1:09)
  • Finale (1:46)

Running Time: 42 minutes 48 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5232 (1958/1989)

Music composed and conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Guitar solos performed by Laurindo Almeida. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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