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WE’RE NO ANGELS – George Fenton

September 19, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

We’re No Angels was a loose remake of a 1955 Humphrey Bogart film of the same name, which was itself adapted from a French play, La Cuisine des Anges, by Albert Husson. The film is set in the 1930s and stars Robert De Niro and Sean Penn as Ned and Jim, two amiable convicts who inadvertently escape from jail when they are caught up in a plot masterminded by Bobby, a vicious killer played by James Russo. The convicts eventually find themselves in a small upstate New York town near the Canada–US border, where Ned and Jim are mistaken for a pair of priests expected at the local monastery. Circumstances are such that crossing the town bridge into Canada is extremely difficult, so Ned and Jim decide to play the long game and embrace the misunderstanding until the time is right. However, as Ned and Jim spend more time in the town, they find themselves forming real bonds with the locals, especially a beautiful single mother played by Demi Moore, and soon they begin to wonder whether they have a shot at genuine redemption. The film was written by David Mamet and directed by Neil Jordan, but was unfortunately a massive box office flop, grossing just $10.5 million on a $20 million budget.

The score for We’re No Angels was by English composer George Fenton, who previously worked with director Jordan on The Company of Wolves in 1984 and High Spirits in 1988. Unfortunately this would prove to be the last of their collaborations to date, as Fenton’s score for Interview With the Vampire was rejected at the last minute in 1995, and it appears that the whole thing left a somewhat bitter taste in the mouths of both men. Fortunately for us, the score for We’re No Angels was not rejected, and a good thing it is too, because it’s one of the composer’s career best, a little-known gem that more people need to be aware of. It combines a trio of outstanding thematic ideas with some unexpectedly powerful action and suspense, moments of lightness, and some wonderful orchestrations that embrace period jazz, before building to a finale of truly epic proportions. In description it sounds somewhat scattershot, but the whole thing flows together beautifully, creating a cohesive whole that is thoroughly entertaining.

The three main themes are Molly’s Theme, the Freedom Theme, and a love theme for the romance that develops between Ned and Molly. Molly’s Theme has its roots in 1930s jazz, with a languid, sultry sound that is perfect for the gin joints and speakeasies that a golden-hearted hooker like Molly would frequent. Fenton uses a honky-tonk piano, a harmonica, and a lazy clarinet in his orchestral palette, but there is more to this theme than meets the eye. The Freedom Theme is heard as a reflection of Ned and Jim’s new life on the outside of prison, and is filled with a sense of European romanticism, gorgeous and idyllic, and is often picked out using delicate orchestrations that range from guitars to mandolins and accordion. Finally, the love theme for Ned and Molly owes a great debt to Bernard Herrmann and ‘Scene d‘Amour’ from Vertigo, as Fenton breaks out his shimmering strings to create an atmosphere of palpable romance between the unlikely pair.

Molly’s Theme is the first thing you hear, at the beginning of the “Introduction and Main Titles,” but this quickly goes away and is replaced by a mass of unexpectedly dramatic action music that underscores the escape from Northridge Prison which sets the film’s events in motion. In this cue, and in the subsequent “Escape from Northridge,” Fenton makes terrific use of sweeping strings, roaring and rasping brass, and bombastic, tempestuous percussion. There is a clear Golden Age sound in the orchestral phrasing of the suspense music – again, more homages to Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock – and as it develops the whole thing becomes really powerful. For those who know Fenton’s work, the action music here foreshadows things like Memphis Belle and Valiant, as well as the more robust parts of his BBC nature documentary scores. He has always been great at action, but has had very few chances to show it; this score is one of the times where it shines.

The Freedom Theme gets its first prominent appearance in the third cue, “First Light,” where the melody is passed between the regional orchestrations and is backed by an undulating string wash; the sound is open, clear, peaceful, like it’s the first time these men have breathed clean air in years. The conclusion of the cue is filled with performances of a solo trumpet motif that opens with a lush echoing triplet, and is just lovely. Later, both Molly’s Theme and the Love Theme get their first real performances in the eponymous “Molly’s Theme” cue, a strikingly evocative representation of a specific time and place. I especially like how Fenton takes the melody of the Love Theme and performs it using the muted trumpets and plucked basses of Molly’s Theme, clearly linking the two together, making them flip-sides of the same character. Molly is sassy, but has a softer side too.

The rest of the album’s mid-section comprises low key suspense and caper music, some of which is enlivened by little allusions to one or more of the central themes. “Fathers Brown and Riley” again revisits the old fashioned orchestrations of Molly’s theme – muted woodwinds, prepared honky-tonk piano, jazz phrasing in the strings, country inflections in the use of harmonica. “The Weeping Madonna” has a hint of the ecclesiastical via Fenton’s subtle tolling bells, and features a subtle statement of the Freedom theme on horns in the conclusion. “Almost Home Free” revisits the Hitchcockian suspense atmospherics, and sees Fenton playing around with repeated motivic cells in the woodwinds offset by driving runs for brass and strings. “Drawing the Lottery” begins with another prominent honky-tonk piano, but explodes with dramatic, bulbous brass intensity in the finale.

Two pieces of fun source music can also be found here; “The Waterside” is a lovely old-fashioned country waltz anchored by violin, accordion, and guitar, while “The Tavern” is a fiddle-led hoedown of real authenticity.

However, everyone is really here for the finale, which comprises the cues “The Dam” and Free Street,” and carries through into the “End Credits”. Fenton pulls out all the stops in this sensational 10½-minute sequence, resulting in one of the most satisfying score conclusions of his entire career. The first half of “The Dam” returns to the enormously powerful action writing of the first two cues, with strident hoarse brass figures, throbbing strings, and some quite vivid moments where the orchestra really goes for broke. At the 3:25 mark Fenton’s music explodes into the score’s most sweeping statement of the Love Theme, to mark the moment where Ned puts his own freedom in jeopardy in order to save Molly’s young daughter from drowning – this is the instant that their love is sealed, and the music leaves you in no doubt of this.

“Free Street” sees Fenton moving between repeated statements of Molly’s theme, the Love theme, and the Freedom theme, all arranged for shimmering strings, warm brasses, and intimate oboes, reflecting the film’s happy ending wherein Jim is befriended by a young monk played by John C. Reilly and decides to stay in the monastery to actually become a priest, while Ned takes Molly and her daughter to Canada to start a new life. The whole thing builds to an enormous rousing finale which, again, will be familiar in tone to anyone who knows the score for Memphis Belle; it then segues into the “End Credits,” which again presents soaring reprises of all the main themes, before concluding with a more mellow and jazzy statement of Molly’s theme to finish.

Due to the film being such a financial flop, no soundtrack for We’re No Angels was released at the time, but many people who saw it were impressed enough with the music for it to leave a positive mark. One of these people was producer Robert Townson, who made the score for We’re No Angels one of the original 12 releases in the Varese Sarabande CD Club series when it was first launched. Unfortunately the original limited edition of 1,500 copies is long-sold out, and physical copies of the score continue to sell for large sums on the secondary market (as I write this there is a copy going on Amazon for $99.95!) Despite this, if you find any way to get your hands on a copy of this music, I recommend you so do without hesitation. As I have said already, this really is one of Fenton’s career best works, and for a man with scores as superb as Memphis Belle, Dangerous Beauty, Ever After, Anna and the King, and all those spectacular BBC nature scores under his belt, you’ll understand why I don’t say things like that lightly.

Buy the We’re No Angels soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store.

Track Listing:

  • Introduction and Main Titles (3:59)
  • Escape from Northridge (4:12)
  • First Light (3:02)
  • Fathers Brown and Riley (3:52)
  • The Waterside (1:27)
  • The Weeping Madonna (2:19)
  • More Trouble (2:12)
  • Molly’s Theme (2:01)
  • Almost Home Free (1:51)
  • The Tavern (1:17)
  • Get Me That Priest (1:41)
  • Drawing the Lottery (2:44)
  • The Dam (4:13)
  • Free Street (3:09)
  • End Credits (3:08)

Running Time: 41 minutes 07 seconds

Varese Sarabande CD Club VCL-9201-12 (1989/1992)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by George Fenton, Christopher Palmer and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Edited by Michael Connell. Score produced by George Fenton. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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