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THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS – Angelo Badalamenti

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Comfort of Strangers is a psychological thriller directed by Paul Schrader, adapted by Harold Pinter from the novel by Ian McEwan. Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson play Colin and Mary, an English couple on vacation in Venice, looking to rekindle the spark in their relationship. The couple makes the acquaintance of Roberto (Christopher Walken), a bar owner, and the three of them spend an evening drinking together and swapping life stories. However, after Roberto introduces them to his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren), it soon becomes apparent that their ‘chance encounter’ was not quite as random as it first appeared, and before long things are spiraling out of control into a web of lies, obsession, and dangerous sexuality.

The score for The Comfort of Strangers is by the Italian-American composer Angelo Badalamenti, who in 1991 was riding high on the success of his score for the cult TV series Twin Peaks. Anyone who heard that score, with its ominous electronic overtones and lush soap-opera sheen, may be surprised to discover that The Comfort of Strangers is a very different animal. It’s very much inspired by the work of Nino Rota, as well as by Ennio Morricone’s more elegant giallo thriller scores, and has elements of Turkish-Arabian music filtering through the orchestra, adding a hint of the exotic. Badalamenti has always had found a way to imbue even his most challenging scores with a hint of sweeping romance, and The Comfort of Strangers sees him taking the opportunity to focus strongly on that.

The score is dominated by a memorable main theme, at once a depiction of the classical beauty of the film’s Venetian setting, and a representation of the increasingly dramatic sexual tension that develops between the four main protagonists. This “Theme from The Comfort of Strangers” is one of the most exquisite compositions of Badalamenti’s entire career, a graceful, stylish, enveloping sweep of strings underpinned by a soft piano countermelody, but which has just enough of a subtle hint of mystery and dangerous eroticism. It’s just sublime, and when the might of the full orchestra finally comes into play during the piece’s final moments, the effect is outstanding.

The second important theme in the score is “Roberto’s Arabesque,” a lilting piece that acts as a recurring musical identity for Christopher Walken’s character. It begins with a passage for enticing exotic woodwinds, but then picks up some light Middle Eastern percussion items, and adopts a swaying, mesmerizing lilt that is tremendously effective at capturing the essence of the enigmatic Roberto. These two ideas – the classical western orchestrations for Colin and Mary, the Middle Eastern textures for Roberto and Caroline – dominate the rest of the score, combining and intertwining as the two couples become more and more connected as the story develops.

“Getting Lost” comes back to the Middle Eastern woodwinds, but presents them in a more threatening way, using nervous string lines and jangling guitar textures to enhance the sense of foreign unfamiliarity that Colin and Mary experience as they wander Venice’s darker and more treacherous corners. It’s clever how Badalamenti uses subtle shifts in key and color to create entirely different moods; what was once sunny and romantic now becomes unsettling and strange. “Days of Passion” is again built around the Arabesque; the light shaken percussion items sound like the heavy breathing of someone in the throes of desire, while the slithery and sinewy writing for strings and woodwinds is infused with a sense of sultry emotion, the musical depiction of beads of sweat running down naked skin. The subsequent “Turkish Undertones” has more than a hint of the bazaar, making use of an array of exotic instruments playing with dramatic flair.

“Preludium” is a gorgeous waltz theme, and is texturally related to the main Comfort of Strangers theme, but has a more ornate and classical feel. There is an increased emphasis on brass and woodwinds alongside the strings, and it becomes very grand and regal during its final couple of minutes, a perfect depiction of Venetian opulence. “Pleasure Dome” revisits the Middle Eastern instrumentals, and is filled with trilling guitars and lilting flutes, before ending with a sweep of the main theme for lithe strings.

The score’s finale is where the darker side of the story begins to assert itself, as the true nature of Roberto and Caroline’s relationship – and their unhealthy interest in the more innocent Colin and Mary – starts to emerge. “The River Styx” begins with a funereal woodwind variation on the main Comfort of Strangers theme, but then undergoes a key change which makes it feel quite imposing, and eventually blends with a dark restatement of the Arabesque theme that fully illustrates Roberto’s dominance and manipulation of the events. The opening part of the conclusive “The Other Side of The Mirror” is dominated by growling strings, moody passages for orchestra augmented by the Middle Eastern percussion, and long sequences of tension and suspense that are stark and aggressive and quite effective. The barely audible references to the main Comfort of Strangers theme eventually emerge into several sweeping, emotional statements towards the cue’s climax, where Badalamenti’s use of light snare drum riffs and tinkling guitars gives it a sense of tragic melodrama. The score finishes with a bold, broad, stately final refrain of the Theme from The Comfort of Strangers in the “End Title” that is immensely satisfying.

The score for The Comfort of Strangers was originally issued on CD by the CAM Records label in Italy, and was a crisp 36-minute album that was produced by Badalamenti himself and hit all the score’s highlights. In 2014 Spanish label Quartet Records released an expanded edition of the score, fully remastered by Claudio Fuiano from the first-generation master tapes, comprising the original Badalamenti album plus the complete film score in chronological order, thus expanding the running time to almost 80 minutes. Personally, I have always found the CAM album to be perfectly adequate, but dedicated fans of the score may want to invest in the more lavish release.

The Comfort of Strangers is apparently Angelo Badalamenti’s favorite score of his own, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s a score that overflows with romantic passion that borders on the erotic, and offers a gorgeously classical depiction of Venice, while also bringing in a series of exotic, tempestuous Middle Eastern rhythms and instruments that add a rich flavor and a touch of danger to it all. The main thematic identity is, in my opinion, one of Badalamenti’s career best, and anyone whose only exposure to the New Jersey native’s work is via his challenging electronica for Agent Dale Cooper and the Red Room would do well to explore this often-overlooked score, and experience his lushly symphonic and more emotionally satisfying side.

Buy the Comfort of Strangers soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ORIGINAL RELEASE
  • Theme from The Comfort of Strangers (Main Title) (4:04)
  • Roberto’s Arabesque (2:35)
  • Getting Lost (4:04)
  • Days of Passion (3:57)
  • Turkish Undertones (3:20)
  • Preludium (4:22)
  • Pleasure Dome (3:35)
  • The River Styx (1:20)
  • The Other Side of The Mirror (5:47)
  • Theme from The Comfort of Strangers (End Title) (3:05)
  • EXPANDED RELEASE
  • Roberto’s Theme (Main Title) (4:04)
  • At the Window (0:59)
  • In the Church (Theme A) (1:22)
  • Gondolas in Mist (1:14)
  • Neck Rub/Pouring Tea (1:13)
  • Glass Factory (0:41)
  • On the Speed Boat (0:53)
  • Getting Lost (4:02)
  • Mary Gets Sick (2:11)
  • To the Pleasure Dome (Theme A) (1:44)
  • Days of Passion (3:56)
  • Lover’s Fantasy (1:44)
  • A Bad Dream (0:43)
  • Venice Theme (1:01)
  • Brooding on Beach (0:45)
  • Packing Books/Packing the Desk (2:23)
  • The River Styx (Theme A) (1:19)
  • Behind the Mirror 1 (2:07)
  • Behind the Mirror 2 (2:11)
  • Death of Colin (1:49)
  • End Credits (3:05)
  • Venice Theme (Alternate) (2:28)

Running Time: 36 minutes 09 seconds – Original
Running Time: 77 minutes 58 seconds – Expanded

CAM 493281-2 (1991) – Original
Quartet Records QR-142 (1991/2014) – Expanded

Music composed and conducted by Angelo Badalamenti. Performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Angelo Badalamenti. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Edited by Thomas Drescher. Score produced by Angelo Badalamenti. Expanded album produced by Jose M. Benitez.

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