Home > Reviews > WHISPERS IN THE DARK – Thomas Newman

WHISPERS IN THE DARK – Thomas Newman

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The summer of 1992 marked perhaps the peak of the ‘erotic thriller’ sub-genre. The darker and more dangerous elements of human sexuality had always been prime fodder for movie writers and directors, but they had always been seen by critics as a little tawdry, a little downmarket, for mainstream audiences. Things began to change in the wake of commercial successes like Body Heat in 1982, Jagged Edge in 1985, and Fatal Attraction in 1987 – all of which starred acclaimed and respected actors ranging from William Hurt and Jeff Bridges to Michael Douglas and Glenn Close – to the extent that by the early 1990s Hollywood was making a good half dozen of them each year. Basic Instinct was the most successful of 1992’s efforts, but another one worth a look is Whispers in the Dark, starring Annabella Sciorra, Jamey Sheridan, Alan Alda, John Leguizamo, Deborah Unger, and Anthony LaPaglia.

The film was written and directed by Christopher Crowe and sees Sciorra playing Manhattan psychiatrist Ann Hecker. Ann begins seeing a patient named Eve (Unger), who divulges that she has been having sadomasochistic sexual encounters with a new partner; simultaneously, Ann begins a new romantic relationship of her own with Doug (Sheridan), a handsome pilot who lives in her building. Things change suddenly for Ann when Eve is found dead, apparently having been murdered during one of her mysterious encounters; even worse, the detective investigating her death (LaPaglia) comes to suspect that Doug may be the killer. The film was not well received by critics, but I actually thought it was quite good; the mystery is well-developed and staged, and it benefits enormously from a very committed performance by Sciorra as the woman caught between love and suspicion.

Another thing that Whispers in the Dark benefits from enormously is its score, which was written by Thomas Newman. The film was the third in a brief series of romantic/sexy thrillers Newman scored in the early 1990s, following Naked Tango and Deceived, neither of which were released as a soundtrack. Whispers in the Dark almost suffered a similar fate – a soundtrack album on Varese Sarabande was prepped and ready to go, but the terrible critical and commercial performance of the film led to the album plans being scrapped. For almost 20 years the score was only available as a bootleg on the secondary market, until 2012 when Intrada Records finally rescued it and released it as a special edition, although it sold out almost immediately and is now back to being a rare collectible.

The main draw of Whispers in the Dark is its love theme, which is an absolute knockout, one of the best pieces from those early years of Newman’s career. A gorgeous cascade of shimmering, iridescent strings and lilting oboes above an impossibly lush, romantic piano melody, it is first heard in the second cue “Making Love” – which is actually used in the film as the main title piece – and it creates a wonderfully alluring mood, representing the too-good-to-be-true relationship between Ann and Doug. The theme comes back several times over the course of the album, including in “Trip to Iowa” and in the gorgeous sweeping “Epilogue,” and its appearance is welcome each time; this theme was, in many ways, a prototype of the beautifully romantic music he would later write for scores as varied as Little Women, The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, and others, and it’s one of my all-time favorite Newman themes.

Newman’s preferred “Main Title” opens the album, and is a more sensitive, introspective idea for pianos, breathy woodwinds, metallic percussive textures, and quivering strings, that becomes more rhythmic as it progresses, and creates an entirely different mood for the film than the one the director chose. This theme is more uncertain, a little more suspicious, and illustrates more the confusion Ann ultimately feels regarding the identity of the killer.

A secondary theme is introduced in the lovely “I Thought I Was The Gentlest Man,” which features a superb melody carried by a lilting oboe, which Newman fans will recognize from its later reuse in Angels in America, but it ends on a moody note when the main title theme comes back during the cue’s final moments. Further statements of the main theme recur in cues like “Your Cheeks Are Pink,” each one similarly cautious and enigmatic, while the lovely oboe theme is hinted at in “My Best Friend” – alternately warm and wholesome, ominous and furtive – before receiving a full restatement in the aforementioned “Trip to Iowa,” during which Newman beautifully transfers the theme to piano.

The counterpoint to the love theme comes in the much darker “Dangerous Sex,” elements of which tend to score Eve’s various salacious encounters with the person who eventually becomes her murderer. Newman uses disturbing string harmonics, rattling and tinkling percussion ideas, and some quite distressing textures that combine musique concrète with electronic sound design, to give a musical voice to the sadistic fantasies inside Eve’s head, and it’s some of the darkest music Newman has ever written.

Elements of this music come back in the brooding and dramatic “Eve in Lobby,” and especially in the occasionally quite disturbing “Eve Is Dead,” before everything comes to a head in the three-cue sequence comprising “John’s Interrogation,” “The Torture” and “The Ledge”. These cues take this style of music to its grimmest depths; they underscore the scene where John Leguizamo’s artist character Fast Johnny kidnaps, ties up, and menaces Ann after he is accused of Eve’s murder. Newman’s increasingly bleak and threatening tones really enhance the sense of jeopardy here; some of this music in this sequence occasionally reminds me a little of Howard Shore’s score for The Silence of the Lambs in the way it creates an atmosphere thick with palpable dread.

“Airport Chase” is a brief, intense action sequence, which leads into the 9-minute finale cue “The Revelation,” in which the identity of the killer is finally revealed. Newman takes his time to bring things to the boil here; there are abstract woodwind hoots, off-kilter string harmonics, callbacks to the main title with banks of collapsing strings and fretful pianos chords, different callbacks to Eve’s dissonant ‘dangerous sex’ music, and a multitude of threatening orchestral rumbles that really underpin the danger Ann is in from the killer, and it all builds to a loud, brutal conclusion.

One other thing that interesting about all this is just how much this sounds like a quintessential Thomas Newman score, this early in his career. The unique instrumental combinations, the use of marimbas and chimes to carry rhythmic patterns, and many of the identifiable compositional ideas that would go on to follow him throughout his career are clearly in evidence here, and it’s unmistakably him. Almost no other composer, before or since, has had such a confident and highly personal sound emerge so comparatively early in their career, and it’s wonderful to hear it here. It’s such a shame that so much of what Newman wrote ended up being moved around, truncated, and messed around with in the final cut of the film, and it makes the existence of this album all the more important.

In the bigger scheme of things Whispers in the Dark is a minor Thomas Newman effort; the film itself was a flop and is mostly forgotten today, while the soundtrack album almost never saw the light of day thanks to the cancellation of the original release, but fans of Thomas Newman’s work – especially early works like this, where he was developing and honing the style that made him a film music superstar over the course of the next decade – will want to take the plunge regardless. The love theme is worth it on its own.

Buy the Whispers in the Dark soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:38)
  • Making Love (2:38)
  • Dangerous Sex (1:29)
  • I Thought I Was The Gentlest Man (2:42)
  • Eve in Lobby (3:06)
  • Your Cheeks Are Pink (1:56)
  • Eve Is Dead (1:47)
  • John’s Interrogation (1:50)
  • The Torture (5:00)
  • The Ledge (2:14)
  • My Best Friend (3:24)
  • Trip to Iowa (2:16)
  • Airport Chase (1:58)
  • The Revelation (9:42)
  • Epilogue (1:11)
  • Goodbye Paul (0:36) BONUS
  • Flying to Nantucket (0:21) BONUS
  • Eve Masturbates (0:41) BONUS
  • Revealing Doug (0:45) BONUS
  • I Know You Had a Relationship (0:30) BONUS
  • John’s Flyer (0:26) BONUS
  • She Hung Herself (0:21) BONUS
  • Cognac At Night (0:40) BONUS

Running Time: 49 minutes 10 seconds

Intrada Special Collection ISC-199 (1992/2012)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by Thomas Pasatieri. Recorded and mixed by John Vigran. Edited by Bill Bernstein and Alex Gibson. Album produced by Thomas Newman, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

  1. Ian Simpson
    August 4, 2022 at 9:17 am

    As a long-standing fan of Thomas Newman, I’ve had this one in my collection for a while. I agree completely with this review. As you say, it’s one of his more minor scores, but I’ve come back to it from time to time.

    I noticed the similarity of the love and oboe themes to parts of “Angels in America” as well as some of his earlier scores for “women’s films” such as “Scent of a Woman” and “How to Make an American Quilt”.

    I enjoy some of the darker music as well, such as the extensions of part of the main title theme in “Eve In Lobby” and “Your Cheeks Are Pink”. The latter track reminds me to some extent of his later themes for “White Oleander” and “Revolutionary Road”.

    Overall, “Whispers in the Dark” is the earliest Thomas Newman score that I’ve been able to get into, and indeed, it combines many elements of his later work that he’s become known for.

  2. Kevin
    August 7, 2022 at 11:27 am

    I’m glad you reviewed this. It’s an early Newman classic and I’m glad it finally got a proper release. Here’s hoping the same happens for Naked Tango and Deceived. I especially loved the suspense/action music.

    I think the oboe theme is definitely similar to the Angels in America theme but I don’t hear it as a direct quote. On a side note, Newman has written excellent music for oboe, as Ian said. I hope he does it again in his upcoming projects.

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