Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > DEATH OF A SALESMAN – Alex North


February 20, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Columbia Studio executives took notice of playwright Arthur Miller’s latest stage play “Death of a Salesman” that debuted on Broadway in February 1949, with a successful run of 742 performances. They believed its compelling narrative would translate well to the big screen, and so purchased the film rights. Stanley Kramer was assigned production, Stanley Roberts was hired to adapt the play, and László Benedek was tasked with directing. For the cast, most of the Broadway cast was hired with the addition of Fredric March as Willy Loman, and Kevin McCarthy from the London cast as Biff Loman. Joining them would be Mildred Dunnock as Linda Loman, Cameron Mitchell as Harold Loman, and Howard Smith as Charley.

The film is set in the early post WWII years and tells the story of Willy Loman, a 63-year-old traveling salesman from Brooklyn. He has 34 years of experience with the same company with a lack luster career. The years have taken their tole with his youthful vigor and charisma weathered over time. He struggles on with self-doubt, always reminded that it is his dutiful wife Linda, not him, who has supported the family. Soon the lines between his imagined past glory and the stark inadequacies of the present collide as fantasy encroaches into reality. Well, he spirals down self-destructively and events over take him when the son of his boss takes control of the company and first cuts his pay for performance issues, and then finally fires him. The film, which speaks to the failure of the “American Dream”, did not resonate with the public, and the film was a commercial failure. It did however receive critical acclaim, receiving five Academy Award nominations, including; Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Score.

It was director Elia Kazan who recommended Alex North to Arthur Miller for the Broadway play production. North received critical acclaim with the New York Times Howard Taubman commending him for his “brilliant and imaginative score”. Kazan used his influence to facilitate North obtaining the scoring assignment for the film. For the Broadway production North was limited by the Musician’s union to four instruments. He selected an ensemble of alto flute, cello, trumpet, and clarinet with an occasional substitution to alto clarinet. For the film he had no such constraints, yet still chose to score the intimate story for small ensemble.

For his soundscape, North provided three primary themes; Willy’s Theme is borne by a solo flute triste. There is a pervasive sadness and weariness in the notes informing us that time, and his 34 years of work, have taken a heavy toll on his body and mind. As the lines between reality and the flashback past blur, the theme dissociates and fragments, eventually losing cohesion altogether when he can no longer bear the failed reality of his life. Linda’s Theme reflects her long suffering and unconditional love for her man. Strings triste bear a melody, which emotes in a very narrow musical range, an unrelenting realm of sadness as she sees the love of her life slowly descending into madness. There is music associated with Ben, but I do not perceive this as his personal leitmotif, but rather emanating from Willy’s perspective. Willy admires and covets the secrets of his brother’s success, and so we discern both sadness as Ben reminds him of his inadequacies and lack of success, and longing as he would do anything to duplicate his success. A sultry saxophone motif recurs during scenes where one of the men lusts for an attractive woman; Harold’s restaurant encounter with Miss Forsythe, the blonde bombshell, and Francis, with who Willy has an affair in Boston. Lastly, North uses dissonance to communicate Willy’s confusion, tenuous grip on reality, and descent into madness as the lines between his fantasy flashback world, and the real-world blur.

There is no commercial release of the score, as such I will review using cue descriptors and film time indices. 00:00 “Main Title” reveals Willy driving over a bridge into Brooklyn against the roll of the opening credits. North sets the tone of the film with Willy’s sumptuous string tristi borne aspirational theme associated with his brother Ben. At 01:28 in “Willy Comes Home” the credit roll ends as we see him arriving home. He is tired as he unloads his two product suitcases, and as he walks up to the house North introduces his forlorn theme borne by flute triste. He is greeted by Linda who is surprise he has returned as he just left for another trip. He complains of fatigue, and of being unable to keep the car on the road. She is attentive and comforts him, coaxing him to insist his boss to reassign him to New York City to relieve him of the long drives to his territory in New England. His sons Biff and Harold return home and Willy immediately browbeats Biff, which he views as a bitter disappointment. Alone with Linda Willy rages against life, longing to return to a more pleasant past. 09:39 “Green Sedan” offers a wistful rendering of his theme as Willy recalls an idealized past of their 1928 green sedan with the collapsible windshield, which they would drive to the country. He goes downstairs to the kitchen talking to himself, and Harold relates to Biff that this is happening more frequently and is becoming a problem.

15:18 “Big Plans For Biff” reveals Willy eating a sandwich with milk. He has returned to the past and bellows out to Biff to study hard so he can get that football scholarship, supported by a plaintive rendering of his theme. As he revels at how the girls flock to Biff, the music brightens as we flashback to Biff and Harold’s high school days as he opens the back door and sees them polishing the car. Strings felice emote an idyllic musical narrative full of happiness as Willy exudes pride in his sons as they share a warm father and son moment. Biff’s friend Bernard joins and coaxes Biff to study math with him as the teacher is threatening to flunk him. Willy and Biff dismiss Bernard, whom Harold carries off. Later Linda discloses the bills that need to be paid, and Willy frets as his income does not cover it. 22:20 “The Handsomest Man in the World” reveals Willy fretting and Linda puffing up her man saying that to her, he is the handsomest man in the world. A sultry saxophone leads a musical narrative, which unfolds as he relates to her how lonely he is on the road, and how much he longs to kiss her. Yet, in a flashback, he walks into a bedroom with another woman, which he has had an affair. At 23:40 a crescendo appassionato surges as he grabs her and pulls her into an ardent kissing embrace. The flashback moment is shattered by Linda’s laughing and we shift to a frantic musical narrative with Willy raving buttressed by a frightful, surging crescendo of anger as he sees Linda mending socks, and Bernard enters complaining about Biff’s need to study.

In an unscored scene Willy returns to the present in the kitchen where Harold comforts him and coaxes him to bed. Yet Charlie their neighbor enters, concerned about Willy’s raving. He waves Harold off, and gets Willy to play cards with him. Charlie offers him a job at his business, which Willy angrily rebuffs, saying, he has a job. He then counsels him to let Biff return to Texas as he has a better future there, than Brooklyn. As they talk, he mistakenly calls Charlie, Ben, and when he asks why, he answers his brother was on his mind. In 28:55 “Ben Died” Willy relates that he received word last week from Ben’s wife that he had died. As Ben appears in the next room, Willy’s aspirational theme for Ben’s supports with an aching musical narrative of regret as he relates of the opportunities that awaited them in Alaska. Willie is distracted, snaps out of it and accuses Charlie of cheating, which causes him to storm out as Willy shouts that he is an ignoramus. At 30:26 a frantic, and dissonant musical narrative supports Willy running after Ben. He catches him and begs him to tell him the secret of his success. Ben relates that he by chance ended up in Africa and came upon a diamond mind, offering nothing substantive that would answer Willy’s question.

31:34 “The Boys Meet Ben” Ben says he has to go, and as he exits the house a frantic Willy follows, joined by his boys. North supports with an ethereal and woodwind misterioso. The flute moves to the forefront a he tells a tale of him at seventeen walking into the jungle poor, and then at twenty-one departing it rich. The misterioso resumes as Ben challenges Biff to land a punch on his stomach. Ben repeatedly blocks with his umbrella until a crescendo of pain sounds at 32:22 when he throws Harold to the ground and thrusts his umbrella an inch from his nose, admonishing him he’ll get nowhere fighting fair. The misterioso begins to dissociate as he prepares to depart, but Willy insists Biff is a good kid and sends him and Harold to fetch some two by fours. As they run off, a string borne Pathetique carries them, descending into an eerie dissonance when they return. As Ben departs pleading strings voice Willy’s Theme as he desperately seeks Ben’s secret of success. Willy raves following Ben’s departure and we climax at 34:11 atop a tortured crescendo.

In a riveting unscored scene (I agree with the choice to let the dialogue carry the scene), Linda rebukes Biff and Harold, saying she loves Willy and will not have his sons mock him. She informs them that he is no longer salaried, and only works on a straight commission, that most of his old clients are dead or retired, and that he borrows $50 a week from Charlie that he gives to her as a deception that he is making money. She shames them for their lack of empathy, and not understanding why he is talking to himself. Biff agrees to stay, get a job, and help out with half his pay, but Linda demands he stop fighting. He says they have issues, which he cannot disclose, and she drops a bombshell – that Willy has been trying to kill himself. Biff asks her how, and she replies at 42:09 “I Live From Day to Day” that she found a device to hook up to the gas of the water heater that he would use to asphyxiate himself. A full rendering of her heart-breaking, strings tristi borne theme, speaks to us of her pain as she beseeches Biff to help her. At 43:35 the music warms and becomes tender as he hugs her, and promises to help.

Willy returns and is enthused when Biff says he is staying and will be seeking a job from Oliver at his sporting goods store. He coaches Biff on how to sell himself during the interview, and to as for a big starting salary. Yet they fight when Willy keeps saying “Shut up!” to Linda, and Biff swears. Willy chastises him, yet is stunned, causing him to walk away when Biff says “When did you become so clean?”, which alludes to the affair he had in Boston. At Linda’s request, he makes up with Willy and wishes him good night as we see Willing beaming with pride for his boy. 50:08 “Good Night” reveals Willy deflecting a probing question by Linda and going to sleep when she asks what does Biff has on you? A tender, but sad rendering of Linda’s Theme by a wordless woman’s vocal supports her vigil, as the camera shifts to Biff coming up from the basement clutching the suicide device. The next day North supports with ethereal wonderment with 51:08 “Peonies” as Willy’s calls out to Linda that the peonies are coming out, promising to plant a garden, and build a house for her in the country.

Willy meets with his boss Howard Wagner and asks if he could stop traveling, and work here at the company for $65/week. Howard says there are no openings, and Willy offers, $50/week as he tells stories from the past, which bores Howard. He then offers $40/week and begins to rave, which leads Howard to fire him. 1:01:51 “Willy’s Desperation” reveals Willie desperately calling Charlie and asking him if he can come by. The last mortgage payment is due, as well as $200 in bills, for which he has no money. His forlorn flute borne theme supports his devastated glances as he tries to absorb his firing, and the end of his career as he dejectedly walks out of Howard’s office. At the subway station numerous passersby look on incredulously as Willie carries on a rambling conversation with himself. 1:02:40 “Ben!” reveals him calling out to Ben, who answers; “Things work out if you know what your doing”. As he chases after him, a desperate rendering of his aspirational theme for Ben carries him to Ben. Ben offers him management of timberlands in Alaska, and Willy says it would be a perfect place to work when his boys grow up and finish school. He calls to Linda, who comes and argues with Ben that Willy has a good job here and that they are happy. Ben rebuffs them and Willy begins raving about his stature in the business and the fact that three colleges are seeking Biff for football. Ben walks away, and Willy snaps back to reality as he boards the subway.

1:05:29 “Willy’s Aspirations For Biff” reveals him staring off into space with a crazed look as he again talks to himself, causing an uncomfortable woman seated next to him to move. North supports his delusions of Biff’s football career with a rendering of his theme, which is full of sadness, and loneliness. At 1:05:50 we shift into his fantasy as he is joined by Linda and the boys as Biff heads to play in a football game championship. North supports with a happy, idealized and idyllic musical narrative. Linda and the boys depart, leaving Willy alone with Charlie. Willy takes exception to Charlie’s doubts about Biff and challenges him to a fist fight, and as he moves to attack, we return to the present with the shocked subway passengers fleeing what they believe to a madman. He gets off the train and arrives at Charlie’s office where he is greeted by Bernard. They discuss Biff, and Willy extols his son’s many talents, but we see he does not believe a word of it, and neither does Bernard. He asks Bernard what happened to Biff, who he believes life ended at age 18 after the Ebbits Field game. He says Biff flunked math, but was ready to enroll in summer school, but everything changed after he visited you in Boston, a revelation which makes Willy uncomfortable as he avert his eyes in shame. He said Biff came back, and they fought as he burned his prized college shoes, an act that he believes shows he had given up on life. He asked Willy, “What happened in Boston?” Willy becomes defensive just as Charlie joins them. Bernard departs with Willy stunned after Charlie informs him that he will be arguing a case in the Supreme Court.

Charlie offers him $50 and Willy asks for $110 and then says, he is strapped, does not know what to do, as he was just fired. Charlie offers Willy a job, but he declines, earning a reproach from Charlie, who never the less gives him the $110. As Willy leaves, he pathetically states that after a long life of work, he is worth more dead than alive. As he departs, he asks that he wish him luck as Biff meets with Oliver today. Charlie wishes him good luck, and a dejected Willy replies, thank you, and that he is the only friend he has. 1:51:51 “Dinner With The Boys” Harold is waiting for Willy and Biff, and asks the waiter to served them three of their best lobsters. North supports softly, providing ambiance with source restaurant music. At 1:16:21 the musical narrative shifts and becomes sultry led by a saxophone as a blonde bombshell struts in and sits at the table across from him. The waiter asks if she would like a drink, and Harold moves in brazenly. He uses his charm, orders her a glass of champagne on him, and says she should be on a magazine cover. Biff arrives and he introduces him to Miss Forsythe, embarrassing him when he falsely states that Biff is the quarterback of the New York Giants. Harold returns to her and asks if she could make a call to get one of her friends to join them and Biff. At the table Biff discloses that he waited six hours, that Oliver did not remember of recognize him and left. In anger, Biff says he went into his office and stole his pen and then fled.

Willy arrives, and Harold orders drinks. Willy asks Biff how his interview went yet cuts him off angrily declaring he was just fired. He then demands to know the specifics of Oliver hiring him, and Biff discloses that he was not hired, and that Oliver did not even remember him. At 1:25:00 in “Willy Anguish”, shrill dissonance surges when Willy gets a crazed look of disbelief as we hear Biff repeatedly shouting “Dad!” as we flashback to Biff during his high school days. He is distraught, telling his mom that he flunked math and needs dad’s help. But she informs him that his dad was in Boston and we return to the present where Biff informs Willy that he stole Oliver’s pen. At 1:25:57 Willy has an audio flashback of a hotel paging Mr. Loman. He panics, and has a psychic break amplified by horrific dissonance. Yet he snaps out of it angrily when Biff says he cannot face Oliver as he has now stolen from him twice. Willy is enraged and calls Biff a dirty rotten dog. Dissonance returns at 1:26:54 as we hear an audio flashback from a woman asking Willie to answer the door as someone is here. Willy walks off telling Biff he has to answer the door as Francis and her girlfriend Letta arrive. Biff refuses to join, pulls Harold aside and begs him to please help dad before he kills himself. Harold resists and Biff runs off very distressed.

1:28:20 “Willy Answers The Door” reveals Willy alone in the restroom. He is agitated and has a crazed look, which North supports with deconstructed fragments of his theme with interplay of the sultry saxophone motif. We gain hear an audio flashback from a woman called Francis asking Willie to answer the door as someone is here. The flashback now includes video and we see Francis dressing in his hotel room. They embrace and kiss, yet the knocking at the door resumes. He orders her into the bedroom, tells her not to come out, and closes the door. When he opens the entry door, he is surprised by Biff who begs him to talk to his math teacher and get his F grade upped four points so he can pass. Willy commits to doing so, Biff is happy, relieved, and they laugh, only to be joined by Francis. Willy does his best to convince Biff that she is a buyer, but his stony silence informs us that the revelation that his dad is having an affair has shattered the father-son bond. Biff cries, calls Willy a fake who betrayed mother, and says he does not want his help as he is not going to college. He storms out, and Willy falls to the floor and starts pounding his fist, shouting repeatedly “I gave you and order!” until the restaurant owner comes in, and offers help as he lifts him off the floor. He returns to the dinning terrace, see that the boys have left, and dejectedly heads home.

Back home Linda is furious at the boys, reproaching them for cruelly abandoning their father at the restaurant as he had so looked forward to dinner with them. She orders both of them to leave, but Biff says he has to speak to him. They hear banging outside at 1:36:15 “Willy Gardening”, and when Biff asks what he is doing, Linda informs them that he is planting their garden. Outside we see Willy planting seeds using the light of a lantern. His forlorn flute theme struggles, emoted in dissociated fashion, colored by dissonance as he frets, talking to himself as he tries to find solutions to his mounting problems. Ben’s voice returns saying there is one proposition, $20,000 on the barrel head guaranteed. He alludes to his life insurance policy, but Willy says that would be cowardly. At 1:37:46 the musical narrative brightens with tender nostalgia as Willy is wistful, pining for the time when his house was happy and full of life. This music carries Willy’s soliloquy like sun rays piercing a cloudbank, offering the score’s most tender and hopeful moment. Yet at 1:38:22 portentous French horns sound and take up Willy’s aspirational theme for Ben as he again intones that Willy can save his family leaving them a large life insurance payoff as he departs.

In the film’s climatic scene, North offers no music, instead allowing the riveting dialogue to carry the intense emotions. Biff joins Willy in the garden and advises that he is leaving and never coming back. They go into the house and Biff informs Linda of his decision, which she affirms is best. Biff states that he will no longer write and asks them to forget about him. Biff asks Willy to shake his hand and wish him good luck, but Willy averts his eyes and refuses, shouting goodbye, and saying – may you rot in the earth if you leave this house. This causes Biff to return and angrily disclose the bitter truth of their family over Linda and Harold’s objections. He says he was jailed for theft, and has never succeeded at anything because of your high expectations. He grabs Willy saying that he was a dime a dozen, and that he (Biff) is a nothing but a failure. Biff hugs him crying, and begs Willy to please let him go. He then goes to bed, saying he will be leaving in the morning. Willy is pleased that Biff cried and showed his love for him. He sends Linda to bed, saying he will join later.

1:44:23 “Willie Accepts Ben’s Proposition” a pathos of strings with fragments of Willy’s dissociated Theme support as Willy calls out to Ben, saying that Biff loves him, as Ben replies, it is time. Linda keeps calling for him to come up and finally descends the stairs carried by a crescendo of horror when she hears the car engine roar with Willy’s departure. As Willy drives with the illusionary Ben, North offers an ingenious conception where the buoyant musical narrative full of hope is entwined with a rising tension as Willy speaks of how the money will help Biff. Slowly the tension begins to escalate with increasing dissonance as Ben exhorts him to drive faster. Ben vanishes as the camera affixes to Willy’s crazed look. As he speeds, the lights of the city dissociate amidst a surge of orchestral violence, climaxing at 1:47:14 with a dissonant crescendo di orrore. In 1:47:22 “Finale”, the next scene shows the family, Charlie and Bernard at the gravesite. North offers a lamentation as Linda asks why no one came to Willy’s funeral. She asks everyone to leave her alone, as she never had a chance to say goodbye. As she kneels and apologizes that she cannot cry, her theme grieves as a string borne threnody. She says I just believe that you are gone again on another trip, but then asks him, why did you do it? North sow bitter anguish as she says that she just made the last house payment only live in it alone. Biff comes for her and they join Charlie who relates the hard life of a salesman, and to not blame Willy. As they all depart at 1:50:03 we close with a last sad refrain of Willie’s flute borne theme, which closes with a resplendent flourish.

It is a sad testament that only a 1977 LP commercial release for Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Collection, and a digital album are available, which offer six cues of the score, alongside selections from another North score, Viva Zapata. A new re-recording of the complete score would be greatly appreciated for this early career masterpiece. 1951 was a magnificent opus for Alex North, thanks to the patronage of renown director Elia Kazan, as he secured two Academy Award nominations for “A Street Car Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman. North understood that “Death of a Salesman” was an intimate, adapted Broadway play driven by riveting dialogue. Essential to the film’s success was for music to support, and not get into the way of character dialogue. I believe North succeeded on all counts, with his music perfectly attenuated and spotted in the film. This was a tragic story of the failure of the American dream, of Willy, a traveling salesman who comes to realize in the twilight of his career that when all is said and done, he is a failure, both in his career, as a husband, and as a father. North captures Willy’s emotional core with a forlorn flute born theme that bears a pervasive sadness and weariness in the notes which informs us that the ravages of time, and his 34 years of work, have taken a heavy toll on body, soul, and mind. Masterful is how North deconstructs and fragments the theme, adding dissonance, as Willy slowly loses his grip on reality and descends into madness. Also integral is Linda Theme for Willy’s long suffering and dutiful wife, whose unconditional loyalty and love are perfectly captured by her aching string borne melody imbued with a sense of helplessness, and hopelessness. The use of dissonance to support Willy’s psychic breaks and flashbacks, which worsens during the course of the film as he descends into madness was brilliantly conceived and executed. Folks, this is a masterful and nuanced score, which reveals North’s insight and genius. In my judgment it achieves a perfect confluence with the film’s storytelling, enhancing its narrative in every possible way. I believe it merited its Academy Award nomination, and offers one of the finest new generation scores in the late Golden Age era. Until a definitive re-recording is made, I highly recommend you hear the score in film context.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to Willy’s Theme; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GD9MMGcz00&list=PLkAUJkbhd-RjSciQbK1qkFEVY8_EpaPj-

Buy the Death of a Salesman from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Willy (3:44)
  • Ben – Willy’s Symbol of Success (4:53)
  • Linda (2:11)
  • The Boys Meet Ben (2:45)
  • Willy’s Affair in Boston (3:05)
  • Good-Bye Willy (10:42)

Running Time: 26 minutes 40 seconds

Elmer Bernstein Filmmusic Collection FMC 9 (1951/1977)

Music composed by Alex North. Conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Maurice De Packh. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Alex North and Morris Stoloff.

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