Don Fanucci walks the crowded streets of Little Italy. The parade marches. Prophetically ominous horns play a powerful refrain, setting the stage for one of the most iconic murders in cinema history. A perfect example of how music can make a crime movie moment infinitely more memorable. But how exactly do crime films do it? Let’s look at the three most popular ways.
Original Movie Scores
Like the theme for the Murder of Don Fanucci, original movie scores are comprised of new music that’s created specifically for that film. When done well, crafting unique music for particular scenes can be an effective tool for building a memorable movie moment.
As recognizable as the music from The Godfather Trilogy, the original score for Scarface has become synonymous with cocaine culture and 80’s overindulgence. The music has helped the film remain a staple of American pop culture, with its songs being sampled on countless rap records or even being featured extensively in video games.
But no matter how popular those songs and games become, all I see when I hear Push It to the Limit is a rags to riches montage, complete with a tiger on a leash at the wedding reception.
Juxtaposing Popular Songs
While The Godfather and Scarface made an impact with original scores, numerous crime films have been equally as effective with already existing music. Quentin Tarantino famously spent his career pulling from popular songs and old scores. It wasn’t until he had the chance to work with the legendary Ennio Morricone that he decided to use an original score for The Hateful Eight.
One of the ways that Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and numerous other directors make popular music work so well in crime films is that they juxtapose the song against the scene that is unfolding onscreen. This technique leverages the preexisting baggage that the viewer has with the music, subverting these associations to create unforgettable moments.
Two perfect examples of this are Tarantino’s ear scene from Reservoir Dogs and Scorsese’s post-Lufthansa heist murder montage in Goodfellas. The latter of which is even affectionately referred to as the “Layla Scene” after the Derek and the Dominos song that it’s set to.
The previously mentioned methods used music to make rather overt statements, other crime films take a more understated approach. These movies tend to either exploit or subvert the audience’s subconscious expectations to create moments that stick with them even if they aren’t quite sure why.
A great example of this is the neo noir thriller Nightcrawler, in which we follow Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he prowls the dark streets of California looking for car wrecks, murder, and any other mayhem that he can record and sell to the local TV stations. His blind ambition and sociopathic excitement for a new story is conveyed through music on an almost subliminal level.
In most films, the anticipation of tragedy and impending danger would be accompanied by a tense or solemn score. But in this film written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the music tracks the excitement of Louis Bloom, not the expectations of the viewers.
How Has Music Shaped Your Favorite Crime Movie Moments?
Comment below to let us know your favorite, most memorable crime movie moments. What role did music play in making that moment memorable for you?