Wired for Sound – 3 Classic Films with as Much to Offer Aurally as Visually

What makes a classic film, a classic film? Is it the script? The cast? The director? Or is there something completely indefinable that you can’t quite put your finger on? Whatever it is that makes a classic film though, no classic film would be worth its weight in oscar gold without a soundtrack. We’re not just talking about the music here either, but the aural atmosphere and tone that you’ll find in all the best movies. Here we’ll be examining three films that are just as inspiring to listen to as they are to watch.

Taxi Driver

It’s an overused (and not necessarily always true) turn of phrase, but they genuinely “don’t make them like this anymore”. Indeed there’s a subtle, ever pervasive grit and wanton black humour to Martin Scorsese’s seminal dramatic thriller ‘Taxi Driver’ which has rarely been equalled in cinema since. Whilst the film was designed to have a gritty look, feel and sound, the crisp transfer of the latest Blu-Ray release robs the film none of its visual anti-glamour and the shocking depravity of New York City life in the mid 70’s is still as grim and addictive as ever. In fact, the improved transfer not only renders the visuals even more impressive, but it makes Bernard Herrmann’s oppressive, dark jazz score sound better than ever. This alone should prove enough reason to fork out. Besides the soundtrack, the sound really brings the murky streets of New York to life in an immersive way, especially if you’re equipped with decent home cinema speakers or a pair of dedicated movie headphones.

For those unfamiliar with the film (and this should be rectified immediately) the movie stars De Niro as the titular taxi driver Bickle, a conflicted, painfully lonely young man and former marine living in Manhattan. He initially becomes a taxi driver to cope with his insomnia and develops a firm disgust with the seedy underbelly of the city which boils over when he meets Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12 year old prostitute whom he makes it his mission to save by any means necessary. It’s a simple plot on paper, but what really sells it is De Niro himself as the fascinating Bickle. At its heart the film is a character study as the entire film is essentially seen through his eyes and we even get occasionally snippets of his inner monologue which speaks with a poetic clarity which you wouldn’t really associate with a man who drives taxis by night and visits seedy porn theatres by day.

The supporting cast is solid with Foster’s Iris a spunky brat it’s surprisingly easy to root for and Cybil Shepherd is an interesting foil for Travis’s narcissism. In one of the films early scenes Travis takes Shepherds’ ‘Betsy’ to one of his favourite ‘films’ and the results are both cringe-worthy and darkly comic, a line which could underline Bickle’s character in general. Of course the film belongs to De Niro though, as well as the city of New York itself, which had never looked so darkly inviting before or since. The film is almost a perfect piece of cinema and were it not for the unnecessary denouement I’d have no qualms in awarding it a perfect 10, still it remains one of the 70’s best American films.

Don’t Look Now

Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 occult thriller (based on Daphne Du Maurier’s acclaimed short story) is notorious for a number of reasons, not least because of a (by today’s standard pretty tame) graphic sex scene between its stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie which to this day is still regarded by many as borderline pornography (it isn’t). Of course looking past the notorious scene, Roeg’s film is perhaps one of the most beloved British horror films of all time and still has the power to elicit uncomfortable scares today (that ending in particular still leave me breathless).

The film stars Sutherland and Christie as John and Laura Baxter, who lose their young daughter Christine in a tragic accident at their English country home during the films fraught opening minutes. The action then skips ahead sometime to Venice where John has been contracted to restore the ancient church. Whilst there the couple meet a couple of strange elderly sisters (who for some reason always seem to be laughing their tits off) one of whom is a blind psychic and claims to be in contact with Christine from beyond the grave. From here on in things start getting decidedly creepy as John and Laura start seeing visions of their young daughter in her startling red raincoat skittering through the streets of Venice and John starts having vivid premonitions of his own demise. Couple this with a grisly string of murders which have been afflicting the city and you have a recipe for classic horror, but it’s not that simple. As the films tag-line clearly states ‘nothing is what it seems’.

The genius of Don’t Look Now is undeniably in it’s visuals, it’s tense, dramatic original soundtrack,  and the dynamic central performances from Sutherland and Christie. The use of colour and (for the time) shockingly inventive editing is still stunning and lends the film almost the quality of a piece of art. The sparse use of the colour red especially prefaces a similar trick used by Spielberg in ‘Schindler’s List’ by 2 decades and the quick edits and clattering soundtrack give the film the vibe of a Dario Argento film only with a more fluid and accessible backbone. Sutherland and Christie meanwhile, are genuinely likeable and relatable in roles which could quite easily have been stock. The chemistry between them is electric with a tangibly charged sexual tension which makes the notoriously graphic mid-film sex scene all the more believable.

The film’s plot relies heavily on your own interpretation and the ending is still very much up for debate so it’s certainly not a film for modern horror fans who think Saw 78 is the pinnacle of horror cinema. Film fans in general though, owe it to themselves to check out this restored print, which looks absolutely beautiful in high definition and sounds better than ever too. For anyone even remotely interested in film though, ‘Don’t Look Now’ is a cornerstone of British cinema, which genuinely changed the game and is just as enthralling, unnerving and poignant now as it ever was.

Battle Royale

As a narcissistic, dystopian take on modern society and youth culture, Battle Royale is pretty much unequalled in terms of it’s bleak, singular vision. In a manner The Hunger Games could only dream of replicating. That it also manages to be such a tremendously entertaining film is very much to the credit of director Kinji Fukasaku, the celebrated and innovative auteur of over 60 films of which this was his last before succumbing to cancer in 2003. Based on the novel of the same name, the film (for those who don’t already know) centres around a class of high school children who are drafted by their former teacher Kitano (played with assured aggression by Violent Cop and Takeshi’s Castle star ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) to take part in a barbaric death-match on a deserted island where only one survivor can leave unscathed.

The concept aroused a great deal of controversy before it was even put into production and it’s easy to see why. As for the film itself? Well, it takes pride of place in my all-time top 20 with startling imagery and believable character building set against an unbelievable backdrop, but it would no doubt bore the socks off you and it’s all been said before and far more eloquently than I could muster anyway. At its heart it’s an action film and a film of survival, which makes the most of its strong and varied cast of characters. Everyone has a favourite, be it the black widow Mitsuko the sadistic Kiriyama or the apathetic and naive Noriko, but for me the star of the film has always been Kitano, a truly hateful villain (with a secret love of Noriko) who plays a stunning middle ground between indifference and menace.

I enthuse anyone who has yet to do so to see this film, it’s an important, daring film that to this day stands as one of the country’s proudest artistic achievements visually, thematically and aurally. So fire up your home cinema speakers and your biggest, sharpest TV and prepare for the bloodshed!