Sometimes a film’s story and the director’s choice of actors are simply not all that engaging or impressive. If that film turns out to be exceptional, its other cinematic elements then take over to dominate the film’s effectiveness. Now continuing my focus on films with effectively expressive film scores that so uniquely compliment the tone, meaning and content of the film’s narrative, today I want to look at Terrence Malick’s 1978 film “Days of Heaven,” which featured a musical score by Ennio Morricone.
The Morricone score and narrative, which Malick wrote, were also ever so exquisitely complemented by Nestor Almendros’ cinematography, which added incredibly the film’s mood enhancing many thematic emotions. Morricone recalls in the recently published ”In His Own Words”, “In scoring some of the sequences I got the inspiration straight from the images, aiming to achieve a sort of solemn symphony of image and sound.”
The film featured an otherwise unimpressive cast of Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz and playwright Sam Shepard, appearing in his first major film role. Malick’s story is set in the early years of the 20th Century just before World War I in Chicago. Bill (Gere) and Abby (Adams) are a couple living together in poverty with Bill’s little sister Linda (Manz). Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister, and eventually head south, after the hot headed Bill kills a man in a fight in a steel mill. The young pre-teen Linda narrates the film. She explains her brother didn’t like people’s gossipy talk. “You know how people are—you tell them something and they start talking.”
They eventually make their way to the Texas panhandle looking for whatever work possible. Eventually the three find work for a wealthy and handsome Texas farmer (Shepherd), –known only as “the Farmer”, who takes a liking to Abby and Malick’s story explores the romantic love triangle.But things become intriguing and suspicious when Bill learns that the Farmer is ill with a terminal disease; his doctor gives him under a year to live. Bill encourages Abby to get closer to the Farmer so likely she’ll inherit his considerable wealth and property. Young Linda comments, “Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You have half angle and half-devil in you.” After the main harvest is completed, the Farmer persuades Abby to stay on his farm and he eventually proposes marriage.
Then after the wedding, Bill and Abby remain secretly attached, plotting their eventual riches. Yet, tensions and jealousies arise between the Farmer and Bill. The Farmer even confronts Abby, still under the false understanding of that relationship– wondering why brother and sister should act that way. When Bill later asks Abby if she’s beginning to love the Farmer, she can’t deny her feeling toward the man. Bill leaves the farm for months, but later returns.
Things come to a direct conflict when they fight in the field. After a massive locust infestation on the farm workers frantically attempt to rid the fields of the locusts and a fire breaks out destroying much of the field. The tale takes several more tragic turns and offers a resolution that seems rather sadly ambiguous.
But it’s the film’s technical qualities that ultimately made this film so outstanding. Almendros’ exquisitely lit compositions so gently set the tone of the film: from a train filled with passengers crawling along the horizon with a deep blue sky in the background, a mass of workers in a yellow field harvesting crops, a pack of folks around a night camp fire, storm filled skies, to the impressiveness of a large three-story country house in the middle of a large field.
In an article titled “Shooting Days of Heaven” excerpted from Almendros’s 1984 autobiography “A Man with a Camera” Almendros recalls, “Days of Heaven” was not a rigidly prepared film. Many ideas were developed as we went along. This left room for improvisation.” “Basically my job was to simply photograph, to purify it of all the artificial effects of the recent past. Our model was the photography of the silent film, which often used natural light. In nighttime interiors we often used a single light.”
Unlike many of composer Morricone’s boisterously loud scores to famous Westerns his much more subtle score here is haunting and evocative as it complements these images in a most peaceful and reflective manner.
1978 was an impressive year in Hollywood. The Viet Nam War films “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” as well as the action film “Midnight Express” and Warren Beatty comedy “Heaven Can Wait” dominated the box office. “Days of Heaven” received four Oscar nominations: sound, costume design, original score and cinematography. Nestor Almendros won the Oscar for photography and Malick won the best director award the following year at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 for “Days of Heaven.”