28 March 2014

Chinatown: The Lambro Score

"I couldn't believe it - it was Chinese-sounding!"
- Jerry Goldsmith on Phillip Lambro's score, Soundtrack! Magazine

Composer Phillip Lambro
It's hard to imagine Chinatown without the now-iconic score by Jerry Goldsmith - Uan Rasey's haunting trumpet solo over the opening credits, the sense of impending doom underlying the tender love theme, the dark, brooding suggestion of a great evil approaching in Noah Cross, and the understated menace of the simple cues accompanying Jake's investigations.
What's particularly remarkable is that Goldsmith completed it in ten days, having been brought in at the very last minute when the film's initial score, by composer Phillip Lambro, was finally rejected. This earlier score has only been briefly mentioned in passing by the film's main participants, and not kindly:

For experimental purposes, I mixed one scene with some music by Philip Lambro, a young composer who had sent us a sample record. Evans was so impressed that we hired him. Unfortunately, Lambro's score turned out to be a disappointment. Bronislau Kaper, whom I took to see the preview in Santa Barbara, loved the picture as a whole but felt the music badly impaired it.
- Roman Polanski, ROMAN by Polanski

We had a horrendous score on the picture. By some guy that Roman knew. It was dissonant, weird, scratchy. Roman was momentarily enamored of it. He said the score was perfect. He was going off to direct an operetta at Spoletto, when mercifully, he ran into a grand old gentleman named Bronislau Kaper, who won an Oscar for his score of LILI, and he said, 'Roman, that score is killing your picture.' Roman had great respect for him and he said, 'Okay, we better get the score changed'.
- Robert Towne, quoted in William Goldman's Which Lie Did I Tell?

Scores have been tossed out and redone ever since I can remember, though the only one I was called in to redo was CHINATOWN. And the main reason that score was rejected was because the composer wasn’t right for the movie in the first place.

- Jerry Goldsmith, Soundtrack Magazine

In previews, everybody spotted it: 'Jesus Christ, that music's terrible!'

- Sam O'Steen, Cut to the Chase

Robert Evans doesn't even mention Lambro in his autobiography, merely saying that after a disastrous preview it was decided a 'new sound' was needed. However, as Evans himself says in that same autobiography, there are three sides to every story...

Phillip Lambro's version of events was first recounted in detail by film music critic Page Cook in the November 1974 issue of 'Films in Review', then in greater detail in Lambro's own autobiography, and he paints a somewhat different picture of how his score came to be tossed aside.

Phillip Lambro was first introduced to Roman Polanski on the set of Rosemary's Baby in 1967 by John Cassavetes, who thought he might be the right composer for the film (Polanski already had his regular collaborator, Krzysztof Komeda, on board, however).
After several years of occasionally encountering each other in Hollywood, in March 1974 Roman asked Phillip to lunch to discuss the new film he was working on, a detective thriller called Chinatown. He explained how he had been using several of Lambro's own concert pieces as working music while cutting the film, and that he wanted him to compose a score for the picture "with the same musical fabric."
Lambro accepted, and after several screenings of the film, plus a spotting session with Polanski, he got to work - eighteen hours a day for ten days, all thanks to a Zen 'macrobiotic' diet.

The recording sessions proceeded relatively smoothly, although Lambro's request to replace Paramount's Dolby equipment with a DBX system he considered superior was rejected. He also wasn't happy with the microphones being used, causing a certain amount of friction with Paramount's engineer, John Norman.

Robert Evans, Paramount's head of production and Chinatown's producer, was impressed with the music, requesting even more and hinting at a possible Oscar for the score - although both Polanski and Lambro agreed that what they had already was right.

In mid-April, Polanski departed for a skiing vacation in Canada and the trouble began. The film's editor, Sam O'Steen, didn't like the dissonance in Lambro's 'Main Title' and was under-dubbing the orchestral tracks. Lambro was furious when he heard it, accusing O'Steen of ruining his music - Evans was called in and backed the composer. The following week he also gave him a $1000 bonus.

At a party at Robert Evans' home on April 28, Chinatown was screened for the guests. Lambro was apparently showered with praise for his music by, among others, Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne - with Nicholson repeating Evans' previous suggestion that more of Lambro's music was needed. Two days later, Polanski called him to request more cues, and Lambro got back to work.

On May 3rd, the film was screened for a preview audience - busy composing the new cues, Lambro was unable to attend. By all accounts, the screening was a disaster, and the one solution everyone seemed to agree on was replacing the score. Polanski broke the news to Lambro first, then Robert Evans called him shortly after to let him know officially that his music was coming out.
Despite several attempts by Polanski to convince Evans to retain Lambro's score, Jerry Goldsmith was hired, and Phillip Lambro's involvement with Chinatown was over. Oddly enough, however, his music was used for the theatrical film trailer, TV commercials and radio spots.

With the score supposedly being hailed at every turn by all and sundry - Robert Evans in particular - its sudden rejection sounds downright bizarre. Gergely Hubai, author of Torn Music, suggests, somewhat diplomatically, that Lambro's absence from the preview screening provided an easy scapegoat for the negative reception.

However, it's been suggested that there were more sinister forces at work. Page Cook quotes 'an assistant to one of the production managers' as saying that "there was back-knifing, and Lambro's enemies were important... and mean enough."

In his caustic 2007 autobiography, Close Encounters of the Worst Kind, Lambro himself is somewhat more specific:

Had I not confronted Sam O'Steen and won out over the dubbing of the Main Title with Robert Evans on my side that particular day, in all probability, my music would have remained in the film; but who really cares?

What's made quite clear by the incredibly bitter and contemptuous tone of his autobiography, however, is that Lambro still does care. He portrays virtually everyone involved as uncultured, ignorant, deceitful charlatans, with himself as the only person with any sense of integrity, a lone artist adrift in a sea of vulgarity.
Although he grants Polanski a certain amount of grudging admiration for his earlier films, he also depicts him as a bratty idiot savant who he completes sentences for, slaps down for rudeness towards the crew, and who couldn't possibly have completed Chinatown without his own suggestions.
As the man who pulled the plug on Lambro's score, it's not surprising that Robert Evans tends to receive some of the harshest criticism:

Evans was incapable of any valid creative or technical input into the making of a film as he was only superficially acquainted with the medium. Evans was like a shark on dry land, completely helpless, and in a sense, I felt rather sorry for him because it was tragic to see a man of his age so completely unskilled in the world of his obvious desires.

There's no shortage of petty digs at all concerned - commenting on Polanski's lack of hand-eye coordination in a casual ping-pong match on the set of Rosemary's Baby, casually dismissing the late Krzysztof Komeda as having had "no original flair for composition", decrying the sheer gaudiness of the crockery at Robert Evans' home and the fact that hamburgers were being served in such elegant surroundings, and contemptuously claiming that Jerry Goldsmith "avoided as much work as possible in scoring Chinatown" as he "circumvented all the difficult scenes".

When he isn't heaping scorn upon virtually anyone involved with the making of Chinatown, Lambro isn't shy about talking himself up, with accounts of how completely in awe of his talents virtually everyone he encounters seems to be, tales of bestowing his valuable advice upon Polanski and O'Steen during the film's editing, and describing how he completely astonishes writer Charles Higham with his wit and superior taste in films.

Lambro ends his chapter on Chinatown with a venomous tirade directed towards Polanski, Nicholson and Evans - apart from citing Polanski's rape trial and Evan's 1980 arrest for cocaine possession, he accuses Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston of testifying against Polanski in the 1977 rape case in return for the dropping of charges against them for the drugs found in Nicholson's home during their investigation - which simply isn't true, the DA's Office actually issued a public apology to Anjelica Huston when these allegations were made by the media back in the 1970s.

He blatantly misrepresents Robert Evans' involvement in the notorious 'Cotton Club Murder', claiming that it was motivated by a desperate attempt to meet added production financing and repayments for The Cotton Club - a completely incorrect allegation, the murder of Roy Radin in 1983 was eventually shown to be over a drug deal gone wrong. Despite his association with a number of the people involved, Evans was never charged or even officially named as a suspect in the case - and was finally exonerated of any involvement.

Lambro also claims - thanks to one of his numerous unnamed 'reliable sources' - that Nicholson's loyal efforts in helping to purchase back Robert Evans' Woodland mansion in 1989 (Evans had been forced to sell it due to various debts) was motivated solely by the desire to star in and direct The Two Jakes - a production that by the time of said purchase was controlled by Nicholson anyway. Lambro clearly didn't bother to investigate the long and confused history of Chinatown's sequel - he even manages to get the date of these events completely wrong, claiming Woodland was sold in 1993.

So, with his arrogant, bitter and self-serving approach, peppered with flagrant inaccuracies, it's hard to take much of Lambro's account seriously at all.
His credibility isn't exactly helped by this rant he emailed to the administrator of the Film Score Monthly internet discussion forum in 2008, asking that it be posted online:

I have never seen such inaccurate comments about the film Chinatown by people who were not there. To begin with Roman Polanski told me on many occasions that he thought the Chinatown script "was the biggest pile of crap I ever saw." According to Thelma, his secretary, she told me that Polanski fought with Evans and wanted to keep my score to the very last minute. Wake up; Chinatown lost a lot of money and Robert Evans lost a job he never should have had in the first place. My book is published and available CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WORST KIND; read the chapter The Chinatown Syndrome if you want to know what actually took place. Polanski offered me his next film, but I refused as I did initially with Chinatown when I found out that Evans was the producer; but Polanski convinced me that he was in complete control. I never worked with Robert Evans at all; I worked with Polanski; and at the end when I found out that Polanski wasn't in control, I never forgave him for lying to me; and to those Chinatown freaks who think it's the greatest film of all time, have you freaks ever seen the films of Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles? What the F is your frame of reference; if you have ever had one? Fortunately, I don't have to do film scores anymore; I've refused over a dozen times after Chinatown, in favor of my concert hall compositions which are heard from The Kennedy Center to last week in Algiers. A great film score is Leonard Bernstein's music to ON THE WATERFRONT and Alfred Newman's score to THE ROBE; those are celebrated scores.

Lambro's accounts never produce any sort of 'smoking gun' about why his score was rejected, despite claiming that he was the victim of a conspiracy led by Sam O'Steen. The dubious evidence he provides regarding deception and rank incompetence on the part of Evans, Polanski and the rest amounts to little more than a handful of spiteful remarks from unnamed alleged insiders - 'My informants at Paramount', 'an assistant to one of the Paramount executives', 'an assistant to one of the production managers', 'one of his associates', and so on.
His explanation of "what actually took place" simply boils down to his own opinion that the people who made Chinatown had no idea what they were doing, were incapable of appreciating the efforts of a genius such as himself, and that the film was rubbish anyway.

But what of the rejected score itself? Was it really as terrible as many have said - "tortured Schoenberg", as Robert Towne once described it?

As already mentioned, it was Lambro's music, not Jerry Goldsmith's, that was used for the promotion of the film in trailers, TV and radio spots. The Paramount marketing department was supposedly unable to find any 'exploitable material' in Goldsmith's score, and made a deal with Lambro, in which he would retain the rights for the music in exchange for permission to use it for the trailers.

One condition of this deal, however, was that should the music ever be released, it could not bear the title of the film.

In 2006, following their collaboration with Phillip Lambro in releasing two of his other film scores, Crypt of the Living Dead and Murph the Surf, specialist soundtrack label Perseverance Records began their dream project of releasing the rejected score to Chinatown.
Due to the less-than-perfect condition of Lambro's master tapes, Perseverance initially pursued the idea of re-recording the score in Prague, partially funded by deposits on advance orders.
With an apparent lack of interest and a number of other factors, this turned out to be financially unfeasible, so it wasn't until 2012 (when recording technology made it possible) that Phillip Lambro's score to Chinatown finally saw the light of day, under the title Los Angeles, 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanski.

The album consists of the thirteen cues recorded for the film, the assembly used for the trailer, plus four tracks from Lambro's concert pieces Structures for String Orchestra” and “Music for Wind, Brass and Percussion, which Polanski used as temp music while cutting the film, and which led to Lambro being hired.

What is perhaps most striking about Lambro's score is how similar it is to Goldsmith's, and although Goldsmith's own quote that it was 'Chinese-sounding' seems to have stuck over the years, this only really applies to a few of the cues.

The Main Titles opens with, yes, an Oriental gong, then goes into a strange, dissonant jazz/percussion combo. A sample can be found here at the Perseverance Records website. This sets the tone for the eerie experience that Lambro's score provides.

Tailing Hollis, The Boy on a Horse, Noah Cross, Finding the Captive and The Last of Ida Sessions are dark, minimalist tracks that serve effectively as menacing underscore, and are strongly reminiscent of Lambro's disturbingly creepy soundtrack to the otherwise forgettable Crypt of the Living Dead. Compared to Goldsmith's corresponding cues, however, they're somewhat over the top in attempting to convey a sense of dread.

Mariachi Source is an unremarkable, simple theme written as background source music for the scene at Noah Cross' ranch.
Orchard Chase is rather generic chase music, and the fact that Goldsmith never composed a replacement simply illustrates that it wasn't really necessary to begin with. This melodramatic approach is also present in Evelyn Shot, a short, heavy-handed and similarly generic piece.

One Night With Evelyn is perhaps the most accomplished track on the album, a gentle, romantic variation on the Main Titles theme that is almost as touching and sad as Goldsmith's Love Theme From Chinatown as it is similar. The theme is reprised in Forget It, Jake.

The infamous Chinese-sounding music for which Lambro's score has been criticised makes its appearance in Welcome To Chinatown, Evelyn Shot and the End Titles, and it's completely and utterly out of place. Apart from the film's title having very little to do with the literal physical location (originally there were no actual scenes in Chinatown itself), the music itself sounds like stock production music from the 1930s and 1940s, which was at odds with the approach of not simply using source music and period cues for the soundtrack.
Overall, Phillip Lambro's often unsettling compositions lack the much-needed warmth that Jerry Goldsmith's added to Polanski's already cold, sinister vision of Chinatown.

Would this original score have killed the picture, as Lambro's detractors claimed? Probably not, but it's most likely that the film would not have connected with audiences as it did, and Chinatown would have found itself regarded in much the same way as other niche Polanski thrillers like Knife in the Water, Repulsion and The Tenant. Brilliantly made, fascinating and widely respected, but not the classic masterpiece that it is still considered to be today.


  1. What a great, thoughtful, information-rich blog post. Thank you for it! I'm a 49 year old cinephile who only just managed to knock Chinatown off my "to see" list this evening, which is ridiculous, I know. It's a great film, but to be honest, I feel like Goldsmith's score is so Hollywood Romantic, it occasionally borders on parody. Perhaps this is partly due to my being so familiar with the SCTV parody Polynesiatown, where great fun is had at the expense of those swelling, melodramatic, over the top cues. Nevertheless, an undeniable classic.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, glad you're enjoying the blog. Thank you also for reminding me of 'Polynesiantown', which I came across years ago on YouTube while putting material together for this - unfortunately, it was offline and unavailable for quite some time, and I simply forgot about it after a while.
      I've found it again, and will be including it in both the Fun Stuff and Video sections, along with a short blog post (SCTV really blew their whole budget on that crane shot?). Thanks again.