Thursday, September 15, 2016

31 Days of Oscar: Dimitri Tiomkin


Russia is known for a lot of things. Some good, some bad. One of the good things is its music and composers: Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and for cinephiles--film composer Dimitri Tiomkin. He was as prolific a composer as you'll find, and was nominated for an Academy Award a total of 22 times, winning the golden man four times-- for High Noon (Best Original Song and Best Score), The High and the Mighty, and The Old Man and the Sea. His nominations and wins may not be as numerous as those racked up by John Williams, but just looking at the "Known For" highlights that IMDB shows should be enough to convince you of his greatness nonetheless...

There is no doubt that a film score can be just as memorable or important as, say, something from the world of classical music. I've whistled the various melodies from Star Wars probably as many times as I've caught myself whistling Beethoven's 5th. But, this doesn't mean that a film score needs to be memorable in order to be great. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

When it comes to someone like Dimitri Tiomkin, I'm not sure I can necessarily hum one of his scores [EDIT: While putting the finishing touches on this hot mess, I found something that has become an earworm from time to time, so hopefully you will make it to the end.], but he's one of my favorites because of how his music makes me feel during a film. Like most composers, Tiomkin's work is beautiful in that it can influence the viewer's perception of a film, even without the viewer realizing it. Whether it's driving, sentimental, or ominous, Tiomkin's skill at creating a piece of music to complement the atmosphere a director is working to achieve is second to none.

Looking back on something like Lost Horizon (1937), one of his non Oscar-nominated scores, there Tiomkin composed what could possibly be the soundtrack for a Himalayan paradise-on-earth. Director Frank Capra conveys the beauty and serenity of Shangri-La cinematically, while Tiomkin reinforces it with music that will make you wish you could live forever in Tibet with Jane Wyatt (or Ronald Colman, whichever you prefer).

In two of his scores that did receive Oscar nominations (Giant and The Guns of Navarone), he gave us rousing, expansive music to go along with cattle ranchers and big oil in Texas, and a sure-to-fail military mission in the Mediterranean.

If I'm going to be completely honest with you, dear reader, I'm going to say that I believe his Oscar-winning compositions aren't anywhere near as good as those that received "only" a nomination...or even nothing at all from the Academy (Only Angels Have Wings, Angel on My Shoulder, Duel in the Sun, D.O.A., The Thing from Another World, Strangers on a Train, and 36 Hours to name a few of the scores that didn't receive nominations). I'd take the theme to Giant over that of High Noon any day, and the opening to The Guns of Navarone gets me ready to invade a Greek island and blow some shit up from the very first measure. High Noon, on the other hand, makes me want to take a nap...which is also how I feel about Gary Cooper.


How about the Academy Award-nominated score for Friendly Persuasion (nominated in 1957 for the original song)?

But, here's just how good Tiomkin is: as much as I dislike Gary Cooper and the two preceding songs, there is a greatness to them because of Tiomkin's ability to write music that matches perfectly Cooper's wooden and languid acting! It's as though Tiomkin studied him; watched his films; analyzed his style, and wrote Gary Cooper's soundtrack. Who hasn't wanted a personal soundtrack? Admittedly, though, there is a pretty good version of "Friendly Persuasion (Thee I Love) covered by Aretha Franklin.

55 Days at Peking (nominated twice, for Best Original Song "So Little Time" and for Best Score-Substantially Original) is a film about the Boxer Rebellion, diplomacy, and trying not to die in China. Just the overture will give you a sense of urgency that is both out in the streets of Peking and roiling under the skin of someone as composed as David Niven.

And one final nominated original song that I had absolutely no idea was Tiomkin's composition until I started writing this, and it's a doozy: "Town Without Pity", for the 1961 film of the same name. I like the Eddi Reader version, but for the Gene Pitney film-version, click here.

Dimitri Tiomkin. Classic.

This post is for the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula Guthat at Paula's Cinema Club, Kellee Pratt of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Citizen Screen. Be sure to check out all of the other great entries and categories.


  1. Wow, what an extremely informative post. I didn't know all of these were Tiomkin, particularly "Town Without Pity." He really did create startingly appropriate music for each project. Thanks Peter.