Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Beat Goes On: See How They Run

This film is a total hoot, and Daniel Pemberton’s fizzy score has much to do with the merriment.

Director Tom George’s mischievous period “whodunit within a whodunit” is a murder mystery thriller married to a character comedy; it’s also a valentine to Agatha Christie, and a cheeky send-up of theatrical storytelling conventions.


Mark Chappell’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek script misses no targets. This is the sort of romp where, if a character laments the “awkwardness” of flashbacks as a plot contrivance, you can bet that the next scene will be a flashback.


Most of the humor is slow-burn: witty, not farcical, in the uniquely British style.


“The performances are slightly dry, in the way the humor works,” Pemberton acknowledged, “and [the goal] was to find music that does that, as well.”1


He succeeded brilliantly. His score is a blend of swing jazz, Dixieland, eerie suspense cues and whimsical character themes. Pemberton employs inventive instrument mixes and orchestrations, with lots of banjo and (occasionally) what sounds like dripping water and bottles being gently struck. I’m reminded of Benoît Charest’s score for 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville, which is similarly playful.


“[I used] very mad percussion, with off-kilter beats,” Pemberton confirmed, “which added a nice, unusual texture.”2


The setting is early 1953, at West End London’s Theatre Royal, as the cast and crew of Christie’s new murder mystery play, The Mousetrap, celebrates its 100th performance. Essential details are supplied by an unseen narrator who, in a nod to 1950’s Sunset Blvd., speaks from beyond the grave.


The festivities are cut short both by the drunken antics of boorish, blacklisted American screenwriter Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), and — a bit later — the distressing discovery that one of these folks has been murdered. For real.

Cue the arrival of world-weary Scotland Yard Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his eager-beaver rookie, Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).


The suspects are introduced as the film opens, against a lengthy, swing-inflected cue with cool walking bass and sparkling piano filigrees: a whirlwind blast of music that runs almost six minutes (and is titled “A Lavish Affair” on the soundtrack album).


“[Tom and I] spent a lot of time on the opening,” Pemberton explained. “It’s a key moment; we have to tell so many stories. We introduce every character, and help the audience meet them all, and understand bits about them, and still enjoy the journey.”3


The cue concludes with a brilliant stroke. For most of its length, this is a non-diegetic orchestral cue … until we follow folks into the celebratory hall, at which point — without missing a beat — the cue becomes diegetic, played by a lively on-stage combo. 


The corpus delicti turns out to be none other than Köpernick, who — as flashbacks reveal — managed to irritate, annoy, belittle or blackmail just about everybody else. In true Christie fashion, there’s no shortage of suspects.


They include:


• Aristocratic theater impresario Petula “Choo” Spencer (Ruth Wilson), who has sheparded this play to the stage;


• Petula’s mother, Mignon (Ania Marson), a gourmand who says very little, but misses nothing;


• Film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who hopes to turn this hit play into an equally popular big-screen movie;

• Ann Saville (Pippa Bennett Warner), Woolf’s personal secretary and mistress; 


• Edana Romney (Sian Clifford), Woolf’s wife, and a hobbyist clairvoyant;


• Pretentious, puffed-up playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), who despises the way Köpernick — hired by Woolf to “Americanize” the material — is ruining his adaptation;


• Giovanni Bigotti (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), an Italian consort who speaks not a word of English, and is madly in love with Mervyn;


• Mildly pompous actor Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who stars as the play’s investigating Det. Sgt. Trotter;


• Fading actress Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), Dickie’s real-life wife, and co-star in the play; and


• Theater usher Dennis (Charlie Cooper), a tall, brooding fellow who stalks the aisles.


And, when this cheeky saga charges into its third act, we shift settings in order to meet Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson), her husband Max (Lucian Msamati) and their somewhat sarcastic butler, Fellowes (Paul Chahidi).


Stoppard and Stalker are faced with quite a challenge, because motives aren’t lacking. The biggie, though, is an eyebrow lift: Christie’s contract stipulates that no film adaptation can be made until six months after the play’s theatrical run concludes. Ergo, Woolf can’t even think about making a movie unless this production of The Mousetrap were to, um, suddenly stop. For some reason.


(Believe it or not, this is true. The Mousetrap is by far the world’s longest-running stage play, having racked up 27,500 performances as of September 2018. Christie’s original contract contains that very clause … which is why it never has been turned into a movie.)


Most of the traditional jazz cues are heard in the film’s opening act. Stoppard and Stalker begin their clue-sleuthing against what sounds like a drunken military march with a heavy beat (“Investigation Day 1,” and an appropriate touch, since the inspector does drink too much). When that habit and Stoppard’s slovenly appearance earn a dressing down from his boss, Pemberton supplies whimsical banjo jazz against heartbeat percussion (“Commissioner, Inspector, Constable”).

Terrific walking bass and thoughtful drumming cue Stoppard and Stalker’s realization that some of their suspects are being less than truthful (“Tell a Lie”). And when they wind up hot on the trail — of something — the intensity mounts against increasingly frantic percussion, eerie bass licks, and what sounds like a bottle being struck by a small metal rod (“Keep Your Eyes Peeled”).


From that point forward, the traditional jazz elements diminish in favor of sinister suspense cues and bolder orchestral flourishes.


“As the film goes on, the story gets bigger,” Pemberton confirmed, “and the music gets bigger.”4


And if the score as a whole sounds as if it might have been lifted from the 1950s, that isn’t accidental. 

“On the one hand, the score feels really familiar,” George confirmed, “like those films of that period, but at the same time something’s niggling at you, because it’s not quite like that; something’s a bit off … which is the whole tone of the film.”5


Pemberton’s score superbly complements and amplifies all on-screen activity, which adds greatly to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone that George delivers so effectively. Watching this film is fun, just as the music — even as an isolated listening experience — raises a smile, and likely prompts some means of echoing the beat.


“The difficulty was making these cues feel very simple,” Pemberton concluded, “when actually there’s something very complex going on. 


“And if you’re tapping your foot, that means you’re happy!”6




1. Scottish radio DJ and television presenter Edith Bowman’s Soundtracking podcast interview with Tom George and Daniel Pemberton, September 13, 2022:


2. Ibid


3. Ibid


4. Ibid


5. Ibid

6. Ibid