Likewise, Rózsa abandoned his native Hungary and had a brush with Hitler’s Germany when he was a young composer working in Europe. After writing concert music and a few film scores in London, he arrived in Los Angeles in 1940 expecting “some sort of Sin City, a California Babylon,” as he wrote in his 1982 memoir, Double Life. “In fact Los Angeles looked normal enough to me, and I was both relieved and disappointed.” He soon found a home in the Hollywood Hills, where he lived out most of his life. Rózsa took a liking to the town, but he was forever frustrated with the industry. He was a classical composer at heart, and he felt the attitude toward music among producers and studio heads was uncivilized.
Which isn’t to say he was unsuccessful. He came to LA for the 1940 fantasy film The Thief of Bagdad, which was followed by Jungle Book in 1942, and from there he found steady work in the movies. But he always kept one foot in the concert hall, and he couldn’t understand Hollywood’s complete lack of respect—even contempt—for that part of himself. He recalled that after one of his concert pieces premiered at Carnegie Hall in November 1943, “in my naivete I imagined that all this prestige would enhance my reputation in Hollywood, that there would be cries of ‘Hail Rózsa!’ when I walked into the studio the next day. Nothing of the sort: film people didn’t listen to the radio and the musical directors wouldn’t have gone to a concert if you had paid them. Once again I had the feeling that civilization was three thousand miles away.”
Rózsa became best known for epics—sprawling odysseys to other cultures, from the ancient Rome of Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959) and King of Kings (1961), to the ancient Spain of El Cid (1961). These inspired equally grand, tuneful scores that fused a romantic Hollywood symphony with folk instruments from the time and place of each story, which the composer reveled in researching. But Rózsa also traveled inside the equally exotic human psyche in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), brilliantly casting a theremin as the sound of Gregory Peck’s paranoia, and in the scores for a trio of film noirs: Double Indemnity, Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946). This new frontier demanded a new approach that was “brutal and dissonant” to match the violence, he explained.
It would be wrong to generalize Hollywood film music during the first decade of talkies, an era that introduced the swashbuckling vocabulary of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), the swooning strings of Alfred Newman (Wuthering Heights), and the quasi-cartoonish style of Max Steiner (King Kong). But to hear Rózsa describe it, there was an overall lack of sophistication in studio soundtracks. “One of the things I quickly came to realize about Hollywood music was that there simply was no style as such,” he said. “Many of the early musicians working in Hollywood sound films were former Broadway and silent film conductors, songwriters and vaudeville pianists, ‘top-line’ composers with innumerable uncredited hack ‘arrangers’ and ‘orchestrators.’ The general idiom was conservative and meretricious in the extreme—diluted Rachmaninov and Broadway.”
Rózsa actually got into some hot water with his composer colleagues when he publicly moaned about the state of affairs in 1942. “Hollywood is just a factory,” he told the United Press, “everyone is just a cog in the wheel. I have had to learn to write music by feet and inches, with a pencil in one hand and a stop watch in the other.” A recent Vanity Fair article, which had the internet atwitter for about forty-eight hours, suggests there’s nothing new under the Hollywood sign.
Rózsa also complained about the lack of taste among Hollywood execs and their unwillingness to take risks: “Everybody wants a formula to go by. Anything daring or problematic is shunned. The industry employs many superb artists in nearly all branches but too often their courage, originality, and taste are submerged.” Fortunately, in Billy Wilder he found a genuine artist with good taste. The two men first collaborated on Five Graves to Cairo in 1943, and they hit it off. “I was very fond of him,” Rózsa wrote. “He was an entertaining and creative man.” Wilder loved the Cairo score, but Paramount’s music director, Louis Lipstone, did not. Lipstone “once asked me why I had so many dissonances in my music,” Rózsa wrote. “‘What dissonances?’ I asked. ‘Well, in one spot the violins are playing a G natural and the violas a G sharp. Why don’t you make it a G natural in the violas as well—just for my sake?’ When I refused he became furious—one thing you don’t do in Hollywood is disagree with an executive. However, Billy Wilder came to my aid and told him that he wasn’t in the Kaffeehaus where he once played his violin and that he’d better stay in his office in future and leave the composing to me.”
That skirmish set the stage for their next campaign. Rózsa read James M. Cain’s 1943 novel, Double Indemnity, “and was fascinated by its brutal, fearless portrayal of American life.” It was Wilder who suggested that he write a shivering, restless string figure like the opening of Schubert’s Unfinished eighth symphony—“to reflect the conspiratorial activities of the two lovers against the husband.” Rózsa liked that idea, and it inspired the film’s conspiracy theme—a driving motif that often accompanies Walter Neff literally driving around Los Angeles, or else steering the elaborate plot to con Phyllis’s husband into signing up for accident insurance, strangle him, then stage a fake, fatal fall from a train. This theme, as Walter later says of himself, is “all twisted up inside.” (Rózsa even snuck the real Schubert piece into a scene where Walter and Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola, picnic above a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.)