Remembering Film Composer Richard LaSalle

Richard Lasalle

Belated respects to film composer Richard LaSalle who died April 5th, 2015.  He was a fine composer for many low-budget genre scores.  I’d hoped to interview him for this book’s 2nd Edition but he hadn’t been well and attempts were not successful. 

 His online obituary may be read here

In respect for his notable work in the sci-fi and fantasy genre, I am posting this excerpt from Musique Fantastique Book 2 (publication forthcoming – details to follow) which covers his work during the 1960s:

Before he began scoring sci-fi TV like LAND OF THE GIANTS (1969) and the PLANET OF THE APES series (1974), Richard LaSalle (sometimes credited as Richard La Salle) scored nearly four dozen low-budget feature films.  Born in Colorado in 1918, LaSalle graduated from the University of Colorado and soon after began writing music for radio in Denver.  He also performed as a pianist and bandleader throughout the 1940s and early 1950s.  He began scoring films in 1958, with AIP’s war film TANK BATTALION and went on to score some seventy films and TV shows until he retired in 1983.

LaSalle was scoring a stream of urban crime dramas and Westerns, encountering fantasy for the first time in Reginald LeBorg’s THE FLIGHT THAT DISAPPEARED (1961).  He provided a fairly eerie score for this TWILIGHT ZONE-esque film about a cross-country airliner which is drawn off course to have the nuclear scientists on board face a heavenly tribunal for their part in creating the atom bomb that ultimately will destroy the Earth.  LaSalle added a Theremin to his otherwise characteristic adventure scoring to add a very spooky tonality as the plane encounters the compulsive force, and a surging advance of horns to herald the appearance of the angelic accusers.   LaSalle also scored LeBorg’s DIARY OF A MADMAN (1963), which starred Vincent Price as a 19th Century Parisian magistrate who is driven to murder under the influence of an evil spirit.  The film was based on Guy de Maupassant’s  story “The Horla,” and LaSalle provided an elegant score befitting of the film’s period and environment, using the Theremin once again to denote the demonic influence as it exerts itself on Price’s character. 

The year before, LaSalle had scored THE MERMAIDS OF TIBURON (1962), a very low budget film about a diver who encounters gorgeous mermaids while seeking sunken treasure.  There is virtually no dialogue in the film as the mermaids are mute; the only spoken words are from the hero’s voice-over narrative, giving the music a large responsibility to move the story along.  LaSalle approached the score in the manner of a travelogue, lacing the undersea landscapes with exotic melodies, characterizing menacing crabs and sharks with monster chords of brass dappled by tremolo strings.  He characterized the mermaids with Theremin and reverbed harp playing an alluring, exotic melody which is also taken by strings, giving the score a luxuriant romantic extravagance while through the otherworldly tone of the Theremin and dreamy harp glissandi accentuated the film’s fantastical elements.

LaSalle’s music was especially opulent in TWICE TOLD TALES, Admiral Pictures’ trilogy of Nathaniel Hawthorne stories which starred Vincent Price, very much in the vein of AIP’s Edgar Allen Poe series in which he was also then starring.  The score focuses largely on the tragic romances and haunted family secrets that are involved in each of the three stories, embracing the passionate yearning that leads to supernatural affiliations, with the final story, “House of the Seven Gables,” being the most sedate as well as the most lushly romantic.   A barrage of shrieking brass concludes the story as the skeletal hand comes out of the fireplace and grasps Pyncheon’s neck in a stranglehold; the love theme re-emerges in muscular form as Maule (Richard Denning) saves Alice (Beverly Garland) in the nick of time as the house and its seven gables crumbled into the earth, the only one of the stories to end positively.  Only the first story, “Heidegger’s Experiment,” musically accentuated its paranormal elements, with highly reverbed harp glissandos reinforcing the life-restoring properties of the water dripping onto Sylvia Heidegger’s crypt.

Maury Dexter’s THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH (1963), a low-budget sci-fi effort about unscrupulous Martians replacing an American scientist (Kent Taylor) and his family in order to prepare for invasion, was the third of four films that LaSalle would compose for the director in the early ‘60s.  His first-rate score gave the stodgy production a menacing flair that empowered its growing sense of unease, using extremely reverberated harp glissandos to reflect the otherworldly influence as it assimilated itself into the scientist’s family.  “Richard La Salle fashioned a full-fledged romantic score of a minor variety for the picture with some suitably eerie passages when required,” wrote reviewer William Schoell, movie review posted online 1/11/08 at Great Old Movies blog.  An adventurous horn melody is introduced over the main titles, suggesting an air of excitement and discovery for the Martian landing that opens the film.  A mélange of woodwinds, strings, and blaring brass provided a genuinely creepy moment when the duplicate scientist is first revealed.  A warm arrangement of strings supports the domestic life of the scientist when he goes home; with the dreamy harp motif intersecting with it as the Martian entity duplicates the scientist’s family.  The horns and harp motifs interact ferociously as Dr. Spencer (William Mims) tries to escape from the duplicate family and warn the earth, only to be roasted for his efforts. LaSalle also made an effective use of Herrmannesque chord progressions to convey a potent style of peril to the characters, returning to his main theme to swell ironically for the film’s downbeat ending. 

His score for Ib Melchior’s THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964) also made use of very effective Herrmannesque stylistic elements to generate apprehension as scientists experimenting to create a window in time winds up transporting them into the far future.  An adventurous seven-note melody is associated with the scientific achievement of time travel, but is quickly subservient to the more perilous musical material.  A Theremin-like tonality conveys an eerie sensibility as the time travelers become trapped in time, and the music becomes a frenzy of surging brass and thundering drums and xylophone as the time travelers are caught in an ever-increasing cycle of experience, culminating in a splendid reprisal of his seven-note theme as the film ends.  LaSalle’s exciting music is sometimes a little too forceful for the rather sedate temperament of the movie, but it gives the film a progressive energy that is very much to its benefit.

After working mostly on TV in the later ‘60s (including Irwin Allen’s 1971 TV-movie CITY BENEATH THE SEA), LaSalle reemerged in the ‘70s to score a number of low-budget horror films like THE THIRSTY DEAD (1974) and DOCTOR DEATH: SEEKER OF SOULS.

– Randall D. Larson © Musique Fantastique 2nd Edition, Book 2.

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