A man with many major firsts to his credit, music legend Quincy Jones has made quite a splash at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year with an appearance for The Italian Job and a Club TCM discussion with Leonard Maltin. Now on Saturday night at the Egyptian Theater, it was TCM’s Robert Osborne’s turn to sit down with Jones for a Q&A about his first American film score.
Shot in 1964 but unseen in America until the following year, THE PAWNBROKER smashed down the barriers of film censorship by depicting levels of nudity unimaginable under the guidelines of the Production Code. An exception was granted over the objections of some Code rating members, and the gesture opened the floodgates that would quickly lead to more boundary-pushing films like Blow-up that ultimately spelled the demise of the Code entirely.
Sidney Lumet was one of two Sidneys who had a major impact on Jones’s career (the other being Poitier), and Jones noted in his talk that both of them got him gigs on five films. Sipping on a glass of wine, Jones remembered how Lumet (then mostly known for TV directing) stuck up for him and paved the way for Jones to become the first African-American film composer for studio films. “Universal didn’t even have blacks in the kitchen,” Jones recalled about his next big break on Mirage, but breaking down those doors led to a wide variety of assignments. Among his favorites, he cited this film and In the Heat of the Night as favorites in a career filled with drama, particularly a turbulent encounter on The Hot Rock.
The recipient of 27 Grammys was also reflective, noting that to him a movie was “a song and a story. The rest is all accoutrements.” He also revealed that he usually composed far more than he would actually use because of fears that he would be replaced, a fate he saw befall many of his colleagues. The most famous was Bernard Herrmann, whom he saw being fired from Torn Curtain, a process he recalled as being “very painful.”
Almost everyone in the audience raised a hand when asked by Osborne “who hasn’t seen the movie we’re showing tonight?,” which is understandable given that it was out of circulation on home video for decades until earlier this year. The film still packs a mighty punch with Rod Steiger delivering a master class of a performance as the title character, a Holocaust survivor slowly cracking years later after losing his family and finding it hard to assimilate into a world still in flux. Every powerful expression and gesture is impeccably accompanied by Jones’s music, a blend of lyricism and sinister jazz that makes the film still feel as fresh now as the day it first butted heads with the powers that be.