EARTHQUAKE (1974) – Complete Score Analysis

An Analysis by Damien Bragoli

I have always had a soft spot for Universal’s Earthquake (1974), one of three big-budget disaster movies scored by John Williams in the early 1970’s. Yet in spite of the unparalleled popularity since gained by the legendary film composer, it is hard to find many – even among Williams’ most die-hard fans – who have a good word to say about the score. Contemporary reviews of the music (such as there were in 1974) were also dismissive, most preferring the timeless spectacle of Williams’ contemporaneous score for The Towering Inferno while others, at best, damned Williams’ efforts with faint praise.

Yet there are many reasons why a reappraisal of the music that Williams wrote for Earthquake is in order: firstly, the music was deemed good enough to garner a Golden Globe nomination for best score; Williams himself described his experience of scoring the film as “a thoroughly satisfying assignment”; legendary jazz musicians including Quincy Jones favourite Clare Fischer (piano), Vince de Rosa (horn) and the ubiquitous Shelly Manne (drums) contributed their collective talents to the soundtrack; and most important of all, it is a score that I do not think has had a fair hearing (literally!).

One of the reasons for the general apathy towards John Williams’ music for Earthquake may be the curate’s egg that is the original soundtrack album, reissued on CD in 1990 by Varese Sarabande (VSD-5262). The album includes much music, including several whole tracks, that is not heard in the movie at all. It also concentrates on the more jazzy and pop elements of the score, the producers little suspecting in 1974 that rabid Williams fans might one day want to hear the ominous snare drums of the National Guard cue or the bass pedal and chimes of The Aftermath. Furthermore, some of the tracks that are included have been named incorrectly or buried under sound effects. The album is a stereo recording consisting largely of specially arranged versions of the main thematic material, while the film’s soundtrack itself was a monaural recording (despite the movie being the first to employ the new Sensurround technique).

To redress the balance and as a small tribute to this neglected John Williams gem, I present an analysis of the complete score to the theatrical release of Earthquake, offering my own speculative track names for the unreleased cues until someone sees fit to release the original soundtrack in its entirety or send me the conductor score! Cues with an asterisk are those that include music heard on the Varese Sarabande soundtrack album in one form or another; all other cues are unreleased. I profess to be a fan rather than an expert, so please let me know if you spot any mistakes.

Main Title* [2:11]

The superb main title music plays over an aerial shot of Los Angeles (Williams’ contribution is acknowledged by the unusual credit of ‘Music Score’). After a nervy opening, a number of orchestral hits herald the long City Theme, intoned by horns and backed by interjections from strings and percussion over a fiendish jazz piano riff, suggesting the hustle and bustle of the City of Angels. The panorama cuts to a shot of engineer Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) exercising. The version of the main title heard in the film is a little shorter than the album track with the portion [2:05 – 2:42] not heard in the film. Williams also presented the theme in a laid-back arrangement for strings and jazz piano for the album track The City Theme. The melody bears more than a passing resemblance to the theme for Harlee and Lisolette in The Towering Inferno.

Buried Alive* [0:58]

This scene was originally intended to have begun the movie but instead appears some 20 minutes in. A sudden tremor causes seismologist Dr. Adams (Bob Cunningham) and his companion to be buried alive while they investigate an isolated fissure. After a few sustained chords from low brass, the cue erupts into frenzied scoring that constitutes part of the album track Medley [2:55 – 3:22]. Appropriate though this music is, the harsh edit suggests to me that most of the music for this cue was written for Jody’s death later in the film and tracked into this scene in an abridged form late in the day. Curiously, Dr. Adams is listed as Dr. Ames in the end credits when he is clearly referred to as Dr. Adams throughout the film!

Supermarket Muzak (source) [0:38]

Easy listening jazz muzak plays in the supermarket where the creepy Jody (wonderfully played by Marjoe Gortner) works. He has his eye on regular customer Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal) and his intentions are less than honourable.

The Dam Inspection (Part I) [0:38]

Bassoon, piano and gong paint an eerie picture as a diver inspects the Mulholland Dam. Assistant Dam Caretaker Max (Scott Hylands) is not convinced that all is well; after all, he has just seen his colleague drowned in an elevator at the dam.

Propping Up The Bar (source) [0:32]

What disaster movie worth its salt would be complete without the great George Kennedy? Not this one, that’s for sure! As the police officer Lew Slade – suspended for chasing a hit-and-run driver into Zsa Zsa Gabor’s hedge (don’t even go there) – he drowns his sorrows in the local bar, Williams providing a groovy pop accompaniment. The drunkard propping up the bar is none other than Walter Matthau. Gesundheit!

Bar Room Brawl (source) [1:47]

A continuation of the previous source music as Slade chats with colleague Emilio Chavez (Pedro Armendariz Jr.), oblivious to a fight that has erupted. Fans of Williams’ scores to Cinderella Liberty and The Paper Chase will spot his stamp on these pop source cues. The music, featuring saxophone and organ, is not unlike Tom Scott’s Starsky and Hutch theme.

The Dam Inspection (Part II) [0:32]

More eerie music for piano and bassoon as Max eventually convinces the Chief Inspector (John S. Ragin) that the cracks in the dam should not be there.

Frank Adams Is Dead [0:37]

At the Seismology Institute, Dr. Willis Stockle (Barry Sullivan) takes a laughably brief call informing him of Dr. Adams’ passing. Williams adds weight to the scene with a sombre cue featuring a string ostinato punctuated by a poignant two-note descending motif on the glockenspiel with an octave interval. The scoring looks forward to some of the quieter moments in Jaws.

Something For Remy (source) * [0:42]

The theme for Remy Graff (Ava Gardner) is presented for the only time in the movie in a cocktail lounge jazz arrangement for a restaurant scene as she talks with her father Sam Royce (Lorne Greene). Williams appears to be piloting his technique of introducing character-based thematic material through source cues, as perfected in The Towering Inferno. Note that the orchestration of the corresponding album track Something For Remy, with its fine languid flugelhorn solo, is markedly different from this version.

Miles’ Pool Hall (source) * [1:46]

This is the longest source cue to feature on the soundtrack album, again as part of the track Medley [0:52 – 1:43]. The film version contains an intro and a coda not heard on the album but otherwise is broadly similar to the album track. Electric guitar and tom-toms give the listener enough of a clue that daredevil motorcyclist Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) is one cool cat, brother! If you have only heard the album and not seen the movie, do not be fooled into thinking that the earthquake occurs while this cue is playing.

Slade Meets Rosa (source) [1:18]

One of the best source cues Williams wrote for Earthquake plays when Slade admires Rosa’s finest assets as she models a T-shirt promoting Miles’ stunt cycling. The bouncy cue features electric organ and it would be a treat to hear a full version outside the film.

Love Scene * [2:14]

Williams’ gorgeous love theme backs a bedroom conversation between Stewart and the lovely Denise Marshall (Genevieve Bujold). For once the movie version of the cue is almost identical to the album track. Flute, celeste and oboe take turns with the bittersweet melody over a delicate backing for strings and horn. Regrettably, the more jazzy arrangement of the theme (listed as Love Theme on the album) does not appear in the film.

Something For Rosa (source) * [0:05], [0:01]

Cough and you’ll miss it! It is quite possible to watch Earthquake a dozen times and fail to notice that the delightful guiro-fuelled album track Something For Rosa appears in the movie (albeit in extremely truncated form). A gold star, then, to Williams fans who notice that the radio in the supermarket where Jody works is playing this music until interrupted by an announcer mobilising the National Guard. Williams’ talents as a jazz composer are all too often overlooked, but this cue bears testimony to his extraordinary talents in this area; the virtuoso flute part, in particular, is surely one of the best Williams has ever written. The snippet featured corresponds most closely with the album track at [2:29 – 2:34], although the movie version is more of a cocktail jazz piano arrangement. It is interesting to note that Rosa is not in the supermarket when this music is heard.

Miles’ Stunt Ramp [0:44]

Williams provides an edgy but appropriately rhythmic cue as Miles shows off his motorcycle stunt ramp to Rosa. While the style of the music says Miles, there is a subtle reference to Rosa’s theme in the melody, performed by electric guitar over a bed of low brass chords.

Jody Changes [1:05]

Williams accompanies Jody’s transformation to his National Guard persona with a suspenseful cue featuring an unsettling chromatic trill motif, first heard in the Buried Alive sequence (but probably tracked into that sequence). Although the motif is not always heard only when Jody is about, it is most closely associated with his character. A high string ostinato, unsettling piano chords and nervy turns from alto flute and temple blocks complete the picture.

Stewart and Sam Talk [0:23]

A brief and functional cue, scored primarily for woodwinds performing a descending phrase.

Miles On Wheels * [0:34]

After one unsuccessful attempt, Miles nails his loop-the-loop thanks to Williams’ groovy musical cue. Only the first 30 seconds or so of the album track are heard in the movie. ‘Groovy’ really is the only word that adequately describes this cue. Tambourine, drums, electric bass and tom-toms provide the percussive background for swiftly-tongued brass and waa-waa electronics.

High Plains Drifter (source music by Dee Barton) [0:09]

As Clint Eastwood fan Rosa watches High Plains Drifter (1973) in the Royal Movie Theater, a snippet of Dee Barton’s theme music is heard. In the movie, this sequence is followed by the Big One. Fans of the original soundtrack album will smile knowingly as a truck full of cattle plunges off the freeway; their plaintive moos can be heard clearly in the Earthquake Special Effects album track, a direct lift from the movie’s soundtrack. Sweet Mother! Why did the cows have to die?

The Aftermath [0:45]

A classic John Williams cue. A bass pedal, punctuated by bells and harp arpeggios, plays as Williams provides a sombre musical survey of the devastation.

Rescue at the Royce Building [0:52]

Sam and Stewart improvise a rescue from the Royce Building using an office chair and a fire hose. As the survivors are lowered, one by one, Williams adds to the tension with dissonant high strings playing an ascending glissando (not unlike the opening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind). A harp played in its lowest registers joins the fray while woodwinds play a chromatic, off-kilter version of the city theme. The cue ends with rumbling low piano playing a fragment that reaches its full potential in the next cue as Denise searches for her football-loving son Corry (Tiger Williams).

Corry In Jeopardy * [1:42]

Corry lies stricken and unconscious in a storm drain as severed electrical cables spark menacingly nearby. Rosa’s brother Sal (Gabriel Dell) and Miles stop their truck to help out. Some of the best scoring in the film, the music is less developed than the album version and does not include the portion [1:07 – 1:28], although repeated phrases mean that the movie and album tracks are comparable in length (note also that Corry’s name is misspelled on the Varese Sarabande album). The cue is grounded in a repeating, echoing 3-note motif, heard mostly on low register piano and interrupted by threatening timpani rolls. The addition of short motifs from harp, taut strings and celeste make the music itself sound electric. Listen carefully to the double basses hinting at a motif that will form the melodic basis ofThe City Sleeps (end title). The music for this and many other of the action sequences in Earthquake is similar in style to that written by Williams for Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969), also directed by Mark Robson.

Watching and Waiting / Sam’s Rescue * [2:18]

Sam succumbs to a heart attack after helping to rescue his work colleagues, no doubt due to the shock of having to utter such lines as “Take off your pantyhose, dammit!” to his secretary. Stewart climbs up to rescue him as a handful of other survivors waits anxiously below. A musical pulse heard on vibraphone, then piano, celeste and woodwind over high strings begins the cue with telling backing from the harp. As the ailing Sam is lowered to safety, we hear a tortured episode for strings, the kind of music that no-one writes better than John Williams and recalling the most heartbreaking moments in The Poseidon Adventure. The strings continue after a reiteration of the opening motif of the cue. Much of the cue (though regrettably not all of it) can be heard on the album track Medley [0:00 – 1:07] and [2:10 – 2:25].

At this juncture it is worth a quick digression about the rather eccentric album track Medley. The titles given to its constituent parts are a little baffling when taken at face value (Watching and Waiting, Miles’ Pool Hall, Sam’s Rescue), particularly when most of the portion entitled Sam’s Rescue consists of music written for another scene. My guess is that many of the dramatic and source cues were felt good enough to merit recording for the album but too short to appear in isolation as album tracks in the mid-1970’s. Either Williams chose to develop them more (as in the case of Something For Rosa and Miles On Wheels), or assembled those that had less scope for thematic expansion into a mini-suite that formed the track Medley. With the gift of hindsight, the first decision was commendable while the latter was perhaps misjudged. Although the track has a certain novelty value and the fade between ‘Watching and Waiting’ and ‘Miles’ Pool Hall’ is effective, all the separate tracks merit being heard in full, especially this one which is cruelly obscured by earthquake special effects (much as I enjoy hearing that guy screaming as he is crushed to death).

For those of you who simply cannot rest until you know which bit of the Medley goes where, here is a quick run down (note that some cues overlap):

[0:00 – 1:07] This music, entitled ‘Watching and Waiting’ on the album, accompanies the first part of Sam’s Rescue from the point when Stewart notices that something is amiss until Sam is dropped unceremoniously to safety in the chair.

[0:52 – 1:43] This music forms part of the earlier Miles’ Pool Hall source cue.

[1:35 – 2:20] More earthquake special effects lifted from the film’s soundtrack.

[2:10 – 2:25] This music, entitled ‘Sam’s Rescue’ on the album, accompanies some of the latter part of Sam’s Rescue as he is untied from the chair at the Royce Building.

[2:25 – 3:42] This music does not form part of Sam’s rescue at all, but instead accompanies Jody’s Death at the hands of Lew Slade (see below). The portion [2:55 – 3:22] was also tracked into the Buried Alive sequence earlier in the movie to accompany Dr. Adams’ death.

The National Guard [1:51]

Some of the best unreleased music from Earthquake was written for this scene where the National Guard unit arrives to maintain law and order in the devastated city. The disturbing motif for Jody permeates this cue, giving the music a great sense of foreboding. It is now more of a theme than a motif, played primarily on woodwinds over a repeating 3-note descending harp phrase. The odd roll from military snare drum keeps tension levels high. The cue ends with more low piano, wood block and an orchestral hit as a guard apprehends Rosa, believing she has stolen some money.

Jody Kills The Looters [1:18]

Sergeant Jody, who has clearly let power go to his head, summarily executes three looters. And what do you know? They happen to be his roommates (Jesse Vint, Alan Vint and Lionel Johnston) who had been teasing him earlier in the movie! The cue begins with a descending phrase for harp (sounding as if it belongs in Williams’ score to Jaws), chillingly answered by Jody’s motif. The theme repeats, rising in pitch and backed by taut strings, tipping off the listener that Jody is going out of control. The scoring as Jody fires on his friends sounds as if it could accompany the aftermath of a shark attack in Jaws, the cue ending to chilling effect with two slow and emphatic statements of Jody’s motif as the camera focuses on his face.

Walter Dances (source) [1:22] / Wilson Plaza (source) [0:34]

Walter Matthau’s drunkard cheers the unfortunate folk in the Wilson Plaza with an impromptu dance routine, accompanied by a solo guitar played by another survivor (who obviously felt that his instrument would come in handy when the disaster was unfolding), while Denise tracks down her friend, Sam’s secretary Barbara (Monica Lewis). This delightful, upbeat jazz number is music in which Eddie Lang or Django Reinhardt would have revelled. A later scene, as Remy tries to find out about Sam’s condition from Dr. James Vance (Lloyd Nolan), features a continuation of the same piece.

The Door’s Out Of Line [0:14]

A brief but ominous cue (possibly tracked from the earlier The Dam Inspection music) as Max notices that one of the doors on the dam has shifted slightly. His realisation is marked by a low piano chord and a brief, unsettling coda for low woodwind and eerie echoplex electronics. Get out of there quick, Max!

Jody’s Death * [1:15]

Fortunately, the fine scoring that accompanies Jody’s death can be heard in full as part of the album track Medley [2:25 – 3:22]. Stewart and Slade, out transporting the wounded, come across a National Guard blockade where Jody has Rosa captive. They are turned back but Slade returns to rescue Rosa. Temple blocks begin the cue over an agitated low piano riff, recalling the Corry In Jeopardy cue, with commentary from low winds and timpani as Lew requests that Stewart turn back. Two chilling statements of Jody’s motif are heard as he manhandles Rosa away, a distraught episode for strings erupting as he rips off her jacket. Lew arrives in the nick of time, shooting Jody when he reaches for his gun. Doomy piano chords accompany the showdown, the cue ending with an uneasy, minor string chord and death rattle from maracas as the camera zooms in on Jody’s lifeless face. Slade consoles Rosa with a rescued puppy and the immortal line, “Earthquakes bring out the worst of some guys, that’s all.”

Graff Beneath Wilson Plaza [2:20]

The longest single cue of the movie accompanies Stewart’s perilous crawl through the collapsed rubble of the Wilson Plaza. The claustrophobic music begins with more low piano and a subterranean glissando from harpsichord (or possibly a prepared piano). Glassy, high-pitched violins and harp, against a low bass pedal, play a melody at times reminiscent of the main theme that John Williams would write for Dracula. With occasional ghostly contributions from flute, this cavernous music is among the most diverting in the movie and ought to have been included on the soundtrack album.

The Dam Breaks [0:18]

A series of upward harp glissandi and watery woodwinds play as the reservoir bursts through the structurally weakened dam, the dam workers running for their lives.

The Big Rescue (Parts I – IV) [1:04], [0:39], [0:21], [0:29]

The rescue of the survivors from the basement level car park at Wilson Plaza is inter cut with scenes of the destruction wrought by the oncoming flood waters from the dam. This scene could have been much more tense and exciting with less choppy editing and better use of music. Although Williams wisely chose not to compete with sound effects for the earthquake and flood scenes in the movie, the rescue scenes in this sequence would have benefited from a more consistent thematic approach with some scoring during the flood scenes to give the sequence more continuity. The first portion of music features several instances of Jody’s motif while the final portion appears to be tracked with the electric guitar music first heard in Miles’ Stunt Ramp, even though neither Jody (dead) nor Miles (last seen on his bike fleeing the maelstrom) appear in the scene. The second and third portions, featuring low woodwind and upward piano glissandi, are a longer reprise of music heard before in the cue The Dam Inspection. The resulting impression is of a sequence and score edited hastily at the last minute. This is a shame, as Williams has written some of his most gripping music to accompany similar situations, for example the long ‘Planting The Charges’ cue in The Towering Infernoor even the Brucknerian bombast that knits together the final scenes of John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday.

Stewart Turns Back For Remy [1:02]

Williams more than makes up for the incongruity of the last sequence with his music for Stewart’s doomed attempt to rescue Remy, who has fallen back into the swell of the flooded drain. A brief reprise of the love theme is heard as Stewart looks up at a waiting Denise for one last, fateful time before deciding that he cannot let Remy perish. Fans of Williams’ music for Jaws 2 (in particular part of the cue ‘Eddie’s Death’) will relish the orchestral fireworks that ensue as Stewart battles to reach Remy, although the music is at times difficult to hear above the sound of rushing water. Swirling low strings are punctuated by repeated, unison hits from high piano, anvil and shrieking violins, Williams correctly deciding that these upper register sounds would be heard best over the roar of the flood waters. Lew Slade is the last to emerge from the drain; there is no sign of Stewart or Remy.

Love Scene (Finale) * [0:29]

The album track that claims to be Finale, End Title is neither, at least not in the finished version of the movie. Certain key scenes from the movie were left on the cutting room floor at the eleventh hour prior to the theatrical release, including a poignant conversation between Slade and Denise at the end of the picture. Perhaps Williams scored the scene with something similar to the album track, which was then dropped and replaced with a portion of the love theme when the scene was edited? If anyone knows the story behind this, please let me know! In the movie, a tearful Denise walks disconsolately away to a brief reprise of the love scene music, consisting of two excerpts [0:00 – 0:17] and [2:01 – 2:14] of the album track.

The City Sleeps (End Title) * [2:04]

As is so often the case with Williams (not least in his other disaster movie scores), he saves his best till last. Dr. Vance tells Slade, “This used to be a hell of a town, officer.” “Yeah,” replies a downcast Lew, fighting back tears. As the camera pulls away, a dreamy and echoing electronic vibe is heard (played by vibraphone on the album version), after which Williams presents a noble string elegy for the victims of the quake while flute, clarinet and oboe play a repeating, heartbreaking 12-note phrase related to the city theme. The phrase is taken up by brass over determined tremolo strings and a timpani pulse, crescendoing to a cymbal crash, timpani roll and fortissimo strings before the music subsides, giving way to a warm duet between flute and clarinet. One of Williams’ finest end titles ends optimistically with a long major chord and upward harp arpeggio. Fortunately, this end title cue can be heard in full on the album as the track The City Sleeps.

So, there you have it. Earthquake may not be the best movie ever made, but there is no better way to spend a rainy afternoon indoors than watching this irresistible hokum unfold. Recent years have seen excellent and more or less complete CD releases of John Williams’ original soundtracks for The Poseidon Adventure andThe Towering Inferno. Is it not about time that Earthquake received a similar treatment?

In the words of Lew Slade, “I think it’s beautiful.”