Janet Leigh screams as Bernard Herrmann's violins shriek in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
Janet Leigh screams as Bernard Herrmann's violins shriek in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."

During my interview with the late, great film composer Henry Mancini, who had just finished the score for ABC's hugely successful miniseries "The Thorn Birds," he told me he always began his public concerts by having the orchestra just strike up the first four notes of "The Pink Panther."

"That's all they needed to hear," he said, "for them to burst into applause."

Believe it, brother. Those are immortal notes because you immediately know you're in for a jolly time with another wacky "Pink Panther" movie or cartoon. If you've ever looked around and watched the crowd react to those four notes, you already know people start smiling broadly before they even start clapping.

Think about that for a moment. Just four notes and they can put a big crowd in a really happy mood. Now think some more. How many notes from John Williams' score for "Jaws" do you need to hear before you lift your legs out of the water? And then there's the familiar dum-de-dum-dum notes that opened each episode of TV's "Dragnet." Hear those and you know you're in for a spell of "just the facts, Ma'm" from Jack Webb & Co. And would anyone willingly step into a shower if they heard a violin shrieking in the background with Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" theme?

Music in the movies can be emotional shorthand. All you need to hear is a few notes of a certain kind and you know you're in Apache territory. A few notes of a different sort and you know you're in the presence of English royalty. If three menacing notes are played ponderously loud on a descending scale, you know something very big and very nasty is coming for you...like maybe the giant gorilla in the original "King Kong."

Ray Milland cuddles Gail Russell as a ghostly presence hears him play an elusive tune by composer Victor Young in The Uninvited.
Ray Milland cuddles
Gail Russell as a ghostly presence
hears him play an elusive tune by
composer Victor Young in
"The Uninvited."

We are now so used to having film composers manipulate our emotions and our senses with very sharply-angled musical phrases that we sometimes don't even notice it while it's happening. But there are times when composers make music that's so indispensable to what you're seeing on the screen that you literally can't imagine the movie working without those notes.

Here are 10 films that come to mind with musical scores so integral to the success of the movie that it's impossible to conceive of enjoying the film without them:

1. Anton Karas' zither score for Carol Reed's dark thriller (1949).

Reed's decision to make the zither music almost a character in the film was a stroke of genius. The film takes place in postwar Vienna, a divided city with several governments sharing law enforcement chores in their own zones and an enigmatic black marketeer named Harry Lime (Orson Welles) trying to slip away while they all think he's dead. The choice of that unusual stringed instrument says "old Vienna" to the audience while the images we see are telling us Vienna has been fractured into pieces that may never be put back together again. Reed sometimes swells the zither music so high that it pounds at us, screeches at us, making us feel the paranoia of the time and the place. It's still one of the all-time great film scores and it produced an instrumental hit--Karas' "Third Man Theme"--that topped the charts.

2. Johnny Mandel's intense jazz score for Robert Wise's 1958 real-life drama

Susan Hayward plays convicted murderess Barbara Graham, facing execution unless San Francisco newsman Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland) can prove her innocent and save her life. Mandel pulled together the very best cutting edge jazzmen of the era--including Gerry Mulligan, Shelley Manne, Bud Shank and Art Farmer--to create a nervous and nerve-wracking score that perfectly told us what level of society Barbara Graham came from and what she was facing as the clock ticked down to Judgment Day.

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten listen to the unavoidable zither music in "The Third Man."
Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten
listen to the unavoidable zither music
in "The Third Man."

3. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's majestic score for the 1938

This spirited score can stand alone as a fine piece of concert music. Close your eyes and you can see the colorful banners flying and the pageantry of the English court in the time of King Richard and the Crusaders, but when the dashing Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) steps in front of the cameras the music makes you feel like climbing into the trees with him to swing on ropes and join the attack on the henchmen of the Sheriff of Nottingham. When the music turns sweet, you want to get reckless with the exquisite Maid Marian (Olivia DeHavilland). When the music gets brisk and becomes a call to action, you want to draw your sword and help Flynn duel on the staircase with the evil sword master Basil Rathbone. Korngold's score is so evocative that I'll bet a blind person could tell you exactly what was going on up on the screen at every moment.

4. Charles Chaplin's whimsical score for (1936).

Charles Chaplin cavorts to his own music in "Modern Times"'
Charles Chaplin cavorts
to his own music in "Modern Times"'

Not only did Chaplin write, direct and star in most of his famous comedy features, but he also composed their music. In this satire of mechanized modern life--made as a "silent" film with music and sound effects, but no dialogue--Chaplin reminds us that silent movies never were really silent. They were underscored with music composed especially for the visuals that it accompanied--and Chaplin was never better as a composer than he was with "Modern Times," creating a love theme for his little tramp and waif Paulette Goddard that became the immortal standard tune "Smile," a hit many times over. Chaplin continued to write brilliant scores and had two more Hit Parade winners: "Terry's Theme" from his 1952 "Limelight," recorded by Frank Chacksfield's orchestra, and "This is My Song" from his final film, "A Countess From Hong Kong" (1967), a chart-topper when recorded by Petula Clark.

5. John Williams' score for (1977).

Steven Spielberg's big film about aliens first contacting human beings on Earth has an appropriately grand score by Williams, but the music is also absolutely essential to the story: The aliens and humans first "speak" to each other through music, playing each other five very precious musical notes that became the core of Williams' brilliant score.

6. John Williams' frightful score for (1975).

When Williams' string section sinks into the low notes and begins to thrust at you with musical jabs, you don't need to see that great white shark coming for you. You just damn well know it's there, getting closer and closer. Those notes are now so famous that you hear them in all kinds of other movies, especially comedies that want to warn you something bad's on its way.

7. The classical score of Stanley Kubrick's spectacular (1968).

There is no film music composer listed in the long, long credits for Kubrick's revolutionary sci-fi epic about the hovering presence of an alien culture since the very dawn of humankind on Earth. Kubrick and a couple of uncredited musical helpmates came up with the unique notion of using incredibly well-known symphonic works to underscore the most amazing new visuals. Who but Kubrick could have imagined us watching slowly rotating space stations in Earth orbit to the lush, romantic strains of a Strauss waltz? But it's dead-on perfect, using the music of one non-tech era to remind us of the dazzling beauty of extraordinarily futuristic machines as they slowly turn like a giant ferris wheel about the axis of planet Earth? And the use of the powerful "Thus Spake Zarathustra" to herald the presence of the alien masters at each turning point in Earth's evolution was sheer genius.

8. Max Steiner's original score for the 1933

When you think of film composer Max Steiner, you most often think of his grand and romantic music for the first great film epic of post-depression Hollywood--"Gone With the Wind." But his very cerebral and equally grand score for the original monster epic "King Kong" may be his very best. When Fay Wray is tied to the stake and the 50-foot high gorilla crunches its way through the jungle toward her, all the screaming natives go silent and all we hear are her faint screams, the thrashing of broken branches and the deep, pounding footsteps of Max Steiner's music. We already know what we're going to see before we see Kong and it's all Steiner's fault. And as the fighter planes swirl down upon the cornered gorilla, boldly challenging their machine guns from the very pinnacle of the world's tallest building, Steiner's music stirs the emotion we have to feel: Great, great sadness and grief as this monumental creature, torn from its own world and thrust into ours, gently puts down the blond beauty and faces his end as the single most powerful living being on planet Earth.

9. Victor Young's score for (1944).

In this haunting love story set in a strange mansion atop a cliff above the roaring coastal waters of England, composer Ray Milland is struggling to express the new tune that's come into his head since he moved there with his sister and fell in love with a mysterious young lady (Gail Russell) who drifts in and out of his life. Young's subtle, enchanting and romantic score suggests there's another, an uninvited presence in the house and it finally begins to show itself when Milland sets down at the piano and finally plays the elusive tune for his lady love, enraging the spirit that is haunting them both. The tune, of course, turns out to be one of the great romantic ballads of the 1940s, Young's "Stella by Starilight." You absolutely cannot feel the passion of this movie without the music of Victor Young.

10. Bernard Herrmann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's (1958).

Hitchcock's intriguing, always mysterious film is about retired police detective James Stewart's obsessive passion for a beautiful young woman who reminds him so much of a woman he loved and lost that he begins to remake her into the woman whose image fills his dreams. Its subtle clues and mercurial twists and turns required a score that creeps up on you and Bernard Herrmann delivered just what the director ordered. If you think of the shrieking violins in "Psycho," you maybe can't imagine the same composer giving us such a poignant score for another story of bizarre goings-on. But Herrmann's music sticks in your mind long after the film is over, haunting you just as the vision of Kim Novak does James Stewart.