I was newly minted as the Los Angeles Times Critic when The French Lieutenant’s Woman opened to great fanfare in the fall of 1981. I was still wildly conscious that the people who made these films, and knew them from the inside out, were reading what I wrote. I also cared desperately for the film and worried that I hadn’t done it justice. (Truthfully, I almost never lose that feeling.) So, when the Times’ uber Arts editor, Charles Champlin, said that its director, Karel Reisz, wanted very much to meet me, I was stunned.
I knew his history: Czech-born, he had been in the forefront of the British New Wave for years. What was this about? Complaints? Mistakes? Omissions? No, simply a lovely, civilized lunch with the three of us at Michael’s (where, of course, I’d never been) with a director I revered.
Conversation and movie gossip began easily, Reisz was charm incarnate, and I almost unclenched. Then, just as dessert arrived, he turned to me, pleasantly.
“Why did you say what you did about the music?”
“The music?” (I froze. Sweet leaping Jesus, what HAD I said about the music?)
“ You said the music near the end was like Verklaerte Nacht. . .”
Relief flooded through me. If this was an exam, I had this one aced. Schoenberg’s music was also used in the ballet Pillar of Fire, and if you saw its overheated sexual melodrama for the first time when you were 11, it’s unlikely that you’d ever forget it, either. Or its music.
“Ohhhhhhh! Well, when Jeremy Irons’ boat comes around the bend to find Meryl Streep.., the violins have that thrumming bit, you know. . .it goes. .. ” I may even have whistled the thrumming bit, just to make my point. “It’s really very like the Schoenberg . . . well, just very briefly.” Mercifully, I held back Pillar of Fire.
Reisz studied me for a long minute.
“That’s very interesting. You know, we edit to temp music, and Verklaerte Nacht was what I had chosen. I thought we had a spy in the editing room.”
My eyes must have been round marbles. He went on:
“It’s fatal for the film composer ever to hear the temp, it always seeps through, one place or another.”
“Ummmm, “ I nodded, sagely, in complete agreement.
As we left, he put his arm through mine. All I could think was, “‘A spy in the editing room”… So that’s how a director’s mind works. A great director. Oh my, this job is going to be very . . . delicate.