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NEC’s annual film noir concert makes music for ‘Dr. Mabuse’

Original poster for "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler"
Original poster for "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler"New England Conservatory

BROOKLINE — Once a year, the most exciting filmgoing experience in Boston isn’t at a movie theater. It’s the New England Conservatory’s annual film noir concert, at Jordan Hall. The series celebrates its 15th anniversary with this year’s screening. Fritz Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and Inferno” (1922). screens on Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, but a ticket is required.

Produced by the NEC faculty members Ran Blake and Aaron Hartley, the series screens scenes from one or more classic films, accompanied by original music composed and performed by NEC students and faculty.

“We try to bring in just a diverse group of musicians,” Hartley said. How diverse? This year’s 30 to 40 participants span a dizzying array of genres. “I wish we had more classical people,” Blake said. “We have everything from rap to avant-garde to gospel. Somebody wanted to do bluegrass, but he got called for a gig so we won’t use it.”

Ran Blake at the piano in his Brookline apartment.
Ran Blake at the piano in his Brookline apartment. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Mabuse, the first great screen criminal mastermind, has figured into the event in nearly a dozen movies. Lang directed three of them. Clearly, this most controlling of villains had a special appeal for that most controlling of filmmakers. That first Mabuse film is “approximately 4½-5 hours of viewing,” Blake noted. "We’ve reduced that to an hour and 50 minutes. So we make the material more accessible to people.”

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Blake, 84, has taught at NEC since 1967. A legendary jazz pianist, he and composer Gunther Schuller, who was then NEC president, founded the conservatory’s contemporary improvisation program, in 1972. The extent of the Springfield native’s love of movies is indicated by the titles of some of his recordings: “Film Noir” (1980), “Vertigo” (1985), “Chabrol Noir” (2015). Of special relevance is “Portfolio of Dr. Mabuse” (1982). Blake and an NEC colleague, Gardiner Hartmann, are writing a book called “Storyboarding Noir.”

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In his CD- and DVD-filled apartment a few days ago, Blake talked about music and movies.

Q. You’ve said that Mabuse is the figure of noir.

A. I know “The Cabinet of Caligari” [1920] came before, but to me Mabuse is the grandfather of noir. You see him in so many movies, from “Whirlpool” (1949) to Keanu Reeves’s character in “The Gift” [2000] to thousands of others.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge (center) as Dr. Mabuse.
Rudolf Klein-Rogge (center) as Dr. Mabuse.New England Conservatory

Q. Maybe this is saying the same thing, but to me Mabuse isn’t the grandfather of noir but the father of the paranoid thriller.

A. Well, to me noir has a bigger definition than even jazz. To me, jazz can be Gunther Schuller, a string quartet, Ornette [Coleman], Aretha [Franklin] belting it out with Mahalia [Jackson].

Q. Do you remember how you first encountered noir.

A. I saw my first movie at 4, but noir started with “The Spiral Staircase.” That came out in 1946. It was at the Art Theatre in Springfield. I must have seen it 15, 16 times. I took money from my parent’s drawer [to pay for admission]. I never did that before or after. I got mesmerized.

Q. Who are the film composers you most like?

A. In the program for the screening, I write of how much I admire Konrad Elfers’s original “Mabuse” score. I like Pierre Jansen, who did music for [Claude Chabrol’s] “Le Boucher,” “This Man Must Die,” and “Rupture.” I like very much Bernard Herrmann, of course — his “Hangover Square” [1945], for example. I think “Taxi Driver” [1976] is amazing. I like his score for a sort of gory movie, “Sisters” (1972), which I think is Brian De Palma’s best. Oh, there are so many. Miklós Rózsa. Nino Rota. But even mediocre scores of the ’40s have good stuff. Oh, Alex North, “A Streetcar Named Desire” [1951], he never duplicated it. Leith Stevens, “The Wild One,” which involved [the jazz trumpeter] Shorty Rogers. David Raksin’s score for “Laura” [1944].

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Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr. Mabuse in disguise.
Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr. Mabuse in disguise.New England Conservatory

Q. How hard is it to pick the film or films?

A. Oh, that’s easy. At one point we were afraid we’d get hit for copyright. But we don’t charge anything, and I’m 84 now. I’m not going to be here. I don’t mind if I get sued, maybe I’ll get a free concert out of it! It’s not like I’m touring the country [with these concerts]. With Aaron, I did produce my favorite 15 movie scenes — including from “Mabuse” and the drowning scene in “Leave Her to Heaven” [1945] — accompanying them on piano. I did that in Houston.

Q. By difficult, I don’t mean procedurally, with paperwork and financially. I meant in terms of there being so many movies to choose from.

A. Oh, that is hard. I have a six-page list of noir titles. It’s my bible.

Q. So you must already be thinking of the next concert.

A. I’m considering one of the titles being “Mirage” [1965]. Edward Dmytryk, who did “Murder, My Sweet" [1944], directed that. Quincy Jones did the score. There’s another great film composer.

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Q. Why does noir have this hold on you?

A. I’ve always loved the dark and macabre. It just became an obsession with me. Even in non-noir movies — like the scene in [the screwball comedy] “Bringing Up Baby” [1938], doing animal calls in the woods — I look for noir everywhere in life. I don’t want overt violence or blood. It’s this feeling of uncertainty, of being lost. You ask me why. I don’t know. I love concerts, I can remember many that I’ve seen. But the movies make a great imprint on my mind, my heart, my soul.

Ran Blake with his cat, Dektor.
Ran Blake with his cat, Dektor. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Go to necmusic.edu/events/contemporary-improvisation-film-noir-dr-mabuse.

Interview was edited and condensed.



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.