David Raksin, a Hollywood composer whose haunting score from the film noir classic "Laura" is considered one of the finest cinematic blendings of music and story, died Aug. 9, five days after his 92nd birthday, at his home in Los Angeles. He had cardiovascular disease.
He was one of the last of the all-purpose studio composers of Hollywood's golden age, capable of writing anything from catchy popular songs to soaring rhapsodies to music for Westerns and horror films.
He wrote the scores for more than 100 films and was widely honored in his later years, but he was also criticized for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his Communist Party membership. A gregarious, cultivated man whose interests encompassed architecture, history, philosophy and politics, Mr. Raksin had a wide range of friends over the years, including George Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Igor Stravinsky and Frank Zappa.
Yet it is for "Laura," a 1944 film directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney, that Mr. Raksin will be remembered. For the film, about a police detective who falls in love with the portrait of a woman he believes was murdered, Preminger said he wanted to use either "Summertime" or "Sophisticated Lady" as the recurrent theme. Mr. Raksin said he'd try to come up with something new.
Inspired by a Dear John letter he had just received from his wife, actress Pamela Randell, Mr. Raksin composed the romantically bittersweet theme on a Sunday night. He presented it to Preminger the next morning. The music recurs throughout the movie in varying forms and is considered a landmark of musical writing for film.
Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics that helped make "Laura" a huge hit:
Laura is the face in the misty lights
Footsteps that you hear down the hall
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall
It has been recorded more than 400 times, by artists including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Jackie Gleason. Cole Porter once said that if there was a song he wished he had written, it was "Laura."
Mr. Raksin received two Academy Award nominations, for "Forever Amber" (1947) and "Separate Tables" (1958), but none for his most enduring work. There were 20 nominations for best score of 1944, but "Laura" was not among them.
Mr. Raksin was born in Philadelphia, where his father ran a music store, led an orchestra at a silent movie house and occasionally played clarinet with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The younger Raksin studied piano and woodwind instruments, and was leading his own dance bands by the time he was 12. He worked his way through the University of Pennsylvania by playing in bands and for radio stations, teaching himself orchestration on the side.
After he wrote an arrangement of "I Got Rhythm" for Oscar Levant, Mr. Raksin met the song's composer, George Gershwin, who found him a job as an arranger on Broadway. He also worked as an assistant to the celebrated conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, before moving to Hollywood in 1935 to write the music for Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times."
From 1938 to 1940, Mr. Raksin had been a member of the Communist Party, until he grew disillusioned. Summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, he named 11 Communist sympathizers -- all of whom either were dead or previously identified.
"I felt like a cornered rat," he told The Washington Post in 1997. "I was not unaware that I had no money, a brand-new child, a wife. I'd lose everything I had, my career would be at an end."
Many friends in Hollywood then shunned him, but he remained active in the studios. Over the years, he wrote scores for such well-known films as "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Force of Evil," "Pat and Mike" and "Life With Father." One of his most interesting scores, borrowing elements of jazz and blues, was for the 1952 Kirk Douglas film "The Bad and the Beautiful."
Mr. Raksin also wrote the themes for the television shows "Wagon Train," "Ben Casey" and "Medical Center," as well as the 1983 TV movie "The Day After." In 1986, he premiered a classical work for voices and chamber orchestra, "Oedipus Remembers," at the Library of Congress.
Mr. Raksin taught film composition at the University of Southern California from 1958 to 2003. In the 1970s, he wrote and narrated 64 one-hour programs for public television, "The Subject Is Film Music."
At USC in the 1960s, he also pioneered an interdisciplinary course on urban design, which became known as the "urban semester," combining architecture, history and sociology.
Mr. Raksin continued to write new arrangements of his movie music until recently and finished a 250,000-word autobiography.
His marriages to Pamela Randell and Jo Raksin ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from the second marriage, Alex Raksin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer with the Los Angeles Times, and Valentina Raksin, both of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.
Sixty years after its release, "Laura" remains a cult film classic, largely for its music. When actress Hedy Lamarr was asked why she had turned down the lead role, she said, "Because they sent me the script instead of the score."