Composer Philip Glass is exceedingly careful in picking his film projects; if he wanted to, Glass could score television commercials nonstop and easily earn enough to make his keep. Scoring a movie is a very different kind of job; you are dealing with the whims of a producer, director, and slew of others who have a vested interest in the project and might have some authority in the matter, even if lateral communication between these various folks is lacking to some degree. Glass is a serious composer who deserves a certain amount of autonomy in any project he agrees to take on, and is such a patient person that he will not resort to pulling rank on anyone in a film project unless it absolutely must be done. Glass will take on a film for less money if he can enjoy some measure of independence and it's a prestige project. That is one reason why The Secret Agent (1996) -- adapted and directed from Joseph Conrad's short novel of that name by Academy Award winner Christopher Hampton -- seemed like such a good match for Glass. The low-key property and first-rate cast -- including Bob Hoskins, Robin Williams, Patricia Arquette, and Gérard Depardieu -- seemed like a slam dunk.
The movie, when released, was a certified bomb; it cleared just barely over $100,000 in receipts upon its U.S. release, a terrible showing. There were many reasons why The Secret Agent didn't take, and some contemporary reviews cited Glass' score as a drawback; despite a strong main theme, there was a tendency for the music to bump into the action. This is curious, as The Secret Agent is one of Glass' most restrained film scores and contains some cues that one might say are very typical of his expected style, though it has some unusual moments, such as the skeletal, antiphonal figures in the cue marked "Explosives," or the uncharacteristic dramatic stings in "All the Money." While somewhat uneven, Glass' score for The Secret Agent contains some worthwhile music, and on its own it's not too bad; it has properties of atmosphere and some attractive themes, while containing nothing particularly enthralling. It just didn't fit the movie for which it was written, which -- directed by Hampton in his sophomore outing as a film director -- had such difficulties that one wonders if the music score alone could have saved it.