Sometimes a song is just meant for the screen. Even without any visuals to accompany it, it’s cinematic on its own; it tells a story, conveys a meaning, and conjures a time and place. “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin was born for film, quite literally, in that it was commissioned specifically to be performed by Martin in 1953’s The Caddy, but it’s somehow more at home when soundtracking a montage of people on dates eating pasta. It almost does a filmmaker’s work for them, as when director Norman Jewison pairs it with glittering imagery of Brooklyn Heights and the Metropolitan Opera House in the opening sequence of Moonstruck. The audience knows exactly what will happen next: high passions, red wine, and Italian accents.
Few songs have had the reach “That’s Amore” has commanded over the decades, and despite its overtness and obviousness, we still associate it with success and accolades. It garnered an Academy Awards nomination for Best Original Song upon its debut in The Caddy, losing to “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane as one might expect: serious fare often earns more respect than lighter material. Later, “That’s Amore” set the stage for Cher, Olympia Dukakis, and writer John Patrick Shanley to all win their sole Oscar awards. At a time when the movie-going public was buying up tickets to action movies and thrillers, the Academy slowed down, took a breath, and recognized the ambitious acting and crystal-clear characterization the cast of Moonstruck was able to deliver. In 1987, “That’s Amore” primed audiences for a comedically fraught romance with bombastic performances that mix Old World realism with stereotypes informed by the observational eye of a playwright, and they were ecstatic when that’s what they got.
Only a year after the debut of “That’s Amore,” Alfred Hitchcock borrowed it to great and jarring effect in Rear Window (also nominated for awards from the Academy). The song already had such immediacy and cultural weight that The Master of Suspense was able to subvert its romantic message by removing the lyrics and using it to score a scene where a man spies on a newlywed couple from his window through theirs. It’s impossible to avoid mentally singing the lyrics to yourself, crossing the signals in your brain between the romantic and the voyeuristic. You know intellectually that the newlyweds are in the throes of love like the song describes, but you’re not with them: you’re with the peeping tom. Hitchcock relied on the original music’s instant popularity and inherent romantic meaning to create an uncomfortable dissonance for his viewers to sit with.
Still, it remained a cultural touchstone as the epitome of earnest, treacly love through the ‘90s, appearing in sequels like Grumpier Old Men (1995) and Babe: Pig In The City (1998). The Guardian notes that the song began life as “a charming, if goofy, parody of popular Neapolitan organ-grinder music,” and the novelty vocalizations and amusing lyrics in the debut performance reinforce that supposition, but for a stretch of time people took “That’s Amore” seriously. We relied on our collective memory and shared associations to make sure the song was almost always paired with Italian cuisine and bright moonlight on-screen, frequently non-diegetically, as when one of the titular grumpier old men shares wine with his companion and the song plays over the scene, not coming from a visible radio or boombox but only added so the filmmakers can remind us how to feel. In case the images on screen aren’t clear enough, this song tells us, with all the subtlety of pizza dough falling on someone’s face.
Only when filmmakers use “That’s Amore” subversively can it be moving anymore. Perhaps the best appearance this song has made is in a 2005 episode of “Veronica Mars” where it underscores passion of a different kind. The song creeps over the action when a father explodes into violence against the abusive boyfriend of his daughter, diametrically opposed to the placid moonlit evenings depicted in the song’s lyrics and during the opening sequence of Moonstruck. That amore isn’t the romantic kind we’ve come expect since the ‘50s, but the possessive, familial love that justifies fighting anyone who threatens you and yours. This juxtaposition succeeds because for decades now everybody with two ears and a TV set has known what to expect when this piece of music plays, and this ain’t that.
As is often the case when something veers from ubiquity into trope territory, the parody song became ripe for send-ups of its own. Nintendo’s computer game Mario Teaches Typing 2 (1997) features a pun so groan-worthy one can only praise the incomparable Charles Martinet’s slippery pronunciation of “amore” as “a moray” eel. As ever, the song relies on and engenders broad generalizations about Italians. In 2005, “The Simpsons” weren’t content to bastardize just one lyric, going so far as to create a singing gondolier to shame Homer with a rousing rendition of “That’s Immoral.” They continued to rely on the song’s cultural relevance in 2012, using a version of the original song to soundtrack their parody of the short film Logorama using in-universe brands.
Tropes and clichés are powerful tools because of the weight they carry in our collective memory and imagination. Like any other symbol, it’s valuable to reexamine them in a different light and glean new meaning from them, bringing new nuances to old ways of thinking. They have value because they pack so much context into such a small package that we’ve all tacitly agreed to allow them to be our shortcut to meaning.