Strauss had his Vienna woods, Respighi his Roman pines, and so Lalo Schifrin has a bygone pastoral. ‘Tis a vast imperium of flared trousers and bushy sideburns, vaulting car chases, gaga zoom-ins, kung fu setpieces, and the most powerful handgun in the world that would blow your head clean off.
This is the realm of a composer who emerged in the macho rat pack of late-’60s Hollywood, going on to score an entire epoch of superfly dystopia: Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon, Mannix, Starsky und Hutch—these and other car-hood-jumping capers drove Schifrin’s mix of twitching Latin percussion, synth-borne exotica, and big-band rock riffs so deeply into our unconscious that today it sits on the brink between supreme cheese and pop genius. And Schifrin, now 70, boasts the sort of only-in-Hollywood career that includes both a TV pilot- spawned single called “Ape Shuffle” and the most famous 5/4 theme in Western music. For Mission: Impossible alone, he lives forever as premier bard of action film.
Obviously there’s a lot more to a world-class jazz pianist and arranger than a tune most recently recorded by Limp Bizkit. Schifrin’s scores remain among the handful that dependably outshine the film (see: Rush Hour 2) and frequently stand alone as pillars of development and orchestration. His blue chip would be for Cool Hand Luke, the gently plucked guitar revealing loneliness within Paul Newman’s laconic rebel. But the Schifrin mythos is something much more fun and meretricious: priapic jazz, gimmicky funk, epochal action sounds that represent a Latin answer to John Barry. The Bullitt score is paradigmatic. It’s Echt copshow, with low-register flute stealth and bongo chase mambos, but centered around a slyly effective jazz theme for the film’s tight-wound hero (who, as played by Steve McQueen, could use all the emotional nuance the score could give him). Three years later, this kind of subtle characterization reached its apogee in Schifrin’s jazz-funk Wozzeck: Dirty Harry.
In retrospect, a good third of Clint Eastwood’s errant detective derives from the sound of funky, Watergate decadence that accompanied him through San Francisco’s windblown city streets. Without that wah-wah guitar and fuzz bass this Harry wouldn’t be nearly as dirty. And while the film’s psycho-killer has one of the most distinctive leitmotifs in the entire Schifrin canon—a swooning miasma of buzzing cicada and whispery female vocals—Harry’s own musical treatment is actually the more striking one. Following his journey from cop to vigilante, the score actually paints a portrait several shades darker than the script—moving from the simmering, Miles Davis panther walk that greets his entrance to the crystallization of this ethos into something much chillier. When Harry wounds the villain in an empty football stadium, harsh zings across piano strings match the glare of floodlights, atonal pizzicato bass follows his walk towards fallen prey, and a shivery free-jazz crescendo charts the deliquescence of Harry’s mind. This,as the camera pulls back on one of the more indelible tableaux in American law and order films: cop torturing suspect on the 50-yard line.
Bruce Lee received no such complex characterizations. But that was probably a low priority when he hired Schifrin, whose Mission: Impossible theme had been his preferred workout music for years. Instead, the Argentine jazz pianist and Chinese kung-fu emissary ended up producing a triumph of ersatz pop multiculturalism. With its boogaloo bass and wah-wah guitar, Enter the Dragon’s score reveals the film’s boilerplate of blaxploitation. Yet even deliriously pre-P.C. touches like ’40s-newsreel gongs and piano plinks can’t gainsay the momentum Schifrin’s sinister funk lent these fight scenes (his earlier scores had already been widely pirated onto chopsocky films in China). “I just make the changes that are already there,” he shrugged to an interviewer recently, going on to say that action soundtracks should state their themes in under four seconds— either the quips of a contented functionary or a Zen-like art-philosophy worthy of Bruce Lee, who called his martial art the “style of no style.”
Or maybe both. Somehow, Schifrin’s absorption in enabling thrills was deep enough to sustain him through years of impossible missions like Doctor Detroit and The Cat from Outer Space, all the while retaining a respect for crash, flash, and spectacle. In Bullitt, right before the chase scene, the horns and telegraphic bassline build an unbearable tension as cop and crooks spot each other, weaving steadily through afternoon traffic. But right at the crooks’ tire-squealing left turn into flight, the music simply stops. It yields to the Sturm and Drang of carburetor and brake pad, a three-minute duet for Charger and Mustang played out on the San Francisco hills. This bold choice was true to Schifrin’s oeuvre, a celebration of two bad-ass American vehicles, lowbrow, high octane, and very, very fast. —CHRIS NORRIS