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August 6, 2004
Dirty Harry Makes Day
Schifrin masterpiece now on CD

by Jon Burlingame

Lalo Schifrin, 1971
Lalo Schifrin, 1971
One of the most significant movie scores of the past 35 years has just been released for the first time on compact disc: Lalo Schifrin's original soundtrack for Dirty Harry.

Schifrin wrote music for five of director Don Siegel's films, three of which starred Clint Eastwood: Coogan's Bluff (1968), The Beguiled (1971) and Dirty Harry (also 1971). But it was that first Harry Callahan film that captured the public fancy and would spawn four sequels, making Eastwood even more famous as a San Francisco detective than he had been as a western antihero.

At the time, Schifrin was very much in demand as a composer for films, television, and records. He had been Oscar-nominated for his Cool Hand Luke and The Fox scores; had won Grammys for Mission: Impossible and jazz compositions including the groundbreaking Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts; and was constantly moving – as he still does today – between jazz club and concert hall.

The totality of Schifrin's compositional output not only defies easy categorization, it is often unfairly overlooked when critics discuss the melding of musical genres, both artistic and commercial, over the last half-century.

The musical demands of Dirty Harry encompassed jazz, rock, soul, vocal effects and atonality. Only a composer thoroughly versed in traditional classical composition, the world of jazz improvisation, and the dramatic and emotional needs of film writing, could have handled the assignment.

"Lalo did a great job on Dirty Harry," Clint Eastwood said recently, also expressing admiration for Schifrin's The Beguiled score as "very nice, very subtle." It was Eastwood who asked Schifrin back to score the sequels Magnum Force (1973), Sudden Impact (1983) and The Dead Pool (1988). (Schifrin was unavailable for 1976's The Enforcer, so Jerry Fielding filled in.)

Schifrin, reminiscing about the score for a 1998 interview, pointed out that "they were the days of a lot of upheaval and turmoil in American society," and that the killer Scorpio was, "in a way, exploiting that," wearing a peace symbol on his belt while murdering random innocents. "That gave me the idea to use some kind of acid-rock music for him. Then, he was very disturbed, deranged. He was hearing voices" – hence the use of an unsettling, breathy female voice, actually that of veteran film singer Sally Stevens.

The approach was quite daring for the time, so much so that even the critics noticed: In Time, Jay Cocks cited the "excellent, eerie jazz score by Lalo Schifrin." Variety's A.D. Murphy said "Lalo Schifrin's modernistic score is very effective." And in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote: "Lalo Schifrin's pulsating, jazzy electronic trickery drives the picture forward.... He works on you." Kael was wrong about "electronic trickery," but she was right about two things: Schifrin's score helped propel the picture, and his music does its job extremely well.

There is no actual theme for Harry Callahan, although Schifrin's main-title sequence comes as close as one might like, with its fast-moving bass figure and dark, jazzy piano solo. Visually, reminds Schifrin, "it was in the same vein as the classic Naked City, documentary-style. Clint arrives at the scene of the crime, and is in motion. It's action, it's investigation, it's not psychological. There's no time to set up a theme for him, the way it was cut, the way the titles were interspersed. So that created a style."

Schifrin did, however, write what he calls a "sad motive": "That, I used when they find the girl... and when Harry becomes disgusted with the system and throws his badge into the river. It's sad, but I tried to make it `cool' sad. It had some pathos, but it's not hysterical, reflecting his attitude." He would reprise that motive in later films (and in Sudden Impact it would become a song, "This Side of Forever," sung by Roberta Flack).

Dirty Harry, despite its huge box-office take at the time, never received an original-soundtrack album release. Perhaps it was because Schifrin's score was intense but sparse, with even the source cues rather short, sometimes even incomplete. (Even so, given the 30-minute albums that were commonplace at the time and the huge box-office take of the film, a sharp producer could have come up with a coherent album that would have sold hundreds of thousands of LPs.)

A handful of cues from the film have been released over the years, beginning with the 1974 British LP Soundtrack!, an anthology of original Warner Bros. tracks that included the complete main title; and the 1983 Viva Records LP Sudden Impact (and the Best of Dirty Harry), which offered six and a half minutes from the score but unfortunately truncated the main title and added Eastwood dialogue.

In 1998, Schifrin's own label, Aleph, released a Dirty Harry Anthology CD that gave us nearly 16 minutes of the score, although the label was apparently obligated to use producer Snuff Garrett's unsatisfactory Viva Records tracks for the main title and Scorpio music. Also in 1998, Rhino released a 75th-anniversary Warner Bros. compilation that featured a five-minute suite including the full main title.

Schifrin himself recorded – in 1972, a full year after the original October 1971 film recording sessions – a jazz-rock arrangement that combined the main title and Scorpio themes. Verve Records released this as a single, which has recently become available again on a Universal Jazz Germany CD, Lalo Schifrin: Most Wanted 1968-1979. (It includes several other fascinating obscurities, including four tracks from the 1968 Dot LP There's a Whole Lalo Schifrin Goin' On and his TV themes from Medical Center, Planet of the Apes and Most Wanted.)

But now Aleph has released the complete Dirty Harry. It's only taken 33 years to get a true "original soundtrack" album of this stunning score from one of the composer's most creative periods.

As producer Nick Redman points out in his liner notes: "Without consciously intending it, Lalo achieved with Dirty Harry an action score quite unlike any other, and one that would be come to be defined as the quintessential work in '70s action cinema." In an era in which many classic scores are emerging from the vaults for the first time, this long-awaited release of a Schifrin masterpiece ranks among the most important of all.

© 2004 Jon Burlingame

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