Lalo Schifrin was not a name I grew up knowing. In fact it’s only recently that I started paying attention when I heard this name, and ever since, I’ve noticed that unusual name cropping up in the most unusual places. Cool Hand Luke is undoubtedly one of Paul Newman’s best films and I love it, even though it makes me cry every time. Luke singing Plastic Jesus is fairly unforgettable as far as I’m concerned but that’s not the only musical moment in the film that caught my attention. Lalo Schifrin wrote the score to this 1967 Stuart Rosenberg classic and the spare, acoustic guitar theme is typical of Schifrin’s penchant for simple instrumentation. However that’s not to say he avoids heavier arrangements. In a scene where the prisoners are tarring the road Schifrin really lets loose and creates a piece of such tension and drama that it’s truly the driving force in the scene. It seems Australian television producers also noticed the drama of this particular piece of music and decided it would be ideal as the theme for the National Nine News programme. Not an exact replica, but a tweaked, modulated version, it was the tune I grew up hearing at 6pm every week night. That was my first, and unknowing introduction to Schifrin’s music.
The next time I would hear Schifrin’s music would also be unwittingly. In 1994 Portishead released Sour Times and it was a massive hit during my early teens and very typical of the mood of the mid-nineties. Portishead sampled a piece called The Danube Incident that Schifrin wrote for an episode of the popular television series Mission Impossible. It’s recognisable by the unique instrument that I believe is the cymbalom, as favoured by John Barry in the excellent Ipcress File film score.
After that I came to hear Schifrin’s music incidentally by watching Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Cool Hand Luke, Enter the Dragon and of course the Mission Impossible title theme that he has become so famous for. The Argentinian composer shows a great flair for creating tension with his film scores, using a combination of clever orchestration and compositional know-how. While jazz might be his first love, which shows through in his very stylised work of the 60s and 70s, his mastery of powerful, loud-soft-loud dynamics is evident in the Bullit score and even more so in the Clint Eastwood film, Kelly’s Heroes. A track titled Tiger Tank, instantly got my attention when I recognised not only the rough melody but the very particular arrangement of the urgent brass and brushed but persistent drums. It reminded of Wojciech Kilar’s track titled The Storm from one of my all time favourite soundtracks, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. I challenge you to listen to those two pieces and not find a striking similarity – enough to imagine a 38 year old Kilar storing it in his memory bank for later use.
So while I don’t listen to Schifrin’s music on a regular basis, I thought it was absolutely necessary to write about a man whose contribution to film music is not only highly commendable but unexpectedly influential in the strangest of ways.