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CD: Felins, Les / Joy House (1964)
Review Rating:   Excellent
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February 22, 2005

Tracks / Album Length:

10 tracks / (34:48)


Composer: Lalo Schifrin

Special Notes:

Comments :    

Up to 1964, Lalo Schifrin had scored three feature-length films – his debut, the Argentinian suspense film El Jefe / The Boss (1958), and his 1964 couplet, Rhino! and Les Felins / Joy House – both for MGM.

MGM’s involvement in a French noir wasn’t shocking since the studio was just taking advantage of the sophisticated and provocative crime films that had become quite voguish during the mid- to late-fifties and early sixties, often shot in stark black & white, and graced with a tough jazz score.

What’s really surprising with Schifrin’s Felins is how it’s clearly the work of a mind with a natural instinct for drama and characters, because what’s really at the film’s core is the interplay between an unrepentant womanizer named Marc, and the obvious amusement he receives in living with two very odd and frustrated cousins, Barbara and Melinds.

Like the interior décor of the women’s chateaux, Schifrin’s music reflects the sixties, but it’s surprising how modern the music sounds today because of two very specific aspects: it’s part jazz, modern classical, and a collision of the two; and it presages some stylistic elements Schifrin would infuse in his Dirty Harry scores – urban jazz, circa 1964.

The most readily recognizable element is the grooving electric bass that became part of his signature sound, both on the small screen (Mission: Impossible) as well as the big screen (notably the funky, gilded main theme for The Venetian Affair).

Schifrin’s title theme also has a handful of wordless female vocals that one could say foreshadowed the use of vocals to imply conscience in Dirty Harry (1971) and Magnum Force (1973) but that musical indulgence – sometimes cool, smooth, or wailing-crazy – were part of the sixties sound, as well as some jazz recordings. (An offhand example that comes to mind is Oliver Nelson’s 1967 album, The Sound of Feeling, with the pinched, deranged wailings of Alyce and Rhae Andrece applied to experimental as well as popular tunes, like “My Favorite Things.”)

In addition to the solid melodic jazz cuts on Felins, there’s some beautiful orchestral cues that show how well versed Schifrin was in diverse idioms. The second half of the “Main Title” is a mean, dissonant track with eerie strings and brass, and the midsection of “Mediterranean Chase” is a marvellous collage of percussion, brass, and piano.

As scored by Schifrin, that sequence of Marc diving into a bay and avoiding a pack of goons is a perfect composer’s calling card: the action music is tense, but it also changes to match the degrees of tension when Marc evades the goons and repeatedly bumps into them during a chase that moves from a car to the water to the road to train tracks and finally a delivery truck. There’s virtually no dialogue, and Schifrin had the entire run of the soundtrack to amp up the tension through his punchy writing, which includes shifting from cool and steady cymbal taps to harsh string plucks and a timpani cluster that creates a forceful blur of noise before the addition of hard piano figures. Schifrin then piles on elements from the orchestra before a quick dissolve.

That same eye for detail is also present in simple scenes like “The Telegram,” set to a percussive fandango, and a clever section where solo clarinet and violin keep wrapping themselves around each other. Most of the album cues have been edited to create longer tracks, and the order is a bit off, but it’s a sparkling score that shows a young composer with an assured command of film scoring, as well as having fun with jazz, paying homage to French jazz of the fifties, as well as a bit of New Orleans, in “Funeral Blues.”

The score’s most enigmatic cues are near the end of the film.

In “Marc has company,” Schifrin kind of stabs one idiom with elements of another, crafting a sonic combat where one pure sound never wholly dominates or wins, so to speak. The jazz at the beginning gives way to strings, and Schifrin underscores the lengthy sequence with a wild musical palette as Marc following Barbara’s cries for help as she runs from wanted felon Vincent, both trapped within the chateaux walls.

It’s a seamless sequence where editing, cinematography and score push the characters’ desperation to their maximum, and Schifrin uses some simple tricks, like waves of brass interrupted by loud bass notes on piano - both going against the grain of a steady and breezy jazz beat.
Schifrin also gives bratty Melinda an elegant yet melancholy theme on strings that captures her naivety, but it also functions as cheat, so audiences believes right to the end that she’s incapable of being as sophisticated as older cousin Barbara, who’s been engaged in a careful plan of identity theft.

Soon after the lovely strings in “Melinda,” Schifrin switches to almost groaning female voices that, when set to a skittering electric bass, recall Ennio Morricone’s gialli scores of the late sixties/early seventies. One has to wonder if Morricone was influenced by the score, because Schifrin treads into the same terrain of intertwined rhythms, isolated sounds, and voices that converge into a potent dirge.

Aleph’s CD includes the same contents as the Universal France CD (minus bonus versions of the film’s famous “The Cat” theme, played by Jimmy Smith on organ), and the sound quality is admittedly archival. The surviving mono music stems are rather harsh, but the bass notes do resonate amid the fake echo effect that was discretely applied in the original mix, as well as to parts of the film’s mixed soundtrack.

It’s a short album, but a real gem.


© 2009 Mark R. Hasan

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