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The Music of Sam Peckinpah’s Films

The Music of Sam Peckinpah’s Films

After seeing Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, Jean Renoir said, “Mr. Peckinpah knows much about the music of the soul.” But Peckinpah also knew much about music itself. Famous for his action sequences and depictions of violence, he rarely called for them to be scored, believing the sounds of fighting supply a terrible music all their own that a score would merely dilute or hype (a valuable lesson few of his legion of imitators learned). For him, music counterpointed the violence and supported or otherwise gave expression to mood, character, atmosphere, and feeling. As much as he was the “Picasso of violence,” he was even more one of cinema’s great lyric masters.

His favorite composer-colleague was Jerry Fielding, who scored six of his fourteen films. (Fielding was also Clint Eastwood’s composer.) Thanks to the tireless efforts of Nick Redman, a producer and documentarian who’s restored countless film scores, complete soundtracks to all the Peckinpah-Fielding films (except Junior Bonner, one of the best collaborations) are available in limited-edition releases of the original cues—the italics emphasizing that Redman’s releases contain every cue actually used in the films, not just selections rerecorded and rearranged, as is typical of most so-called “original soundtrack recordings.”

Fielding’s scores are distinguished by melodic profusion (original and borrowed, e.g., Mexican folk songs in The Wild Bunch), rhythmic sophistication and complexity, inventive combinations of instruments, and instruments used in innovative ways (trombones recorded at 15-ips tape speed and then played back at 30-ips during the rape scene in Straw Dogs, a chilling effect that, once heard, is never forgotten). Like most film music, stylistically these scores are rooted in Wagnerian leitmotifs, with recurring phrases and melodies and harmonic, rhythmic, and instrumental patterns and combinations associated with the characters, thematic ideas, and states of mind and feelings used to develop the drama. The titles that follow are on CD from analog stereo masters.

The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros.), a Western epic set in 1913 on either side of the Texas-Mexico border, is Peckinpah’s and Fielding’s greatest collaboration in a score that Fielding once told me contains the best cue he’d written for any film, “Dirge and Finale.”

Straw Dogs (Intrada): Peckinpah told Fielding he wanted the score to be “ironic.” Having no idea what he meant, the composer played him samples of music—so many the director drifted off until suddenly he sat bolt upright and exclaimed, “That’s it! That’s the sound I want.” It was a piece from L’Histoire du Soldat, and that became the model for a score both astonishingly effective and original.

The Getaway (Film Score Silver Age Classics) was Peckinpah’s only genre film outside the Western, a star vehicle for Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. McQueen ultimately replaced Fielding’s score with a conventional one by Quincy Jones that hyped the action. Nick Redman has restored Fielding’s original—previously heard only by the preview audiences—and it’s one of Fielding’s most innovative, with instrumental combinations that might draw a smile from Boulez.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Columbia): No survey of Fielding and Peckinpah would be complete without mention of the one that got away. What began as a collaboration between Fielding, who was going to write the score, and Bob Dylan, who planned to contribute a couple of songs, changed after Fielding reacted so negatively to Dylan’s material that he withdrew before composing a bar of music, leaving Dylan, who’d never scored a film before, on his own. When Dylan’s music works—the droning voices against soaring flutes that underscore Garrett’s walk through the dark streets of Fort Sumner on the way to the fated encounter—it’s superb scoring by any standard; when it doesn’t, as in the monotonous opening cue, well, let’s just say it doesn’t. The song that so offended Fielding? “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” underneath the death of the old sheriff played by Slim Pickens. I stand second to no one in my admiration for Fielding, but I believe he was wrong about that one.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Killer Elite (Intrada): These are the last collaborations between Fielding and Peckinpah. Once past the exceptionally effective first 30 minutes, The Killer Elite is the only time Peckinpah seemed to be on autopilot. But Alfredo Garcia, one of his boldest, most personal films, widely reviled on its initial release, has since been recognized as a modern neo-gothic classic. Fielding’s scores are fine for both, but Alfredo finds him combining the evocative lyricism of The Wild Bunch with the twisted psychology of Straw Dogs.

TAS Senior Writer Paul Seydor is a distinguished film editor who has been nominated for an Oscar for his short documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage and is the recipient of an American Cinema Editors award. He is also a noted critic and scholar whose Peckinpah: The Western Films (1980; revised 1997) is widely regarded as the finest critical study of the director’s work and one of the finest of an individual director. In his latest book, The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film, due out February of this year, Seydor draws upon both areas of expertise to tell the story of how a film Peckinpah never completed came to exist in five different versions, including the 2005 Special Edition that Seydor himself prepared. 

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