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CD Reviews: The Chase and The Black Swan

The Chase (1966) ****


Sony Legacy CK 89265

16 tracks - 56:05

With a script by the great Horton Foote and a cast that includes Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, The Chase could have been and should have been a hit, or at least a strong movie. But Arthur Penn's 1966 soap opera about love and betrayal in Texas flopped commercially and critically. And over the course of the four decades that have passed since its premier, this overheated "contemporary" western hasn't been re-discovered and rescued from obscurity by film critics or scholars, and it probably never will. The same cannot be said about the picture's soundtrack, however. Thanks to Sony Legacy, listeners can now enjoy a re-mastered copy of John Barry's score, which the label has released to commemorate the English composer's 70th birthday.

Alternating between classical arrangements and more popular ones, the material that makes up this collection generates a multitude of moods, ranging from gray depressions to peppy moments of joie de vivre. On a track like "What did I do Wrong?" for example, Barry surrounds a melancholy flute figure with strings that roll up and down like waves in a barren sea, creating an intensely gloomy, intensely fragile sound. "Call that Dancin'?" in contrast, is a gorgeous slab of blues, which juxtaposes a muted trumpet and a narcotic organ together to produce a sound that is sexy and dreamy and hopeful all at once. And "Saturday Night Philosopher," a rock and roll tune, features a swaggering bass and horns that zoom around each other as confidently as jet fighters in a summer sky.

But as fresh as much of this music is, there are passages that betray the obvious influence of other composers. Consider the track called "Look Around." With its seesawing rhythms and "easy listening" ambiance, the composition tips its hat to Mancini. And on "The Chase is On," one of the album's most exciting pieces, Barry develops a tense and suspenseful arrangement of strings, which he quickly disrupts with a strain of mariachi notes and an onslaught of horns and drums, a tactic that he may have borrowed from Tiomkin's themes for both Rio Bravo and Rawhide. One wonders, as well, if perhaps Barry, in 1966, wasn't also familiar with Morricone and his pop-inflected scores for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.

But these imitations -- or allusions, if you will -- only enrich the work. In other words, because of Barry's penchant for eclecticism, his score is interesting -- and charming. Few film composers, in fact, have ever been as fun as Barry. And few ever will.     -- Stephen B. Armstrong

The Black Swan (1944) ****


Screen Archives Entertainment SAE-CRS-010

17 tracks - 68:25

"When villainy wore a sash and waved a cutlass!" declared posters for The Black Swan. Naturally, the film came from a time when Hollywood pirate films were more concerned with the exploits of a dashing (if somewhat flawed) hero and heaps of swashbuckling adventure than they were with realistic portrayals of gritty pirate life -- not that these films are much more realistic today. That said, Alfred Newman's score for The Black Swan is rousing, swashbuckling music that also has a sense of fun, composed in a similar fashion as Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Sea Hawk or Captain Blood. It's the kind of music that a filmmaker of any era should be happy to have in his swashbuckler.

The score is as thematically rich as one might expect, with themes for the main characters, for the ship The Black Swan, for the villain, etc. One of the highlights is the wonderful danger motif for the ship, given a virtuoso treatment by the principal trumpet on numerous tracks. The main theme is of course first heard in the "Main Title," where Newman provides a great choral rendition that not only serves to introduce the story, but also (with lyrics by Charles Henderson) acts as a great sea shanty in the tradition of "Strike for the Shores of Dover" from Korngold's The Sea Hawk.

No score of this type would be complete without a little romance and a giant, climactic finale. Newman provides the right dose of love in the lengthy "Lady Margaret's Pillow" and "Jamie Kidnaps Lady Margaret." Only in old Hollywood do rational women fall in love their kidnappers, so it takes a characteristically passionate Newman love theme to make it at all convincing. Then, the whole orchestra is used to its fullest extent in the 15-minute final track, which scores the battle on the coast and aboard the pirate ship. The main themes for the hero and the pirates battle back and forth on the soundtrack, just as the characters duel it out on screen.

Sound quality on this release is not quite as good as Dragonwyck or Down to the Sea in Ships. But as always it's still great to have this music in the best presentation possible, with the music having been remastered well enough to hear the occasional squeaky chair from the orchestra.     -- Darren MacDonald

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