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BULLITT – Lalo Schifrin

February 19, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Steve McQueen was seeking a script for his next film and took a liking to author Robert Fish’s novel Mute Witness (1963). His production company Solar Productions purchased the film rights, and brought in Alan Trustman and Henry Kleiner to write the screenplay. He made a surprising choice to bring in English director Peter Yates after viewing the stunning extended car chase scene in his last movie, Robbery (1967). McQueen chose to change the film’s title to “Bullitt”, which based his character Frank Bullitt on real life San Francisco Inspector Dave Toschi, with who he studied as part of his training and orientation to police procedures and practices. McQueen would play the titular role, which would be a departure for him in that for the first time he would abandon his ‘rebel’ persona and join the Establishment as a police officer. To round out the cast, McQueen brought in Robert Vaughn as Walter Chalmers and Jacqueline Bisset as Cathy.

The film offers a classic crime thriller that involves an ambitious politician Walter Chalmers who sees an opportunity for advancement by presenting a secret star witness to expose the criminal activities of the mob. Bullitt and two other officers are assigned protection duty of the witness Johnny Ross, but botch the assignment, and two mob hit men murder Ross. After some great detective work Bullitt identifies the hit men, tracks them down, and then launches one of the greatest car chase scenes in the history of cinema. Bullitt takes out the hit men in a massive gas station explosion, but soon discovers that an imposter was murdered, and that the real Ross remains alive. He tracks him down to the San Francisco airport where he discovers he has joined Chalmers. An intense chase scene through the terminal leads to Bullitt killing Ross as Chalmers drives off in a limousine with a “Support Your Local Police” bumper sticker. The film was a huge commercial success, earning more than seven times its production cost of $5.5 million. It also secured critical recognition with two Academy Award nominations, winning one for Best Film Editing.

Lalo Schifrin was brought in to provide a gritty urban score. In a meeting with McQueen he was advised by him to be mindful that Bullitt was a simple guy. Schifrin responded that he would write a simple score for him, but that its foundation would be Blues. He brought in a small ensemble to provide his bluesy jazz soundscape, which included guitar, bass and electric bass, flute, saxophone, strings, piano, organ, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, drums and assorted percussion. The end result offers a highly rhythmic and bluesy jazz-pop fusion that perfectly carries both the intense action, but also more intimate interludes. For the film, Schifrin created a single theme, Bullitt’s Theme, as he was the heart and soul of the story. He departed from the usual cliché use of saxophone, preferring a new and more interesting combination of guitar and alto flute, which play over a counter staccato bass line with funky horn bursts. Notable is how Schifrin modulates the theme to setting, especially for intimate moments with Frank’s gal Cathy where the melody softens and becomes tender. The final result was an exciting score that expertly blends acoustic orchestral film-scoring techniques, modern rock source music, with the funky rhythms classic jazz. The review uses the original film score with a few re-recorded cues, which were cut from the film.

“Main Title” opens the film with a panorama of the night lit Chicago skyline. Schifrin sows unease and tension with strings disturbati, funky percussion and electric guitar. The opening credits roll as the camera shifts to the building’s interior atop horn declarations and clave percussion, which reveal the source of the tension. Johnny Ross, who has decided to expose the mob in the upcoming Senate subcommittee meeting, flees for his life with mob hit men in pursuit. Schifrin emotes Bullitt’s Theme into the mix, not to introduce him, but rather as an allusion to his future involvement in the case. We close intensely as Johnny’s brother assists him escape, which precipitates a scene change to San Francisco. Schifrin really sets the tone of the film well with this marvelous piece. Bullitt is roused from bed by fellow officer Delgetti and taken to see Senator Chalmers who recruits him to organize a police detail to protect Ross so he can offer crucial testimony to a Senate subcommittee. Schifrin and Yates chose to not spot music for these early scenes. In “Architect’s Building” Bullitt visits his girlfriend Cathy, who is an architect, at her office. Schifrin conceived a relaxed and free-flowing rendering of Bullitt’s Theme on saxophone, flute, guitar, piano and strings, a softened variant reflective of his demeanor with his girl. Regretfully, the music was excised from the film.

“Cantata for Combo” reveals Frank and Cathy enjoying time together at the Coffee Cantata restaurant. Schifrin perfectly supports the dining ambiance with a soft jazz line carried by a small ensemble of flute animato, guitar and strummed bass. The restaurant scene continues in “A Song for Cathy” where we see our lovers enamored, their eyes speaking volumes as they gaze at each other. We change scenes to the Hotel Daniels where we see Frank receiving a phone call from officer Delgetti. In “Hotel Daniels” Ross listens to guitar driven source rock as Delgetti updates Bullitt over the phone. In a continuation of the scene with “Room 26”, Ross listens to some horn driven big band jazz under the watchful eye of officer Stanton. A phone call from the front desk states that Chalmers and his assistant are here to visit Ross. As Stanton seeks guidance from Bullitt, Ross on his own initiative unlocks the door, only to realize the men are mob assassins. In “The Aftermath of Love” the mobsters force their entry as the door opens and gun down both Stanton and Ross. Schifrin juxtaposes the carnage with soft layers of gentle Latin rhythms carried by trumpet and flute. “Dr. Willard” reveals the physician informing Bullitt that Stanton has only a 50-50 chance of surviving his wounds. Bullitt proceeds to Stanton’s room where he see Stanton’s wife keeping a hopeful vigil at bedside. Schifrin conceived to support Bullitt’s sadness and regret with a lament carried beautifully by strings, harp, saxophone and piano, however the music was dialed out of the film.

“Ice Pick Mike” is a high-octane action piece and score highlight! Ross survived his wounds and the mobster Mike arrives with an ice pick to quietly finish him once and for all. However, his stealth approach in the stairwell is exposed by a nurse who screams, alerting Bullitt of his presence. As Bullitt chases him down the stairwell Schifrin propels the action with kinetic jazz chase music carried by intense bongo rhythms, sax, trombones agitato and aggressive piano strikes. Upon arriving in the basement, the chase ends, and a rising tension builds on a percussive array of brushed steel drums, roto-toms, piano, timpani, boom bams, suspended cymbals and strings as Bullitt searches its recesses. The chase renews after Bullitt flushes Mike out with trilling sax, trombone blasts, stings agitato and tabla support his escape through a laundry room window! In “Quiet Morning” Ross has died from his wounds, and Bullitt solicits Dr. Willard’s assistance to hide the death and misplace the corpse by identifying it as “John Doe” in hope of eliciting the mob to make another attempt on his life. As Bullitt returns to his neighborhood to shop, a soft rendering of his theme carries his progress, with a wonderful transition in its articulation from bluesy alto flute and guitar, to solo piano, before finally concluding on dirty sax as he returns home.

“Music to Interrogate By” was dialed out of the film. It reveals Bullitt and Delgetti seeking to gain additional information on the hit by questioning the front lobby desk clerk at the Hotel Daniels. He provides a description of the hit men and the name of the cab company (Sunshine), which transported Ross to the hotel. A source funky jazz cue was intended to support the scene. In “Just Coffee” Frank is home preparing to depart for work, and Cathy brings him a cup of coffee. He receives and angry phone from Chalmers and Captain Baker, who have discovered that Ross has gone missing. Once again Schifrin plays against the scene by offering a plaintive rendering of his theme as Frank realizes that he is in trouble with the brass. Schifrin shifts his melody from alto flute to English horn accompanied by strummed guitar and bass.

“Shifting Gears” is a score highlight, where Schifrin brilliantly sets the stage for one of the greatest car chases in cinematic history. Bullitt is driving his Mustang and realizes that mob hit men in a Dodge Charger are trailing him. An ever shifting syncopated percussive tension builds powered by strongly strummed bass and dirty jazz horns to support his realization. With some deft driving he manages to lose them in traffic, which Schifrin supports by augmenting the jazz line with a dirty sax. Funky horns and sleazy strings animato join as the mobsters seek to reacquire him. A look in the rear view mirror alerts them that Bullitt is now trailing them, which is supported by sax and pulsing low register bass. Tension slowly builds until all hell breaks loose as the mobsters flee and Bullitt pursues. Yates and Schifrin chose to let the chase unfold without music, supported only by the roaring engines and car chassis banging on the pavement.

In “On the Way to San Mateo” Cathy is driving Frank to the Hotel San Mateo to follow-up on a lead. He intends to question Dorothy Simmons who received a phone call from Ross. A relaxed, yet playful flute rendering of Bullitt’s Theme carries their progress, arrival at the hotel, and escort up to Dorothy’s room. Upon entering her room they discover to their horror that she has been strangled to death. “The First Snowfall” is revelatory as Bullitt discovers a deception, that Ross was not murdered, instead an imposter, Albert Renick, Dorothy’s husband was the victim. He and Delgetti proceed to the airport where they discover the real Ross preparing to escape to London under the name of Albert Renick. Schifrin supports the scene with a source cue composed by Sony Burke, which offers bright energetic horns. “Ross” was dialed out of the film. Bullitt boards the Ross’s plane and orders all the passengers to disembark. Ross uses the unsettled conditions to jump off the plane and make a run to escape. Bullitt, takes off in pursuit. The cue offers a grating electronic metallica, Schifrin’s original conception for the scene.

“Air Terminal—Main Lobby” reveals Bullitt’s intense pursuit of Ross through the airport terminal. Schifrin sows suspense with eerie string sustains, and then propels the scene with pizzicato strings and dynamic percussion. As Delgetti and airport police join, Ross realizes he is cornered and becomes desperate. As he seeks escape in the main lobby at all costs alto flute, saxophone and fierce percussion carry him until Bullitt takes him down. The film closes with “End Credits” as Bullitt returns home to a sleeping Cathy. As he washes his face, he is contemplative, gazing at his own reflection in his bathroom mirror, with a camera shot pan of his gun, which informs us of the cycle of his life. Schifrin supports the moment with a reprise of his theme as the end credits roll. “Bullitt” offers an alternative rendering of Bullitt’s Theme, carried by guitars, saxophone and organ, which was recorded, yet not used in the film.

I would like to thank Lukas Kendall and Film Score Monthly for this excellent issue of Lalo Schifrin’s seminal score for Bullitt. The CD contains the original score as recorded for the film, as well as an embellished re-recoding by Schifrin himself. The digital mastering is excellent as is the sound quality. This was a gritty urban suspense thriller and Schifrin captured the film’s core with his bluesy jazz soundscape, which included guitar, bass and electric bass, flute, saxophone, strings, piano, organ, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, drums and assorted percussion. The incorporation of contemporaneous source rock music was synergistic in bringing 1970s San Francisco to life. Although the score was judiciously spotted, and a number of fine cues were dialed out of the film, it never the less succeeded in enhancing the film, expertly capturing its gritty underbelly. This was clearly Steve McQueen’s film, and how Schifrin brought Frank Bullitt to life with the score’s only theme is instructive, as its manipulation revealed all the facets of his personality and life circumstance. This is a classic Silver Age score, one of Schifrin’s best and I highly recommend you purchase it for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link for the brilliant “Shifting Gears” cue where you see how Schifrin created a palpable tension that unleashes the car chase: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EK5MHzqcaw

Buy the Bullitt soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Bullitt (Main Title) (2:05)
  • Room 26 (2:24)
  • Hotel Daniels (2:50)
  • The Aftermath of Love (2:47)
  • Music to Interrogate By (2:48)
  • On the Way to San Mateo (2:38)
  • Ice Pick Mike (2:57)
  • A Song for Cathy (2:44)
  • Shifting Gears (3:14)
  • Cantata for Combo (3:03)
  • The First Snowfall (written by Paul Francis Webster and Sonny Burke) (3:05)
  • Bullitt (End Title) (2:42)
  • Main Title (3:47)
  • Architect’s Building (1:28)
  • Cantata for Combo (3:03)
  • A Song for Cathy (2:02)
  • Hotel Daniels (Radio Source) (2:58)
  • Room 26 (Radio Source) (1:14)
  • The Aftermath of Love (Radio Source) (2:45)
  • Dr. Willard (0:54)
  • Ice Pick Mike (3:12)
  • Quiet Morning (2:33)
  • Music to Interrogate By (3:04)
  • Just Coffee (1:25)
  • Shifting Gears (3:15)
  • On the Way to San Mateo (1:24)
  • The First Snowfall (written by Paul Francis Webster and Sonny Burke) (3:27)
  • Ross (2:06)
  • Air Terminal—Main Lobby (2:32)
  • End Credits (0:31)
  • Bullitt (Demo) (3:06)

Running Time: 78 minutes 03 seconds

Film Score Monthly FSMCD-12-17 (1968/2009)

Music composed and conducted by Lalo Schifrin. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Score produced by Lalo Schifrin. Album produced by Lukas Kendall.

  1. April 26, 2018 at 4:02 am

    Craig – this was the soundtrack which got me into scores, I went to see the film when quite young and had to go back and see it again as the first time I just remembered the music! I
    have probably seen the film about 100 times and know the script by heart! Then, the music was totally different to anything else I had heard and it fit the film so perfectly AND got me into jazz soundtracks in a massive way. In fact, my essay for entrance into the IFMCA was ‘Jazz In the Movies’. Excellent review.

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