Lalo Schifrin is one of a handful of composers who revolutionized film scoring in the 1960s. Like Quincy Jones, Neal Hefti, Michel Legrand and Johnny Mandel - who all entered the film world around the same time - Schifrin came out of the rarefied universe of jazz, a field that hardly ever made the transition well to film. But he combined his love of improvisational music with his classical training to come up with something altogether new.
More notably, Schifrin applied jazz to film in a very different way. Films had previously associated jazz with sleazy archetypes like gangsters and prostitutes engaged in immoral or illegal activities. Schifrin refused to make that connection.
He also resisted employing jazz for jazz's sake. "If it sets up a divorce between the screen and the music," Schifrin once said, "it's wrong. It's an easy way out to use the rhythm section for a chase. But jazz doesn't fit every situation"
The composer and pianist had already worked in French radio and TV in the mid-1950s while studying at the Paris Conservatory. A few years later he won Argentina's Academy Award for his orchestral jazz score to the film EL JEFE (aka THE BOSS). After touring with Dizzy Gillespie and doing session work in New York's studios, Schifrin secured a coveted contract with MGM and scored such features as JOYHOUSE and ONCE A THIEF, both combining his technique for jazz with his sensibilities for the classics.
Then came THE CINCINNATI KID. The film, first released in October 1965, was one of director Norman Jewison's earliest films and one of actor Steve McQueen's first important adult roles. It was also one of Lalo Schifrin's first Hollywood soundtrack recordings - and one of the first scores of the 1960s to employ a variety of jazz elements in a classical context.
THE CINCINNATI KID is the story of the young up-and-comer proving his mettle to the master in a marathon battle of five-card stud poker. The Kid from Cincinnati (Steve McQueen) is a calm, cool and cocky young upstart who's sure he just can't lose. The Man is Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), the reigning champ who, in the September of his years, shakes them down regularly in Florida.
The Kid and the Man meet up in New Orleans for the big game. Local dealer, Shooter (Karl Malden), sets it up and is known and trusted by both. But Shooter's outstanding markers force him to deal the game the way the town's rich and corrupt influence peddler, Slade (Rip Torn), wants - in the kid's favor. But the kid's convinced he's going to win it his way. Director Norman Jewison (MOONSTRUCK, AGNES OF GOD) does much to change and enrich Richard Jessup's novel.
Moving the action from contemporary St. Louis to 1930's New Orleans offered the existential Western - a showdown without guns - a colorful ambiance and a rich cultural identity. It also offered Schifrin the opportunity to dig into the music from the birthplace of jazz.
Indeed, THE CINCINNATI KID proves
to be one of Schifrin's finest, richest and most melodic scores. Instead
of slogging through multiple variations of a catchy theme - which was
the style of many scores of the time - Schifrin delivers a full tapestry
of diverse themes. These themes enhance each of the
Here, Lalo Schifrin revisits and thoroughly revitalizes his score to THE CINCINNATI KID with such great jazz soloists and Hollywood studio stars as Tom Morgan (who also played on the 1965 soundtrack), Pete Christlieb, Mike Lang, Tim May, Chuck Berghofer and Frank Capp.
The music from the soundtrack is enhanced with several additional cues from the film ("Mr. Slade" and "I'm All Packed"), others that are extended ("Walking Down," "At The Farm" and "Gambling Man") and a collage of cues from the game scenes ("My Bet") that Schifrin impeccably arranged into a dramatic symphonic suite. "The Cincinnati Kid" comes from the original soundtrack and is heard during the film's surprising conclusion. It was Schifrin's idea to bring in the great Ray Charles. After hearing a demo tape, Charles agreed to sing the song.
"He thought I was some Middle-European composer, like Franz Waxman or Bronislaw Kaper," Schifrin recalled. During a break, Charles - who was formal and respectful during the session - heard Schifrin idly play some blues. Charles listened a minute and said "Go Man!" Then, Charles sat down and the two played four-hand blues until the break was over.
"He completely relaxed. I reminded him that I used to be Dizzy's pianist. He immediately lost his respect for me," Schifrin jokes with pride, "and we became friends." Schifrin opted not to re-record this theme since Ray Charles and his performance here are "truly irreplaceable." Indeed.
"Christian's Theme" is the lovely waltz written for Tuesday Weld's na´ve country girl. The lilting melody, carried by acoustic guitar and ornamented by the winds and strings of the orchestra, sensitively expresses her character's unspoken yearning for the Kid, whose obsession for winning ignores the pull of her heart.
"The Cock Fight" is set to the film's most viciously staged scene. Schifrin sets the carnival-like atmosphere with a crazy, bluegrass rhythm (featuring Mitch Holder's banjo) and punctuates it with newly orchestrated outbursts that mirror the cockfight audience's zeal at the proceedings.
"The Man" is Schifrin's theme for Edward G. Robinson's master poker hustler, Lancey Howard. The rhythm chimes a toll of death knells while the bass-flute melody serves an appropriate notice of forewarning. The orchestral countermelody recalls Dizzy Gillespie's accolades, very early in Schifrin's career, that "his string writing is magnificent."
"Shooter" is the sassy, swinging band number scored for Karl Malden's hipster dealer. Shooter's personable nature and high style inspires Schifrin's shuffle groove to really kick up the brass.
"The Cincinnati Kid" (instrumental version) has a haunting melody with a strong rhythmic figure that is totally appropriate for Steve McQueen's character. Schifrin's main theme is beautifully re-orchestrated here and is highlighted by the composer's intoxicating piano solo.
"New Orleans Procession" opens the film as the Kid makes his way through a funeral - similar to the journey he makes at the film's finale. Schifrin's dirge combines a tribute to the traditional New Orleans Jazz Funeral with Mike Lang's splendid gospel interlude.
"Mr. Slade" represents Rip Torn's role, the film's only character theme that is entirely orchestral. Such menacing presentation is just right for Slade's dangerous plotting and the way he uses others as pawns in his games.
"Melba" offers Ann-Margaret's sophisticated character a sexy theme that's articulated by Sal Lozano's enchanting alto sax and Warren Luening's romantic trumpet and carried to dreamland by Schifrin's glamorous swath of strings.
"My Bet" collects the many cues from which the central dramatic theme of the film is focused. The collusion of percussion and orchestra, a signature trait of Schifrin's work, is especially notable here. Manifestations of tension are sensed in the slow passage of time. The finale, timed to Lancey Howard's final hand, surprises even Schifrin. "It's very avant-garde - especially for the time. But the Kid's whole universe comes apart. I think it was right for the moment."
It's difficult to listen to a score like THE
CINCINNATI KID without sensing the vast musical vocabulary that Lalo
Schifrin is capable of. These themes blend disparate and varying
elements into a seamless, unifying whole: a story that can be told
purely in terms of music. When Lalo Schifrin tells the story, it's worth
hearing. Heard anew, the story takes on the status of legend.