Making Clint Cool: Exploring Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Dirty Harry’ Music

How Lalo Schifrin used jazz moods to turn Eastwood into the king of cool.
Lalo Schifrin Dirty Harry
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on December 2nd, 2018

There’s a thrill that music in a film can give us that can make us forget our objections and concerns. When the right music is synced up to a well-edited sequence, we can be forgiven for being lost in the groove, as it were, even if we’re just watching a guy walking around a rooftop. As luck would have it, the person responsible for making a certain inspector off-the-charts cool has just been awarded an honorary Academy Award for his work in film music. His name: Lalo Schifrin.

Don Siegel‘s 1971 crime thriller Dirty Harry — the first of five Police thrillers starring Clint Eastwood as rule-smashing laconic lawman Harry Callahan — was no stranger to controversy even on its release. Protests against the film were rife, and even Roger Ebert stated that the film undoubtedly displayed a “fascist moral position.” Indeed, Callahan is still famous mainly for the gun he carries and likes to wisecrack about. Certainly not a role model for the kids.

That said, on watching the opening credit sequence of Dirty Harry, one thing is abundantly clear: he is a cool motherfucker. This isn’t really down to Eastwood; it’s not even down to Siegel. The person primarily responsible for making us see this reprehensible beacon of violence as the hippest cat this side of the Golden Gate Bridge is Lalo Schifrin. At the time Schifrin was absolute musical dynamite; he’d written the themes to two popular shows on television with detective series Mannix and espionage drama Mission: Impossible, while also providing earworms to cinemagoers with scores to Cool Hand Luke and Bullitt, the latter another cop made a hundred times cooler thanks to Schifrin’s tunes.

The score for Bullitt was a definite precursor to Dirty Harry. The situation was similar — a big-name heart-throb playing a crack cop running a case across San Francisco — but where they really fused was Schifrin’s main forte: Jazz. Before his illustrious career in Hollywood, Schifrin played jazz in his hometown of Buenos Aires. A chance encounter with bebop king Dizzy Gillespie led to him moving to the States, wherein 1960 he wrote the million-selling Gillespiana. As it happened it was issued by jazz record label Verve, who were shortly sold to MGM, and subsequently, Schifrin began scoring movies for the studio such as action film Rhino! and the René Clément thriller Joy House.

It didn’t hurt that Schifrin’s arrival in Hollywood came at a time where jazz had started to proliferate as a legitimate way of scoring a film, a long way from Vienna and the European romantic approach. Alex North‘s sultry and emotionally explosive score for A Streetcar Named Desire garnered him an Oscar nomination in 1952, and Miles Davis himself delivered a beautifully sad and lonely score for 1958’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), while Elmer Bernstein was climbing the charts with his theme from The Man With The Golden Arm. Jazz was hot, and while Schifrin would show an aptitude for more traditional scoring across his career, it was the perfect fit for Eastwood’s maverick detective.

Before we meet our “hero” in Dirty Harry, we’re first introduced to the spark to his fire in the guise of Scorpio, Andrew Robinson‘s thinly-veiled facsimile of the Zodiac killer. Siegel places the camera behind Scorpio and in the sight of the rifle he holds, and leaves it to Schifrin to crank the tension with piano, a drum pattern like a firing spread, and a ghostly vocal effect as we watch a girl in her rooftop pool (the female voice is Sally Stevens, a veteran performer who once sang for another Scorpio in the end credit tune for The Simpsons episode ‘You Only Move Twice). The music disappears as soon as the swimmer receives the bullet.

And in comes Harry. The next shot is segued with a classic drum lead-in as Eastwood appears from a door and jogs up a stairway to the roof. A mellow organ groove and loose guitar lick accompany him, with wild hair, shades, and chewing gum, and he gets his on-screen credit as he reaches the top. He couldn’t have asked for a better one. As he strides towards the victim there’s a hint of a snare, and as he kneels by the body the title card appears with Schifrin’s drums now in full effect together with a jazz-funk bassline. We’ve been with the character for around thirty seconds and already we’re in love; it’s almost ridiculous how effortlessly cool the whole thing feels.

Schifrin inserts some noodling and a little riff as Harry begins to investigate the crime scene, and he uses it to tell us the Inspector is getting warm – there’s method in his madness and a little danger too. There’s more heightening and orchestral color telling us he’s closer, while subtly illustrating that the character is climbing vertically, and a snippet of Schifrin’s South American roots is also present. It sounds like it could easily slip into a vocal, maybe even one like Scorpio’s, depicting the line that separates the pair. The cue and sequence end when he finds Scorpio’s letter, with a jagged low string line that acts not just as resolution, but also signifying that this is only just beginning.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t really a theme for the character, at least as you might expect it to be. In fact, there isn’t any kind of main theme, with Schifrin stating in 1998 that the way Siegel opened the picture didn’t really facilitate one. “Clint arrives at the scene of the crime and is in motion. It’s action, it’s an investigation, it’s not psychological. There’s no time to set up a theme for him, the way it was cut, the way the titles were interspersed.” So instead of a thematic approach, Schifrin went for style and color and it paid off, even being recognized by Pauline Kael, who correctly stated the score “drives the picture forward”.

It worked for Schifrin to the point that he continued with the Dirty Harry series to its end, scoring every movie but The Enforcer, which was taken by Jerry Fielding due to unavailability. The pair scored their fair share of Eastwood’s other movies; Fielding composed The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Gauntlet while Schifrin wrote Coogan’s Bluff, Joe Kidd, and a haunting, gothic score to The Beguiled. But its the first Callahan movie that still sticks with us, not just because it’s a fine movie but because of Schifrin’s mesmerising score that showed us just how far music can go to establishing character as well as mood.

Harry would get creakier as he went on, to the point where he was chased across town by a radio-controlled toy car. But in ’71? Cool as anything. And that was Lalo Schifrin.

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)