Face of a Fugitive
Review originally published in the May 2021 issue of Film Score Monthly
Jerry Goldsmith was an unequivocal master of the film music industry. He made a point of pushing the envelope throughout his career, writing music for the concert hall while simultaneously championing contemporary techniques on the big screen. The composer’s style and sound developed in such a way that it was at once current and yet constantly evolving. Never satisfied sitting on the sidelines, Goldsmith had an instinctive proclivity that led him to conduct his scores, allowing his instincts as a performer to bring the music to life. Now, seventeen years after the composer’s death and nearly sixty-two years after the film’s release, the soundtrack for one of Goldsmith’s formative film music experiences, Face of a Fugitive, has been given an official release.
Produced by Columbia Pictures, Face of a Fugitive is a 1959 American Western starring Fred MacMurray in the lead role as Jim Larsen, A.K.A. Ray Kincaid. The film was directed by Paul Wendkos under the working title Justice Ends with a Gun, featuring Lin McCarthy as the dutiful, if obstinate, sheriff and James Coburn in a supporting ‘thug’ role. With a runtime of approximately eighty minutes – about half of which is covered with music – the Western follows the disguised convict Larsen through treachery, loss, and even love on his way to greener pastures.
At the spry age of thirty, Face of a Fugitive was the third feature film Goldsmith ever scored following an earlier Western by the name of Black Patch and the black-and-white noir film City of Fear. It was also his first colour project and the first film for which he had access to a full orchestra (sections were missing from the previous two). The original recordings were long rumored to have been lost, so it is to our especially good fortune that Intrada was able to restore the music. The new Intrada soundtrack release comes complete with the full score in chronological order, including a few diegetic parlour songs tagged at the back end.
The “Main Title” sets the scene, opening with a rousing call in C from French horns and trombones. Typifying what it is to be brazen, the brass duet moves swiftly with triplet motion into a B-flat quartal harmony. The violins take hold of the chord in a respiring tempo, trading between parallel seconds with disarming tenderness. They pause their absentminded reverie just long enough for the oboe to sing an expectant tune before a sudden swell and subsequent crash from the full ensemble ensues. It is telling that, over the course of thirty seconds, Goldsmith has established character, tone, and a story to boot. If you have seen the film then you will know that the title credits are a developing still shot of the wanted poster. The man literally makes wallpaper sing.
There is a lot to dig into with this score. That it is on the shorter side tempts me to analyze every moment as meticulously. After all, so much of what is heard can be pointed to as signature sounds anticipating many of Goldsmith’s later scores. Alas, we will not be able to cover everything here, but we can try.
A bit further into the “Main Title” we are given an extended preview of the action music to come. This is succeeded around the midway point of the cue with the first presentation of Larsen’s theme, a call-and-response motif introduced with a repeated sixteenth-note threesome followed by a major third and a subsequent perfect fourth. Little more than a two beat pick-up the theme is, admittedly, nothing to cry home about. But what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in ubiquity and sheer functionality. The theme takes on several guises and appears in just about every instrument throughout the film, adopting appropriately confident, somber, and precarious dispositions. Perhaps my favourite appearance can be heard in “Company Man,” where the theme is briefly expounded by timpani, illustrating with no small satisfaction the advantage of its simplistic design.
“So Long Boy” introduces a remorseful secondary theme testifying to the grief experienced by Larsen at the death of his kid brother. A plaintive oboe in F minor leads into an exhalation of sorrow from the strings as Larsen wishes his brother farewell. The theme reappears at intervals throughout the film whenever Larsen is similarly stamped with regret (“Special Delivery,” “Bitter Thoughts,” and “Showdown”).
A sudden brilliant and stately fanfare leads us out of Larsen’s suffering when he arrives at Enterprize Mine, and it is here that another key idea comes into play. The orchestra enters a nefarious texture built of dissonant pedals, stumbling timpani, staccati brass, and conspiratorial woodwinds. (Close your eyes long enough and you would have no trouble picture yourself sneaking along the corridors of the Death Star.) Though initially related to Larsen and his criminal behaviours, this texture serves to telegraph most of the dangers experienced by Larsen and the sheriff later in the film (“New Suit,” “Bitter Thoughts,” “Broken Fence,” “Friendly Advice,” and “Showdown”).
Pursuing a beautifully forlorn trumpet solo in “Company Man,” we encounter the final musical theme in “The Meeting.” This is the love theme, monitoring Larsen’s blossoming romance with the sheriff’s sister, Ellen Bailey (Dorothy Green). Something akin to a lullabye set in ¾ time, the melody apexes with an agonized upward leap of a minor seventh, coveting a passionate embrace. It makes several statements, the most ravishing of which can be heard toward the end of “Special Delivery.” This same cue also features a dainty flute melody accompanied by gentle mallet percussion as Ellen’s daughter, Alice, is put to bed.
The prominent action tracks from the score are “Escape” and “Trackdown,” showcasing Goldsmith’s flair in its infancy. “Trackdown” launches at breakneck speed, driving the strings like a wagon running from a storm. Nimbly, their bows dart around the bridge in a wild, unmitigated spree. The horns interject, introducing a new subject amidst violent, syncopated stabs from the orchestra. Falling brass glissandi, a full battery of percussion, and lurching, heaving weight is thrown from the orchestra, culminating in a stacked, tutti chord around the 2:10 mark and ending abruptly with a cavernous trumpet gasp.
No one writes action music quite like Goldsmith. Chaos organized to perfection. There is a magnificent economy of motion in his writing, allowing different instruments and sections to come into play as the music ascends and descends in register, only coming together at the definitive climax of the cue. Even a loose interpretation of the cue can demonstrate how he runs the full gamut, effectively exhausting every bit of mileage available to his motifs. Enter first subject. Move up a step. Repeat. Develop. Enter second subject. Move up a step. Repeat. Shift instrumentation. Repeat. Return to first subject in original key. Like clockwork.
The first three source cues tagged at the back can be heard during a dance midway through the film, each prepared by Goldsmith specially for the film, while “Jerry’s Ragtime” gets paid its due during the final shootout. Trapped in the saloon, Larsen dives for cover and accidentally triggers the pneumatic, grinding barstool piano, setting off a riotous ditty. The previously dead-silent bar endures the enfeebled piano, falling in and out of tune and involuntarily skipping keys in its effort to stay on track. The film closes out mere minutes later with a brief but grandiose sendoff worthy of the genre’s best (“The Ride Home / End Title”).
For such a modest film, Goldsmith’s score was seriously ambitious. Overwritten? Perhaps, but that is all part of its charm. Naturally, the music does not reach the same level of maturity that the composer attained in some of his later scores (probably landing somewhere in his B catalogue), but the score is a verifiable achievement nevertheless. An instant classic.