Soundtrack Spotlight #5: La Course du Lievre a Travers les Champs (Francis Lai)

Bar none, never again will you hear another composer's score sound so extraordinarily reminiscent of the most idiosyncratic work of Morricone...and wind up doing it so right, with originality to spare! The vastly underrated René Clément's La course du lievre a travers les champs (1972) is one of my favorite crime films, and Lai's dolefully dulcet strains throughout his scoring of the film demonstrate that, on occasion, he could eclectically reach well far beyond the soporific constraints of the scores he composed for Claude Lelouch and popular American box-office soapers and romancers like Love Story and Mayerling. The chords that end most of Lai's phrases almost literally scream "Morricone!" and most everything at the very least echoes the prolific Italian scoremaster, but there is something about this score that transcends and defies accusations of empty-headed mimicry.

The film was released in the U.S. in late 1972 under the new title ...And Hope to Die, dubbed into English and cut from 140 minutes to 99 minutes. The original French title translates as The Chase of the Hare Across the Fields. If you ever get the opportunity, go out of your way to see it, especially if you are a crime film enthusiast. The film is available on DVD in its full version in France (I own the Russian disc). It features Robert Ryan in one of his last great roles before his death the following year, along with Jean-Louis Trintignant (just fresh after the critical and commercial success of The Conformist), Tisa Farrow (yes, Mia's sister), the stalwart Aldo Ray and the gorgeous Lea Massari as Sugar. Based on a novel Black Friday by crime fiction luminary David Goodis (upon whose "Shoot the Piano Player" the Truffaut film is based and upon whose "Dark Passage" the Bogart film is based), La course du lievre a travers les champs is by far among the most unusual works of its kind. Filmed in Montreal and rural Quebec, the film tells the story of a hoodlum who seems a misfit fink even among his own kind. On the run from his former gang, who he has somehow double-crossed, he falls in with a motley group of hoods, shepherded by a gravel-voiced ringleader Charlie (Robert Ryan), who are all hiding out in a country-house and shoulder-deep in a grand (read: grandly fouled-up) plot to kidnap a dead girl and holding her for ransom under the pretense that she is alive. I openly recommend this film as well as Clément's Le passager de la pluie in the same breath as any of the Melville crime-genre masterworks like La cercle rouge.

The film consciously opens the way Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West opens, establishing early on that much of Clément's film and not just its score is, in part, a pastiche (or perhaps just simply a meditation) on a director he clearly admired. It would be more than a decade until Leone honed his aesthetic on something other than the Western genre, so an acknowledged use of Leonian influence on a crime film seemed at the time, undoubtedly apropos and intriguing. The film and the score, however, are more than just works that hinge tremulously on the viability of other works. Lai's interlarded use of the pan-flute and a man's melodic whistle to season moments and construct character within musical modalities is novel and admirable, even if one wrongly chooses to reduce it to a case of monkey-hear-monkey-do. Clément places Trintignant's Tony/Froggie character to consciously exist within filmic genre constructs, and within a world invaded by reminders of childhood and the act of play. The score reflects this curious stylistic and directorial pursuit -- and it becomes revolutionary because a score of this time, far before a score like Goldsmith's 1990 Gremlins II soundtrack, has the ability of commenting on a film's sense of self-awareness as well as the handling of the other themes therein that, at first glance, have nothing to do with such reflexivity.

Download the score here. This, again, is not my link. Thanks to the now sadly defunct Isbum's Place and its archives. I recommend the following tracks especially: "Generique Fin" (which innovatively stews the Morricone strains with elements of Jarre), "Main Theme," "Finale/End Title" and "La Course du Lievre".

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