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ICE STATION ZEBRA
Terrific, balletic music for Cold War thriller
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2003 Turner Entertainment Co; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
This very old-fashioned Cold War thriller with some wonderful Americans fighting those damned Ruskies (at the North Pole, naturally enough) was written by Alistair MacLean, directed by John Sturges and starred Rock Hudson, no less, along with Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan and Jim Brown. It's quite good fun, well worth a viewing, but like most of the other film adaptations of MacLean's novels it seems more a historical curiosity than a particularly good film.
Providing the music was Michel Legrand, an extremely unusual choice, since he was really only very well-known in America as a composer of easy-listening romantic music at the time. His music can be appreciated in one of two ways: (a) by listening to the extremely enjoyable album, full of big, majestic strokes and rousing themes; or (b) by watching the film and rolling around the floor laughing at how truly inappropriate the music frequently is. (Even this album's liner notes concede that "the music seems to exist in a world of its own, percolating with storytelling values that do not necessarily coincide with the gritty espionage on screen.")
On album, it's an absolute treat. There are two main themes, the best of which is a brilliant piece developed from a simple four-note motif, running through much of the music. It manages to be rousing and dynamic whenever it appears. But really, Legrand takes a somewhat free-form approach, writing very long, drawn-out cues which certainly reflect French avant garde techniques, with some shimmering, busy string lines being a particular highlight throughout. "Under the Ice" is a beautifully-dissonant piece (my regular correspondent who always emails me to point out mistakes will likely have a heart attack when seeing me say something is both beautiful and dissonant), lots of percussion and turgid string writing certainly suggesting an alien and uncomfortable environment.
There's a fair share of (rather non-traditional) action music which is exciting and impressive, but this seems to develop perfectly naturally from the rest of the score, rather than appear from nowhere; a piece like "Wrong Bunk / The Mysterious Rendezous" moves effortlessly from fluttering suspense to big action. The score as a listening experience certainly benefits from the well-developed, lengthy cues, which allow Legrand unusual scope for fashioning really musical pieces.
It's great music, and a good package, as usual from Film Score Monthly. There are long, detailed liner notes from Jeff Bond and Lukas Kendall; sound quality is excellent; and there are even some hilariously-bland, literal cue titles, like "Jones Searches Meteorology Lab" and "Ostrovsky and Ferraday Face Each Other". This one's a great release, highly recommended.