Few films are as disturbing as Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS. The 1971 films stars Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as David and Amy Sumner, newlyweds who come to the hills of rural England so that David can write his book on mathematics. The nearby town, and their marriage, is full of repressed rage and sexual tension, which percolate from the opening frame until it boils over. As Nick Redman says in the liner notes, the story is “one man’s apocalypse, a descent from the rational to the irrational, from reason to instinct, a regression to the primordial.”
The film is well-directed and well-acted by Hoffman, but it is damn unpleasant. Jerry Fielding contributes a rich, atmospheric score that adds greatly to the palpable feeling of menace throughout the film.
If you’ve seen STRAW DOGS, then you’ve more than likely missed a majority of the score, since much of it is mixed at a level as to be nearly inaudible. Even when watching the isolated score and effects track on the now-out-of-print Criterion DVD, it is almost impossible to hear the music throughout much of the film. That alone is reason to celebrate Intrada’s release of the complete score.
The score begins in the “Prologue” with a haunting brass choir. The open chords are hollow and lonely, much like the moors and the isolated town at the center of the film. The brass take on an even more menacing tone as they end the cue with antiphonal triplets, which fade into church bells on the same pitches in the film. The brass choir also accompanies “The Hunting Party” and closes the film with the “Epilogue.”
A good portion of the score interpolates Stravinsky’s chamber dance piece, L’Histoire du Soldat. Mixed meters and jaunty rhythms offset the bleak atmosphere, seemingly at odds with the story, and yet fitting in perfectly with David’s “Devil’s pact.”
The film and the score center around the climactic rape scene, underscored by lengthy 8-minute “The Infamous Appassionata.” Shimmering strings and muted brass interweave with sobbing electronics as Amy is raped.
Given his outsider status and the violent nature of the film, Fielding’s Oscar nomination was surprising, though richly deserved. While the subject matter of STRAW DOGS may turn off some viewers (and I’m one of them), Fielding’s score is at turns horrific and beautiful. The folks at Intrada are to be thanked for bringing to light one of the great film scores of the 1970’s and one of Fielding’s masterpieces. The score is not for everyone, but if you’re willing to give it a shot, you’ll be richly rewarded.