Digitmovies’ brand new CD release of Bruno Nicolai’s score to the Eurospy classic Special Mission Lady Chaplin is a godsend for fans of the Sixties spy sound. Nicolai is more in that mode here than on some of his other spy scores, like his carnivalesque contribution to Jess Franco’s Lucky the Inscrutable, where he happily eschews the John Barry-defined tropes of the genre for a more unique aural experience. I like Nicolai’s off-beat offerings, but here I’m glad that he stuck to a more familiar sound, one that sits well in the company of Barry and Schifrin, the fathers of the genre. Special Mission Lady Chaplin is one of the Eurospy movies to come closest to the touchstone they were all aiming for, 007, so it’s only appropriate that the score reflects that.
I’m going to reference Barry a lot in discussing this score, but it’s not because I think Nicolai lacks originality; it’s merely to provide a frame of reference most spy fans are intimately familiar with. Let’s face it; you can’t really talk about Sixties spy music without referencing Barry, and I’m sure Nicolai felt the same way writing his Eurospy themes!
The opening track reveals another source of inspiration: contemporary pop music. Monastero de Costa del Sol (Prologo) echoes the famous refrain of Nancy Sinatra’s Lee Hazelwood-penned hit "These Boots Are Made For Walking," infused with just the requisite amount of Barry’s James Bond Theme.* Track 6, Inseguimento, particularly showcases a Barryish bombast that I’m not used to from Nicolai (though I don’t profess to be anything of an expert on the composer, who scored close to 100 films), with the kind of horn section we fully expect from a Sixties spy soundtrack worth its salt. That continues into Track 7, then slows down into a suspenseful cue akin to Barry’s Thunderball track accompanying James Bond’s break-in to Largo’s shark-infested Palmyra estate. I’m also reminded here of another Barry piece, his theme for Richard Lester’s The Knack.
Special Mission Lady Chaplin’s respectably Bondian main title theme, with a vocal by Bobby Solo, sadly isn’t included here. (The liner notes cite contractual restrictions and missing master tapes, but the spy music guru at Spy Bop Royale has come up with a solution on his site...) Luckily, the theme is present in many instrumental incarnations throughout the album. Track 11, Aggressione e Rizoluzione, offers the fastest, loudest, most bombastic version (segueing into some nice fight music reminiscent of Barry’s Kobe dock sequence in You Only Live Twice–but predating it by three years!), while Track 20, Night Club, provides a light jazz variation. Tracks 15 and 16, Lady Chaplin In Azione and Agente Speciale Dick Malloy are both great tracks, incorporating the theme into terrific action cues (the latter sounding like a sort of Spaghetti Western spy anthem–very appropriate for Nicolai!), but the best use of the theme comes in Lady Shake, Track 9. This is the ideal synthesis of the Barry style and the more common, groovy Italian brand of spy music that dominates the Eurospy genre. Lounge with kick. (For softer, moodier lounge music, try Track 8, Sensuale, Ma Letale.) 21 and 22 (Attesa e Attacco and Spy Chase) give us a sweeping, "007"ish action cue, topped off with a cool, Mancini-flavored snare.
Despite my abundance of comparisons, the Special Mission Lady Chaplin album is a thoroughly original piece of music, consistent throughout to its own style. But being as influenced as it is by the Barry sound (as the movie is by Bond), it makes a great purchase for spy fans who have exhausted all the Bond scores but still yearn for more good music in a similar vein, more music to transform practically parked LA traffic into a speedy Aston Martin drive through winding Cote d’Azur roads... Hearing this style from a master maestro should also be a treat for Nicolai fans who might be more familiar with his more famous giallo and Western scores.
The packaging is also excellent. Housed in a standard, clear CD jewel case (as opposed to a digipak), we get a lavishly illustrated booklet that collects more artwork for this movie than I’ve before! Even Dorado Films seems to have had trouble coming up with good artwork to use for the cover of their otherwise excellent DVD release of the movie, so it’s a treat to see all this very rare marketing material in one place. The folks at Digitmovies have tracked down posters, lobby cards and even rare video cover art from various countries to create a colorful and attractive insert. The liner notes themselves take up just one page, but are quite informative.
*Or Monty Norman’s James Bond theme if you like. The two composers have each laid claim to the tune, though Norman receives the official credit. Truth to tell, I think it’s probably a collaboration, since Barry’s "orchestration" of Norman’s theme for Dr. No seems to have gone well beyond the parameters of orchestrating while still retaining some of Norman’s piece. Both musicians can point to something in their back catalog that could easily be seen as a precursor to the Bond Theme; Norman to the Hindu-flavored "Bad Sign Good Sign" and Barry to the rock number "Bee’s Knees."