This limited-edition CD (1,200 copies pressed), part of Intrada Records' Special Collection series, captures one of Alfred Newman's stranger scores, for a very odd movie. Hell and High Water was a thriller, shot in CinemaScope, and dealing with espionage, an American submarine on a secret mission, and a Chinese plot to use a nuclear bomb in Korea. Its director, Sam Fuller, hated the script and the resulting film but did it as a favor to production chief Darryl F. Zanuck. Movies like this would develop reputations as "trouble" productions on most studio lots, which would, in turn, affect the way that most of the creative work was handled, especially in post-production, and that includes music. Newman could have fobbed the scoring off on another staff member, but because it was showcasing the still-new widescreen CinemaScope process, the credibility of which involved not only the studio and its production chief, but also chairman Spiros Skouras, Newman ended up scoring the movie himself. He reached back to a march he'd written for a 1944 Oscar-winning documentary, The Fighting Lady, and made it the centerpiece of the new score, along with some very Eastern-flavored musical accompaniment that clearly telegraphed part of the action as involving Chinese characters. Otherwise, a lot of this score is made up of surprisingly restrained passages whose textures, rather than their melodies, were supposed to color the visual material to which they were attached. This is where Newman's conducting came into play -- a better orchestrator than a composer (but no slouch in the latter area), he knew how to milk an ensemble or a recording of one for all that it was worth, and he does that here, within the subdued context of this score; even the love theme, which is quite beautiful, is played on a harmonica, no less, with the most restrained guitar accompaniment. It might not be the most obviously rewarding body of music that Newman ever delivered, and one shudders to think how dull it might seem in a re-recording, but for longtime fans it shows a side of his art that was very seldom distilled down in this way. The masters for the scoring sessions appear to have been in excellent shape, and there are no apologies made for any technical deficiencies on this release. As bonus material, the producers have appended the outside music tracked in and otherwise used as on-screen source music within the movie. It should be added that, in the absence of even a videocassette edition of Hell and High Water, this CD release is the fullest account ever given to modern audiences of the movie itself, which seems not even to have shown up on television very often, if at all. And the annotation by Douglas Fake gives a nicely detailed account of the production history of this all but forgotten Fuller film.
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AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder