Soundtrack: Chico Hamilton Quintet / Repulsion 

As the opening credits roll, a woman’s eye fills the screen. A stark tympani begins to pound away aimlessly accompanied by a vague distant electric drone. As the camera slowly zooms out the percussion gives way to a melody played on solo flute. The mood is hard to nail down – is it… reflective? Plaintive? Resigned? Just depressing? 

And now with her face in full frame you are looking at the owner of the eye, a woman whose face bears an expression devoid of emotion, reflection, feeling. It is like looking at the face of a beautiful young woman on a gurney at the county morgue before anyone has thought to close those eyes. 

So begins Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve with music rendered by Chico Hamilton Quintet. The engagement of Hamilton and his west coast cool jazz combo for this urban gothic horror film resulted in some sublime filmmaking alchemy. 

Polanski’s first choice to score this film was his friend and frequent collaborator Krzysztof Komeda, but when production began Komeda had difficulties in getting a UK visa (not uncommon in then-communist Poland), so Polanski had to look around London for a replacement. He pitched the idea to Chico Hamilton who, on tour and finding himself and his quintet at loose ends, took on the assignment. 

Interestingly, while Polanski didn’t get his favorite composer, with the Hamilton Quintet he did get another unique talent on the rise, coincidentally one also from behind the former iron curtain: Gábor Szabó, the quintet’s guitarist, who had lived as an expat in the USA after escaping Hungary during the 1956 uprising. Szabó’s esthetic is all over the vibe of this record; it sounds to very much a collaboration between the compositional imagination of Hamilton combined with touches of odd ethereal grace from Szabó

The music the quintet tracked for Repulsion seems loose, perhaps banged out in a series of studio jam sessions from ideas sketched in a hotel room the previous evening. The exception is a fairly standard jazz track called Carol’s Walk which seems fairly thought out and was possibly repurposed from something in or planned for the group’s repertoire. 

For a film like this spontaneity seems necessary – you don’t “compose” a cue that appears at 2:26 here, depicting the woman in advanced stage of schizophrenic madness with Hamilton going out of his mind at the kit while a terrorized voice seems to be suffocating through a head bandage made of wax paper. 

Finally, check the guitar chording on Repulsion Nocturne at 1:16. What a departure to write with this kind of quiet (yet unsettling) sensitivity for a film that must have been summed up to the musicians as a ‘horror film’! If Carol’s Walk is all Chico, this brief but unforgettable cue sounds like classic Gabor

Unfortunately the music for this film is not compiled as a group with any integrity, so there is no definitive soundtrack. Would have been nice if there was a CAM Music Encyclopedia edition but that was never a very likely proposition with old low budget films of this type so it’s only really experienced in the watching of the film in its entirety. Which might be gut-wrenching but not the worst hour and 45 mins you’ve ever spent.