Friday, July 23, 2021

Recent discovery: Face of the Frog

It’s difficult to imagine a film this modest igniting an enormously successful 12-year franchise, yet that’s precisely what happened. 1959’s Der Frosch mit der Maske — Face of the Frog, in English-speaking territories — is the first of what would become a series of 39 crime thrillers based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace. This film also kick-started a German cinematic movement known as Krimi. (See this earlier post for a brief description of that genre.) Although the Egon Eis/J. Joachim Bartsch script follows most of the key plot points in Wallace’s 1925 novel, the result nonetheless is rather silly at times, with a tone that hearkens back to breathless American chapter serials.


Although the score is credited solely to prolific Austrian composer Willy Mattes, Germany’s Peter Thomas did an unacknowledged assist, making this his first Krimi; he’d go on to score 18 more. It’s impossible to know who did what, but given Mattes’ pop and orchestral background — and Thomas’ more specific fondness for jazz — I’m guessing the latter handled the big band swing performances taking place during frequent nightclub visits, while Mattes delivered the non-diegetic cues.


The film opens on a brazen burglary by a gang led by The Frog (Jochen Brockmann), who for months has terrified London and bedeviled Scotland Yard Inspector Hedge (Siegfried Lowitz). Gang members never use names; they refer to each other by code designations such as K33G and K297. (It must be mentioned that The Frog’s laughably silly outfit — heavy clothing, rubber gloves, and a concealing mask with goggly eyes — makes him look like one of the aliens in 1953’s Invaders from Mars.) 


As a further bother to the frustrated inspector, he must put up with “amateur interference” by private detective Richard Gordon (Joachim Fuchsberger), the smug American nephew of Scotland Yard chief Sir Archibald (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer). Richard is accompanied at all times by his fastidious and oh-so-polite butler, James (Eddi Arent), whose stoic behavior and formal line deliveries supply mild comic relief.


A bit later, Ella Bennet (Elfie von Kalckreuth) is menaced in her bedroom by The Frog, who insists that he’ll soon “have her” … and that she’ll oblige willingly. Richard learns of this during a visit to the Bennet home, where he also meets Ella’s reckless brother Ray (Walter Wilz) and their oddly ominous father, John (Carl Lange). Ray hates his boring clerical job at a firm run by the menacing Maitland (Fritz Rasp). Seeking something more exciting, Ray soon falls under the spell of chanteuse Lolita (Evan Pflug), who runs a nightclub named after herself; she seduces the young man, who becomes the patsy in a scheme orchestrated by The Frog. When Ray is framed for murder and sentenced to be hanged, The Frog — in a position to supply an alibi — now has the leverage to prompt Ella into becoming his sex toy. Will she succumb?


The main theme debuts as The Frog and his gang crack a concealed safe belonging to a wealthy couple; the title credits are superimposed over the action. This initial cue is a frantic, low-octave piano vamp accompanied by blaring horns; this motif continues over a subsequent montage of newspapers with angry headlines, as cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke’s camera whisks through London streets. Suspenseful horn riffs are heard a bit later, during Ella’s unwelcome encounter with The Frog.


Ray’s first visit to the Lolita Club introduces him to an exciting swirl of alcohol, beautiful women and tasty dance swing from the nightspot’s resident jazz band. He’s immediately smitten when Lolita takes the stage to croon the next number; she then throws herself on Ray, and he’s immediately hooked. Several subsequent sequences take place within this club, each backed by another peppy blast of jazz. John Bennet arrives one evening, and demands that his son immediately follow him home; enraged at being told what to do, Ray hits his father. Everything pauses … then John slowly leaves, the band resumes its lively swing, and Lolita — oozing faux sympathy — does her best to comfort Ray. 


By this point, Richard has grown convinced that The Frog and the Lolita Club are linked somehow. He also prevents Ella from entering this den of sin, when she arrives one evening, hoping to persuade her brother to return home. By this point, Richard has fallen in love; she’s a bit more reluctant, but does finally agree to trust him.


A thoughtful, mid-tempo jazz anthem plays over a late-night harbor montage, which finally swoops into an after-hours dive bar, where Ray and Lolita are the sole customers. He doesn’t know it, but they’re serving as lookouts for The Frog and his gang, who are about to rob a nearby warehouse: a caper that Inspector Hedge and his Scotland Yard troops have learned about, and are poised to stop. But Lolita spots the police and tells Ray to play something on the bar’s juke box; he obliges, and raucous jump jazz suddenly blares out, signaling The Frog about the danger. Most of the gang is arrested, but The Frog gets away in a boat, despite heavy fire from one bobby armed with a machine gun (!). (German filmmakers apparently didn’t realize that Scotland Yard officers wouldn’t have carried such weapons.)


Enraged, The Frog puts his secondary plan into motion at the Lolita Club, by killing a confederate and then planting the gun on an unconscious Ray. Unknown to the master villain, Richard — having recently infiltrated the club in the guise of a new employee —earlier planted a motion-sensitive movie camera up among the stage lights. After Ray is arrested and sentenced, Richard realizes the camera footage might tell a different story. But when he and James return to the club, they’re ambushed by more of The Frog’s men. Despite holding their own during a furious melee — which takes place without music — Richard and James get locked into a basement, as hostages.


Time passes; nobody knows what has become of Richard. The night before her brother’s execution, a mournful horn cue backs Ella, as she sadly puts a candle in her window: the signal that she’s capitulating to The Frog. Richard and James, meanwhile, finally escape from captivity; they race to retrieve the camera film, view it with Sir Archibald and Inspector Hodge, and make the all-important phone call in time to save Ray from the gallows. 

This leaves only Richard’s final confrontation with The Frog, whose identity — now revealed — proves a nasty shock. 


Ella finally acknowledges her own romantic feelings for Richard, and is astonished to learn that he’s the immensely wealthy owner of a huge estate. A droll little cue plays as James, following the happy couple inside, spots a croaking frog on the gravel driveway; this gives way to a sentimental big band ballad, as the screen fades to black.


No soundtrack album appeared, as was the case with all Edgar Wallace Krimi. Two cues — the title theme and “Nachts im Nebel an der Themse” (one of Lolita’s jazz vocals) — finally appeared on 2000’s Kriminal filmmusik No. 4, a compilation album on Germany’s BSC Music label. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

A resurrected "reject" by Jerry Goldsmith

The jazz content in 1992’s The Public Eye is entirely diegetic: lively combo source cues performed by the house band at Café Society, the club where crime photographer Leon “Bernzie” Bernstein (Joe Pesci) often meets with owner Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey).  These various numbers are produced and arranged by trumpeter and West Coast jazz icon Shorty Rogers. Two — covers of the war-era hits “Flying Home” and “Undecided” — are up-tempo jump jazz swingers, boasting sassy vocals by Oren Waters. At another point, trumpeter Roy Eldridge highlights a smooth cover of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” while saxman Plas Johnson and pianist Gerald Wiggins lend sparkle to a mid-tempo big band arrangement of “Topsy.” Johnson and Wiggins also are front and center for “Café Society Blues,” a Rogers original that makes ample use of a vibrant wall of brass.

Mark Isham’s primarily symphonic underscore is dominated by mournful strings, wary reeds, gently expectant percussion and suspenseful, treble-register piano filigrees. Isham actually came late to this project; writer/director Howard Franklin’s first choice was Jerry Goldsmith, who seemed a perfect fit. “It was like the greatest coup ever,” he enthused.1 Given that Goldsmith had scored Chinatown, a noir-drenched period piece with a similar crime-laden story, the match would appear to have been made in heaven. Unfortunately, Franklin was displeased by what Goldsmith ultimately composed, and decided to go in a different direction.


As of the point my books were published, in the spring of 2020, Goldsmith’s completed score was known to exist — somewhere — but only one brief cue was available via online sources. Intrada has just resurrected it under the label’s Special Collection banner, and comparing it to Isham’s work is fascinating.


Most noticeably, they’re not that different. Neither is jazz per se, although several of Goldsmith’s cues slide further in that direction, thanks to plenty of deliciously smoky bass work. (I wish the player could be acknowledged, but musician identities apparently have been lost to time.) Both scores rely heavily on melancholia and forlorn, quietly lonely cues that reflect Bernzie’s isolated existence: shunned by most, because of the nature of his work, and the predatory manner in which he pursues it. Isham’s score is more melodic, with a distinctive title theme and several mildly tuneful interior cues. Goldsmith’s title theme and interior cues rely more on motifs than melody: three slowly rising notes, often followed — after a pause — by a single descending note, usually heard on solo oboe or clarinet; and paired note couplets, often played on a harp. Both composers heighten tension with unsettling piano filigrees.


Goldsmith also favors “tick-tock” strings and harp elements, to enhance the sense of dread and disconcerting anticipation that follows Bernzie, wherever he goes. Several of Goldsmith’s cues mess with time signatures: Notes unexpectedly land half a beat too soon, like a nervous twitch. Unlike Isham, Goldsmith also adds a distinctly wistful element at times: Bernzie has feelings like anybody else, and they often get bruised. One cue — “Beauty and the Beast” — is particularly sweet: a poignant blend of gentle piano and delicate bass work, likely intended for a scene where Bernzie begins to hope that Kay might like him more than casually.


The two composers also take a different approach to their final cues, heard over the end credits. Isham re-states his main theme in much the same manner: Bernzie, although dismayed by the way things have turned out, returns to his work. Nothing has changed; life will continue to be bittersweet, at best. Goldsmith, in contrast, re-states his 3/1 motif at a slightly faster tempo, with more aggressively dramatic piano elements. This suggests hope: Bernzie has grown from the experience, and things won’t be quite the same.


Intrada presents Goldsmith’s score in film order, with 21 tracks (three of which are built from two cues each). The single bonus track is an alternate mix of “The Slaughter,” the cue that accompanies the story’s climactic restaurant massacre. Frank K. DeWald’s liner notes are impressively detailed.




1. Howard Franklin, quoted from his commentary on the film’s 2020 Blu-ray release. 

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The beat goes on: No Sudden Move

Belfast-born David Holmes initially seemed an unlikely candidate for film scoring, having focused his early career on DJing and solo albums devoted to electronica, trip hop, big beat and good ol’ fashioned rock ’n’ roll. That said, his overall music knowledge — and personal collection — have long been impressively extensive, and his career trajectory changed completely when he was hired by director Steven Soderbergh to score 1998’s erotic neo-noirOut of Sight. It proved an artistic match made in heaven, leading to many more collaborations over the years: most notably (for our purposes) all three Ocean’sheist dramedies. Their newest team-up is the just-released No Sudden Move.

Fans of slow-burn crime thrillers will love it.


Scripter Ed Solomon’s noir-ish saga is given precisely the right look and atmosphere by Soderbergh and production designer Hannah Beachler. The post-WWII Detroit setting emphasizes the deplorable racial divide between cozy white neighborhoods and decaying inner-city Black districts, and the wary mistrust this prompts from both sides. But Solomon hasn’t merely written a mordant, attitude-laden crime drama; many of his plot elements — and twists — are drawn from actual historical events.


Down-on-their-luck criminals Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) are hired by a shady go-between (Brendan Fraser) for a “babysitting” job. (That’s “babysitting,” as in “guard at gunpoint while something goes down elsewhere.”) Their task: to watch the family of low-level General Motors executive Matt Wertz (David Harbour), while he’s escorted to his office by third gunsel Charley Barnes (Kieran Culkin), in order to retrieve a certain document from a certain safe. Curt, Ronald and Charley will remain masked the entire time; if everybody cooperates, everybody lives.


Everybody cooperates, but the plan still goes awry. In the aftermath, Curt and Ronald are on the run, having done the one thing both hoped to avoid, by antagonizing rival crime lords Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke) and Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta). Unless the besieged duo can find and leverage the aforementioned document — a true Hitchcockian MacGuffin, until it suddenly isn’t — their hours are grimly numbered.

Holmes’ working relationship with Soderbergh is quite unusual, if not unique. The composer always delves deeply into a script’s period, setting and atmosphere, in order to “feel” the story, and the characters within it. Holmes then assembles a massive assortment of era-specific songs, cues, riffs and so forth.


“I sent him so much music from the era,” Holmes explained, “different moods, instrumentals, songs and soundtracks that had a certain feel.”1


Soderbergh became quite enchanted by one cue: Henry Mancini’s unsettling title theme to 1962’s Experiment in Terror. This became the acorn from which the mighty oak of Holmes’ score developed.


“It was a beautiful place to start,” Holmes continued, “to explore a broader meaning, so I studied the instrumentation of it. I could hear the cimbalom, the guitar, drums and upright bass. It had a certain feeling that was exciting.”2

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Recent discovery: The Strange Countess

Composer Peter Thomas’ second Edgar Wallace KrimiDie seltsame Gräfin, is one of the genre’s flamboyantly lurid entries. (Read this post for a brief description of Germany’s Krimi.) The 1961 film was released in English-speaking territories as The Strange Countess, the title Wallace gave his 1925 novel. Director Josef von Báky — with an uncredited assist from Jürgen Roland and Ottokar Runze — tolerated (encouraged?) outrageous overacting, most notably by star Brigitte Grothum, as the aggressively stalked Margaret Reddle; and Klaus Kinski, as the wide-eyed, gleefully murderous lunatic who pursues her.


Margaret has a comfortable job as secretary to defense attorney Rechtsanwalt Shaddle (Fritz Rasp), and shares an apartment with Lizzy Smith (Edith Hancke). Margaret suddenly begins to receive threatening phone calls from Bresset (Kinski), who hysterically insists that killing her is his only path to salvation. Hoping to elude him, she accepts a job as a live-in assistant to Lady Leonora Moron (Lil Dagover), matriarch of the mildly sinister Carter Field Castle (and the “Strange Countess” of the title). Lady Moron’s primary companions are her rather dotty son, Selwyn (Eddi Arent), a would-be actor fond of floridly quoting Shakespeare; and an extremely ominous butler. (Is there any other kind?) By this point, Margaret also has met — and twice been rescued by — Scotland Yard Inspector Mike Dorn (Joachim Fuchsberger), who believes there’s some connection between her peril, and the recent release of Mary Pindar (Marianne Hoppe), who spent 20 years in prison as a convicted poisoner.


Bresset somehow tracks Margaret down, after repeatedly escaping from the asylum run by Dr. Tappatt (Rudolf Fernau). Thanks to manipulative skullduggery, the increasingly terrified young woman soon winds up in a cell in that same asylum. Can Mike find her, before she’s killed … or suffers a fate worse than death?

Thomas still was relatively new to feature film scoring when he approached Die seltsame Gräfin. He takes a classic big band jazz approach to this Edgar Wallace thriller, with a hard-charging title theme that opens with a 1-1-2/1-2 motif, suspenseful cymbal brushes and a wall of unison horns; throbbing bass adds counterpoint during the bridge. Thomas’ next contribution is a source cue: a tasty bit of cocktail music provided by a jazz big band, heard on the radio as Margaret and Lizzy enjoy a peaceful breakfast, after having received — and dismissed — the first call from the deranged Bresset. A throbbing sax and bass cue tracks Margaret a bit later, when she’s followed by a furtive individual: Could this be another stalker? But no, it’s just Mike; Thomas shifts to a sweetly romantic piano/sax theme when he walks her home.


Sinister bass and horns back Lizzy, when she bravely (foolishly!) receives one of Bresset’s phone calls, and agrees to meet him at the sundial in a nearby park. She survives this encounter; meanwhile, Margaret almost gets run down by a car, which roars toward her against a fast-paced action jazz cue.


Margaret then settles into life at Carter Field Castle, and — at first blush — the eccentric Lady Moron seems an otherwise reasonable employer. Her butler’s threatening demeanor is basic nature; the Countess makes a point of giving “second chances” to ex-convicts. (By way of “thanks,” and as a red herring, the butler intends to steal from her.) Margaret receives permission to invite Lizzy for a short visit; Selwyn leaps at this opportunity to discuss family history, as the three of them slowly walk past paintings of forbearers in an upstairs hallway. 


Which brings us to the sort of tidbit that fascinates film scholars. In the original German print, this stroll along the ancestral gallery is accompanied by an orchestral string and harpsichord waltz; the slight oom-pah tone perfectly suits the smiles exchanged by the two women, as they patiently endure Selwyn’s mildly pompous lecture. But the dubbed English-language version, released digitally by Sinister Cinema, re-scored this brief sequence with an entirely different Peter Thomas cue: “Theme for Lucy,” taken from 1964’s Das Verrätertor(aka Traitor’s Gate). It’s a droll little swinger that works equally well during the scene; the primary 6-2-3-2-1 motif is carried by a lone muted trumpet backed by saucy percussion, after which a touch of jazz organ takes over the melody during the bridge. But why go to such trouble for just one scene? 


That aside, this bit of levity is dashed shortly thereafter. Margaret nearly loses her life when her bedroom balcony crumbles beneath her, as she steps outside to take in the view.


Elsewhere, Thomas inserts a fleeting bass swinger when Mike receives a note that leads to a startling deduction. He races to Carter Field Castle and slips inside; his clandestine meeting with Margaret is backed by a brief reprise of the title theme. From this point onward, the poor woman succumbs to a near-perpetual state of hysteria; Grothum shrieks, screams, sniffles, wails, wrings her hands and occasionally dissolves into wide-eyed crying jags. She abruptly abandons her job with Lady Moron, and takes solace by visiting Lizzy at the café where she works. Some tasty bossa nova emanates from a radio (juke box?) as a source cue, with a frantic piano bridge timed to the “discovery moment” when Bresset, who chances to be at the next table, recognizes his quarry.


Alas, Margaret soon winds up in the hands of Dr. Tappatt. She initially meets him willingly, little realizing that he’s just as evil as some of his “guests.” To her horror, the “waiting room” into which she’s placed, turns out to be a locked cell.

Big band action jazz follows Mike, as he leaves Carter Field Castle and races to the asylum; the music shifts to a suspenseful bass and brass vamp, when he subsequently breaks in. But Dr. Tappatt has been warned, and has hustled Margaret and all the other “patients” into actual barred cells — one of which contains Bresset — concealed in a hidden basement. Dr. Tappatt encourages Mike to look around, and of course he finds nothing; he also naïvely accepts a drink, which renders him unconscious. He wakens in the ground floor room that Margaret had occupied earlier, alone and trapped in a straitjacket. Another bass and brass vamp supplies tension while Mike cleverly works his way out of the jacket, thanks to the contents of the purse that Margaret left behind.


A terrific slice of action jazz propels us into the climax, highlighted by Mike’s brawl with the maniacal Bresset. Cinematographer Richard Angst has fun with this sequence, rotating the camera in a circle while editor Hermann Ludwig inserts tight close-ups of both men, while they ferociously batter each other.


With Bresset and Dr. Tappatt dispatched, everybody else — including Mary Pindar — returns to Carter Field Castle. By this point, Margaret has learned that Mary is her birth mother; the supplementary revelation is that she was unjustly imprisoned for those two decades, for a crime that Lady Moron actually committed. Unwilling to face arrest and certain incarceration, the Countess commits suicide with her own poison-spiked ring. Rather oddly, this outcome is “celebrated” by cheerful orchestral strings: an ill-advised cue that feels totally wrong.

No soundtrack LP appeared, as was the case with all of the Edgar Wallace Krimi. Five cues can be found on Peter Thomas: Kriminal Filmmusik, a 1998 compilation album on Germany’s Prudence label: the title theme; the radio source music following Bresset’s first phone call; the orchestral waltz backing the ancestral gallery tour; the brief piano/sax cue when Mike walks Margaret home; and one of the cacophonous, shrieking horn cues (“Madman’s Terror”) that signal Bresset’s deranged behavior. “Theme for Lucy,” in turn, is included on The Best of Edgar Wallace, a 2000 anthology CD released by Germany’s All Score Media. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

FYI: Behind-the-scenes change

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Monday, June 21, 2021

Recent discovery: The London Forger

West German cinema’s post-World War II infatuation with American and British culture took some intriguing turns: the Jerry Cotton series, featuring an American FBI agent, and (supposedly) set in New York; a pair of Father Brown mysteries, adapted from English author G.K. Chesterton’s popular character; and a staggering 39 films made between 1959 and ’72, based on crime novels by the indefatigable British author Edgar Wallace, all (supposedly) set in and around London. The latter were part of the then-popular Krimi movement — short for Kriminalfilm or Kriminalroman — which kicked off with 1959’s Der Frosch mit der Maske, based on Wallace’s The Fellowship of the Frog

The style — particularly in the early monochrome entries — is classic film noir, albeit with a somewhat heightened intensity; the acting often is breathless, melodramatic and exaggerated. Most of the stories are classic “old dark house” thrillers, set in ancient castles, crumbling mansions and dilapidated country houses, replete with long hallways, dark basements, narrow stairways, creaking doors and moldy furniture. Master villains usually are concealed or masked, their identities a nasty surprise to the protagonists — often “hapless heroines” — when finally revealed. Most cases are solved by private investigators or police inspectors, the latter sometimes operating in a highly unconventional manner.


Unlike the vast majority of American noirs, which were backed by sinister strings and atmospheric orchestral cues, many Krimi boast solid jazz scores (as I’m discovering): particularly those by Peter Thomas and Martin Böttcher. Indeed, pursuing Thomas’ career — as a result of his work on all eight Jerry Cotton films — led me to the Krimi. He scored an impressive 19 of the 39, while Böttcher handled five. The latter’s first Wallace Krimi is 1961’s Der Fälscher von London, released in English-speaking territories as The Forger of London, and based on the 1927 novel, The Forger


Against her better judgment, heroine Jane (Karin Dor, later a James Bond villainess in You Only Live Twice) marries wealthy Peter Clifton (Hellmut Lange), whose several residences include dusty, musty Longford Castle. Jane’s wedding infuriates the smarmy Basil Hale (Robert Graf), who hoped to win her hand, and he continues to stalk her. Worse yet, Jane discovers that Peter has two distinct sides to his personality, coupled with frequent amnesia that prevents his “kinder” identity from remembering anything his other self did. (The film incorrectly labels this schizophrenia, as was common back then.) During Jane’s first visit to Longford Castle, she chances to see Peter operating a hand-cranked press concealed in a secret room behind some bookshelves … and he’s printing money. This means he could be the notorious forger who has been passing counterfeit banknotes throughout London, much to the annoyance of dogged police inspectors Bourke (Siegfried Lowitz) and Rouper (Ulrich Beiger).

We viewers don’t know the forger’s identity; he’s always concealed behind a two-way mirror, while giving orders to his minions. As the bodies pile up, Jane realizes that she has genuinely fallen in love with Peter, and goes to great lengths to protect him: even concealing a murder weapon and removing his blood-soaked clothes (!), when he’s found unconscious at the scene of a crime. Suspects abound, as with an Agatha Christie novel, although the final reveal probably won’t surprise anybody.


Böttcher’s title theme is a mid-tempo, big band swinger that opens with a 1-2/3/1-2 “call and response” motif. That transitions, via vocalese backed with cymbal brushes, to a vamping second motif: a long single note followed by three quick descending notes. A wall of brass explodes during the bridge, and then the call-and-response and vocalese motifs repeat: all told, a delectably energetic finger-snapper. Brief variations of this theme recur throughout the film: in church, during the marriage ceremony, when Hale and a malevolent-looking organist glare at the newlyweds; when Jane first sees Longford Castle; and much later, when Inspector Bourke finds Peter unconscious.

Böttcher contributes a sassy little swinger when Jane strolls the grounds shortly after arriving at Longford Castle; the music abruptly stops when Hale pops up from behind some bushes. Peter rushes up and sends the interloper on his way, amid a fist fight and an angry exchange of words. Despite Peter’s subsequent erratic behavior — and Jane’s glimpse of him using the concealed printing press — her feelings soften; the moment she decides to trust him is backed by a slow, sweet romantic theme dominated by sax and piano.


Jane later has an informative consultation with Peter’s lawyer, Radlow (Otto Collin); a mid-tempo swinger accompanies the attorney when he leaves his office, and is followed surreptitiously by Inspector Bourke. Not much later, a suspenseful jazz vamp provides an ominous backdrop when Radlow is murdered by somebody unseen. Elsewhere, a cheerful sax and vibes cue mirrors Jane’s tender ministrations, when Peter once again wakens and cannot remember what happened in the recent past.


A slow, ominous reading of the main theme builds tension when the still-unseen criminal mastermind tricks two of his minions into killing each other. But that individual’s satisfaction is short-lived, when Inspector Bourke closes in and Reveals All to a grateful Peter and Jane: Case closed. 

(Mind you, we’ve no resolution regarding Peter’s serious psychological malady, but hey: What’s a little potentially dangerous mental instability between newlyweds?)

No soundtrack LP appeared; indeed, none of the Edgar Wallace Krimi ever produced a soundtrack album. The closest one can get is The Best of Edgar Wallace, a 2000 anthology CD released by Germany’s All Score Media, which includes Böttcher’s title theme to this film. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Recent discovery: The Big Boss

Quite a few composers have had their scores rejected by dissatisfied directors who wanted the music to move in a different direction, and therefore hired somebody else; it’s a recognized risk of the profession. I covered a few in my two volumes; The GetawayChinatown and The Seven-Ups come to mind. The initial rejected scores occasionally have been released commercially, but the films are available solely with the second, replacement score.


A few films do exist with entirely different scores, almost always as a result of release in different countries. 1966’s After the Fox is well known for its effervescent Burt Bacharach score, which became a popular album. But the film’s Italian release features an entirely different score by Piero Piccioni; two tracks were released on an Italian 45 single at the time, but the full score has yet to be issued. Italian DVDs of the film contain Piccioni’s score, for those who are sufficiently curious.


Until now, however, I’d never come across a film that exists with three different scores.


The movie in question is Bruce Lee’s first feature starring project: 1971’s Tang shan da xiong, initially released in the States as Fists of Fury, and — in English-speaking markets — best known these days as The Big Boss. The film’s initial Mandarin language Hong Kong release features a score by Wang Fu-ling (with, some believe, an assist by fellow composer Chen Yung-yu). Tang shan da xiong quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time in Hong Kong, but that honor was brief; Lee’s next film, released only five months later, was even more popular. 


Overseas release of Tang shan da xiong was inevitable, but initially problematic. Despite the success Lee had enjoyed in the American TV series The Green Hornet, along with supporting roles in features such as Marlowe, he remained an unknown quantity as a  potential” film star.” As a result, when Tang shan da xiong was purchased by the German distributor Cinerama, marketing execs — already nervous about how to best promote this Bruce Lee guy — also thought Fu-ling’s score sounded much to “weird” for Western ears. They therefore hired their own Peter Thomas, best known at that point for his scores for the Jerry Cotton films and television’s sci-fi series, Raumpatrouille.


“When the distributor heard the original soundtrack,” Thomas recalled, years later, “he felt helpless and perplexed. One could hear extremely unusual Oriental sounds for Western ears.”1


Thomas made a point of avoiding the film’s initial score. (“I watched the film without the original soundtrack. This only could have disturbed me.”2) He then supplied an entirely new, jazz-based score for the European prints and dubbed English language version, built from original cues and a handful of existing compositions he had released on earlier albums. That version circulated widely throughout the world in 1973, including here in the States. (To further muddy the waters, Thomas wasn’t acknowledged; the sole music credit still belonged to Fu-ling. Confusing, much?)

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Shamus resurrected!

1973’s Shamus arrived as Burt Reynolds was transitioning from television work — notably in the engaging shows Hawk and Dan August, although neither found an audience — and struggling to establish star wattage in B-level action films such as Sam WhiskeyShark and White LightningShamus gained a bit of momentum from Reynolds’ solid performance in 1972’s Deliverance, but crowd-pleasing hits such as The Longest Yard and Smokey and the Bandit still were a few years away.

As I wrote in Volume 2, the somewhat clumsily plotted Shamus relies almost entirely on Reynolds’ roguish charm, as hard-luck PI Shamus McCoy. Director Buzz Kulik and scripter Barry Beckerman try for the Raymond Chandler vibe, with an assortment of eccentric characters and a plot that starts with a diamond heist, but then — bewilderingly — matters blossom into the illegal black-market sale of U.S. military ordnance. 


The film also benefits from Jerry Goldsmith’s droll score, which is dominated by a primary cue —  McCoy’s theme — introduced as a leisurely jazz waltz that plays behind an amusing title credits sequence. It’s arguably the film’s best part, as a hung-over McCoy stumbles out of bed (on his pool table) and searches for clothes, coffee and toothpaste in the low-rent digs he shares with Morris the Cat. A whimsical piano melody plays against Fender bass and gentle percussion, with soft flute providing counterpoint; a bit of wah-wah guitar slides into the mix during the melody’s reprise. 


Kulik makes ample use of this theme, most notably with a warmer, romantic arrangement heard when McCoy gets between the sheets with a suspect’s sexy sister (Dyan Cannon). Goldsmith also supplies fast-paced action jazz during a tumultuous sequence that begins in a warehouse, where McCoy finds crates of military guns, and continues when he’s pursued by a gaggle of gunsels. This climactic chase is backed by a percussive synth cue that sounds very much like Goldsmith’s work on the two Derek Flint films.

In my book, I conclude by noting the absence of a soundtrack album, because the master tapes were believed lost. In point of fact, Film Score Monthly’s Lukas Kendall revealed that Sony verified the existence of said tapes more than two decades ago … and then sat on them. Intrada has come to the rescue, with a just-released digital version of Goldsmith’s score. It’s a spare album, with 11 tracks clocking in at not quite 26 minutes, but don’t assume that implies lesser quality. The listening experience is thoroughly enjoyable, with several variations on McCoy’s theme — including “A Real Dog” and “Getting Acquainted” — blended with the suspenseful action jazz of the aforementioned warehouse melee (“Here I Come”), and the final confrontation with the alpha villain (“A Broken Limb”).

Monday, May 31, 2021

Recent discovery: Mordnacht in Manhattan

Theater seats barely had a chance to get cold, between Jerry Cotton’s first and second big-screen adventures. 1965’s late November release of Mordnacht in Manhattan (Manhattan Night of Murder, in the States) arrived a mere six months after Schüsse aus dem Geigenkasten (The Violin Case Murders). All involved probably should have waited longer, and taken more time with the finished product; Jerry’s bare-bones sophomore outing is a pedestrian affair, and definitely the weakest entry in the eight-film series. It’s more police procedural than crime thriller; it also looks even more like an FBI recruitment tool than the first film, with numerous sequences devoted to stock footage of nameless agency technicians studying clues, comparing tire tracks and finger prints, peering into microscopes, profiling suspects, sorting through early-gen computer readouts, and … well, you get the idea. The story grinds to a halt every time.

That said, Peter Thomas’ score is quite ambitious, with all manner of vigorous action jazz and saucy swing cues — lots of horns, percussion and keyboard chops — suggesting levels of excitement and suspense that the film rarely delivers.


Manhattan merchants are being terrorized by “The Hundred Dollar Gang,” racketeers extorting that sum each month, as a guarantee that their, ah, clients will remain “safe.” Hold-outs are beaten, and their businesses vandalized. But the gang goes too far, as the story opens; a restaurant owner is shot and killed, an act witnessed by young Billy (Uwe Reichmeister). This murder comes as a surprise to the gang members, each of whom denies having pulled the trigger, much to the puzzlement of their leader, Alec (Slobodan Dimitrijevic). Even so, Alec realizes that Billy can’t be allowed to live; the gang tries to kill him with a bomb (!), while he’s playing stickball with friends. This heightens the FBI’s already mounting interest, which puts Jerry (George Nader) and his partner Phil (Heinz Weiss) on the job.


The title credits unfold to the martial-esque, jazz/rock/vocalese “Jerry Cotton March” that fans will recognize from the previous film. Alas, this theme subsequently is overused by director Harald Philipp — often at inopportune moments — as the film proceeds. 

After the restaurant shooting, Alec and the others report to the gang’s boss, the seductive Wilma de Loy (Silvia Solar), who is introduced against a slinky sax cue. She runs the Goldfish Club, where patrons are entertained by underwater cuties dressed as fish, in a huge tank with a glass “wall” that faces the venue’s interior. Jerry and Phil’s first big action sequence comes when they tail the gang’s car with the aid of a tracking device, leading to a lengthy foot chase and skirmish in the labyrinthine interior of a massive gas refinery; this takes place against a terrific rolling jazz cue with fiery piano filigrees, climaxing when one thug perishes in a coal hopper.


Billy, meanwhile, is moved into a safe house.


A heavily percussive swinger, with plenty of throbbing bass and hand-claps, backs Phil when he poses as the new owner of a gas station in the gang’s neighborhood; actual owner Sophie Latimore (Elke Neidhart) is happy to help the FBI stop the crooks. Phil is approached by a thug almost immediately; when he refuses their “protection” overture, the waiting gang bombs the station into smithereens. Phil barely escapes, hops into Jerry’s apple-red Jaguar, and they roar after the gang’s white Stingray Corvette, while Thomas supplies plenty of fast-paced jazz. Our FBI stalwarts follow the gang to a large deserted building where Alec, annoyed by an underling’s slightly less than perfect behavior, binds the guy and sets up a bomb that’ll explode when the door facing him is opened. (Alec must have trouble attracting new gang members, since he kills anybody who makes even a small mistake.) Jerry’s effort to reach the helpless man, without setting off the bomb, is a cleverly staged sequence.

Wilma’s Goldfish Club is introduced against a mildly insipid cha-cha cue, when Jerry and Phil later case the joint. Meanwhile, Sophie — who seems completely untroubled by the total loss of her business (!) — bumps into the solicitous Mr. Eriksen (Kurd Pieritz) while shopping at his grocery store; their friendly chat is backed by an even sillier oom-pah cue dominated by strings and woodwinds (representing German Muzak, I guess). 


Billy, totally bored in protective custody, is jolted by a television commercial for Eriksen’s store, recognizing him — the gang’s actual boss (surprise!) — as the killer of the restaurant owner. The boy foolishly bolts from the apartment, determined to prove this, and gets snatched by Alec; Jerry’s attempt to intervene backfires when he’s captured and ordered executed by Eriksen. A fast percussive cue follows Jerry and several goons to the basement, where they intend to shoot him; Jerry turns the tables against a guitar- and flute-laden action swinger, which fuels a fist-laden melee in a storage room laden with large empty boxes (a set-piece not nearly as interesting — or practical — as Philipp probably intended).

Once free, a propulsive riff on the “Jerry Cotton March” follows our hero as he races after Eriksen and Wilma, holding Billy as a hostage; the subsequent vehicular skirmish in a huge gravel pit leads to a final airfield confrontation, where Eriksen intends to get away in a small plane, and then toss Billy into space … without a parachute. (Needless to say, that doesn’t happen.) Jerry and Billy are reunited, and the end credits roll to what already has become a series signature, akin to “The James Bond Theme”: the classic arrangement of the “Jerry Cotton March.”


FBI Man Jerry stands for the law,” Thomas once explained, “and always, when the case is solved, the ‘Cotton March’ is played at the end — and, even better, whistled — which gives the whole thing a very positive note.”1


No soundtrack album or single was produced at the time. As subsequent films followed, Polydor assembled the best tracks onto a 1967 compilation LP, FBI Man Jerry Cotton. Interest in Thomas’ Jerry Cotton scores peaked again as the turn of the century approached; the Crippled Dick Hot Wax! label responded in 1997, with the digital 100% Cotton (The Complete Jerry Cotton Edition). That two-disc compilation includes music from all eight films. Germany’s All Score Media released a second compilation in 2010 — Jerry Cotton: FBI’s Top Man — which features 28 of the series’ most popular tracks; four come from this second film.

Nader’s Jerry Cotton would return again, only four months later (!), in 1966’s Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu (The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight, aka 3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan). About which … more to come.



1. John Bender, “Also Sprach Peter Thomas,” Film Score Monthly 4:9, November 1999, p23. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The beat goes on: The Kid Detective

Writer/director Evan Morgan’s engaging feature film debut is a droll, slightly tart slice of PI whimsy. At times, 2020’s The Kid Detective seems to be taking place in a slightly existential universe not quite our own, where characters drop mordant, film noir-style one-liners without cracking a smile. At other times, matters turn real-world serious, and emotions are real-world familiar.

This delicate balancing act of tone is complemented by composer Jay McCarrol’s often mischievous score, which varies from tasty combo jazz to suspenseful atmospheric cues. The through line — the title character’s theme — is a quietly drawling melody with a 1-2-1/1-2-1-1 motif on piano, usually backed by low bass and thoughtful drums.


As an adolescent, Abe Applebaum (Jesse Noah Gruman) became a local celebrity in the cheerful little town of Willowbrook, Ontario, thanks to his facility for solving minor mysteries and wacky crimes. His successes resulted mostly from perception and an acute sense of psychology: the way people think and therefore act. Partly out of respect — and likely also out of amusement — the townsfolk even set him up in a downtown office, where good friend Gracie Gulliver (Kaitlyn Chalmers-Rizzato) worked as receptionist. But then she disappeared one day. Despite Abe’s best efforts, and that of the local police, neither she — nor her body — ever was found.


Flash-forward a decade and change. Now 32 (and played by Adam Brody), Abe works out of the same office, stubbornly solving the same trivial cases — finding lost cats, and so forth — in between hangovers and raging attacks of self-pity. He has become the town joke, barely making ends meet; even his Goth receptionist (Sarah Sutherland, hilariously condescending) treats him with contempt.

Enter Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), a 16-year-old orphan who brings him a real case, by asking his help in solving the brutal murder of her boyfriend, Patrick. Caroline is absolutely serious, her wide, guileless eyes radiating sincerity. To say the subsequent investigation proceeds in fits and starts would be an understatement. Although his intuition remains sound, Abe’s sloppy appearance and occasionally reckless behavior hinder more than help. None of this shakes Caroline’s faith; indeed, she even drives him from one lead to the next — Abe doesn’t have a car — and becomes a de facto partner.