Thursday, March 25, 2021

Recent discovery: Dial 999

“Without public good will, any police force is licked.”

 

Inspiring statements of this nature, always spoken with grave sincerity, were a signature part of Dial 999, a British crime drama that ran a single season of 39 episodes beginning in the summer of 1958. Producer Harry Alan Towers sank a lot of money into this series, which allowed for plenty of location shoots on cinema-style film, rather than videotape; that, in turn, granted composer Sidney Torch more opportunities for underscore cues, than were present in most British shows of the same era.

 

Dial 999 — referring to the UK’s telephone emergency service — is one of the earliest television police procedurals, with each half-hour story focusing on crime scene analysis, investigative technique and dogged detective work. The premise finds Mike Maguire (Canadian actor Robert Beatty), a Royal Canadian Mounted police inspector, sent to “London Town” to study, learn and assist in Scotland Yard cases. This grants scripters an opportunity to “educate” Mike — as various examples of police work are explained to him by a fellow detective — which similarly instructs viewers, who also are encouraged to “do their civic duty” by cooperating with coppers. Such attitudes seem quaint today, but Beatty puts calm earnestness into his performance; his Mike Maguire definitely is a man to admire.

 

The cases run an impressive range, each solved in an economical 25 minutes: stopping a serial killer who targets young women; setting gangland thugs against each other, in order to arrest all of them; pondering why a career jewel thief suddenly tries to steal a fur coat; pursuing a gang that robs a mail man traveling from Edinburgh to London via train (anticipating England’s “Great Train Robbery” by five years); and tracking bookies who fix horse races, along with the usual gaggle of pickpockets, killers, bank robbers and confidence men. Maguire eventually leaves London to “apprentice” on cases taking place in various countryside towns, always relying on evidence such as fingerprints, shoe impressions and sharp-eyed civilian witnesses. As a result of his travels, Maguire never gets a regular partner, and instead is teamed with various associates. 


Six episodes were written by Brian Clemens — soon to be known for The Avengers — but under the pseudonym “Tony O’Grady,” because he was simultaneously writing for several other programs.

 

Torch, who created the still-popular BBC program Friday Night Is Music Night in 1953, scored Dial 999 with an eclectic quintet: vibes, guitar, bass, drums and harmonica (the latter by Tommy Reilly, the only credited musician). The show doesn’t have a title theme; the opening sequence repeats Beatty’s voice-over introduction that explains his relocation to England. 


Torch’s main theme instead plays over the closing credits: a languid little jazz ballad in 4/4 time, with rising and falling triplets on vibes comping against similarly rising and falling triplets on Reilly’s harmonica. Investigation montages receive brief, mildly swinging jazz cues with vibes handling arrangements of that primary melody. Action sequences — skirmishes, car chases — often are backed by cheerful solo harmonica: a bizarrely inappropriate counterpoint to serious and sometimes quite dramatic events. (Some directors clearly had very strange musical taste.)

 

The show never produced a soundtrack album or title theme single. That said, interest is likely to increase with the April 2021 DVD release of the entire 39-episode season. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Lamentably overlooked: Badge 373

Actually, I'm not sure a film this dreadful can be regarded as "lamentably" overlooked, but it certainly was undeservedly overlooked, given that its score is worthy of our attention. I confess to having been previously unfamiliar with Jerome Louis Jackson, in part because his film work was so minimal.

Badge 373 finally came to my attention during a deeper dive into Robert Duvall's career. That said, I'm pretty sure it never earned a spot on the résumé that his agent circulated...

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Although sometimes regarded as French Connection 1-1/2 — being “inspired” once again by the exploits of former New York City police detective Eddie Egan — 1973’s Badge 373 is a tawdry cop thriller that doesn’t deserve mention in the same breath as William Friedkin’s ’71 classic. Veteran producer Howard W. Koch made a serious mistake when he helmed this project — Badge 373 was his last hurrah as director, and deservedly so — and journalist/author Pete Hamill’s clumsily clichéd script is littered with repugnant racism. Robert Duvall is stiff as a board as “Eddie Ryan,” and the rest of the cast is similarly wooden … although, given Hamill’s laughably atrocious dialogue, they can hardly be blamed. Ironically, Egan himself turns in the best performance, as Ryan’s sympathetic boss.

 

The music fares far better than the actors. In this post-Shaft environment, with blaxploitation flicks and soundtracks on a rapid rise, the scoring assignment went to soul/R&B singer/songwriter Jerome Louis Jackson — better known as J.J. Jackson — whose career initially blossomed when he and Pierre Tubbs co-wrote 1966’s hit tune “But It’s Alright.” Jackson’s cues here favor brass fanfares, groovy guitar licks and propulsive percussion, all of which are prominent during the brief title credits sequence. That said, the music serves mostly as atmosphere; it’s difficult to discern a distinct main theme.

 

(Contrary to what numerous ill-informed sources insist — including no less than the Internet Movie Database — this J.J. Jackson is not the other fellow of the same name, best known as an MTV VJ in the 1980s. That individual — John J. “J.J.” Jackson — died in 2004; Jerome Louis Jackson is with us still.)

 

The story begins when the unapologetically racist Ryan is suspended after being blamed for “helping” a Puerto Rican suspect fall to his death during a rooftop scuffle. Badge or no badge, Ryan turns vengeful vigilante when his former partner is brutally killed. Clues lead to wealthy Puerto Rican drug kingpin Sweet William (Henry Darrow, in an atrocious cartoon performance); distractions are supplied by violent young political activists determined to free their native Puerto Rico from corrupt American dominance. To that end, these independentistas intend to purchase $3 million worth of illegal guns from Sweet William. Along the way, Ryan shamefully neglects new girlfriend Maureen (Verna Bloom), who displays the patience of a saint while being treated like dirt; this romantic subplot is just as unpalatable as Ryan’s reflexive misanthropy.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Recent discovery: Schüsse aus dem Geigengasten

I acknowledged, in my introduction to both books, that space (and time) constraints prevented much of a dive into international waters. The few films that did make the cut are mostly low-budget Italian James Bond rip-offs, and I scarcely investigated the output from other Western European countries.

A German correspondent named Alex recently encouraged me to check out his country's Jerry Cotton film series, on the strength of what he promised were their vigorous jazz scores. Alex did not overstate; this resulting post is apt to be the first of many visits with Cotton.

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The Jerry Cotton phenomenon is nothing short of astonishing.

 

The German pulp magazine character — a resolute American FBI agent — debuted in 1954, in issue 68 of the anthology title Bastei Kriminal-Roman (Bastei Crime Novel, Bastei being the publisher), in a story titled Ich suchte den Gangster-Chef (I Sought the Gangster Boss). The character proved popular, and — after becoming a frequent staple in Bastei Kriminal-Roman — earned his own weekly title in 1956: G-Man Jerry Cotton. That magazine continues to be published to this day, albeit monthly; as these words are typed, issue No. 3,320 (!) can be ordered from Bastei’s web site. At its peak, the magazine was translated into 19 languages for readers in 52 countries … but, ironically, Cotton never successfully penetrated the U.S. market. His crime-laden adventures, told in the first person, supposedly are authored by the man himself; they’ve actually been ghosted by scores of different writers, most notably Heinz Werner Höber. A popular urban legend insists that this first-person perspective has fooled many readers, over the years, into sending letters to Cotton in care of the FBI’s New York offices (which the FBI cheekily refuses to confirm or deny).

 

Cotton’s exploits take place in an idealized and romanticized version of the United States: a view of American life that feels somewhat time-locked in the atmosphere of the post-World War II era, despite — as the decades passed — the eventual introduction of computers, smart phones and Al-Qaeda terrorists. Indeed, the many German authors’ vision of an amiably multicultural New York — mostly free of racism — has been far more progressive than reality. Jerry’s partner and best friend — the Watson to Cotton’s Holmes — is Phil Decker; they both report to John D. High, usually known as “Mr. High,” head of the FBI’s New York office.

 

Monday, February 1, 2021

From the cutting-room floor: Les Tricheurs

This is another one I hated to lose, given its sensational, wall-to-wall jazz score. But as with Alfie, this is a study of deplorable behavior, rather than actual crime. Nor are these selfish young sybarites deliberately “evil” in the sense of the characters in Roger Vadim’s handling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (which did make the cut). They’re merely foolish … but goodness, they do have great taste in music.

 

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Director Marcel Carné’s Les Tricheurs — released in the States as either Youthful Sinners or (a more direct translation) The Cheaters — isn’t a crime saga, although the story does include a dollop of blackmail. And while the conventional settings preclude much in the way of atmosphere, Claude Renoir’s black-and-white cinematography does achieve classic noir overtones during a melodramatic finale. For the most part, though, Carné’s film is a study of undisciplined, cynical twentysomethings who believe themselves too hip for conventional jobs, and certainly too cool for something as prosaic as romantic love; they spend all of their time dancing, drinking, swapping bedmates and — most importantly, for our purposes — listening to jazz records. Indeed, few films have depicted youthful decadence with such a ubiquitous swirl of swing. 

 

Carné wasn’t content to merely commission original music from Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) ensemble, which had just performed at Paris’ Salle Peyel; he also bought the rights to a dozen existing recordings by luminaries such as Lionel Hampton, Chet Baker and Fats Domino.1 The incredible JATP ensemble featured Oscar Peterson (piano), Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass) and Gus Johnson (drums). With one brief exception, all the tunes are heard as diegetic cues that emanate from juke boxes, home music systems and tiny portable turntables.

 

The story focuses on Bob (Jacques Charrier), a “square” university student whose interest in jazz leads to a chance encounter with Alain (Laurent Terzieff) in a record store. The latter, a manipulative bohemian who cheerfully freeloads off his friends, introduces Bob to Clo (Andréa Parisy) and her best friend, Mic (Pascale Petit). Although Bob first hooks up with Clo, he’s quickly smitten by Mic, whose greatest desire is to purchase the expensive Jaguar at the car shop that employs her older brother Roger (Roland Lesaffre). Bob is embraced by the greater Rive Gauche gang with whom Alain, Clo and Mic hang out; his studies begin to slide as his evenings are consumed by sybaritic parties. 

 

Despite her stand-offish pretensions, Mic falls in love with Bob, but professes the opposite in order to avoid losing face with her friends; taking his cue from her behavior, Bob feigns similar nonchalance. This emotional maelstrom climaxes during a huge, liquor-fueled bash thrown by Clo — her “farewell party,” as she has become pregnant — when Bob and Mic confront each other, with disastrous consequences. The film’s title now comes into play, as it becomes clear that these restless youths are “cheating” themselves out of happiness and true love.

 

Carné opens his film in a café, the title credits displayed while two young guys bop in front of a jukebox playing JATP’s lively cover of Pete Rugolo’s “Oscar and Pete’s Blues.” (In a nice nod to the soundtrack’s importance, the credits acknowledge all the purchased recordings and the artists performing them.) The camera pans to Bob, looking miserable in a booth by himself; the reason for his anguish then unfolds via a lengthy flashback that begins in a record store — Chet Baker’s cover of “Tommy Hawk” playing in the background — when Bob spots Alain stealing a 45 single. The latter takes Bob to a nearby café, introducing him to Clo and Mic as other patrons groove to Fats Domino’s “Second Line Jump.” Now part of the group, Bob is swept along to Clo’s home — her parents conveniently absent — where everybody dances breathlessly to a pair of JATP originals: “Les Tricheurs,” a mid-tempo swinger that opens with Oscar Peterson’s smooth piano chops, and then delivers sweet solos on tenor sax and trumpet; and the lazy “Clo’s Blues,” with Hawkins breaking hearts on sax, as Peterson and Ellis comp quietly in the background.

 

The scene shifts to Mic’s apartment, where she “tolerates” a visit from her older brother while Peterson and Gillespie roar through a lively JATP original titled “Mic’s Jump,” emanating from her record player. When that disc concludes, she switches to Gerry Mulligan’s cover of “Bernie’s Tune,” which prompts an appreciative nod from Roger. He departs as Bob arrives, already entranced by Mic; they wind up in bed, then embark on a blackmail scheme that nets the 600,000 francs she needs to buy the Jag. She consents to join him for a dance at the “snobby” club frequented by his father’s social set, and is surprised to find the “oldsters” cutting a rug to the Bob Scobey Band’s cover of “Wild Man Blues” and Al Castellanos’ jovial “Speak Up Mambo.”

 

Pride, misunderstandings and willful stubbornness drive Bob and Mic apart, until they both wind up at Clo’s farewell party. Everybody is dancing to Fats Domino’s “If You Need Me” when Bob enters the spacious venue; the mood then gentles down for a slow dance, the revelers swaying to JATP’s “Phil’s Tune,” with its sweet Eldridge sax melody against Peterson’s keyboard comping. Clo, close to hysterics due to the impending marriage that has been “arranged” by her parents, demands that things liven up; she puts the Lionel Hampton/Mezz Mezzrow bopper “Crazy Hamp” on the phonograph, and the crowd responds. 

 

Next up is Buddy Rich’s “Desperate Desmond,” which prompts Clo to scream “Make it louder!” Bob and Mic have their final confrontation in one corner; crushed by his (contrived) indifference, she runs from the room, hops into her car and roars off into the night. Bob follows in a borrowed vehicle, realizing that he needs to admit that he definitely loves her. He chases her down a twisting two-lane road at ever-increasing speeds, the ongoing blast of “Desperate Desmond” now becoming a non-diegetic underscore. The scene’s intensity peaks as Rich hits the song’s legendary solo, the furious drumming propelling Mic to floor the accelerator ... until she crashes. 

 

Back in the present, the flashback concluded, Bob — wiser but now alone — watches as two boys and two girls, younger even than he is, agree to raid their parents’ liquor supply for a rowdy party that evening ... and then, with the word “Fin,” the film concludes.

 

The four original JATP tracks — “Les Tricheurs,” “Clo’s Blues,” “Phil’s Tune” and “Mic’s Jump” — were released as a double-disc 7-inch EP on France’s Barclay label. Three of the “purchased” songs — “Tommy Hawk,” “Bernie’s Tune” and The Champs’ cover of Chuck Rio’s “Tequila” — were issued separately, on a 45 single by Disques Vogue. Verve followed up with a 10-inch LP that featured “Les Tricheurs” and “Mic’s Jump,” with three additional songs recorded during the same studio session, featuring Sonny Stitt guesting on alto sax, although none was used in the film: “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Get Happy” and “On the Alamo.” The four Barclay tracks were augmented by “Crazy Hamp” when they were digitized in 1988 on the Fontana label, for a compilation disc paired with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ score for 1959’s Des Femmes Disparaissent. Most recently, the four Barclay tracks and the three “extras” (with Stitt) were granted prestige treatment as part of Moochin’ About’s 2012 five-disc anthology set, Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool.

 

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1. Selwin Harris, booklet notes for Les Tricheurs, in the box set Beat, Square and Cool (Jazz on Film, 2012), 27-28.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The publicity machine keeps on rollin' along...

I continue to be quite pleased by the attention these books are getting, and the generous reviews and comments coming in from various quarters.

Steve Provizer contributed a thoughtful analysis of Volume One for Arts Fuse, a curated, independent online arts magazine dedicated to publishing in-depth criticism, along with high-quality previews, interviews and commentaries. The publication's more than 60 freelance critics cover dance, film, food, literature, music, television, theater, video games and visual arts. I'm pretty sure Provizer is the first to observe that my writing style is "pithy," a descriptor I love; you can't beat being regarded as "concise and forcefully expressive."

Andrew Gilbert paired his San Francisco Classical Voice review of Volume One with a companion discussion of Kevin Whitehead's Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film (and he's not the first to have done so). I'm delighted that Gilbert cited me as "an assiduous researcher who casts an exceptionally wide net"; it's nice to have four years of exhaustive, down-the-rabbit-hole research so acknowledged. He also (quite correctly) notes that the book is designed to be read in small doses, lest one be overwhelmed by the information dump. (I like to think these are the ultimate "bathroom books" for fans of this music.)

I also appreciate the shout-out Gilbert gave to my Guaraldi bio.

Speaking of such research, these books couldn't have existed without the efforts of other authors who focused on specific individuals; one such title is John Barry: The Man with the Midas Touch, by Geoff Leonard, Pete Walker and Gareth Bramley. I cited and footnoted that marvelous biography many, many times. Leonard co-manages a similarly extensive Barry web site under the same title, which recently gave Volume One a lovely little plug. (And I chuckled over the fact that — given the subject matter — I'm identified as "the appropriately named Derrick Bang.")

Proving yet again that jazz — and even crime/spy jazz — has an international following, the Spanish web site MusicAdictus, gave Volume One some exposure. The commentary wanders a bit, and Google's English translation is a bit ragged, but it's clear that the author enjoyed the book.

Further on the international front, Berlin's popcultureshelf.com is managed by the extremely erudite Alex Ebert. His interest in the books came as a lovely surprise (as I lacked the information to solicit overseas individuals, the way I was able to contact U.S. publications and radio stations). I became aware of Ebert's site back in July, when I stumbled across his insightful review of Volume One

We began an occasional correspondence, and he honored me further by becoming one of the few individuals to devote separate reviews to each book; his piece on Volume Two has just been published. One cannot ask for better than this summation of Volume One, when he calls it "...a valuable (and rather wittily written) find for all fans of spy movies, jazz buffs or soundtrack collectors with an interest in the golden years of American TV and movie production."

Lastly — but absolutely not least — jazz historian and commentator Steven Cerra similarly devoted lengthy separate essays to each volume, at his Jazz Profiles web site. Cerra actually contacted me a few months before the books were published, having gotten wind of them via early social media chatter. He remembered me from the Guaraldi bio, which he also devoted an essay to, back in 2014. I frankly blush at some of his praise for Volume One, published in early July, a typical passage of which reads thusly: "Rarely is a book so full of facts and information a page-turner, and yet this one is, and that's largely because of Mr. Bang's gifts as a storyteller." As with Alex Ebert, above, Cerra and I also maintain an occasional correspondence, and he's even nicer — and more enthusiastic — informally, than in his published efforts. His take on Volume Two has just gone live.

This may conclude such reviews and commentary; at least, I'm not aware of anything else in the pipeline. Should that be the case, I certainly can't complain about the thoughtful observations, and generosity of spirit, shown by everybody who has taken the time to read and discuss the books. Any and all authors should be so fortunate.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Settling a new score: The Streets of San Francisco

La-La Land celebrates autumn’s arrival with the third volume in its Quinn Martin Collection series: a stylish two-disc set of Patrick Williams’ scores for the popular 1972-77 TV series, The Streets of San Francisco. This marks the debut of any sort of soundtrack album; the sole previous release was a 1975 Capitol Records single, with its even more dynamic arrangement of Williams’ kick-ass title theme.

 

Williams began his film and television career in 1967. Although (among many other things) he delivered episode scores for cop/crime shows such as Dan AugustThe Name of the GameMannix and Cannon— several for Quinn Martin — in the early 1970s he was best known for his lighter sitcom themes and scores for The Mary Tyler Moore ShowThe Sandy Duncan Show and The Bob Newhart Show.

 

(He also scored a 1970 big-screen film with the improbable title of The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker … something I definitely need to track down.)

 

Streets was an opportunity for Williams to strut his impressive jazz/funk sensibilities, and he responded with one of the decade’s most explosive cop show themes (attached to one of the decade’s finest cop shows). As soundtrack journalist/historian Jon Burlingame notes in his extensive booklet essay, Williams’ reputation for jazz composition always attracted industry heavyweights, when it came time for a Streets scoring session: among them Pete Candoli and Buddy Childers (trumpets); Vincent De Rosa (French horn); Jerome Richardson, Tom Scott and Bud Shank (saxes); Dick Nash and Frank Rosolino (trombone); Laurindo Almeida and Larry Carlton (guitar); and John Guerin (drums).

 

“Pat’s writing is breathtaking,” noted veteran music critic and author Gene Lees, in a quote reproduced in numerous obituaries when Williams died, in July 2018. “He’s just one of the finest arrangers and composers who ever put pen to paper.”

 

Williams scored Streets’ two-hour pilot and five first-season episodes, followed by an additional episode during each of the subsequent four seasons. He established a propulsive “urban swing” template that dominated the show during its entire run; additional original scores — by Richard Markowitz, Duane Tatro, Tom Scott, John Carl Parker, QM stalwart John Elizalde and others — were faithful to those origins. (As with most shows by this point, each season featured only a handful of original scores; all other episodes were tracked with existing library cues.)

 

As merely one highlight of this splendid package, it’s marvelous to hear Williams’ title theme unencumbered by the characteristic QM voice-over announcer (Hank Simms) gravely intoning the stars, guest stars and episode title as the corresponding text appeared on the screen. (I always loathed that affectation … what, viewers couldn’t read on their own?)

 

This two-disc set features Williams’ score for the two-hour pilot, along with cue suites from all nine of his subsequent episodes. The traditional action-oriented nature of the series’ initial seasons eventually yielded to more serious dramatic fare, building to the fifth season’s grim two-part premiere, which depicted co-star Michael Douglas’ departure and Richard Hatch’s introduction as Karl Malden’s new partner. Williams’ scores correspondingly became darker over time, his cues more frequently dominated by unsettling piano filigrees and sinister strings, as opposed to the explosive brass and wah-wah guitar licks that powered his earlier efforts.

 

Two years after Streets solved its final case, Williams worked on what became the final TV show produced under the Quinn Martin banner: the insufferably dumb Robert Conrad spy series, A Man Called Sloane, which ran only 12 episodes before deservedly being yanked in late December 1979. Williams contributed the title theme and full score for the initial episode — which actually aired second — along with an additional 21 minutes of library cues that were tracked into subsequent episodes. This Streets package also includes the bulk of his score for that one episode (“The Seduction Squad”).

 

(I must say, the propulsive title theme is much more palatable — even with its silly synth effects — when divorced from the inane title credits sequence. And the rest of Williams’ score is far superior to the dim-bulb episode for which it was written.)

 

While you’re visiting La-La Land, be sure to pick up a copy of The Quinn Martin Collection Volume One: Cop and Detective Series, which features title themes and cue suites from CannonDan AugustMost Wanted and Barnaby Jones, along with title themes from The ManhunterCaribeBert D’Angelo: Superstar and Tales of the Unexpected. (Volume Two is devoted to The Invaders: great stuff, but off-topic here.)


On a final minor note, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Volume Three’s booklet quotes a brief passage from the second volume of my Crime and Spy Jazz books. (Much obliged, Jon!)

Friday, September 18, 2020

Recent discovery: Missione speciale Lady Chaplin

The echoes of Thunderball are impossible to ignore in Missione speciale Lady Chaplin (Special Mission Lady Chaplin), the last — and most enjoyable — of American actor Ken Clark’s three “CIA Agent 077” Eurospy entries. Even so — despite the best efforts of co-directors Alberto De Martino and Sergio Grieco — the entertainment value has little to do with Clark, whose athletic prowess cannot conceal his stiff-as-a-board performance. Both he and the similarly wooden Jacques Bergerac — as the villain of the piece, the aptly named Kobre Zoltan — are constantly out-classed by former Bond girl Daniela Bianchi’s enthusiastic handling of Lady Arabella Chaplin: celebrated fashion designer in the public eye, mistress-of-disguise assassin at Zoltan’s behest. She and a variety of cool spy gadgets propel this derivative saga, which gets additional bounce from Bruno Nicolai’s jazz-laden score, and a plot that starts in Madrid and then takes its characters to New York, London, Paris and Morocco.
 
Dick Malloy (Clark) and his boss, Heston (Philippe Hersent), head to Madrid after learning that somebody has been trying to sell a dog tag supposedly recovered from the USS Thresher, a sunken American nuclear submarine. This implies that the sub has been raised, a notion rejected as impossible when our heroes consult with Zoltan, a marine salvage gazillionaire who throws lavish parties and entertains his guests with dueling scorpions. It initially appears that Zoltan is right; when Malloy investigates via a bathysphere descent, the Thresher is at the ocean bottom two miles down, where it’s supposed to be. But a closer examination reveals that its 16 Polaris missiles — all armed with nuclear warheads — have been removed.
 
Zoltan is indeed behind the dirty deed; he and Arabella also orchestrate the heist of a heavily guarded propellant from a moving train, during a nifty sequence that showcases her resourcefulness. Needing a way to then smuggle the propellant across several borders, Arabella oversees a chemical process that transforms the compound into explosively flammable dress material (!) subsequently used in one of her fashion shows (!!).
 
Malloy quickly catches on to Arabella’s double life, and seems rather forgiving of her lethal tendencies; by this point we’ve seen her cold-bloodedly execute at least four men. More crucially, Malloy constantly remains a step or two behind Zoltan’s activities, while evading assassination attempts by dozens of gun-toting lackeys — almost always decked out in black turtlenecks — during reasonably well-staged action sequences. (One wonders how Agent 077 has maintained his excellent reputation.)

Friday, September 4, 2020

Recent discovery: Upperseven, l'uomo da uccidere

Writer/director Alberto De Martino was granted a better than average budget for 1966’s Upperseven, l’uomo da uccidere, released in the States as The Spy with Ten Faces (only four, actually, if my count is accurate). This Italian/West German Eurospy entry offers a reasonably credible storyline that takes ample advantage of production designer Francesco Cuppini’s lavish sets; cinematographer Mario Fioretti also is kept busy during a globe-trotting adventure that sends its characters to London, Copenhagen, Rome, Capetown, Johannesburg and Basel (Switzerland). Best of all (for our purposes), De Martino grants plenty of space to Bruno Nicolai’s often vibrant jazz score, which has strong echoes of John Barry’s Bond work, without being slavishly derivative. On the other hand, the title character’s smug over-confidence often feels condescending; one wishes he’d get bloodied a bit more, to instill some humility.

 

The dastardly Kobras — a well-sculpted villain, played with calmly sinister panache by Nando Gazzolo — cooks up a complicated scheme to disrupt a Pan-African alliance being financed by South African diamonds. The gems are to be traded for American dollars, at which point Kobras and his minions will break into a Swiss bank and steal the currency, leaving an equal amount of counterfeit bills to cover their tracks. Kobras intends to use the stolen funds to further bankroll a concealed missile base on behalf of Chinese partners. Determined to save the day: Agent Paul Finney (Paul Hubschmid), code-named Upperseven — senior to 007, one assumes — a master of molded mask disguises, accompanied by useless CIA agent Helen Farheit (Karin Dor, soon to bedevil James Bond, in You Only Live Twice). Finney also makes ample use of a weaponized cane, perhaps borrowed from The Avengers’ John Steed.

 


There’s no title sequence; the credits appear as Finney cleverly trails a car driven by Kobras’ primary henchman, Santos (Guido Lollobrigida), while chanteuse Paolo Orlandi delivers a saucy reading of the bold, brass-heavy title song (apparently crooned by a love-struck lass who prays that Upperseven will “set her free,” because he no longer wants her). It’s a vibrantly percussive tune that warrants placement alongside Barry’s best 007 power anthems.

 

Once at their destination, Finney employs a mask to invade Kobras’ smuggling operation; he assesses and photographs the situation, while backed by a swinging instrumental arrangement of the title theme, which favors muted trumpet and throbbing bass. Finney then calls in reinforcements, sets a bomb and blows everything to smithereens: a sequence that introduces Nicolai’s secondary action cue, which opens with a drum roll and a powerful, mid-tempo 1-4-1-2 motif. (It reprises a few times as the story progresses, notably when Kobras helps a colleague escape from prison.) Police round up most of the surviving bad guys — Santos departed earlier — but Kobras escapes when he’s spirited away by resourceful gal pal Birgit (Vivi Bach, far more capable than Helen Farheit) and Chen, their Chinese partner.

Friday, August 28, 2020

From the cutting-room floor: Alfie

I hated dropping this one from the manuscript, but — at the end of the day — it simply isn’t a crime drama (although I tried hard to justify such content). The terrific Sonny Rollins score screamed for more attention than it obtained at the time, but including Alfie would have demanded that I similarly open the door for dozens more jazz-backed character dramas … and I didn’t have the space.

 

Thank goodness for the limitless real estate afforded by blogs!

 

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Mention the musical component of Michael Caine’s career-making performance in Alfie, and most folks will cite the Burt Bacharach title song, with Hal David’s clever, narrative-referencing lyrics ... and that’s where the conversation stops. Nobody remembers sax legend Sonny Rollins’ superb jazz soundtrack, possibly because film director Lewis Gilbert employed it so sparingly. Rollins must have been frustrated, particularly because his themes play so brilliantly on two levels: buoyant and larkish, but always with an undercurrent of pathos that mirrors the title character’s slowly dawning realization that his blithe, hedonistic approach to life is soulless. As Alfie confesses, at the film’s conclusion — breaking the fourth wall and addressing us directly, as he has done so frequently throughout — “I ain’t got me peace of mind ... and if you ain’t got that, you ain’t got nothing.”

 

Including Alfie within these pages was a stretch, as it’s a character-driven drama about an unapologetic rake with an appalling attitude toward women: nary a heist, gun battle or car chase in sight. That said, as Alfie admits to us in one scene, he “always has a fiddle on” ... and that makes him larcenous, however mildly, which justifies the film’s presence here. (Besides, missing the opportunity to discuss Rollins’ score would be a crime all by itself.)

 

[Alas, the crime ultimately was committed during the final edit.]

 

Gilbert’s film is based on Irish playwright Bill Naughton’s 1963 stage production of the same title; Naughton also supplied the screenplay. The episodic narrative follows Alfie Elkins’ brief encounters with a series of “birds,” heedless of how he ruins their lives: ultimately unsatisfying affairs that increasingly undermine the callous insouciance with which he breezes through each day. He has a child with his “stand-by” girlfriend, the sweet but simple Gilda (Julia Foster); Alfie comes to love the little boy but refuses to tie himself down, so Gilda marries Humphrey (Graham Stark), a sympathetic bus conductor who adopts the lad as his own, forever removing him from Alfie’s influence. Alfie moves on to a young hitchhiker, Annie (Jane Asher), who does everything for him — cooking, scrubbing floors, tending to laundry — but he ultimately cannot abide such selfless kindness. 


Meanwhile, a one-off with the married Lily (Vivien Merchant) proves catastrophic when she gets pregnant; her husband has been convalescing at a sanatorium, and therefore would know that his wife had been unfaithful. This requires the grim intervention of an illegal abortionist (Denholm Elliott), a process that so unnerves Alfie that he decides to make a permanent thing of his occasional trysts with the voluptuous, somewhat older Ruby (Shelley Winters). Alas, she turns out to be Alfie’s perfect counterpart, albeit with the wealth to support her casual lifestyle; the story concludes as Ruby dumps Alfie for a younger bloke, leaving our lonely protagonist to bitterly reflect on everything that he has done wrong.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Recent discovery: Kiss Kiss - Bang Bang

Apparently unable to fully exercise his inane side while co-scripting 1965’s James Tont operazione U.N.O., Bruno Corbucci and a more cooperative pair of lunatic writers went full-bore bonkers for 1966’s Kiss Kiss – Bang Bang. Its pretentions toward spy spoofery notwithstanding, this can’t be considered more than a dim-bulb children’s movie … and a very bad one, at that. Most of Bruno Nicolai’s score veers from cartoon effects to silent movie chase cues, with plenty of mickey-mousing intended to help sell sight gags that nonetheless fall flat. Even the title song — gamely crooned by Nancy Cuomo, against a credits sequence clearly modeled on Maurice Binder’s Bond efforts — is an obnoxious pop trifle that gets nowhere near the power anthem status to which it aspires. That said, patient jazz fans will be rewarded by Nicolai’s tasty arrangements of the primary theme and two love themes, mostly combo readings with the melody taken by sultry sax or trumpet. A few run at pleasant length behind flirty bedroom sequences.

 

Former British Secret Service agent Kirk Warren (Giuliano Gemma) went rogue and stole $1 million, a crime for which he’s about to hang, as the film begins. He’s granted a last-second pardon by his former handlers, because they believe him the only agent capable of locating a crucial secret formula before nefarious terrorist “Mister X” can get his hands on it. Warren agrees, and is joined on this mission by three trusted associates: security expert Professor Padereski (Antonio Casas), who literally “sniffs out” death traps; mousy, accident-prone Dupont (Manuel Muñiz), a talented safe-cracker who works wonders with a corkscrew; and Chico Pérez (George Martin), a skilled acrobat nimbly able to bounce over electrified fences.


Snatching the formula from a safe deep within a heavily guarded stronghold proves simple, at which point Warren and his minions decide to bypass the British and sell it to Mister X … for $4 million. This scheme repeatedly runs afoul of comic book villain Tol Lim (Daniele Vargas), who — as if his faux Asian appearance isn’t offensive enough — minces about in caftans and roller-skates on the deck of his yacht. (Just because, y’know.)

 

Director Duccio Tessari and his writers insert numerous Bondian nods. British agents 003 and 008 come to bad ends, and Warren cheekily adopts the iconic Sean Connery pose — arms crossed against his chest, one hand holding a gun — with a knowing grin. The bare-bones plot lurches along for an interminable 112 minutes due solely to kitchen-sink excess: a surveillance agent concealed in a cylindrical trash can (shades of TV’s Get Smart!); Warren’s MI6-issued pistol, which shoots laughing gas; an impressively verbose parrot entrusted to remember and recite the complex secret formula; numb-nuts thugs who repeatedly shoot each other by mistake; collapsing beds, closets and other furniture; a cake in the face; and an MI6 contact that happens to be a talking pigeon (which, no doubt, shares a flat with the talking mouse from James Tont operazione U.N.O.). 


Everything climaxes during a protracted chase and knuckle-bruising melee taking place on various deserted amusement park rides, within a hedge maze and mirror maze, and atop an historic oceanside landmark. If it all sounds like classic Keystone Kops territory, be advised: This film isn’t that good.