Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Beat Goes On: See How They Run

This film is a total hoot, and Daniel Pemberton’s fizzy score has much to do with the merriment.

Director Tom George’s mischievous period “whodunit within a whodunit” is a murder mystery thriller married to a character comedy; it’s also a valentine to Agatha Christie, and a cheeky send-up of theatrical storytelling conventions.

 

Mark Chappell’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek script misses no targets. This is the sort of romp where, if a character laments the “awkwardness” of flashbacks as a plot contrivance, you can bet that the next scene will be a flashback.

 

Most of the humor is slow-burn: witty, not farcical, in the uniquely British style.

 

“The performances are slightly dry, in the way the humor works,” Pemberton acknowledged, “and [the goal] was to find music that does that, as well.”1

 

He succeeded brilliantly. His score is a blend of swing jazz, Dixieland, eerie suspense cues and whimsical character themes. Pemberton employs inventive instrument mixes and orchestrations, with lots of banjo and (occasionally) what sounds like dripping water and bottles being gently struck. I’m reminded of Benoît Charest’s score for 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville, which is similarly playful.

 

“[I used] very mad percussion, with off-kilter beats,” Pemberton confirmed, “which added a nice, unusual texture.”2

 

The setting is early 1953, at West End London’s Theatre Royal, as the cast and crew of Christie’s new murder mystery play, The Mousetrap, celebrates its 100th performance. Essential details are supplied by an unseen narrator who, in a nod to 1950’s Sunset Blvd., speaks from beyond the grave.

 

The festivities are cut short both by the drunken antics of boorish, blacklisted American screenwriter Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), and — a bit later — the distressing discovery that one of these folks has been murdered. For real.

Cue the arrival of world-weary Scotland Yard Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his eager-beaver rookie, Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

 

The suspects are introduced as the film opens, against a lengthy, swing-inflected cue with cool walking bass and sparkling piano filigrees: a whirlwind blast of music that runs almost six minutes (and is titled “A Lavish Affair” on the soundtrack album).

 

“[Tom and I] spent a lot of time on the opening,” Pemberton explained. “It’s a key moment; we have to tell so many stories. We introduce every character, and help the audience meet them all, and understand bits about them, and still enjoy the journey.”3

 

The cue concludes with a brilliant stroke. For most of its length, this is a non-diegetic orchestral cue … until we follow folks into the celebratory hall, at which point — without missing a beat — the cue becomes diegetic, played by a lively on-stage combo. 

 

The corpus delicti turns out to be none other than Köpernick, who — as flashbacks reveal — managed to irritate, annoy, belittle or blackmail just about everybody else. In true Christie fashion, there’s no shortage of suspects.

 

They include:

 

• Aristocratic theater impresario Petula “Choo” Spencer (Ruth Wilson), who has sheparded this play to the stage;

 

• Petula’s mother, Mignon (Ania Marson), a gourmand who says very little, but misses nothing;

 

• Film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who hopes to turn this hit play into an equally popular big-screen movie;

• Ann Saville (Pippa Bennett Warner), Woolf’s personal secretary and mistress; 

 

• Edana Romney (Sian Clifford), Woolf’s wife, and a hobbyist clairvoyant;

 

• Pretentious, puffed-up playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), who despises the way Köpernick — hired by Woolf to “Americanize” the material — is ruining his adaptation;

 

• Giovanni Bigotti (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), an Italian consort who speaks not a word of English, and is madly in love with Mervyn;

 

• Mildly pompous actor Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who stars as the play’s investigating Det. Sgt. Trotter;

 

• Fading actress Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), Dickie’s real-life wife, and co-star in the play; and

 

• Theater usher Dennis (Charlie Cooper), a tall, brooding fellow who stalks the aisles.

 

And, when this cheeky saga charges into its third act, we shift settings in order to meet Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson), her husband Max (Lucian Msamati) and their somewhat sarcastic butler, Fellowes (Paul Chahidi).

 

Stoppard and Stalker are faced with quite a challenge, because motives aren’t lacking. The biggie, though, is an eyebrow lift: Christie’s contract stipulates that no film adaptation can be made until six months after the play’s theatrical run concludes. Ergo, Woolf can’t even think about making a movie unless this production of The Mousetrap were to, um, suddenly stop. For some reason.

 

(Believe it or not, this is true. The Mousetrap is by far the world’s longest-running stage play, having racked up 27,500 performances as of September 2018. Christie’s original contract contains that very clause … which is why it never has been turned into a movie.)

 

Most of the traditional jazz cues are heard in the film’s opening act. Stoppard and Stalker begin their clue-sleuthing against what sounds like a drunken military march with a heavy beat (“Investigation Day 1,” and an appropriate touch, since the inspector does drink too much). When that habit and Stoppard’s slovenly appearance earn a dressing down from his boss, Pemberton supplies whimsical banjo jazz against heartbeat percussion (“Commissioner, Inspector, Constable”).

Terrific walking bass and thoughtful drumming cue Stoppard and Stalker’s realization that some of their suspects are being less than truthful (“Tell a Lie”). And when they wind up hot on the trail — of something — the intensity mounts against increasingly frantic percussion, eerie bass licks, and what sounds like a bottle being struck by a small metal rod (“Keep Your Eyes Peeled”).

 

From that point forward, the traditional jazz elements diminish in favor of sinister suspense cues and bolder orchestral flourishes.

 

“As the film goes on, the story gets bigger,” Pemberton confirmed, “and the music gets bigger.”4

 

And if the score as a whole sounds as if it might have been lifted from the 1950s, that isn’t accidental. 

“On the one hand, the score feels really familiar,” George confirmed, “like those films of that period, but at the same time something’s niggling at you, because it’s not quite like that; something’s a bit off … which is the whole tone of the film.”5

 

Pemberton’s score superbly complements and amplifies all on-screen activity, which adds greatly to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone that George delivers so effectively. Watching this film is fun, just as the music — even as an isolated listening experience — raises a smile, and likely prompts some means of echoing the beat.

 

“The difficulty was making these cues feel very simple,” Pemberton concluded, “when actually there’s something very complex going on. 

 

“And if you’re tapping your foot, that means you’re happy!”6

 


********

 

1. Scottish radio DJ and television presenter Edith Bowman’s Soundtracking podcast interview with Tom George and Daniel Pemberton, September 13, 2022:

edithbowman.com/category/soundtracking/

 

2. Ibid

 

3. Ibid

 

4. Ibid

 

5. Ibid


6. Ibid 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

The beat goes on: The Duke

On the very early morning of August 21, 1961, somebody broke into London’s National Gallery and stole Francisco Goya’s painting, “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.” The carefully calculated crime baffled police investigators, who assumed that the caper must have been masterminded by a professional gang of experienced and well-funded Italian art thieves.

Four years later, the painting was returned by 61-year-old Kempton Bunton, a disabled pensioner who subsequently confessed to the crime.

 

That was wild enough … but what happened at Bunton’s subsequent trial was so audacious, that it prompted an amendment of British law.

 

Director Roger Michell’s engaging depiction of these astonishing events, a cheeky slice of gentle British whimsy, is fueled by endearing performances from Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, as Kempton and his wife, Dorothy. Michell, cinematographer Mike Eley and editor Kristina Hetherington emphasize a retro look, atmosphere and pacing, strongly evoking the sense that their film could have been made during the early 1960s. Screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman compress the time frame, but otherwise present the saga pretty much as it actually went down. George Fenton’s score is a vibrant blend of swinging, big band dance hall jazz — the title theme and several interior cues — and softer, piano-driven melodies for somber moments.

 

(For unknown reasons, this 2020 film languished for a year and a half before reaching our side of the pond; it’ll finally achieve U.S. theatrical release later this month.)

 

Kempton, a taxi driver and frustrated playwright, has long been annoyed by the BBC’s television license fee. His sad efforts to stoke public awareness with a home-grown campaign — “Free TV for the OAP (Old Age Pensioners)” — has gone nowhere; indeed, he has been imprisoned several times, for non-payment of the license fee. When a wealthy American art collector purchases Goya’s painting, intending to take it to the United States, the scandalized British government buys it back for the same sum of £140,000. Kempton, outraged, grouses that the such a sum could have provided free television to thousands of OAPs. Shortly after he learns that the National Gallery’s sophisticated alarm system is deactivated during early mornings, so the cleaning crew can work, the painting winds up in the Buntons’ Newcastle flat. He and younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) cleverly conceal it by constructing a false back to a bedroom wardrobe.

 

Although ostensibly concerned with the stolen painting, Bean and Coleman’s script focuses equally on the broken relationship between Kempton and Dorothy. Their mutual devotion — although visible — is mostly buried beneath frustration and anguish: the latter prompted by the untimely death, a few years earlier, of their 18-year-old daughter Marian.

Time passes; circumstances eventually force Kempton to return the painting. The story then takes an astonishing turn during its third act, with Matthew Goode making the most of his choice role as Kempton’s wily barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson QC. 

 

“Working on the film,” Fenton recalls, in the soundtrack album liner notes, “I frequently thought, ‘There aren’t enough Kempton Buntons around now.’ I tried to reflect the wonderful eccentricity of the man, against the backdrop of 1960s Britain. It feels like an era of comparative simplicity and innocence, [but] the story is shot through with regrets about things unresolved.”

 

Fenton’s bouncy main theme opens against title credits that swoosh in and out, via Eley’s captivating split-screen work, against images of Kempton typing away at his latest would-be theatrical opus. Drummer Ian Thomas and bassist Chris Laurence establish a saucy beat, while unison horns introduce the theme’s primary 1-4-1-4-2-2-1-1-1 motif, with pianist Simon Chamberlain supplying tasty filigrees; the bridge is punctuated by a feisty trumpet solo, after which the core motif repeats when Kempton, manuscript in hand, saunters away to the post office, as Fenton brings the tune to a climactic close.

 

The mood is more dour when Jackie collects his father, after the latter’s 13-day stretch at Durham Prison, for failure to pay the TV license fee. A slow two-beat backs Howard McGill’s quietly lyrical clarinet melody, while Jackie and Kempton motorcycle to the cemetery where Marian is buried. 

“At that point, with his campaigning — and he also knows it — he’s a failure,” Fenton explains. “So there is a kind of trudging plonk plonk with the brass there … I thought it would give the feel of ‘this useless man from Newcastle’ … with a 1960s feel.”1

 

Fenton’s theme for Marian, repeated during Dorothy’s most anguished moments, is a sweet, soft melody on piano and Laurence’s gentle bass. A bit later, after Kempton is rebuffed while trying to have his plays seen by somebody at the BBC, the pensive two-beat returns — this time behind a thoughtful trumpet and sax melody — as he spots a newspaper article extolling the National Gallery’s display of the Goya painting.

 

Cut to nighttime: The two-beat and clarinet follow a gallery guard, making his rounds; the clarinet is joined by a solo trumpet, as a shadowy figure leans a ladder against the building exterior, then climbs up and enters via an unlocked second-floor bathroom window. The figure plods (not at all stealthily) through an interior gallery; the theme intensifies via additional horns, building to a softly mysterious climax as the Goya is confronted … and then Fenton abruptly cuts to lively big band swing, as the painting’s theft is reported the following morning, and police field questions from a battery of reporters.

 

Time passes; an unexpected development — notably elder son Kenny’s greedy girlfriend Pamela, who has discovered the painting — forces Kempton to return it to the gallery. He mounts the interior steps to the second floor, accompanied by a mournful horn backed by a quasi-regimental drum beat, and hands the wrapped package to a startled guard. Needless to say, Kempton’s arrest is immediate. Dorothy is surprised enough by this; her shock mounts further when Jackie confesses that he’s the one who actually stole the painting (!). Fenton supplies another cheeky “skulking theme” as Jackie recounts the details of his amateur heist; the cue’s intensity builds, with horns adding color, when he removes the Goya from the gallery wall.

Kempton’s subsequent trial proceeds without music; Dorothy’s visits to his cell, in between court appearances, suggest emotional rapprochement (again, without music).

 

The film concludes as Kempton and Dorothy, reunited and much happier, take in the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Michell focuses on their smiling faces, and then the screen fades to black against soft solo piano, as a text block informs us that “Free television licences were eventually introduced in 2000 for the over 75s.” (Alas, by then Kempton had been dead for a quarter-century.) A drum roll kicks off an extended reprise of the lively jump jazz title theme, as the primary end credits slide across the screen from all directions; saucy solos on trumpet, vibes, sax and clarinet lead to a full-band flourish when the final credits vanish at the top of the screen. (Congrats to young Austin Haynes, cited for his role as “Scruffy Little Boy.”)

 

The 2021 Quartet soundtrack album includes another variation of this vivacious main theme — “Kempton’s Place” — highlighted by equally sparkling solos on piano, clarinet, sax and vibes. It apparently wasn’t used in the film.

 

*******

 

Michell’s feature choice, when Kempton and Dorothy take in that movie, is a deliberate wink of the pop-culture eye. 


Dr. No debuted in the UK on October 5, 1962. When Bond and Honey Ryder are taken to Dr. No’s lair, and invited to join him for supper, Connery pauses at the foot of the dining area, and does a slow take as he spots the Goya painting among their host’s art treasures.

(As Bond production designer Ken Adam later recalled, in a 2005 interview for The Guardian, “We thought it would be fun for [Dr. No] to have some stolen art, so we used Goya’s ‘Portrait of the Duke of Wellington,’ which was missing at the time. I got hold of a slide from the National Gallery — this was on the Friday, shooting began on the Monday — and I painted a Goya over the weekend.”)

 

At the time, British viewers would have been delighted (or perhaps appalled); they certainly would have gotten the joke … which probably cannot be said of those coming to Dr. No all these decades later. We’ve now been reminded anew: the cherry on top of a thoroughly charming big-screen confection.

 

********


1. George Fenton, quoted by Sebastian Scotney, in an interview for London Jazz News published on February 21, 2022. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

From the cutting-room floor: The Lost Man

This was a tough call.

The story certainly is ideal; this is a brooding crime drama in the classic all-will-not-go-well mold. But “brooding” also is an apt description of the bulk of Quincy Jones’ score: far more orchestral gloom than actual jazz cues. On top of which, the minimal jazz elements are further obscured by the numerous gospel and R&B tunes that director Robert Alan Arthur seems to favor over Jones’ contributions. Reluctant as I was, to discard a Quincy Jones score, at the end of the day there simply wasn’t enough jazz to justify inclusion.

 

********

 

Time hasn’t been kind to 1969’s The Lost Man, which at this point is almost a lost movie (and an equally lost soundtrack album). The plot is a quaint relic of the late 1960s rise of Black militant groups, with star Sidney Poitier’s character displaying a level of calm nobility that seems out of place, given the era’s combustible national mood. Director Robert Alan Arthur’s script is a disguised remake of British author Frederick Laurence Green’s 1945 novel, Odd Man Out — adapted to the big screen in 1947, starring James Mason — with the then-contemporary Black militants standing in for that book’s focus on Northern Ireland’s WWII-era unrest.

 

Poitier stars as Jason Higgs, a lieutenant in a well-organized — but never identified — group of Black militants operating from the slums of an average American big city. Needing funds to help the families of imprisoned group members, Higgs leads a payroll heist that goes horribly wrong; he’s wounded while fleeing with the money, and — worse yet — kills somebody in the process. Higgs’ three confederates don’t last long on the run, but he briefly stays ahead of a massive police hunt, thanks to Cathy Ellis (Joanna Shimkus), a liberal social worker who has fallen in love with him. But the net tightens quickly, leading to a bleak conclusion lifted directly from Green’s novel.

 

By this point in their respective careers, Poitier and composer Quincy Jones had become a highly successful team; The Lost Man was the fourth of their seven big-screen collaborations, following (among others) In the Heat of the Night, and prior to that film’s sequel, They Call Me Mister Tibbs

Jones augmented the studio orchestra with jazz cats such as Bud Shank (reeds), Arthur Adams (guitar), Ray Brown and Carol Kaye (acoustic double bass), and Emil Richards (percussion). Given the inner city setting, and the importance that some of the characters place on church activities, Jones laced the score with numerous gospel numbers that he co-wrote with lyricists Dick Cooper and Ernie Shelby. The funk-laden title song is one such example: The film’s credits appear behind a grim montage of big-city slum life, while Jones’ catchy, percussive theme is augmented by whistles, vocal shadings and the voices of The Kids from PASLA. Their cheerful lyrics gradually are overpowered by rising horns and strings, anticipating the dangerous heist that is about to unfold.

 

Once the plan is set in motion, Higgs and his confederates exit their decaying tenement headquarters; Jones inserts an anticipatory cue that mimics footsteps before developing into a throbbing groove — ba-bum ... ba-bum ... ba-bum — given additional intensity with the insertion of bass, guitar and electric keyboard licks. (A variation of this tense, expectant cue repeats later, when the cops close in on two of Higgs’ associates.) The doomed heist kicks off to a similar percussive cue, which also introduces the film’s primary action theme: a tense, 2-2-2-3 horn motif backed by wicked bass licks. The cue initially sounds expectant, given Higgs’ careful planning, but the musical mood shatters as everything goes wrong. Moving forward, Jones’ occasional references to this theme reprise in slower, grimmer arrangements.

 

On a gentler note, Jones contributes a lovely, minor key lament — the melody taken by woodwinds, with soft piano comping — that is heard each time Higgs and Cathy share a quiet moment. Before the crime goes down, the cue’s mood is playful and exploratory, reflecting Cathy’s barely concealed wish that she and Higgs could become an item. Much later, once Higgs is on the run, Jones gives this love theme bleaker instrumentation: This final moment of intimacy will, indeed, be their last.

 

The various source cues include the reverential “He’ll Wash You Whiter Than Snow,” performed by a church choir that Higgs hears, in passing; and the R&B-hued “Try, Try, Try,” which emanates from a pier side restaurant/bar dubbed The Swingin’ Lighthouse. When two of Higgs’ confederates try to hide in a brothel, they party with the girls as a pair of saucy R&B tunes — “Sweet Soul Sister” and “Rap, Run It On Down” — play on a phonograph. (Alas, they’re betrayed by the brothel madam, who immediately calls the cops.)

Perhaps because of these gospel and R&B songs, Jones’ soundtrack earned LP release on the UNI Records label. UNI also released the title tune and one instrumental track — “Main Squeeze” — as a 45 single. Unfortunately, the album is dominated by those vocals; Jones’ instrumental underscore rates only four tracks. They’re excellent cues, but represent only a small portion of the thematic complexity that Jones wove into the entire score. The album finally was digitized for inclusion in Decca’s six-disc The Cinema of Quincy Jones box set, released in France in 2016. 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Recent discovery: Die Rechnung — Eiskalt serviert

Whether by personal choice or director Helmuth Ashley’s insistence, Peter Thomas’ approach to this fourth Jerry Cotton adventure differs from the way he scored its predecessors. Most of the music cues in 1966’s Die Rechnung: eiskalt serviert — known in English-speaking territories as Tip Not Included (a title that makes absolutely no sense) — are short, staccato bursts of action jazz, often little more than stingers, that never develop into melodies. Ashley often shuns music when events scream for it, as with a terrific early fight sequence in a parklift, which takes place in near silence. And while it’s nice that this film relies less on the stock footage ubiquitous in earlier Cotton adventures, the absence of such montages also represents lost opportunities for lengthier cues. Finally, we hear very few of the familiar cues that have defined these films until now, with the exception of the ubiquitous “Jerry Cotton March,” which Ashley employs to excess, particularly during the story’s climax.

 

The tone also has shifted, becoming a bit larkish, with George Nader’s Jerry Cotton behaving less like an FBI agent, and more like James Bond. And while George Hurdalek’s script includes a genuinely intriguing mystery, it also resorts to eye-rolling nonsense: particularly with its sex-toy treatment of gangster’s moll Birke Bruck, who exists solely to hang around in skimpy outfits. She even endures a gratuitous shower scene that pointlessly interrupts third-act revelations (and features more nudity than one would expect, given when this film was made).

 

Thomas does get to stretch during a title credits sequence that clearly evokes Maurice Binder’s already iconic Bond credits. Thomas’ title theme, powered by screaming horns and a wall of backing brass, plays as the credits unfold over a montage of late-night Manhattan. Thomas shifts to a sultry combo cue as Jerry zooms through traffic in his bright red Jaguar E, finally stopping at a nightclub. He’s just in time to hear chanteuse Phyllis (Yvonne Monlaur) perform “Love Is Swinging in the Air,” which she later reprises as the film progresses (cementing its status as another signature Cotton theme). The song concluded, the club combo takes over; Jerry notices that Phyllis has an unusually tense conversation with her boyfriend, Tommy (Christian Doermer). Jerry’s curiosity is piqued further when Tommy is “escorted” across the street by two thugs, who begin to beat the lad to death. Jerry intervenes with panache, the subsequent fight cleverly staged in the aforementioned parklift (which betrays this film’s German origins, because no such structure ever existed in New York).

 

Tommy survives. Unknown to Phyllis, he’s part of a gang supervised by Charles Anderson (Horst Tappert), who is planning an impressively elaborate heist that involves the young man’s handling of “the smoke.” The target: a shipment from the U.S. Mint.

 

Meanwhile — as the “Jerry Cotton March” is heard for the first time — Jerry is assigned to investigate the mugging of Mint controller George Davis (Ullrich Haupt), a haughty little man who regards the work of “mere policemen” with disdain. The mugging has taken place on the day a large shipment of cash and gemstones is schedule to depart the Mint: a coincidence that Jerry finds troubling. He orders the shipment postponed, which prompts anxiety from Mint president John Clark (Walter Rilla), who dislikes having to keep so much in the vault. He nonetheless complies with Jerry’s request … for the moment.

 

Out on a distant freeway, Charles and his gang members — many sporting droll names such as Pittsburgh, Caruso and Happy — await the Mint truck; Thomas supplies a brief bit of tasty “traveling jazz.” Alerted that the truck is empty, Charles calls off the heist, and they retreat to their lair: the back office of a wrestling arena, which — as the film continues — allows Ashley to insert numerous boring sequences of German wrestlers knocking each other about.

 

Ah, but the gang’s activities have been observed from afar by a sinister-looking fellow. Who is he … and what’s his interest?

 

Tommy reunites with Phyllis at the nightclub that evening, after she once again croons “Love Is Swinging in the Air.” Soft piano jazz backs their cozy chat, but then the mood abruptly shatters; Charles has learned that Tommy has been “turned” by the FBI. Thomas supplies an action jazz vamp during the subsequent furious car chase, which concludes when Tommy crashes … and dies.

 

The following day, Clark —  unable to stand it any longer — orders the shipment to proceed. Charles and his gang are ready; several brief jazz cues help build tension as the truck approaches a key overcrossing, with Charles following in a car. The heist itself involves crazy, split-second timing, with a small, saucer-shaped bomb dropped from the overpass just in time for the truck to drive over it, at which point the device magnetically attaches itself to the undercarriage. Charles hits a switch, violently blowing the truck to bits (but, rather improbably, failing to damage any of its valuable contents). Thomas shifts to a moody jazz cue as the scene is blanketed by a poisonous fog — the “smoke” — which allows the gang, wearing gas masks, to raid the truck unseen. The loot is stashed in an arriving ambulance commandeered by other gang members, and they depart.

 

Back at the Mint, Clark — after learning of the heist, and realizing it’s his fault — suffers a heart attack and dies. Wanting to protect the man’s reputation, Jerry rashly tells the assembling reporters that he okayed the shipment (!). Shortly thereafter, Jerry’s boss (Richard Münich, reprising his role as Mr. High) has no choice but to suspend our favorite agent: a melancholy moment backed by a slow, sad arrangement of the “Jerry Cotton March.”

 

His suspension notwithstanding, Jerry realizes that Phyllis likely is in danger; he races across the city, as Thomas supplies a unison horn fanfare against a tense percussive vamp. A subsequent gunfight — again, maddeningly, with no backing music — concludes when Jerry cleverly arranges for he and Phyllis to be arrested by police. Soon thereafter, Jerry views Tommy’s body in the morgue; a tone-deaf Ashley inserts an inappropriately upbeat cue during this melancholy scene.

 

Phyllis subsequently is tricked (quite foolishly) into being captured by Charles and his gang. Jerry follows, and the third act is laden with brief action cues as he’s cornered at the wrestling arena, then skirmishes with thugs in a boiler room, is tossed into a locked room, and escapes via air ducts. Numerous versions of the “Jerry Cotton March” back his escape from the ducts, followed by a climactic battle with the ultimate Big Bad; this kicks off when Jerry hurls himself off a high roof, barely catches one strut of a departing helicopter, and hangs on for dear life as the pilot tries to shake him off. Ah, but Jerry prevails, cripples the copter, and forces it to land safely in a nearby field (instead of dropping to the ground like a stone, which one would expect of a crippled copter). Jerry’s partner Phil (Heinz Weiss) and other FBI agents magically arrive at the same moment; they arrest the villains, and Mr. High magnanimously lifts Jerry’s suspension. Fade to black.


As before, Die Rechnung: eiskalt serviert failed to produce a soundtrack album, although five cues can be found on the 1997 two-disc compilation, 100% Cotton (The Complete Jerry Cotton Edition). Jerry — and Peter Thomas — would return in the early spring of 1967, in Der Mörderclub von Brooklyn. About which, more to come. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Recent discovery: Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu

Jerry Cotton’s third adventure is a corker, despite the lamentably excessive use of stock footage and rear projection (always a distraction in this series, but much worse here). 1966’s Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu — released in English-speaking territories as 3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan or The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight — finds Jerry and his FBI colleagues racing against time to find a load of nitroglycerin before the stuff destabilizes and explodes: a crucial detail not known by the criminal who believes he has plenty of time to ransom it for $1 million. (One wonders if writers Fred Denger and Kurt Nachmann were, ah, “inspired” by 1959’s City of Fear.)

This film also boasts one of Peter Thomas’ best jazz scores, and director Harald Philipp uses a lot of music. (Perhaps he felt it would distract viewers from all the stock footage.) By this point, recognizing that this had become a true film series, Thomas has armed Jerry with a second primary themes. The first is the cheerful “Jerry Cotton March,” with its slowly “whistled” 1-1-1-3 motif backed by unison snare drums; it’s joined by an up-tempo 6-2-2-1 swinger (“Mr. FBI”) with the melody usually carried via vocalese, sometimes accompanied by solo male scatting. The latter most frequently backs action sequences and FBI surveillance operations. Thomas also began borrowing from his earlier work; several of the cues in this film debuted in the series’ first entry, Schüsse aus dem Geigengasten (The Violin Case Murders).

 

The visually dynamic title sequence is fueled by a terrific double-time swinger that opens with “bomb ticking” and slides into an energetic piano theme repeated via female vocalese; the two bridges are punctuated by a male “shouter” who spells out our hero’s name (in time, of course): “J … E … R-R … Y … C … O … T-T-O-N!” The piano work is phenomenal, backed occasionally by unison horns and that ticking sound.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

From the cutting room floor: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy and occasional cheeky score kept this film on the list during several editing iterations, but ultimately I had to admit that — although the bonkers script spends a lot of time feeling like a low-rent crime and/or spy flick — the resolution shatters that notion. So, into the reject pile it went.
 

********

 

Precisely a year before he achieved heartthrob fame on television’s It Takes a Thief, Robert Wagner starred in a low-budget 1967 TV-movie stinker rather improbably titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation (also known as Deadly Roulette and several other titles, when released theatrically overseas). Gene R. Kearney’s script is utterly incomprehensible, and William Hale’s direction isn’t much better, favoring the tight-tight-tight close-ups so beloved by afternoon soap operas. The entire cast is forced and stiff as a board, and there’s no indication that Wagner soon would enjoy anything approaching his subsequent career. Although all concerned tried desperately to make an espionage thriller, the result plays like the clumsy, jokey efforts that marred the wretched third season of TV’s The Man from UNCLE.

 

Wagner stars as Jack Washington, an aimless wannabe playboy who — recently discharged from the Army, and living in Paris — bumps into former girlfriend Nikki Pine (Jill St. John, invariably sporting absurdly mod sunglasses). Their relationship was sabotaged five years earlier by her wealthy father, Ned (Peter Lawford), who regarded Jack as a no-account bum; the latter sees this chance re-acquaintance as an opportunity to make a better second impression. But Jack still is a bumbling, clumsy idiot who loses at every sport — squash, table tennis, pool, roulette — that the competitive Ned offers as a challenge. (As a further indication of Ned’s predatory qualities, his skeet-shooting sessions alternate clay targets with live pigeons.) 


Things get even more ludicrous when, trying to enjoy two weeks on the Pine’s luxurious yacht and private island, Jack becomes convinced that Ned’s lavish lifestyle has been financed by evil doings with nefarious spies. (Or so it seems; Kearney’s clumsy script never makes that clear.) Jack somehow survives the entire affair, telling the crazy story — in flashback — to a distinguished gentleman (Walter Pidgeon, as Lewis Gannet) who seems to head some sort of clandestine government agency. But Gannet also is not what he seems, leading to a second “climax” that’s even more ludicrous than the first. The film’s final shot shows Wagner grinning at himself in a mirror, and then winking at us viewers ... no doubt chortling over having collected a paycheck for such terrible work.

Schifrin did many TV movies in the mid-’60s, and whether they were good, bad, indifferent — or terrible, as with this one — he always delivered quality work. His primary theme here is a pleasant bossa-nova cue, with the melody often handled by flute or guitar, backed by gentle bass and drums. That said, Schifrin’s title credits theme — which plays against a maladroit, Monty Python-esque animated sequence that must be seen to be disbelieved — is a hilarious blend of instruments, moods and varying time signatures: everything from jazz, Latin and bossa-nova to patriotic marches and exaggerated silent movie music. (It’s very much like Burt Bacharach’s chaotic mini-symphony from the lengthy slapstick fight that concludes Casino Royale.) 

 

The bulk of the score, fortunately, is more pleasant. Jack’s drive from Paris to Monte Carlo is made to a gentle jazz waltz, which blossoms into a swinging blend of piano and muted trumpet as he’s reunited with Nikki. Schifrin maintains the 3/4 time with a much longer and livelier cue — the melody taken by harpsichord and a cheerful flute, against some lively percussion — that complements Jack’s ungainly efforts to photograph and eavesdrop on the many suspicious characters who turn up for one of Ned’s parties. The latter’s private island is somewhere off the coast of Istanbul, granting Schifrin several opportunities for brief source cues composed for various Turkish instruments. 


Sinister “stings” signal impending peril at various points, while Ned’s third-act effort to hypnotize Jack (!) into misremembering various details prompts the standard-issue “disorientation cues” so beloved by bad movies and TV shows. (Schifrin must’ve rolled his eyes, having to include those.) Fortunately, those brief cues are overshadowed by many far nicer efforts, such as the gently swinging melody — a trio of piano, bass and drums — that accompanies Jack’s final cruise on the Pine family yacht; and the tense bass and drum cue that propels his effort to escape a pursuing vehicle, once back on land.

No soundtrack was produced, nor have any of these themes been included on Schifrin’s various anthology albums. The film itself has (mercifully) passed into obscurity, although the crazed title credits sequence and music are easy to find via the Internet ... as is the entire movie (although I do not recommend the viewing experience).

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.