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.

 

Friday, August 14, 2020

The publicity machine purrs along...

 

Social-distancing restrictions notwithstanding, I've done reasonably well during the past few months, with respect to securing interest from bloggers, media writers and jazz-oriented radio stations. The nicest part is that everybody thus far has been warmly complimentary; the interviews have been enthusiastic meetings of kindred spirits.

The editors at Cinema Retro — an "essential guide to movies [and TV shows] of the '60s and '70s," which is midway through its 16th successful year — requested a brief "how I came to embrace this project" article, and I happily obliged. The magazine is top-of-the-stack reading when each new issue arrives, and I was honored to join the many authors who've written about film and TV scores within its pages. You'll find the article here ... and while you're at it, take a look around and subscribe!

Mark Lynch, at WICN in Worcester, Massachusetts, was so enthused that he granted my books two episodes of his public affairs show Insight. The first, covering Volume One, aired June 29 and can be found here. The second, for Volume Two, aired July 28 and is archived here. Mark and I had a great time chatting (and we probably could have continued for hours).

Davisville is an award-winning public affairs radio show broadcast by our hometown station KDRT. I've been privileged to be a guest of host Bill Buchanan on numerous occasions, and he devoted the July 6 show to my new books. This was the most novel interview I've done thus far. Under normal circumstances, we tape a show (in advance) at one of KDRT's studios, with his brother Jim running the engineering board ... but the studios are much too tiny, given COVID concerns. We worked instead in Jim's back yard; Bill and I saw on chairs, facing each other about 10 feet apart, each of us with a standing microphone. Jim was an equal distance away, at the third point of a triangle, with his board equipment on a large table. Our one concern was that a neighbor might fire up a lawnmower or leaf blower; fortunately, that didn't happen. The result turned out quite well, as you can listen here.


The website Spy Bop Royale was incredibly useful during my books' research phase; it called my attention to many, many soundtracks that otherwise might have been overlooked. I was surprised to find an unexpected and quite generous plug for the books last month. Many thanks!

I was equally intrigued to find German music critic Henry Altmann's nice write-up at the website NDR Info; he discusses my books alongside Kevin Whitehead's thematically similar new book, Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film. Here's an English version of Altmann's article, courtesy of Google; the translation is a bit ragged, but the message comes across. The article seems to be related to an episode of the radio show (podcast?) Jazzfacts, which can be found at Deutschlandfunk. Alas, I can't provide an English translation for this, so I hope your German's better than mine!

The new (August) issue of Film Score Monthly has a generous review of the books, but one must be a subscriber in order to access the issue's contents. I'd like to think that anybody visiting my blog already is aware of the terrific articles and information in every issue of this online magazine, and therefore already subscribes. If not, what're you waiting for?


I was lucky enough to obtain a delightful introduction to Volume One by Cheryl Pawelski, a Grammy Award-winning record producer and co-founder of the wonderfully eclectic record label Omnivore. She, in turn, brought my books to the attention of music journalist Bill Kopp, whose MusoScribe blog has informed fans since 2007. He and I had a terrific (and lengthy) phone interview last month, which resulted in a two-part article that debuted yesterday and this morning. Once again, I couldn't have asked for more generous coverage.

I'm aware of at least a few more things in the pipeline, which I'll share when they go live. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Recent discovery: Le concerto de la peur

Absent Chet Baker’s aggressively dissonant free jazz score, there’d be little to recommend 1963’s Le concerto de la peur. Director José Bénazéraf’s micro-budget crime drama drags along at a snail’s pace, as rival gangsters solemnly discuss, debate and deliberate how to dispose of each other. Guy Fanelli’s script is drawn from Anne-Marie Devillers’ 1959 novel, The Scent of Fear; in his on-screen foreword, Bénazéraf claims to be intrigued by how “this so-called universe of mobsters … is dominated by a very great puerility [wherein] the brutal games of these ‘heroes’ are games of childhood, and the absurdity of these games, pushed to their extreme, inevitably lead them to death.” 

Very philosophical. Alas, Bénazéraf utterly fails to deliver dramatic irony, settling instead for exploitatively bared flesh: quite a lot of it for the early 1960s, even by French standards. (No surprise: He soon abandoned mainstream filmmaking for porn.)

 

The story unfolds during a single day. Lab tech Nora (Yvonne Monlaur) accepts a date with co-worker Chevrel (Robert Darame), not realizing that he also belongs to a narcotics syndicate run by Eric (Hans Verner). Chevrel doesn’t survive long, executed by a thug belonging to Eric’s rival, Sacha (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). The latter then ups the ante by kidnapping Eric’s brother, Fred (Marcel Champel); the following morning, Eric orders his men to kidnap Nora. (The reason for that remains fuzzy.) Although she initially displays considerable spunk, and even kills her scantily dressed “handler” (Regine Rumen, as Vanda) during an escape attempt, Nora then succumbs to the world’s fastest — and most extreme — case of Stockholm syndrome, falling in love with both Eric and his lieutenant, Valdo (Michel Lemoine). 


The gun-blazing climax piles up bodies with Shakespearean élan; Nora ultimately is abandoned when Valdo, the lone surviving gang member, drives off without her.

Bénazéraf’s pacing is plodding at best; tension and occasional flashes of urgency result solely from Baker’s forcefully harsh jazz riffs. (You’ll find nothing resembling a melody here.) He’s supported by sax, bass and drums; alas, the players’ identities have been lost to the mists of time.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The beat goes on: The Eddy

Nobody can question Damien Chazelle’s jazz credentials; the Academy Award-winning writer/director of Whiplash and La La Land has demonstrated a bravura flair for crowd-pleasing, music-oriented dramas. His involvement with The Eddy — as co-executive producer, and director of the first two episodes — therefore generated high expectations.

Too bad he wasn’t also involved in the writing.

The 2020 Netflix miniseries comes from creator Jack Thorne, who wrote five of the eight episodes, and shared writing credit on the other three. Noting that he also scripted last year’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials tells us everything we need to know about Thorne; his world-view is dour, dreary and relentlessly depressing. All the characters in The Eddy are unhappy at best, forlorn and miserable at worst. The core plot drags along solely because these people don’t talk to each other, at least not truthfully. Our primary character lies relentlessly — foolishly — even when there’s no good reason to do so … except to stretch things along in contrived fashion.

Ah, but the music is sensational, all of it written by composer/keyboardist Randy Kerber and songwriter, lyricist and record producer Glen Ballard. Jazz is ubiquitous: mostly live performances within the context of the drama, running at length.

“Randy and I have both been working in film and television our whole careers,” Ballard observed, “and I don’t think either of us has done anything like this. Music normally comes in at the end [of production], but in this case not only was it there at the beginning, but also during shooting. For me it was fundamentally essential to the tone, and this indefinable energy which comes out of real people playing music in real time.”1

“On occasion during filming,” Kerber added, “Damien asked us to play longer. So we did long performances, and these then became embedded into the drama, which then underscored what was happening thematically. Which meant it reached a point where the music and story reached a level of interplay that added something new.”2

Chazelle agreed. “It was important to let things take their course. That was a desire all the directors seemed to share, whether it was improvising around the edges of a scene, filming the music live, or doing full takes and seeing what happened. That helped give the show some of its flavor, and is certainly in the spirit of jazz.”3

Intentions notwithstanding, whether the music compensates for the overcooked melodrama will depend on the eye-rolling tolerance of the individual viewer.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Recent discovery: Agent 077, sfida ai killers

This one resulted from a pleasant suggestion from a fan, who wondered why I hadn't explored actor Richard Harrison’s second outing as “all-American CIA Agent Bob Fleming.” Answer: No reason at all, aside from lack of time and space. So let's make up for it now.

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Allegiances shift at the blink of a seductive eye in 1966’s Agent 077, sfida ai killers, released in the States as both Killers Are Challenged and Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca.
Apparent good gals turn bad (rather randomly); bad gals turn good; other bad gals staybad. Perhaps aware that their film doesn’t make much sense, director Antonio Margheriti and scripter Ernesto Gastaldi hid behind the respective pseudonyms Anthony Dawson and Julian Berry. 

Harrison once again has an affable looseness as Fleming, reprising his role from 1965’s Secret Agent Fireball (which you’ll find in my first volume). He’s reasonably adept with a quip, and he definitely holds his own during an energetic mano a mano skirmish with a thug who wields spiked brass knuckles. Editor Renato Cinquini gives this scuffle the brisk intensity of James Bond’s train compartment struggle with Red Grant, in From Russia with Love.

Carlo Savina’s score is an occasionally awkward blend of light jazz and orchestral string cues, and the title theme — vocalese by Nora Orlandi’s 4+4 — is positively dire. That said, Savina’s jazz touches are quite pleasant; he favors walking bass, percussion and flute-driven reeds, the latter often echoed by muted trumpet. Some of these cues evoke fond memories of Henry Mancini’s work on both Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. Riccardo Pallottini’s cinematography is a bit too self-indulgent; he succumbs to pointless overhead camera angles and ground-level close-ups that stare into Harrison’s nostrils.

Once the ghastly title theme concludes, double-time walking bass powers a lively swing cue while a scientist watches in horror as a colleague — in an approaching helicopter — is blown to smithereens; this observer soon meets a similar fate. They’re two of three researchers who’ve perfected a new energy source “that will make all other types of fuel obsolete” (a common goal in 1960s Eurospy films). In order to protect himself, the third scientist — Coleman (Marcel Charvey) — has changed his face via plastic surgery. This gives Fleming the opportunity to draw enemy attention by impersonating the man, while the actual Coleman is spirited to a safe house in Geneva. Cue all manner of attacks, many — but not all — arranged by smarmy Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi), a wheelchair-bound Texas oil tycoon.

Sturges often is accompanied by the slinky Velka (Susy Andersen), whose relationship with the man — nurse? escort? paid companion? lover? — remains undefined. Savina introduces her with a deliciously sexy burst of bossa nova that once again favors bass and flute. Velka earns most of the subsequent jazz cues; she has a habit of popping up at unexpected moments, often saving Fleming’s hide … despite the fact that she just as frequently seems to put him in danger. Savina works in some fast-paced action jazz midway through the caper, when Fleming is ambushed in an open-air marketplace; the ubiquitous walking bass is augmented by harpsichord during a later car chase.

Pouty Halima (Janine Reynaud) and Moira (Mitsouko, born Maryse Guy) — both atrocious actors — serve as the death-dealing lieutenants to an initially unseen “big boss,” although Moira’s heart doesn’t seem to be in her nefarious activities. As a result, she earns a gratuitous whip-and-bondage “punishment” from Halima. That’s an oddly exploitative sidebar, but worse is yet to come; the film climaxes — if it can be called that — when Fleming lands in a protracted waterfront bar fight that leaves no cliché behind: destroyed furniture, bottles broken on heads, a drunk who continues to enjoy his tipple despite the carnage surrounding him, and even a series of (sigh) dwarf jokes. It’s slapstick nonsense on par with The Three Stooges, and it brings the film to a thudding halt for what seems an eternity; Savina wisely didn’t even try to grant this a musical backdrop.

Agent 077, sfida ai killers failed to generate a soundtrack album, although the title theme is included on Orchestra Cine Sound: Suspense Screen Themes Best 14 (release date unknown), issued on Japan’s Philips label.