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!




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.