Thursday, March 25, 2021

Recent discovery: Dial 999

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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


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

 

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

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Lamentably overlooked: Badge 373

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Recent discovery: Schüsse aus dem Geigengasten

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

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

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The Jerry Cotton phenomenon is nothing short of astonishing.

 

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

 

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

 

Monday, February 1, 2021

From the cutting-room floor: Les Tricheurs

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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