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.