Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Recent discovery: The Strange Countess

Composer Peter Thomas’ second Edgar Wallace KrimiDie seltsame Gräfin, is one of the genre’s flamboyantly lurid entries. (Read this post for a brief description of Germany’s Krimi.) The 1961 film was released in English-speaking territories as The Strange Countess, the title Wallace gave his 1925 novel. Director Josef von Báky — with an uncredited assist from Jürgen Roland and Ottokar Runze — tolerated (encouraged?) outrageous overacting, most notably by star Brigitte Grothum, as the aggressively stalked Margaret Reddle; and Klaus Kinski, as the wide-eyed, gleefully murderous lunatic who pursues her.


Margaret has a comfortable job as secretary to defense attorney Rechtsanwalt Shaddle (Fritz Rasp), and shares an apartment with Lizzy Smith (Edith Hancke). Margaret suddenly begins to receive threatening phone calls from Bresset (Kinski), who hysterically insists that killing her is his only path to salvation. Hoping to elude him, she accepts a job as a live-in assistant to Lady Leonora Moron (Lil Dagover), matriarch of the mildly sinister Carter Field Castle (and the “Strange Countess” of the title). Lady Moron’s primary companions are her rather dotty son, Selwyn (Eddi Arent), a would-be actor fond of floridly quoting Shakespeare; and an extremely ominous butler. (Is there any other kind?) By this point, Margaret also has met — and twice been rescued by — Scotland Yard Inspector Mike Dorn (Joachim Fuchsberger), who believes there’s some connection between her peril, and the recent release of Mary Pindar (Marianne Hoppe), who spent 20 years in prison as a convicted poisoner.


Bresset somehow tracks Margaret down, after repeatedly escaping from the asylum run by Dr. Tappatt (Rudolf Fernau). Thanks to manipulative skullduggery, the increasingly terrified young woman soon winds up in a cell in that same asylum. Can Mike find her, before she’s killed … or suffers a fate worse than death?

Thomas still was relatively new to feature film scoring when he approached Die seltsame Gräfin. He takes a classic big band jazz approach to this Edgar Wallace thriller, with a hard-charging title theme that opens with a 1-1-2/1-2 motif, suspenseful cymbal brushes and a wall of unison horns; throbbing bass adds counterpoint during the bridge. Thomas’ next contribution is a source cue: a tasty bit of cocktail music provided by a jazz big band, heard on the radio as Margaret and Lizzy enjoy a peaceful breakfast, after having received — and dismissed — the first call from the deranged Bresset. A throbbing sax and bass cue tracks Margaret a bit later, when she’s followed by a furtive individual: Could this be another stalker? But no, it’s just Mike; Thomas shifts to a sweetly romantic piano/sax theme when he walks her home.


Sinister bass and horns back Lizzy, when she bravely (foolishly!) receives one of Bresset’s phone calls, and agrees to meet him at the sundial in a nearby park. She survives this encounter; meanwhile, Margaret almost gets run down by a car, which roars toward her against a fast-paced action jazz cue.


Margaret then settles into life at Carter Field Castle, and — at first blush — the eccentric Lady Moron seems an otherwise reasonable employer. Her butler’s threatening demeanor is basic nature; the Countess makes a point of giving “second chances” to ex-convicts. (By way of “thanks,” and as a red herring, the butler intends to steal from her.) Margaret receives permission to invite Lizzy for a short visit; Selwyn leaps at this opportunity to discuss family history, as the three of them slowly walk past paintings of forbearers in an upstairs hallway. 


Which brings us to the sort of tidbit that fascinates film scholars. In the original German print, this stroll along the ancestral gallery is accompanied by an orchestral string and harpsichord waltz; the slight oom-pah tone perfectly suits the smiles exchanged by the two women, as they patiently endure Selwyn’s mildly pompous lecture. But the dubbed English-language version, released digitally by Sinister Cinema, re-scored this brief sequence with an entirely different Peter Thomas cue: “Theme for Lucy,” taken from 1964’s Das Verrätertor(aka Traitor’s Gate). It’s a droll little swinger that works equally well during the scene; the primary 6-2-3-2-1 motif is carried by a lone muted trumpet backed by saucy percussion, after which a touch of jazz organ takes over the melody during the bridge. But why go to such trouble for just one scene? 


That aside, this bit of levity is dashed shortly thereafter. Margaret nearly loses her life when her bedroom balcony crumbles beneath her, as she steps outside to take in the view.


Elsewhere, Thomas inserts a fleeting bass swinger when Mike receives a note that leads to a startling deduction. He races to Carter Field Castle and slips inside; his clandestine meeting with Margaret is backed by a brief reprise of the title theme. From this point onward, the poor woman succumbs to a near-perpetual state of hysteria; Grothum shrieks, screams, sniffles, wails, wrings her hands and occasionally dissolves into wide-eyed crying jags. She abruptly abandons her job with Lady Moron, and takes solace by visiting Lizzy at the café where she works. Some tasty bossa nova emanates from a radio (juke box?) as a source cue, with a frantic piano bridge timed to the “discovery moment” when Bresset, who chances to be at the next table, recognizes his quarry.


Alas, Margaret soon winds up in the hands of Dr. Tappatt. She initially meets him willingly, little realizing that he’s just as evil as some of his “guests.” To her horror, the “waiting room” into which she’s placed, turns out to be a locked cell.

Big band action jazz follows Mike, as he leaves Carter Field Castle and races to the asylum; the music shifts to a suspenseful bass and brass vamp, when he subsequently breaks in. But Dr. Tappatt has been warned, and has hustled Margaret and all the other “patients” into actual barred cells — one of which contains Bresset — concealed in a hidden basement. Dr. Tappatt encourages Mike to look around, and of course he finds nothing; he also naïvely accepts a drink, which renders him unconscious. He wakens in the ground floor room that Margaret had occupied earlier, alone and trapped in a straitjacket. Another bass and brass vamp supplies tension while Mike cleverly works his way out of the jacket, thanks to the contents of the purse that Margaret left behind.


A terrific slice of action jazz propels us into the climax, highlighted by Mike’s brawl with the maniacal Bresset. Cinematographer Richard Angst has fun with this sequence, rotating the camera in a circle while editor Hermann Ludwig inserts tight close-ups of both men, while they ferociously batter each other.


With Bresset and Dr. Tappatt dispatched, everybody else — including Mary Pindar — returns to Carter Field Castle. By this point, Margaret has learned that Mary is her birth mother; the supplementary revelation is that she was unjustly imprisoned for those two decades, for a crime that Lady Moron actually committed. Unwilling to face arrest and certain incarceration, the Countess commits suicide with her own poison-spiked ring. Rather oddly, this outcome is “celebrated” by cheerful orchestral strings: an ill-advised cue that feels totally wrong.

No soundtrack LP appeared, as was the case with all of the Edgar Wallace Krimi. Five cues can be found on Peter Thomas: Kriminal Filmmusik, a 1998 compilation album on Germany’s Prudence label: the title theme; the radio source music following Bresset’s first phone call; the orchestral waltz backing the ancestral gallery tour; the brief piano/sax cue when Mike walks Margaret home; and one of the cacophonous, shrieking horn cues (“Madman’s Terror”) that signal Bresset’s deranged behavior. “Theme for Lucy,” in turn, is included on The Best of Edgar Wallace, a 2000 anthology CD released by Germany’s All Score Media. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

FYI: Behind-the-scenes change

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Monday, June 21, 2021

Recent discovery: The London Forger

West German cinema’s post-World War II infatuation with American and British culture took some intriguing turns: the Jerry Cotton series, featuring an American FBI agent, and (supposedly) set in New York; a pair of Father Brown mysteries, adapted from English author G.K. Chesterton’s popular character; and a staggering 39 films made between 1959 and ’72, based on crime novels by the indefatigable British author Edgar Wallace, all (supposedly) set in and around London. The latter were part of the then-popular Krimi movement — short for Kriminalfilm or Kriminalroman — which kicked off with 1959’s Der Frosch mit der Maske, based on Wallace’s The Fellowship of the Frog

The style — particularly in the early monochrome entries — is classic film noir, albeit with a somewhat heightened intensity; the acting often is breathless, melodramatic and exaggerated. Most of the stories are classic “old dark house” thrillers, set in ancient castles, crumbling mansions and dilapidated country houses, replete with long hallways, dark basements, narrow stairways, creaking doors and moldy furniture. Master villains usually are concealed or masked, their identities a nasty surprise to the protagonists — often “hapless heroines” — when finally revealed. Most cases are solved by private investigators or police inspectors, the latter sometimes operating in a highly unconventional manner.


Unlike the vast majority of American noirs, which were backed by sinister strings and atmospheric orchestral cues, many Krimi boast solid jazz scores (as I’m discovering): particularly those by Peter Thomas and Martin Böttcher. Indeed, pursuing Thomas’ career — as a result of his work on all eight Jerry Cotton films — led me to the Krimi. He scored an impressive 19 of the 39, while Böttcher handled five. The latter’s first Wallace Krimi is 1961’s Der Fälscher von London, released in English-speaking territories as The Forger of London, and based on the 1927 novel, The Forger


Against her better judgment, heroine Jane (Karin Dor, later a James Bond villainess in You Only Live Twice) marries wealthy Peter Clifton (Hellmut Lange), whose several residences include dusty, musty Longford Castle. Jane’s wedding infuriates the smarmy Basil Hale (Robert Graf), who hoped to win her hand, and he continues to stalk her. Worse yet, Jane discovers that Peter has two distinct sides to his personality, coupled with frequent amnesia that prevents his “kinder” identity from remembering anything his other self did. (The film incorrectly labels this schizophrenia, as was common back then.) During Jane’s first visit to Longford Castle, she chances to see Peter operating a hand-cranked press concealed in a secret room behind some bookshelves … and he’s printing money. This means he could be the notorious forger who has been passing counterfeit banknotes throughout London, much to the annoyance of dogged police inspectors Bourke (Siegfried Lowitz) and Rouper (Ulrich Beiger).

We viewers don’t know the forger’s identity; he’s always concealed behind a two-way mirror, while giving orders to his minions. As the bodies pile up, Jane realizes that she has genuinely fallen in love with Peter, and goes to great lengths to protect him: even concealing a murder weapon and removing his blood-soaked clothes (!), when he’s found unconscious at the scene of a crime. Suspects abound, as with an Agatha Christie novel, although the final reveal probably won’t surprise anybody.


Böttcher’s title theme is a mid-tempo, big band swinger that opens with a 1-2/3/1-2 “call and response” motif. That transitions, via vocalese backed with cymbal brushes, to a vamping second motif: a long single note followed by three quick descending notes. A wall of brass explodes during the bridge, and then the call-and-response and vocalese motifs repeat: all told, a delectably energetic finger-snapper. Brief variations of this theme recur throughout the film: in church, during the marriage ceremony, when Hale and a malevolent-looking organist glare at the newlyweds; when Jane first sees Longford Castle; and much later, when Inspector Bourke finds Peter unconscious.

Böttcher contributes a sassy little swinger when Jane strolls the grounds shortly after arriving at Longford Castle; the music abruptly stops when Hale pops up from behind some bushes. Peter rushes up and sends the interloper on his way, amid a fist fight and an angry exchange of words. Despite Peter’s subsequent erratic behavior — and Jane’s glimpse of him using the concealed printing press — her feelings soften; the moment she decides to trust him is backed by a slow, sweet romantic theme dominated by sax and piano.


Jane later has an informative consultation with Peter’s lawyer, Radlow (Otto Collin); a mid-tempo swinger accompanies the attorney when he leaves his office, and is followed surreptitiously by Inspector Bourke. Not much later, a suspenseful jazz vamp provides an ominous backdrop when Radlow is murdered by somebody unseen. Elsewhere, a cheerful sax and vibes cue mirrors Jane’s tender ministrations, when Peter once again wakens and cannot remember what happened in the recent past.


A slow, ominous reading of the main theme builds tension when the still-unseen criminal mastermind tricks two of his minions into killing each other. But that individual’s satisfaction is short-lived, when Inspector Bourke closes in and Reveals All to a grateful Peter and Jane: Case closed. 

(Mind you, we’ve no resolution regarding Peter’s serious psychological malady, but hey: What’s a little potentially dangerous mental instability between newlyweds?)

No soundtrack LP appeared; indeed, none of the Edgar Wallace Krimi ever produced a soundtrack album. The closest one can get is The Best of Edgar Wallace, a 2000 anthology CD released by Germany’s All Score Media, which includes Böttcher’s title theme to this film. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Recent discovery: The Big Boss

Quite a few composers have had their scores rejected by dissatisfied directors who wanted the music to move in a different direction, and therefore hired somebody else; it’s a recognized risk of the profession. I covered a few in my two volumes; The GetawayChinatown and The Seven-Ups come to mind. The initial rejected scores occasionally have been released commercially, but the films are available solely with the second, replacement score.


A few films do exist with entirely different scores, almost always as a result of release in different countries. 1966’s After the Fox is well known for its effervescent Burt Bacharach score, which became a popular album. But the film’s Italian release features an entirely different score by Piero Piccioni; two tracks were released on an Italian 45 single at the time, but the full score has yet to be issued. Italian DVDs of the film contain Piccioni’s score, for those who are sufficiently curious.


Until now, however, I’d never come across a film that exists with three different scores.


The movie in question is Bruce Lee’s first feature starring project: 1971’s Tang shan da xiong, initially released in the States as Fists of Fury, and — in English-speaking markets — best known these days as The Big Boss. The film’s initial Mandarin language Hong Kong release features a score by Wang Fu-ling (with, some believe, an assist by fellow composer Chen Yung-yu). Tang shan da xiong quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time in Hong Kong, but that honor was brief; Lee’s next film, released only five months later, was even more popular. 


Overseas release of Tang shan da xiong was inevitable, but initially problematic. Despite the success Lee had enjoyed in the American TV series The Green Hornet, along with supporting roles in features such as Marlowe, he remained an unknown quantity as a  potential” film star.” As a result, when Tang shan da xiong was purchased by the German distributor Cinerama, marketing execs — already nervous about how to best promote this Bruce Lee guy — also thought Fu-ling’s score sounded much to “weird” for Western ears. They therefore hired their own Peter Thomas, best known at that point for his scores for the Jerry Cotton films and television’s sci-fi series, Raumpatrouille.


“When the distributor heard the original soundtrack,” Thomas recalled, years later, “he felt helpless and perplexed. One could hear extremely unusual Oriental sounds for Western ears.”1


Thomas made a point of avoiding the film’s initial score. (“I watched the film without the original soundtrack. This only could have disturbed me.”2) He then supplied an entirely new, jazz-based score for the European prints and dubbed English language version, built from original cues and a handful of existing compositions he had released on earlier albums. That version circulated widely throughout the world in 1973, including here in the States. (To further muddy the waters, Thomas wasn’t acknowledged; the sole music credit still belonged to Fu-ling. Confusing, much?)

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Shamus resurrected!

1973’s Shamus arrived as Burt Reynolds was transitioning from television work — notably in the engaging shows Hawk and Dan August, although neither found an audience — and struggling to establish star wattage in B-level action films such as Sam WhiskeyShark and White LightningShamus gained a bit of momentum from Reynolds’ solid performance in 1972’s Deliverance, but crowd-pleasing hits such as The Longest Yard and Smokey and the Bandit still were a few years away.

As I wrote in Volume 2, the somewhat clumsily plotted Shamus relies almost entirely on Reynolds’ roguish charm, as hard-luck PI Shamus McCoy. Director Buzz Kulik and scripter Barry Beckerman try for the Raymond Chandler vibe, with an assortment of eccentric characters and a plot that starts with a diamond heist, but then — bewilderingly — matters blossom into the illegal black-market sale of U.S. military ordnance. 


The film also benefits from Jerry Goldsmith’s droll score, which is dominated by a primary cue —  McCoy’s theme — introduced as a leisurely jazz waltz that plays behind an amusing title credits sequence. It’s arguably the film’s best part, as a hung-over McCoy stumbles out of bed (on his pool table) and searches for clothes, coffee and toothpaste in the low-rent digs he shares with Morris the Cat. A whimsical piano melody plays against Fender bass and gentle percussion, with soft flute providing counterpoint; a bit of wah-wah guitar slides into the mix during the melody’s reprise. 


Kulik makes ample use of this theme, most notably with a warmer, romantic arrangement heard when McCoy gets between the sheets with a suspect’s sexy sister (Dyan Cannon). Goldsmith also supplies fast-paced action jazz during a tumultuous sequence that begins in a warehouse, where McCoy finds crates of military guns, and continues when he’s pursued by a gaggle of gunsels. This climactic chase is backed by a percussive synth cue that sounds very much like Goldsmith’s work on the two Derek Flint films.

In my book, I conclude by noting the absence of a soundtrack album, because the master tapes were believed lost. In point of fact, Film Score Monthly’s Lukas Kendall revealed that Sony verified the existence of said tapes more than two decades ago … and then sat on them. Intrada has come to the rescue, with a just-released digital version of Goldsmith’s score. It’s a spare album, with 11 tracks clocking in at not quite 26 minutes, but don’t assume that implies lesser quality. The listening experience is thoroughly enjoyable, with several variations on McCoy’s theme — including “A Real Dog” and “Getting Acquainted” — blended with the suspenseful action jazz of the aforementioned warehouse melee (“Here I Come”), and the final confrontation with the alpha villain (“A Broken Limb”).

August 2021 update: The score also is available digitally via iTunes, Amazon and other comparable sources, and also can be streamed via Spotify.