Friday, July 23, 2021

Recent discovery: Face of the Frog

It’s difficult to imagine a film this modest igniting an enormously successful 12-year franchise, yet that’s precisely what happened. 1959’s Der Frosch mit der Maske — Face of the Frog, in English-speaking territories — is the first of what would become a series of 39 crime thrillers based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace. This film also kick-started a German cinematic movement known as Krimi. (See this earlier post for a brief description of that genre.) Although the Egon Eis/J. Joachim Bartsch script follows most of the key plot points in Wallace’s 1925 novel, the result nonetheless is rather silly at times, with a tone that hearkens back to breathless American chapter serials.


Although the score is credited solely to prolific Austrian composer Willy Mattes, Germany’s Peter Thomas did an unacknowledged assist, making this his first Krimi; he’d go on to score 18 more. It’s impossible to know who did what, but given Mattes’ pop and orchestral background — and Thomas’ more specific fondness for jazz — I’m guessing the latter handled the big band swing performances taking place during frequent nightclub visits, while Mattes delivered the non-diegetic cues.


The film opens on a brazen burglary by a gang led by The Frog (Jochen Brockmann), who for months has terrified London and bedeviled Scotland Yard Inspector Hedge (Siegfried Lowitz). Gang members never use names; they refer to each other by code designations such as K33G and K297. (It must be mentioned that The Frog’s laughably silly outfit — heavy clothing, rubber gloves, and a concealing mask with goggly eyes — makes him look like one of the aliens in 1953’s Invaders from Mars.) 


As a further bother to the frustrated inspector, he must put up with “amateur interference” by private detective Richard Gordon (Joachim Fuchsberger), the smug American nephew of Scotland Yard chief Sir Archibald (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer). Richard is accompanied at all times by his fastidious and oh-so-polite butler, James (Eddi Arent), whose stoic behavior and formal line deliveries supply mild comic relief.


A bit later, Ella Bennet (Elfie von Kalckreuth) is menaced in her bedroom by The Frog, who insists that he’ll soon “have her” … and that she’ll oblige willingly. Richard learns of this during a visit to the Bennet home, where he also meets Ella’s reckless brother Ray (Walter Wilz) and their oddly ominous father, John (Carl Lange). Ray hates his boring clerical job at a firm run by the menacing Maitland (Fritz Rasp). Seeking something more exciting, Ray soon falls under the spell of chanteuse Lolita (Evan Pflug), who runs a nightclub named after herself; she seduces the young man, who becomes the patsy in a scheme orchestrated by The Frog. When Ray is framed for murder and sentenced to be hanged, The Frog — in a position to supply an alibi — now has the leverage to prompt Ella into becoming his sex toy. Will she succumb?


The main theme debuts as The Frog and his gang crack a concealed safe belonging to a wealthy couple; the title credits are superimposed over the action. This initial cue is a frantic, low-octave piano vamp accompanied by blaring horns; this motif continues over a subsequent montage of newspapers with angry headlines, as cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke’s camera whisks through London streets. Suspenseful horn riffs are heard a bit later, during Ella’s unwelcome encounter with The Frog.


Ray’s first visit to the Lolita Club introduces him to an exciting swirl of alcohol, beautiful women and tasty dance swing from the nightspot’s resident jazz band. He’s immediately smitten when Lolita takes the stage to croon the next number; she then throws herself on Ray, and he’s immediately hooked. Several subsequent sequences take place within this club, each backed by another peppy blast of jazz. John Bennet arrives one evening, and demands that his son immediately follow him home; enraged at being told what to do, Ray hits his father. Everything pauses … then John slowly leaves, the band resumes its lively swing, and Lolita — oozing faux sympathy — does her best to comfort Ray. 


By this point, Richard has grown convinced that The Frog and the Lolita Club are linked somehow. He also prevents Ella from entering this den of sin, when she arrives one evening, hoping to persuade her brother to return home. By this point, Richard has fallen in love; she’s a bit more reluctant, but does finally agree to trust him.


A thoughtful, mid-tempo jazz anthem plays over a late-night harbor montage, which finally swoops into an after-hours dive bar, where Ray and Lolita are the sole customers. He doesn’t know it, but they’re serving as lookouts for The Frog and his gang, who are about to rob a nearby warehouse: a caper that Inspector Hedge and his Scotland Yard troops have learned about, and are poised to stop. But Lolita spots the police and tells Ray to play something on the bar’s juke box; he obliges, and raucous jump jazz suddenly blares out, signaling The Frog about the danger. Most of the gang is arrested, but The Frog gets away in a boat, despite heavy fire from one bobby armed with a machine gun (!). (German filmmakers apparently didn’t realize that Scotland Yard officers wouldn’t have carried such weapons.)


Enraged, The Frog puts his secondary plan into motion at the Lolita Club, by killing a confederate and then planting the gun on an unconscious Ray. Unknown to the master villain, Richard — having recently infiltrated the club in the guise of a new employee —earlier planted a motion-sensitive movie camera up among the stage lights. After Ray is arrested and sentenced, Richard realizes the camera footage might tell a different story. But when he and James return to the club, they’re ambushed by more of The Frog’s men. Despite holding their own during a furious melee — which takes place without music — Richard and James get locked into a basement, as hostages.


Time passes; nobody knows what has become of Richard. The night before her brother’s execution, a mournful horn cue backs Ella, as she sadly puts a candle in her window: the signal that she’s capitulating to The Frog. Richard and James, meanwhile, finally escape from captivity; they race to retrieve the camera film, view it with Sir Archibald and Inspector Hodge, and make the all-important phone call in time to save Ray from the gallows. 

This leaves only Richard’s final confrontation with The Frog, whose identity — now revealed — proves a nasty shock. 


Ella finally acknowledges her own romantic feelings for Richard, and is astonished to learn that he’s the immensely wealthy owner of a huge estate. A droll little cue plays as James, following the happy couple inside, spots a croaking frog on the gravel driveway; this gives way to a sentimental big band ballad, as the screen fades to black.


No soundtrack album appeared, as was the case with all Edgar Wallace Krimi. Two cues — the title theme and “Nachts im Nebel an der Themse” (one of Lolita’s jazz vocals) — finally appeared on 2000’s Kriminal filmmusik No. 4, a compilation album on Germany’s BSC Music label. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

A resurrected "reject" by Jerry Goldsmith

The jazz content in 1992’s The Public Eye is entirely diegetic: lively combo source cues performed by the house band at Café Society, the club where crime photographer Leon “Bernzie” Bernstein (Joe Pesci) often meets with owner Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey).  These various numbers are produced and arranged by trumpeter and West Coast jazz icon Shorty Rogers. Two — covers of the war-era hits “Flying Home” and “Undecided” — are up-tempo jump jazz swingers, boasting sassy vocals by Oren Waters. At another point, trumpeter Roy Eldridge highlights a smooth cover of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” while saxman Plas Johnson and pianist Gerald Wiggins lend sparkle to a mid-tempo big band arrangement of “Topsy.” Johnson and Wiggins also are front and center for “Café Society Blues,” a Rogers original that makes ample use of a vibrant wall of brass.

Mark Isham’s primarily symphonic underscore is dominated by mournful strings, wary reeds, gently expectant percussion and suspenseful, treble-register piano filigrees. Isham actually came late to this project; writer/director Howard Franklin’s first choice was Jerry Goldsmith, who seemed a perfect fit. “It was like the greatest coup ever,” he enthused.1 Given that Goldsmith had scored Chinatown, a noir-drenched period piece with a similar crime-laden story, the match would appear to have been made in heaven. Unfortunately, Franklin was displeased by what Goldsmith ultimately composed, and decided to go in a different direction.


As of the point my books were published, in the spring of 2020, Goldsmith’s completed score was known to exist — somewhere — but only one brief cue was available via online sources. Intrada has just resurrected it under the label’s Special Collection banner, and comparing it to Isham’s work is fascinating.


Most noticeably, they’re not that different. Neither is jazz per se, although several of Goldsmith’s cues slide further in that direction, thanks to plenty of deliciously smoky bass work. (I wish the player could be acknowledged, but musician identities apparently have been lost to time.) Both scores rely heavily on melancholia and forlorn, quietly lonely cues that reflect Bernzie’s isolated existence: shunned by most, because of the nature of his work, and the predatory manner in which he pursues it. Isham’s score is more melodic, with a distinctive title theme and several mildly tuneful interior cues. Goldsmith’s title theme and interior cues rely more on motifs than melody: three slowly rising notes, often followed — after a pause — by a single descending note, usually heard on solo oboe or clarinet; and paired note couplets, often played on a harp. Both composers heighten tension with unsettling piano filigrees.


Goldsmith also favors “tick-tock” strings and harp elements, to enhance the sense of dread and disconcerting anticipation that follows Bernzie, wherever he goes. Several of Goldsmith’s cues mess with time signatures: Notes unexpectedly land half a beat too soon, like a nervous twitch. Unlike Isham, Goldsmith also adds a distinctly wistful element at times: Bernzie has feelings like anybody else, and they often get bruised. One cue — “Beauty and the Beast” — is particularly sweet: a poignant blend of gentle piano and delicate bass work, likely intended for a scene where Bernzie begins to hope that Kay might like him more than casually.


The two composers also take a different approach to their final cues, heard over the end credits. Isham re-states his main theme in much the same manner: Bernzie, although dismayed by the way things have turned out, returns to his work. Nothing has changed; life will continue to be bittersweet, at best. Goldsmith, in contrast, re-states his 3/1 motif at a slightly faster tempo, with more aggressively dramatic piano elements. This suggests hope: Bernzie has grown from the experience, and things won’t be quite the same.


Intrada presents Goldsmith’s score in film order, with 21 tracks (three of which are built from two cues each). The single bonus track is an alternate mix of “The Slaughter,” the cue that accompanies the story’s climactic restaurant massacre. Frank K. DeWald’s liner notes are impressively detailed.




1. Howard Franklin, quoted from his commentary on the film’s 2020 Blu-ray release. 

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The beat goes on: No Sudden Move

Belfast-born David Holmes initially seemed an unlikely candidate for film scoring, having focused his early career on DJing and solo albums devoted to electronica, trip hop, big beat and good ol’ fashioned rock ’n’ roll. That said, his overall music knowledge — and personal collection — have long been impressively extensive, and his career trajectory changed completely when he was hired by director Steven Soderbergh to score 1998’s erotic neo-noirOut of Sight. It proved an artistic match made in heaven, leading to many more collaborations over the years: most notably (for our purposes) all three Ocean’sheist dramedies. Their newest team-up is the just-released No Sudden Move.

Fans of slow-burn crime thrillers will love it.


Scripter Ed Solomon’s noir-ish saga is given precisely the right look and atmosphere by Soderbergh and production designer Hannah Beachler. The post-WWII Detroit setting emphasizes the deplorable racial divide between cozy white neighborhoods and decaying inner-city Black districts, and the wary mistrust this prompts from both sides. But Solomon hasn’t merely written a mordant, attitude-laden crime drama; many of his plot elements — and twists — are drawn from actual historical events.


Down-on-their-luck criminals Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) are hired by a shady go-between (Brendan Fraser) for a “babysitting” job. (That’s “babysitting,” as in “guard at gunpoint while something goes down elsewhere.”) Their task: to watch the family of low-level General Motors executive Matt Wertz (David Harbour), while he’s escorted to his office by third gunsel Charley Barnes (Kieran Culkin), in order to retrieve a certain document from a certain safe. Curt, Ronald and Charley will remain masked the entire time; if everybody cooperates, everybody lives.


Everybody cooperates, but the plan still goes awry. In the aftermath, Curt and Ronald are on the run, having done the one thing both hoped to avoid, by antagonizing rival crime lords Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke) and Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta). Unless the besieged duo can find and leverage the aforementioned document — a true Hitchcockian MacGuffin, until it suddenly isn’t — their hours are grimly numbered.

Holmes’ working relationship with Soderbergh is quite unusual, if not unique. The composer always delves deeply into a script’s period, setting and atmosphere, in order to “feel” the story, and the characters within it. Holmes then assembles a massive assortment of era-specific songs, cues, riffs and so forth.


“I sent him so much music from the era,” Holmes explained, “different moods, instrumentals, songs and soundtracks that had a certain feel.”1


Soderbergh became quite enchanted by one cue: Henry Mancini’s unsettling title theme to 1962’s Experiment in Terror. This became the acorn from which the mighty oak of Holmes’ score developed.


“It was a beautiful place to start,” Holmes continued, “to explore a broader meaning, so I studied the instrumentation of it. I could hear the cimbalom, the guitar, drums and upright bass. It had a certain feeling that was exciting.”2