Friday, September 24, 2021

Recent discovery: Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu

Jerry Cotton’s third adventure is a corker, despite the lamentably excessive use of stock footage and rear projection (always a distraction in this series, but much worse here). 1966’s Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu — released in English-speaking territories as 3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan or The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight — finds Jerry and his FBI colleagues racing against time to find a load of nitroglycerin before the stuff destabilizes and explodes: a crucial detail not known by the criminal who believes he has plenty of time to ransom it for $1 million. (One wonders if writers Fred Denger and Kurt Nachmann were, ah, “inspired” by 1959’s City of Fear.)

This film also boasts one of Peter Thomas’ best jazz scores, and director Harald Philipp uses a lot of music. (Perhaps he felt it would distract viewers from all the stock footage.) By this point, recognizing that this had become a true film series, Thomas has armed Jerry with a second primary themes. The first is the cheerful “Jerry Cotton March,” with its slowly “whistled” 1-1-1-3 motif backed by unison snare drums; it’s joined by an up-tempo 6-2-2-1 swinger (“Mr. FBI”) with the melody usually carried via vocalese, sometimes accompanied by solo male scatting. The latter most frequently backs action sequences and FBI surveillance operations. Thomas also began borrowing from his earlier work; several of the cues in this film debuted in the series’ first entry, Schüsse aus dem Geigengasten (The Violin Case Murders).


The visually dynamic title sequence is fueled by a terrific double-time swinger that opens with “bomb ticking” and slides into an energetic piano theme repeated via female vocalese; the two bridges are punctuated by a male “shouter” who spells out our hero’s name (in time, of course): “J … E … R-R … Y … C … O … T-T-O-N!” The piano work is phenomenal, backed occasionally by unison horns and that ticking sound.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

From the cutting room floor: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy and occasional cheeky score kept this film on the list during several editing iterations, but ultimately I had to admit that — although the bonkers script spends a lot of time feeling like a low-rent crime and/or spy flick — the resolution shatters that notion. So, into the reject pile it went.



Precisely a year before he achieved heartthrob fame on television’s It Takes a Thief, Robert Wagner starred in a low-budget 1967 TV-movie stinker rather improbably titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation (also known as Deadly Roulette and several other titles, when released theatrically overseas). Gene R. Kearney’s script is utterly incomprehensible, and William Hale’s direction isn’t much better, favoring the tight-tight-tight close-ups so beloved by afternoon soap operas. The entire cast is forced and stiff as a board, and there’s no indication that Wagner soon would enjoy anything approaching his subsequent career. Although all concerned tried desperately to make an espionage thriller, the result plays like the clumsy, jokey efforts that marred the wretched third season of TV’s The Man from UNCLE.


Wagner stars as Jack Washington, an aimless wannabe playboy who — recently discharged from the Army, and living in Paris — bumps into former girlfriend Nikki Pine (Jill St. John, invariably sporting absurdly mod sunglasses). Their relationship was sabotaged five years earlier by her wealthy father, Ned (Peter Lawford), who regarded Jack as a no-account bum; the latter sees this chance re-acquaintance as an opportunity to make a better second impression. But Jack still is a bumbling, clumsy idiot who loses at every sport — squash, table tennis, pool, roulette — that the competitive Ned offers as a challenge. (As a further indication of Ned’s predatory qualities, his skeet-shooting sessions alternate clay targets with live pigeons.) 

Things get even more ludicrous when, trying to enjoy two weeks on the Pine’s luxurious yacht and private island, Jack becomes convinced that Ned’s lavish lifestyle has been financed by evil doings with nefarious spies. (Or so it seems; Kearney’s clumsy script never makes that clear.) Jack somehow survives the entire affair, telling the crazy story — in flashback — to a distinguished gentleman (Walter Pidgeon, as Lewis Gannet) who seems to head some sort of clandestine government agency. But Gannet also is not what he seems, leading to a second “climax” that’s even more ludicrous than the first. The film’s final shot shows Wagner grinning at himself in a mirror, and then winking at us viewers ... no doubt chortling over having collected a paycheck for such terrible work.

Schifrin did many TV movies in the mid-’60s, and whether they were good, bad, indifferent — or terrible, as with this one — he always delivered quality work. His primary theme here is a pleasant bossa-nova cue, with the melody often handled by flute or guitar, backed by gentle bass and drums. That said, Schifrin’s title credits theme — which plays against a maladroit, Monty Python-esque animated sequence that must be seen to be disbelieved — is a hilarious blend of instruments, moods and varying time signatures: everything from jazz, Latin and bossa-nova to patriotic marches and exaggerated silent movie music. (It’s very much like Burt Bacharach’s chaotic mini-symphony from the lengthy slapstick fight that concludes Casino Royale.) 


The bulk of the score, fortunately, is more pleasant. Jack’s drive from Paris to Monte Carlo is made to a gentle jazz waltz, which blossoms into a swinging blend of piano and muted trumpet as he’s reunited with Nikki. Schifrin maintains the 3/4 time with a much longer and livelier cue — the melody taken by harpsichord and a cheerful flute, against some lively percussion — that complements Jack’s ungainly efforts to photograph and eavesdrop on the many suspicious characters who turn up for one of Ned’s parties. The latter’s private island is somewhere off the coast of Istanbul, granting Schifrin several opportunities for brief source cues composed for various Turkish instruments. 

Sinister “stings” signal impending peril at various points, while Ned’s third-act effort to hypnotize Jack (!) into misremembering various details prompts the standard-issue “disorientation cues” so beloved by bad movies and TV shows. (Schifrin must’ve rolled his eyes, having to include those.) Fortunately, those brief cues are overshadowed by many far nicer efforts, such as the gently swinging melody — a trio of piano, bass and drums — that accompanies Jack’s final cruise on the Pine family yacht; and the tense bass and drum cue that propels his effort to escape a pursuing vehicle, once back on land.

No soundtrack was produced, nor have any of these themes been included on Schifrin’s various anthology albums. The film itself has (mercifully) passed into obscurity, although the crazed title credits sequence and music are easy to find via the Internet ... as is the entire movie (although I do not recommend the viewing experience).