Saturday, April 2, 2022

The beat goes on: The Duke

On the very early morning of August 21, 1961, somebody broke into London’s National Gallery and stole Francisco Goya’s painting, “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.” The carefully calculated crime baffled police investigators, who assumed that the caper must have been masterminded by a professional gang of experienced and well-funded Italian art thieves.

Four years later, the painting was returned by 61-year-old Kempton Bunton, a disabled pensioner who subsequently confessed to the crime.

 

That was wild enough … but what happened at Bunton’s subsequent trial was so audacious, that it prompted an amendment of British law.

 

Director Roger Michell’s engaging depiction of these astonishing events, a cheeky slice of gentle British whimsy, is fueled by endearing performances from Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, as Kempton and his wife, Dorothy. Michell, cinematographer Mike Eley and editor Kristina Hetherington emphasize a retro look, atmosphere and pacing, strongly evoking the sense that their film could have been made during the early 1960s. Screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman compress the time frame, but otherwise present the saga pretty much as it actually went down. George Fenton’s score is a vibrant blend of swinging, big band dance hall jazz — the title theme and several interior cues — and softer, piano-driven melodies for somber moments.

 

(For unknown reasons, this 2020 film languished for a year and a half before reaching our side of the pond; it’ll finally achieve U.S. theatrical release later this month.)

 

Kempton, a taxi driver and frustrated playwright, has long been annoyed by the BBC’s television license fee. His sad efforts to stoke public awareness with a home-grown campaign — “Free TV for the OAP (Old Age Pensioners)” — has gone nowhere; indeed, he has been imprisoned several times, for non-payment of the license fee. When a wealthy American art collector purchases Goya’s painting, intending to take it to the United States, the scandalized British government buys it back for the same sum of £140,000. Kempton, outraged, grouses that the such a sum could have provided free television to thousands of OAPs. Shortly after he learns that the National Gallery’s sophisticated alarm system is deactivated during early mornings, so the cleaning crew can work, the painting winds up in the Buntons’ Newcastle flat. He and younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) cleverly conceal it by constructing a false back to a bedroom wardrobe.

 

Although ostensibly concerned with the stolen painting, Bean and Coleman’s script focuses equally on the broken relationship between Kempton and Dorothy. Their mutual devotion — although visible — is mostly buried beneath frustration and anguish: the latter prompted by the untimely death, a few years earlier, of their 18-year-old daughter Marian.

Time passes; circumstances eventually force Kempton to return the painting. The story then takes an astonishing turn during its third act, with Matthew Goode making the most of his choice role as Kempton’s wily barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson QC. 

 

“Working on the film,” Fenton recalls, in the soundtrack album liner notes, “I frequently thought, ‘There aren’t enough Kempton Buntons around now.’ I tried to reflect the wonderful eccentricity of the man, against the backdrop of 1960s Britain. It feels like an era of comparative simplicity and innocence, [but] the story is shot through with regrets about things unresolved.”

 

Fenton’s bouncy main theme opens against title credits that swoosh in and out, via Eley’s captivating split-screen work, against images of Kempton typing away at his latest would-be theatrical opus. Drummer Ian Thomas and bassist Chris Laurence establish a saucy beat, while unison horns introduce the theme’s primary 1-4-1-4-2-2-1-1-1 motif, with pianist Simon Chamberlain supplying tasty filigrees; the bridge is punctuated by a feisty trumpet solo, after which the core motif repeats when Kempton, manuscript in hand, saunters away to the post office, as Fenton brings the tune to a climactic close.

 

The mood is more dour when Jackie collects his father, after the latter’s 13-day stretch at Durham Prison, for failure to pay the TV license fee. A slow two-beat backs Howard McGill’s quietly lyrical clarinet melody, while Jackie and Kempton motorcycle to the cemetery where Marian is buried. 

“At that point, with his campaigning — and he also knows it — he’s a failure,” Fenton explains. “So there is a kind of trudging plonk plonk with the brass there … I thought it would give the feel of ‘this useless man from Newcastle’ … with a 1960s feel.”1

 

Fenton’s theme for Marian, repeated during Dorothy’s most anguished moments, is a sweet, soft melody on piano and Laurence’s gentle bass. A bit later, after Kempton is rebuffed while trying to have his plays seen by somebody at the BBC, the pensive two-beat returns — this time behind a thoughtful trumpet and sax melody — as he spots a newspaper article extolling the National Gallery’s display of the Goya painting.

 

Cut to nighttime: The two-beat and clarinet follow a gallery guard, making his rounds; the clarinet is joined by a solo trumpet, as a shadowy figure leans a ladder against the building exterior, then climbs up and enters via an unlocked second-floor bathroom window. The figure plods (not at all stealthily) through an interior gallery; the theme intensifies via additional horns, building to a softly mysterious climax as the Goya is confronted … and then Fenton abruptly cuts to lively big band swing, as the painting’s theft is reported the following morning, and police field questions from a battery of reporters.

 

Time passes; an unexpected development — notably elder son Kenny’s greedy girlfriend Pamela, who has discovered the painting — forces Kempton to return it to the gallery. He mounts the interior steps to the second floor, accompanied by a mournful horn backed by a quasi-regimental drum beat, and hands the wrapped package to a startled guard. Needless to say, Kempton’s arrest is immediate. Dorothy is surprised enough by this; her shock mounts further when Jackie confesses that he’s the one who actually stole the painting (!). Fenton supplies another cheeky “skulking theme” as Jackie recounts the details of his amateur heist; the cue’s intensity builds, with horns adding color, when he removes the Goya from the gallery wall.

Kempton’s subsequent trial proceeds without music; Dorothy’s visits to his cell, in between court appearances, suggest emotional rapprochement (again, without music).

 

The film concludes as Kempton and Dorothy, reunited and much happier, take in the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Michell focuses on their smiling faces, and then the screen fades to black against soft solo piano, as a text block informs us that “Free television licences were eventually introduced in 2000 for the over 75s.” (Alas, by then Kempton had been dead for a quarter-century.) A drum roll kicks off an extended reprise of the lively jump jazz title theme, as the primary end credits slide across the screen from all directions; saucy solos on trumpet, vibes, sax and clarinet lead to a full-band flourish when the final credits vanish at the top of the screen. (Congrats to young Austin Haynes, cited for his role as “Scruffy Little Boy.”)

 

The 2021 Quartet soundtrack album includes another variation of this vivacious main theme — “Kempton’s Place” — highlighted by equally sparkling solos on piano, clarinet, sax and vibes. It apparently wasn’t used in the film.

 

*******

 

Michell’s feature choice, when Kempton and Dorothy take in that movie, is a deliberate wink of the pop-culture eye. 


Dr. No debuted in the UK on October 5, 1962. When Bond and Honey Ryder are taken to Dr. No’s lair, and invited to join him for supper, Connery pauses at the foot of the dining area, and does a slow take as he spots the Goya painting among their host’s art treasures.

(As Bond production designer Ken Adam later recalled, in a 2005 interview for The Guardian, “We thought it would be fun for [Dr. No] to have some stolen art, so we used Goya’s ‘Portrait of the Duke of Wellington,’ which was missing at the time. I got hold of a slide from the National Gallery — this was on the Friday, shooting began on the Monday — and I painted a Goya over the weekend.”)

 

At the time, British viewers would have been delighted (or perhaps appalled); they certainly would have gotten the joke … which probably cannot be said of those coming to Dr. No all these decades later. We’ve now been reminded anew: the cherry on top of a thoroughly charming big-screen confection.

 

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1. George Fenton, quoted by Sebastian Scotney, in an interview for London Jazz News published on February 21, 2022. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

From the cutting-room floor: The Lost Man

This was a tough call.

The story certainly is ideal; this is a brooding crime drama in the classic all-will-not-go-well mold. But “brooding” also is an apt description of the bulk of Quincy Jones’ score: far more orchestral gloom than actual jazz cues. On top of which, the minimal jazz elements are further obscured by the numerous gospel and R&B tunes that director Robert Alan Arthur seems to favor over Jones’ contributions. Reluctant as I was, to discard a Quincy Jones score, at the end of the day there simply wasn’t enough jazz to justify inclusion.

 

********

 

Time hasn’t been kind to 1969’s The Lost Man, which at this point is almost a lost movie (and an equally lost soundtrack album). The plot is a quaint relic of the late 1960s rise of Black militant groups, with star Sidney Poitier’s character displaying a level of calm nobility that seems out of place, given the era’s combustible national mood. Director Robert Alan Arthur’s script is a disguised remake of British author Frederick Laurence Green’s 1945 novel, Odd Man Out — adapted to the big screen in 1947, starring James Mason — with the then-contemporary Black militants standing in for that book’s focus on Northern Ireland’s WWII-era unrest.

 

Poitier stars as Jason Higgs, a lieutenant in a well-organized — but never identified — group of Black militants operating from the slums of an average American big city. Needing funds to help the families of imprisoned group members, Higgs leads a payroll heist that goes horribly wrong; he’s wounded while fleeing with the money, and — worse yet — kills somebody in the process. Higgs’ three confederates don’t last long on the run, but he briefly stays ahead of a massive police hunt, thanks to Cathy Ellis (Joanna Shimkus), a liberal social worker who has fallen in love with him. But the net tightens quickly, leading to a bleak conclusion lifted directly from Green’s novel.

 

By this point in their respective careers, Poitier and composer Quincy Jones had become a highly successful team; The Lost Man was the fourth of their seven big-screen collaborations, following (among others) In the Heat of the Night, and prior to that film’s sequel, They Call Me Mister Tibbs

Jones augmented the studio orchestra with jazz cats such as Bud Shank (reeds), Arthur Adams (guitar), Ray Brown and Carol Kaye (acoustic double bass), and Emil Richards (percussion). Given the inner city setting, and the importance that some of the characters place on church activities, Jones laced the score with numerous gospel numbers that he co-wrote with lyricists Dick Cooper and Ernie Shelby. The funk-laden title song is one such example: The film’s credits appear behind a grim montage of big-city slum life, while Jones’ catchy, percussive theme is augmented by whistles, vocal shadings and the voices of The Kids from PASLA. Their cheerful lyrics gradually are overpowered by rising horns and strings, anticipating the dangerous heist that is about to unfold.

 

Once the plan is set in motion, Higgs and his confederates exit their decaying tenement headquarters; Jones inserts an anticipatory cue that mimics footsteps before developing into a throbbing groove — ba-bum ... ba-bum ... ba-bum — given additional intensity with the insertion of bass, guitar and electric keyboard licks. (A variation of this tense, expectant cue repeats later, when the cops close in on two of Higgs’ associates.) The doomed heist kicks off to a similar percussive cue, which also introduces the film’s primary action theme: a tense, 2-2-2-3 horn motif backed by wicked bass licks. The cue initially sounds expectant, given Higgs’ careful planning, but the musical mood shatters as everything goes wrong. Moving forward, Jones’ occasional references to this theme reprise in slower, grimmer arrangements.

 

On a gentler note, Jones contributes a lovely, minor key lament — the melody taken by woodwinds, with soft piano comping — that is heard each time Higgs and Cathy share a quiet moment. Before the crime goes down, the cue’s mood is playful and exploratory, reflecting Cathy’s barely concealed wish that she and Higgs could become an item. Much later, once Higgs is on the run, Jones gives this love theme bleaker instrumentation: This final moment of intimacy will, indeed, be their last.

 

The various source cues include the reverential “He’ll Wash You Whiter Than Snow,” performed by a church choir that Higgs hears, in passing; and the R&B-hued “Try, Try, Try,” which emanates from a pier side restaurant/bar dubbed The Swingin’ Lighthouse. When two of Higgs’ confederates try to hide in a brothel, they party with the girls as a pair of saucy R&B tunes — “Sweet Soul Sister” and “Rap, Run It On Down” — play on a phonograph. (Alas, they’re betrayed by the brothel madam, who immediately calls the cops.)

Perhaps because of these gospel and R&B songs, Jones’ soundtrack earned LP release on the UNI Records label. UNI also released the title tune and one instrumental track — “Main Squeeze” — as a 45 single. Unfortunately, the album is dominated by those vocals; Jones’ instrumental underscore rates only four tracks. They’re excellent cues, but represent only a small portion of the thematic complexity that Jones wove into the entire score. The album finally was digitized for inclusion in Decca’s six-disc The Cinema of Quincy Jones box set, released in France in 2016.