Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Recent discovery: Blue Ice

Michael Caine was born to star in spy thrillers, which became obvious during his career-making portrayal of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer, in The Ipcress File. (Deighton’s protagonist actually remains unnamed in his 1962 novel and its six sequels. But film audiences expect characters to have names, so Caine and producer Harry Saltzman came up with a moniker that they felt was boring and ordinary, like the man himself.)

 

Director Russell Mulcahy’s Blue Ice (1992) doesn’t come close to that 1965 classic, but Michael Caine’s suave presence makes this modest entry reasonably palatable for undiscriminating viewers, who’ll nonetheless raise their eyebrows over the numerous contrivances in Ted Allbeury and Ron Hutchinson’s script. This is must-see viewing for our purposes, however, because the film spends considerable time in the jazz club run by Caine’s character, Harry Anders. Mulcahy devotes generous footage, half a dozen times, to the high-octane swing performed by the club’s resident septet: Gerald Presencer, trumpet; Peter King, alto sax; Steve Williamson, tenor sax; Bobby Short, pianist and vocalist; Anthony Kerr, vibes; Dave Green, bass; and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Short also has a sizeable supporting role as one of Anders’ friends, Buddy.

 

Following a prologue that finds a guy taking photos near London’s Tower Bridge, while being watched by those inside a suspicious-looking red van, the opening credits conclude as Harry drives his posh Jaguar through London’s Piccadilly Circus region. He pops a CD into the car player, which delivers some tasty big band swing when he pauses for a red light. Stacy Mansdorf (Sean Young), driving the car behind him, is distracted by a phone call from the fellow taking pictures — former boyfriend Kyle (Todd Boyce), we later learn — and crashes gently into Harry’s car. 

 

The damage is minimal, but Harry is nonetheless apoplectic — it’s a Jag, for God’s sake! — and he gets even angrier when she blows him off and speeds away. Harry gives chase, against a peppy jazz cue by soundtrack composer Michael Kamen, and pulls alongside when she finally parks. Harry’s fury melts (a bit of a stretch) in the face of Stacy’s coquettish nonchalance; when she suggests continuing their “conversation” over a drink, he naturally takes her to his bar (not yet open for the evening trade). They exchange come-hither glances and flirty banter while Buddy, accompanying himself on solo piano, croons the Ian Grant/Lionel Rand classic “Let There Be Love,” made famous by Nat King Cole.

Stacy hangs around long enough to enjoy a double-time sizzler by the club septet, and over the next few days becomes a frequent presence at Harry’s side. The affair turns serious when he takes her to his apartment, above the bar; he cooks an elaborate dinner while soft quartet jazz emanates from his stereo system. Alas, the meal remains uneaten when they make love for the first time; Kamen backs this with a soft, sexy sax cue. Subsequently learning that Stacy is married to the American ambassador to England raises Harry’s eyebrows, but doesn’t interfere with the affair. (That said, we viewers wonder what else she’s concealing, and why the hell Harry is being so dense.)

 

Turns out Stacy has “a problem” — what a surprise! — and needs a favor. Former boyfriend Kyle has some “indelicate letters” that she’d like retrieved, lest their public exposure embarrass her husband … and she has no idea where Kyle is. Harry, retired from MI6, cheerfully agrees to track him down. He and longtime cop buddy Osgood (Alun Armstrong) confer in the club one evening — against more swinging sounds from the resident septet — and, soon enough, Osgood locates the guy. Alas, Harry shows up and finds Kyle and Osgood dead; worse yet, Kyle is revealed as an undercover cop, and Harry is arrested for both murders. He has unwittingly stepped into a hornet’s nest that involves dire doings by either clandestine American agents or bent MI6 operatives; he can’t tell which. Stacy pulls strings and gets Harry freed from jail; he returns to his club, flummoxed, to find Buddy accompanying himself on a soulful reading of Ted Koehler and Rube Bloom’s “Don’t Worry ’Bout Me” (a 1938 classic covered by everybody from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to Frank Sinatra and Joni Mitchell).

 

Feeling the need for higher-level assistance, Harry looks up former MI6 buddy Sam Garcia (Bob Hoskins), now working as a security consultant for upper-echelon aristocrats and government officials. Poor Sam doesn’t last long, and is executed while Harry is drugged and tortured for information by a mid-level MI6 operative — Jack Shepherd, as Stevens — during a weirdly overcooked, laughably disorienting sequence set to discordant free jazz. Trouble is, Harry genuinely doesn’t know anything … at least, not yet. His rage, upon learning of Sam’s murder, goes into hyperdrive when summoned for a dressing-down by condescending former boss Sir Hector (Ian Holm), who orders Harry to “drop it.” (Like hell.)

Revelation comes when Stacy finally shares the information Kyle gave her, during the phone call that prompted her to rear-end Harry’s Jag. (Like, what has she been waiting for???) Another sensual sax cue backs their lusty round of shower sex, after which we race into a truly ridiculous climax amid the hundreds of stacked containers awaiting shipment from the Port of London Authority, along the River Thames. The true villain is revealed, to nobody’s surprise.

 

Final scenes include a visit to the hospital, where Buddy is recuperating from his wounds. (Did I neglect to mention that Harry’s club was bombed?) Harry and Stacy find him serenading fellow patients on the ward piano, while singing another torch standard: Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “This Time the Dream’s On Me.” Alas, Stacy’s husband has been recalled to the States, so they part in the manner Harry promised, back when their affair began: toasting each other with champagne, against a mournful sax cue.

Bobby Short gets one more solo, during the first half of the lengthy end credits: Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).” The club septet roars through a final blast of jump jazz during the credits’ concluding half.

 

Mulcahy insisted otherwise, during a 2016 interview, when asked if Caine’s Harry Palmer films had influenced Blue Ice. He was being disingenuous; Allbeury and Hutchinson’s script feels like a Palmer thriller in all but name. Both Palmer and Anders are jazz fans and accomplished cooks, and are insolent in the face of authority. Both ultimately are betrayed by an MI6 superior. Most tellingly, this film’s interrogation sequence strongly evokes a near-identical bit of torture in The Ipcress File


No soundtrack album was produced, although a couple of the Peter King originals performed by the club septet — “One for Sir Bernard” and “Blues for S.J.” — can be found on his albums. Charlie Parker’s “Perdido” and the Pete Thomas Quintet’s “Blue Bop” also are covered by the septet.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Recent discovery: Face the Music

I’m willing to bet that no other film has turned a jazz trumpet player into an amateur sleuth.

During the decade before the innovatively gruesome Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) prompted Britain’s Hammer Films to embrace horror and science fiction more aggressively, the studio was better known for a string of crime, detective and film noir thrillers. Most were modest, bottom-of-the-bill programmers, such as The Rossiter Case (1951), Stolen Face (1952) and The Glass Cage (1955), although the roster also included popular serial character entries such as Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948), Whispering Smith Hits London (1951) and even The Saint’s Return (1953).

 

1954’s Face the Music is an early effort by indefatigable director Terrence Fisher — he helmed 15 movies between 1952 and ’54! — a few years before he became better known for gory revivals of vampires, werewolves, ancient mummies and Frankenstein’s monster. German crime writer Ernest Bornemann adapted this modest thriller from his book of the same title, published the same year. His unusual choice of sleuth is perhaps better understood given Bornemann’s wide-ranging talents; he also was a jazz musician and critic who clearly influenced this film’s wall-to-wall jazz soundtrack. Covers of jazz standards are interlaced with original themes by prolific English composer/conductor Ivor Slaney and celebrated English composer and jazz trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn player Kenny Baker; the latter gets a second screen credit, for “trumpet theme and special arrangements.” Most of the music is diegetic — live performances in concert halls and basement clubs — but jazz cues also creep into the nondiegetic score, most often when our protagonist, in true film noir fashion, supplies background detail and mordant commentary via world-weary voiceovers.

 

A shrill solo trumpet highlights the swinging main theme, heard over the title credits cards; the music continues, uninterrupted, as the final credit (for Fisher) segues to a sold-out Palladium performance by a 15-piece big band and its featured guest star: renowned American trumpeter James “Brad” Bradley (Alec Nicol). Baker “ghosts” all of Brad’s performances throughout the film, and this Palladium band is dominated by members of Kenny Baker’s Dozen, including Harry Klein, baritone sax; Stan Tracey, piano; Joe Mudell, acoustic double bass; and Don Lawson, drums.

 

Brad’s schedule apparently has been punishing. After the performance concludes to thunderous applause, he skips a party organized by his long-suffering manager, Max “Maxie” Margulies (John Salew, overdoing flustered exasperation), intending instead to get a good night’s sleep in his hotel room. But when his cab pauses at an intersection, Brad is distracted by a lovely jazz vocal emanating from a nearby cellar club. Unable to help himself, he dismisses the cab and enters the club, where he finds chanteuse Maxine Halbard (Ann Hanslip) crooning Howard Biggs and Joe Thomas’ “Got You On My Mind,” backed by a sextet that includes Klein and Michael Carreras, trumpet. Brad is so enchanted that he whips out his own trumpet, and begins counterpoint comping behind Maxine’s vocal. She smiles in approval.
 

Once Maxine’s set concludes, they return to her flat. She putters in the kitchen while Brad finds a big band tune on her radio; they then indulge in some flirty word play (definitely the script’s finest moment). Alas, the banter is wasted; Maxine confesses that she has a Canadian boyfriend, at which point Brad honorably departs … while forgetting his trumpet, left behind on the floor, in its case. (Like that would ever happen in real life? No musician would be that sloppy with his prized instrument!)

Finally back in his hotel room, Brad wakes the following morning under the disapproving gaze of Detective Inspector MacKenzie (Fred Johnson) and Detective Sergeant Mulrooney (Martin Boddey). Maxine has been murdered by an unknown party, and Brad’s overlooked trumpet case makes him Suspect No. 1. Following a mild interrogation, MacKenzie nonetheless allows Brad to roam at will, much to Mulrooney’s obvious displeasure. A chance clue leads Brad to a rough Soho cellar club dubbed Underground — “The sort of place you leave horizontally, or not at all,” he muses, in voiceover — where he finds Barbara Quigley (Eleanor Summerfield) crooning “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” backed by solo pianist Johnny Sutherland (Paul Carpenter). Brad foolishly provokes a fist fight; Barbara saves him from even worse treatment by the club’s numerous seedy customers. He then learns that she’s actually Maxine’s sister.

 

Maxine’s murder isn’t the only mystery. Brad soon realizes that the case somehow revolves around a vinyl Gramo Disc single on which she sings Josephine Parker’s “I Got a Man in New Orleans,” backed by — according to the label — pianist Jeff Colt (Arthur Lane). Rather oddly, only two copies were pressed; even stranger, everybody — Sutherland, Colt, and Gramo owner Maurie Green (Geoffrey Keen) — insists that Maxine and Colt never worked together.

 

Brad’s subsequent sleuthing involves a clandestine search of Sutherland’s flat, backed by a mournful trumpet cue; a later after-hours club scene finds Sutherland jamming as part of a sax and drum trio. In between other activities, alone in his hotel room or Palladium dressing room, Brad puzzles out details while pensively playing his trumpet. The eventual breakthrough relies on his sharp-eared ability to recognize a jazz pianist who plays cross-handed (certainly the only time that has been a key clue in a murder mystery!). 


Brad ultimately drags the two detectives and all the suspects into his dressing room, for an Agatha Christie-style, point-by-point recitation that ultimately reveals the killer … just in time for him to join the band on the Palladium stage for that evening’s performance, much to the delight of another packed house that has been chafing over his delayed arrival. Fade to black.

In another example of Hollywood’s then-insufferable — and often bewildering — habit of re-titling British films for American release, Face the Music hit U.S. theaters as The Black Glove … despite the fact that no black glove ever appears in the story.


No soundtrack album was produced, then or now, although two tunes featured in the film — “Melancholy Baby” and “Trumpet Fantasy” — were released by the British Parlophone label as a 1954 10-inch 78RPM single. 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Recent discovery: West 11

Director Michael Winner’s melancholy noir entry quietly smolders amid an atmosphere of casual debauchery enhanced by Otto Heller’s gorgeous monochromatic cinematography. The early 1960s Ladbroke Grove setting is laden with sleazy diners, street food and junk stalls, and post-war Victorian walk-ups transformed into boarding houses occupied by wayward young men and women who casually hop into bed with each other, seeking an illusory something that might give their life meaning. Basement apartments have been transformed — with no improvements — into crowded, raucous jazz clubs, where patrons drink, dance and pair off for another night of meaningless sex. These folks don’t know it yet, but they’ll be right at home when London’s swinging ’60s erupt in the next few years. (The film’s title refers to the postal code district that includes Notting Hill and Kensington.)

Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s screenplay — adapted faithfully from Laura Del-Rivo’s 1961 debut novel, The Furnished Room — focuses on Joe Beckett (Alfred Lynch). He’s a gloomy young man — he refers to himself as an “emotional leper” — who has lost his Catholic faith and works soulless jobs just long enough to cover expenses for the next couple of weeks. He invariably quits in a dissatisfied huff, remains unemployed until his meager funds run out, and then finds another unhappy position. His strongest attachment is to Ilsa (Kathleen Breck), a self-centered free spirit incapable of remaining faithful; this heightens Joe’s misery.

 

He comes to the attention of the older Richard Dyce (Eric Portman), an ex-military man turned con artist, who’s itching to get his hands on the wealthy inheritance promised by his elderly aunt. Not willing to wait for her to die of natural causes, Dyce concocts the “perfect” murder scheme, choosing Joe because he’s somebody with absolutely no connection to the old woman. (One wonders if Del-Rivo borrowed this idea from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.) Joe, desperately seeking a way to re-ignite his long-dormant emotions, recklessly accepts the assignment.

 

Winner’s 1963 film is laden with jazz, both diegetic and non-diegetic. Heller’s sweeping overhead pan of Ladbroke Grove opens the film; the camera then slides into one upstairs window, where Joe and Isla have sunk into a post-coital squabble. Melancholy sax introduces composer Stanley Black’s title theme, which erupts with a big band splash as the credits are superimposed over Joe’s angry stroll through the neighborhood. Clarinetist Acker Bilk introduces the theme’s core 4-3 motif: a lament repeated each time Joe reaches low ebb, as the story proceeds. (In an unusual touch, Bilk gets his own credit, for the title theme “Played by Mr. Acker Bilk.”)

The scene soon shifts to a crowded bottle party, where Joe flirts with the somewhat older Georgia (popular sex goddess Diana Dors) and then sorta-kinda makes up with Isla. People dance to phonograph records that play, among other early rock ’n’ roll hits, The Country Gentlemen’s “Baby Jean.” Dyce begins to “groom” Joe for what is to come, while also smoothly arranging to live with Georgia for awhile.

 

Subsequent scenes take place in Studio 51, a basement club that features trumpeter/cornetist Ken Colyer’s Band, famed at the time for its New Orleans Dixieland sound. The combo likely includes Mac Duncan (trombone), Ian Wheeler (clarinet), Johnny Bastable (banjo), Ray Foxley (piano), Ron Ward (bass) and Colin Bowden (drums). During several visits as the story proceeds, the band delivers lively readings of “Virginia Strut,” “I’m Travelling,” “La Harp Street Blues,” “Creole” and “Gettysburg March.” Drummer Tony Kinsey’s Quintet is featured at another club: Peter King (sax), Les Condon (trumpet), Gordon Beck (piano) and Kenny Napper (drums). They rattle off a ferocious handling of “What a Gas!”

 

Black’s score delivers a burst of cacophonous jazz when Joe, finally genuinely angry with Isla, ejects her from his apartment (not the last time this will happen). Later, at one of Joe’s many low ebbs; he watches a wrecking ball demolish a sagging structure; explosive jazz pops are heard each time the ball smashes into a wall.

 

An attempt to find solace with the eccentric Mr. Gash (Finlay Currie), who lives in the book-laden flat downstairs, concludes abruptly when a horrified Joe realizes that this unhappy and isolated elderly gentleman might represent his own future. He flees as Acker’s clarinet delivers a forlorn arrangement of the title theme, yielding to an equally mournful trumpet when Joe — now homeless, and with no other options — succumbs to Dyce’s proposal. In a rare moment of jubilation, Black supplies some swinging “traveling jazz” as Joe and Dyce roar off in the latter’s sports car.

An ominous cue tracks Joe when he later approaches Dyce’s aunt’s mansion via the nearby fields; the title theme’s 4-3 motif kicks in, the orchestra developing intensity and concluding with a pensive stinger when he enters her home.

 

Following an irony-laden climax, Bilk’s clarinet repeats the doleful title theme a final time; the music swells when Heller’s camera plans to a close-up of the vacancy sign at Joe’s former lodgings: Kildare House, 26. Cue the end credits, fade to black.


No soundtrack album was produced, although the five Colyer Band tracks have been gathered on the 1993 digital version of the 1963 LP Colyer’s Pleasure; and the Kinsey Quintet’s “What a Gas!” is included on the group’s 1961 album, An Evening with Tony Kinsey. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Recent discovery: Sapphire

The British were decades ahead of us, with films that thoughtfully explored race relations; 1959’s Sapphire is an excellent example. Director Basil Dearden’s tidy drama initially unfolds like a standard police procedural, but Janet Green and Lukas Heller’s intriguing script soon moves in directions twisty enough to earn that year’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Foreign Film. Sapphire also was nominated for four BAFTAs, and won in the top category of Best British Film, beating Look Back in AngerTiger BayYesterday’s Enemy and North West Frontier.

The icing on the cake: Philip Green’s terrific jazz score, performed by saxman John Dankworth and his orchestra (anticipating the latter’s own slide into a successful scoring career, which took off with the following year’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning).


The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s body in a London park: stabbed to death, and soon identified as Sapphire Robbins, a Royal Academy of Music student. The case falls to the meticulous Superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick), who with Inspector Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig) quickly hones in on the victim’s fiancĂ©: architectural student David Harris (Paul Massie), about to surmount his humble working-class origins to become an architect, thanks to a recently awarded scholarship. David’s behavior is odd, to say the least; when an autopsy reveals that Sapphire was pregnant, Hazard becomes even more suspicious, because the scholarship would not have covered a wife and family. Matters aren’t helped by the obvious antipathy David’s parents (Bernard Miles and Olga Lindo) had to the impending marriage.

 

Ah, but then things get complicated.

 

While following leads that suggest Sapphire once was something of a wild child, Hazard and Learoyd are surprised to discover that she was a “lily white”: the daughter of mixed-race parents. Previous boyfriends Paul Slade (Gordon Heath) and Johnnie Fiddle (Harry Baird), both Black, clearly were unhappy when Sapphire abruptly turned her back on that part of her heritage, and “went white.” She essentially “traded up” by marrying into a white family. Suddenly faced with too many suspects, Hazard must rely on dogged police work, and the implications of a clue left behind when Sapphire’s body was dumped in the park. (Green and Heller play fair: Sharp-eared listeners have an opportunity to anticipate that clue, thanks to a casual remark made early on, by one of David’s young twin nieces.)

 

Green’s score opens with a screaming, three-note unison horn fanfare against the initial title credits; this is followed by a threatening drum roll, as Sapphire’s lifeless body is tossed into the park shrubs late one night. (This is the last we’ll see of her.) The credits resume as the cue charges into pulsating jazz riffs, highlighted by frantic horns; the orchestra briefly settles into an disquieting vamp that ultimately introduces — as the credits conclude — the main theme’s primary 6-5 unison horn motif, heard against a throbbing, march-like base line.

Dankworth supplies a sultry sax cue when Hazard and Learoyd, while searching the dead girl’s flat, discover salaciously sexy clothes within a locked dresser drawer. Subsequent efforts to learn more about her background bear fruit when the two policemen meet her brother, a Black Birmingham doctor (Earl Cameron) whose racial “reveal” is punctuated by an unnecessarily dramatic unison horn stinger (a bit of musical overkill likely to prompt a wince these days).

 

Meanwhile, David’s behavior has become decidedly strange. Surveillance cops watch him walk back and forth along a park pathway, near where Sapphire’s body was found: clearly looking for something. A doleful sax cue tracks this search, along with David’s subsequent discovery of something that he attempts to discard, not realizing that he’s being watched. (The attentive copper quickly retrieves the item.) The sax cue turns melancholy — even distraught — when David subsequently goes home and is confronted by his mother, who knows something isn’t right. He dismisses her; a somber echo of the title theme is heard when he evades further conversation by taking a late-night stroll.

 

Elsewhere, Hazard and Learoyd follow up on Sapphire’s “previous life” by visiting the hot spots where she formerly loved to cut a rug. An energetic piano/sax duo supply lively source music during a visit to the International Club. The subsequent stop at Tulips’ Club is even more raucous, with the resident combo delivering an electrifying blast of jump jazz. Deardon holds on this sequence, allowing the music to run long, while Hazard and Learoyd watch dancers and hangers-on lose themselves “once they hear the beat of the bongos.” The detectives are seeking Johnnie Fiddle, who leads them on a frantic foot chase through late-night streets and alleyways; a ferociously swinging action jazz cue tracks this lengthy sequence, when the desperate young man runs afoul of racist barflies and vicious Teddy Boys. Finally getting caught by the police comes as a relief, although the subsequent interrogation is rather brutal. Although Johnnie’s behavior is dodgy, Hazard ultimately decides he had nothing to do with Sapphire’s murder. The answer lies elsewhere.
 

Indeed. A pensive woodwind cue tracks David, when he returns home the next day and examines one of his niece’s handmade dolls. The mood shifts abruptly — the music becomes loud and angry, reflecting young man’s dismay — when Hazard and his entire force, armed with a warrant, search the garage/workshop where David’s father stores his supplies. In the aftermath — the killer now revealed — Dankworth’s melancholy sax delivers a forlorn arrangement of the title theme, when Hazard and Learoyd bid a final farewell to Sapphire’s brother. The theme continues as the camera lifts to a blue sky, and fades as the end credits conclude.

No soundtrack album was produced, although Green’s title theme was released as the A-side of a British Top Rank 45 single, paired with Laurie Johnson’s title theme for Tiger Bay

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Blast from the Past: Las Vegas Beat

Plenty of television pilots failed to attract network interest, over the years — for which we can be grateful, in many cases — but this probably is the only one that was bumped off. 

With prejudice.

 

(About which, more in a bit.)

 

Based on its quite watchable 1961 debut episode, Las Vegas Beat could have become a decent series. Creator Andrew J. Fenady’s script is solid; Bernard L. Kowalski’s directing is crisp and occasionally shows imagination; and the characters are well drawn and competently played by an engaging cast (allowing for the era’s sexism). Kowalski and editor Otho Lovering favor dynamic smash cuts from one scene to the next; the action is violent for its time, although very much in line with the gun-toting thugs then running amok on TV’s M Squadand The Untouchables. This show could have allowed star Peter Graves to put sci-fi stinkers such as Killers from SpaceIt Conquered the World and Beginning of the End in his rear-view mirror; alas, steady TV employment had to wait until his co-starring role in Court Martial, which ran a single 1965-66 season, and — of course — Mission: Impossible, which followed a year later.

 

He stars here as Bill Ballin, a former police investigator-turned-private casino troubleshooter (a “sometime employee,” in his words). His “Scooby gang” includes veteran journalist R.G. “Joe” Joseph (Bill Bryant), given to quoting poets and waxing eloquent; Gopher (Jamie Farr, a decade away from achieving fame as Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger, on TV’s M*A*S*H), who, as his nickname implies, runs errands; and perky, would-be writer Cynthia Raine (Diana Millay). Ballin is on good terms with Lt. McFeety (Richard Bakalyan), which gives him cred with the Las Vegas cops.

 

The story begins as Ballin is hired by Helen Leopold (Margaret Field) to find her missing husband (Tom Drake, known here solely as “Leopold”). Helen is unaware that her judgment-challenged hubbie has fallen in with bad companions who intend to heist an armored car: Fredericks (Lawrence Dobkin), the planner; Duke (Jay Adler), the menacing muscle; and Linneman (uncredited), whose limited usefulness prompts his, ah, “removal” prior to the second act.

 

The scoring assignment went to Richard Markowitz, fresh off his work on the single 1959-60 season of the similarly themed Philip Marlowe; he also had worked with Fenady on 1958’s lurid big-screen thriller, Stakeout on Dope Street (both discussed in my first volume). Markowitz’s title theme for Las Vegas Beat is a sassy big-band swinger with a strong 1-3-4 unison brass motif. (Those eight notes are repeated as a fanfare each time the show breaks for a commercial.) It’s also a hoot to see how small Vegas was in 1961, during an aerial pull-away as the title credits conclude.

 

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Blasts from the past: Obscure nuggets

The television component of my two-volume series focuses on shows that successfully landed on network schedules … if only for a month or two, in some cases. With one exception, I didn’t even try to delve into unsold and/or unaired pilots that never made it to series. (I did briefly cite writer/director Blake Edwards’ failed 1954 attempt to turn Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer into a series, with Brian Keith in the starring role.)

 

Entire books have been written about such unsuccessful efforts, most notably Lee Goldberg’s 828-page Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989 and Vincent Terrace’s Encyclopedia of Unaired Television Pilots, 1945-2018. The latter — also published by McFarland — boasts a heart-stopping 2,923 entries.

 

All this said, a few have come to my attention during the past couple of years: well within my books’ brief, in terms of genre and jazz scoring.

 

The best of these — in terms of music — is Take Five, a 1957 pilot that aired on March 22, 1958, as the 18th episode of the fourth and final season of the anthology series Heinz Studio 57. It came to my attention thanks to fleeting mention in Jon Burlingame’s recently published Music for Prime Time (which readers of this blog should rush out and purchase).

The show features a terrific jazz score by Elmer Bernstein, very much like his work for the big screen’s Man with the Golden Arm and Sweet Smell of Success. If the episode’s IMDB entry can be taken as gospel, Bernstein’s studio band is stunning: Pete Candoli and Manny Stevens, trumpet; Milt Bernhart, trombone; Ted Nash, alto sax; Dave Pell and Champ Webb, tenor sax; Arthur Gleghorn, flute; Red Mitchell, bass; Shelly Manne, drums; and — wait for it — Johnny Williams, piano.

 

Dennis O’Keefe stars as Dick Richards, ostensibly the editor of a respected jazz magazine titled Take Five, but — unbeknownst to all but his cop buddy Pete Lonigan (Bart Burns) — also an “undercover man” for the district attorney’s office. (Bear in mind, this show was made two years before that title became synonymous with the Paul Desmond classic debuted by Dave Brubeck’s Quartet.)

 

As O’Keefe explains during lengthy, private eye-style voiceovers, Richards haunts New York’s club district after hours, because “the best music is made at night.” He has taken a personal interest in young singer Jen Bradley (Bethel Leslie), about to debut this particular evening at a posh club named for its owner, Monte (Nestor Paiva). Alas, Jen has fallen in love with Hap Gordon (Mike Connors), a slick-talking skunk with a serious gambling problem. When Jen refuses his plea for a “loan,” police subsequently find his car abandoned by a pier, with a suicide note inside. Jen collapses, believing his death to be her fault.

Ah, but it feels too convenient to Richards, who deduces that Hap’s so-called suicide is merely a ploy to get gangsters off his back.

 

It subsequently becomes a very busy night. In the space of what can’t be more than a few hours, Jen rebuffs Hap; police find his car and suicide note; Jen has a nervous breakdown, requiring a doctor; Richards starts asking around, trying to find somebody who might know where Hap would hide; the increasingly distraught Jen tries to slash her wrists; Richards finally gets a solid lead and finds Hap in an apartment with equally clueless second girlfriend Myra (Vivi Janiss), and drags him back to show Jen what a true louse he is … and she somehow composes herself and still hits the stage, on schedule, to briefly croon Louis Armstrong’s “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues.” To thunderous applause, of course. (Whew!)

Bernstein’s energetic title theme repeats a 6-5 motif on unison horns, with sparkling 1-1-1-3 brass counterpoints, all backed by rumbling percussion and a propulsive beat. Richards’ opening voice-over is heard over a cool, gently swinging cue; much later, when he shadows Myra as she hails a cab en route to joining Hap, her movements are shadowed by a saucy piano and drum riff.

 

Alas, director James Nelson lacks imagination; he relies far too heavily on tight close-ups that do his actors no favors. Set design is minimal; everything has the feel of a hasty shoot on a back lot. (The atmosphere of better shows, such as Peter Gunn, is wholly missing.) The bare-bones script is padded by an early evening visit to Club 25, where Richards watches as special guest star Dennis Day sings Nat King Cole’s “Almost Like Being in Love” (a sequence that seems to run forever). It’s easy to see why this pilot didn’t sell.

 

Even so, it has survived to this day, and can be found by the diligent and curious.

 

Regardless of the pilot’s failure, Bernstein obviously thought highly of his title cue; he included it on his 1962 album, Movie and TV Themes. This longer version adds generous solos on sax, bawdy brass and muted trumpet, all against a finger-snapping vamp.


A portion of this pilot can be viewed here.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Recent discovery: Dino

Talk about being lucky enough to hit the ground running: Composer Gerald Fried’s first three big-screen assignments were for Stanley Kubrick’s first three features: Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). Fried then switched to the creature feature genre, with a score for The Vampire (1957). But it wasn’t much of a stylistic shift; as an isolated listening experience, his music for Killer’s Kiss and The Killing — both depravity-drenched, film noir thrillers — sound very much like monster movie music: slashing strings, shrieking orchestral cues and ominous horn filigrees.

Ah, but Fried’s score for Dino, also released in 1957, slides more aggressively into jazz territory. Although some of the score cues for this juvenile delinquent melodrama still rely on traditional orchestral shading, aggressive percussion and horn elements give the music some bounce. No surprise, since the players included Frank Rosolino (trombone) and Maynard Ferguson (trumpet).1 On top of which, Fried supplies two diegetic cues — tunes played on a phonograph, during a lively sock hop — that are sassy jump jazz.

 

“I was particularly proud of [my work on] Dino,” Fried recalled, during a June 2003 interview.2

 

Dino gave young actor Sal Mineo an opportunity to expand on the similarly “tough kid” supporting characters he earlier played in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Crime in the Streets (1956, discussed in Volume One). Dino actually began as an episode of the TV anthology series Studio One, which aired January 2, 1956; co-writer Reginald Rose expanded the story, and — alongside director Thomas Carr — turned it into a 94-minute feature film. (Rose, already a celebrated writer who had just completed 12 Angry Men, would go on to garner numerous Emmy Awards and nominations for anthology series scripts, and would create and write for The Defenders during its four-season run.) Mineo and co-star Pat DeSimone reprised their television roles; the rest of the film cast was new.

 

Mineo, in a solid performance, stars as 17-year-old Dino Minetta. Following a brief prologue, the story begins as he’s released from a juvenile detention center, where he served 3-1/2 years for participating in a robbery that turned ugly when a night watchman was killed. Now sent back to his slum neighborhood (obviously a studio back lot), carrying the world’s biggest chip on his shoulder, Dino defiantly resists well-intentioned guidance from his parole officer (Frank Faylen, as Frank Mandel) and case worker (Brian Keith, as Larry Sheridan). Thing are no better at home; his mother (Penny Santon) seems kind enough, but his father (Joe De Santis) is an abusive bully. Only younger brother Tony (DeSimone) is genuinely pleased to see Dino, mostly because his gang — the Silk Hats — wants “experienced” help with their plan to rob a gas station.

 

The compact, straightforward narrative turns on whether Dino will allow himself to see the wisdom of the better path Sheridan offers, or succumb anew to his larcenous and violent tendencies.

Repeated four-beats on drums and ominous horn pops shadow the initial heist, set behind the title credits, which takes place in montage as three boys — one of them Dino — attempt to steal tires from a warehouse. A shift to staccato percussion signals the arrival of the night watchman, who slowly descends a set of stairs against a repeated 2-2 motif on low-end piano, the notes echoed by a bass horn and shrieking brass. Suspense builds as an unsettling 2-2 motif slowly climbs from bass to treble, finally exploding into full orchestral fury when the watchman is beaten to death; the music then holds on a single piercing note as the final blow is delivered by 13-year-old Dino.

 

The scene shifts to Dino’s last day at the Parkinson State Reformatory, where his brutal peers do their best to beat him up one final time. Shrills strings and an uh-uh-uh-uh bass vamp heighten this threat, the cue diminishing only when Mandel’s arrival saves Dino; a final reprise of the foreboding 2-2 motif reminds the boy — and us — of what he’s leaving behind … perhaps only temporarily.

 

A slow, mournful cue follows Dino as he returns home, pausing outside his apartment door. Ferguson’s muted trumpet amplifies the boy’s indecision, which Mineo portrays sublimely; should he knock first, or simply go inside? This angst proves moot, as nobody is home; his parents are working late — their excuse for not having collected him at the Reformatory — so Dino retrieves a key from under the mat, and lets himself in. He glances about the empty rooms as Rosolino’s somber trombone amplifies his sense of being out of place, even though (we can safely assume) nothing has changed during his long absence. His parents, when they get home, are as awkward around him, as he is around them. Only Tony brings a smile to Dino’s face, but that burst of pleasure evaporates when the younger boy explains why he’s happy to have his brother back.

 

The next day, obeying Mandel’s demand that Dino show up for a 4 p.m. appointment at the James Street Settlement run by Sheridan, the boy arrives against a rising, more thoughtful 5-note motif, heard first as horn solos, then echoed by the orchestra; the cue is inviting and hopeful, suggesting the promise of something better. The place is laden with kids of all ages, including an unexpectedly benevolent gang of older boys and girls — the Golden Dukes — who apparently have succumbed to Sheridan’s brand of compassion (a contrived detail, and one of the few plot elements that dates this film). Dino catches the eye of Shirley (Susan Kohner), a mousy, mildly shy girl who works at the Settlement; alas, Dino immediately flies into a rage after being jostled accidentally by a couple of guys, and Fried shifts back to the shrill, angry horns and 2-2 reform school motif.

 

No music accompanies Dino’s subsequent sessions with Sheridan: a wise move on Carr’s part, as this allows Mineo and Keith to make the most of their shared scenes (by far this film’s most powerful moments).

 

Following the first session, rumbling drums, edgy cymbals and heartbeat percussion set up what quickly becomes a nasty confrontation between Dino and his father, back at home; the 2/2 “violence motif” returns as the boy goads his old man, the latter finally exploding, smacking his son’s face until he bleeds.

 

A bit later, Tony outlines his gang’s upcoming heist to Dino, against pensive trombone, trumpet and low-end piano notes, accompanied by edgy orchestral touches. Dino, lapping up his younger brother’s admiration, quickly agrees to take over the planning. The rip-off is set for Saturday night: coincidentally the same evening the Golden Dukes will host a dance party at the Settlement. As that day approaches, Sheridan persuades Dino to attend, which he initially does only as a means to kill a few hours prior to the larcenous activity that will follow. Fried supplies the two aforementioned diegetic cues for this extended party sequence: both finger-snapping swingers that grant Ferguson and Rosolino terrific solos (and are called “Little Jazz” and “Saturday Night” on the soundtrack album). Perhaps as a means to allow these two cues to run at length, cinematographer Wilfrid Cline repeatedly shoots through the gyrating legs of all the dancers, rather showing any of their happy faces (a rather odd directorial choice by Parr). 

 

Dino — a stricken look on his face, having no idea what to do in such a setting — freezes like a deer in headlights. Sensing his loneliness, Shirley invites him to dance; all he can manage is a slow, closely held ballroom box step, much to the amusement of all the other kids, enthusiastically bopping via the Twist, Bunny Hop, Sugar Push and Mashed Potato.

After the party concludes, Dino walks Shirley home; they sit and chat on her stoop for a bit. He’s clearly surprised by this girl’s kindness, and the degree to which she genuinely likes him. Music is absent until she goes inside; a sweet, joyful cue — lovely horn touches — begins when he walks her up the stairs, and they kiss. It’s a hugely significant moment for Dino, who — finally having opened up with Sheridan — earlier lamented that he’d never been kissed by anybody.

 

With Shirley deposited safely behind her door, Dino hastens downtown to meet Tony and the rest of the Silk Hats, waiting impatiently near the targeted gas station. With zip gun in hand, Dino suddenly finds that he doesn’t want to go through with it … much to Tony’s disgust. This reaction horrifies Dino, who cold-cocks his younger brother — his only means to sabotage the gang’s intentions — while Fried reprises the “violence motif.”

 

Cue a rather hasty happy ending, as — the next day — Dino asks Sheridan if he’d be willing to also counsel Tony. (We’re forced to assume that the younger kid will go along with this, and the rest of the Silk Hats will simply disappear.) Shirley, delighted by this outcome, skips gaily out of the Settlement, and onto the street (nearly getting hit by a passing truck). Cline’s camera pulls away from this boisterous neighborhood scene, as Fried concludes the film with his score’s one and only chirpy, genuinely jolly cue.

Pretty much all of Fried’s score was issued by Epic on a soundtrack album, also released in 1957. The two diegetic jump jazz cues run a bit longer than their film version, and some of the other tracks are built from short cues stitched together. Digital release finally arrived in March 2023, when Dragon’s Domain paired Dino with Fried’s score for 1959’s I Mobster. Somewhat surprisingly, this digital release mimics the 1957 Dino soundtrack LP, rather than re-sequencing the tracks to conform with their film order.

 

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1. Dino soundtrack LP liner notes, 1957.


2. Gerald Fried, interviewed by Karen Herman for the Television Academy Foundation, June 26, 2003; accessible here