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.