Saturday, June 29, 2024

Recent discovery: Four Boys and a Gun

Despite a varied and extremely busy film scoring career that stretched from 1941’s Under Fiesta Stars to 1972’s The Cremators, Albert Glasser (1916-98) is best known these days for the bombastic scores he delivered for low-rent 1950s “creature features” such as Monster from Green HellBeginning of the EndThe Amazing Colossal Man and The Spider, among many others. He was remarkably prolific during that period, scoring 15 films (!) in 1957, and 10 in ‘58.

Glasser doesn’t immediately come to mind, when contemplating jazz scores ... and to be candid, he didn’t occur to me at all, during the five years spent producing my two-volume survey of crime and spy jazz. But a friend recently alerted me to Kronos Records’ just-released soundtrack album of Glasser’s score for 1958’s Cop Hater, described as containing “...both big orchestral moments [and] more jazzy and big band swing style tunes.” I deem the latter claim an overstatement; having just watched that film; the non-diegetic score is pure orchestral melodrama. The very few jazz touches are brief source cues in bars and nightclubs. 


(Cop Hater was the first of a trio of films based on the first three 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, aka Evan Hunter, née Salvatore Albert Lombino. It was followed by The Mugger, that same year, and 1960’s The Pusher. Glasser also scored the second one, which has a touch more jazz, but again solely as brief source cues.)


Even so, my curiosity was piqued ... and a bit of research revealed that Glasser delivered terrific big band jazz scores for a couple of atmospheric B-films, the first of which is this 1957 noir drama of young men gone terribly astray. As was typical of publicity art at the time, the posters and lobby cards were hilariously lurid: “These kids are going straight to the electric chair!”


Director William Berke and his scripters — Leo Townsend and Philip Yordan — based their moody, 74-minute character study on Willard Wiener’s 1944 novel of the same title. The film opens as four young men — Ollie (Frank Sutton), Eddie (Tarry Green), Johnny (James Franciscus) and Stanley (Bill Hinnant) — rob a boxing arena ticket office: an impulsive crime that goes awry when a policeman is shot and killed. The lads are quickly arrested, and then confronted by a district attorney (Otto Hulett) who gravely insists that the killer will “go to the chair,” while the other three will serve 10 years in prison. The story’s gimmick is that three of the boys — and we viewers — have no idea who pulled the trigger. The bulk of the film subsequently delivers flashbacks that depict what drove each of them to commit the crime, followed by the final “big reveal” and a mildly clever twist conclusion.


Despite its humble production values, Berke’s film is laden with stars on the rise. Franciscus debuted here, and went on to an extremely busy film and television career, most notably in TV’s Mr. Novak and Longstreet, and popular features such as Beneath the Planet of the Apes and One of My Wives Is Missing. This also marked Hinnant’s acting debut, and he’s best remembered as the original Snoopy in the 1967 off-Broadway production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown: a role he reprised in 1973’s Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of that play. Sutton already had a string of credits dating back to 1949, but he remains best remembered for his iconic role as the harried Sgt. Carter in television’s Gomer Pyle: USMC. Bit parts are filled by soon-to-be-familiar faces such as Ned Glass, J. Pat O’Malley, Diana Sands and Joseph Campanella.

Glasser assembled an impressive roster of 20 musicians known to include four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes and a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. The full personnel list is lost to the mists of time, but Glasser recalled working with Maynard Ferguson, Rafael Méndez and Jerry Rosen (trumpets), Clyde “Stumpy” Brown and Murray McEachern (trombones), and Calvin Jackson (piano). Shorty Rogers handled the jazz arrangements, all of which are solid ... but Glasser’s frequent repetition of the film’s title theme eventually becomes monotonous.


That theme is introduced ominously as the film begins, with unison horns delivering a forceful stinger, rising up the scale, as each “boy” is introduced on screen. After holding briefly on the final note, the band slides into the bluesy main theme, with a repeating 1-2-1-1-4-2/1-2-1-1-4-1 motif. The title credits splash onto the screen as, behind them, the boys are seen approaching the boxing arena. Silence descends while the robbery goes down; Johnny and Stanley stand watch, while Ollie and Eddie beat up the ticket office clerk and snatch the cash. Two cops show up on routine patrol; tension builds as the quartet wait for them to move along. Alas, the clerk sounds the alarm, and one of the cops is killed when shots are exchanged. Glasser swings into a double-time echo of the title tune as the boys flee in different directions; Johnny, shot in one leg, collapses in front of a church.

Ollie “casually” enters a bar and picks up a woman as Glasser delivers a slow, sultry cue; they return to her apartment, where a sassy, up-tempo arrangement of the title theme is heard on her radio. But Ollie’s behavior makes the woman suspicious; she sends him to a nearby store for liquor, and calls the police during his absence. An unsettling, melodramatic cue backs Ollie’s return, just in time to be snatched by the cops. The music shifts to mournful blues as each of the other boys is arrested in turn: Eddie; then Johnny, in a hospital bed; and Stanley, at home, to the mortification of his parents.


When gathered in an interrogation room, the boys are left alone to “work it out,” after the district attorney’s grim promise. The scene then flashes back a few days, to when Eddie is employed as a driver for a trucking firm; Glasser supplies some lively “traveling jazz” during a typical run, with Johnny along for company. Alas, Eddie is sweet on the firm’s secretary (Diane Herbert), but she has a gold-digger’s preference for the boss. The music turns sultry as Eddie does his best to woo her, only to be rebuffed — twice! — at which point he loses his temper and punches the boss.


And is immediately fired. 


Shortly thereafter, Eddie laments his fate with Stanley, as the two shoot pool and drink beer in a borrowed auditorium the quartet has dubbed The Dandelion Room. Lively jump jazz — tasty interplay between Jackson’s keyboard and unison horns — is heard from an unseen radio or turntable.


The next flashback focuses on Ollie, the most aggressive of the group, who works as a runner for bookie Joe Barton (Robert Dryden). Unfortunately — and stupidly — Ollie has “borrowed” $300, which he has spent on lavish gifts for his girlfriend, Sophie (Nancy Devlin), who happens to be Eddie’s younger sister. A quiet moment between these two lovers is backed by gentle strings and a mournful solo horn.


Ollie and the others later convene at The Dandelion, only to discover that their landlord (Ned Glass) has rented it out to another gang, which intends to use it for a fund-raising sock hop. Ollie and his friends aren’t about to tolerate these interlopers, and chase them away after a brawl set against a raucous big band reprise of the title theme. Our quartet realizes that hosting a door-charge dance would be a great way to raise enough money for Ollie to settle his debt with Barton. First, though, Ollie is summoned by the gangster, who knows full well that the young man has been shorting the weekly take. Ollie is “rewarded” for this indiscretion by being pummeled by Barton’s two henchmen, while another up-tempo arrangement of the title theme is heard on a nearby radio. (That’s apparently the only tune being played, at every moment, by every radio station in the city!)


The subsequent dance, with couples filling the auditorium, features a series of live Dixieland numbers by Stanley Rubin and his Tigertown Five (sidemen unidentified); Rubin delivers the vocal on a rendition of “I’ll Never Get Mad Again.” During the dance, Sophie tells the forlorn, nerdish Stanley — who desperately wants a girlfriend — that “A guy has to be good-lookin’ ... or have some money.” After a pause, during which she scrutinizes him, she concludes, “You’d better get some money.” (Ouch!)


Although the boys bring in a respectable amount of money, the fix is in; two of Barton’s men steal the gate. This setback unfolds against yet another lively rendition of the title theme, boasting sassy trombone and sax solos.

The next flashback shifts first to Stanley’s morose home life, where he cannot live up to his parents’ expectations: a scene backed by mournful strings and a forlorn solo horn. Elsewhere, similarly despondent strings are heard behind an initially happy moment between Johnny and his pregnant wife ... but the mood darkens when she confesses how much she hates his boxing career. Meanwhile, Stanley has caught up with Ollie and Eddie; the three of them behave very badly at a fancy restaurant — which features an improbable bongo band and a barely dressed female dancer — and later beat up a cabby and stiff him on the fare. By this point, it has become clear: Ollie and Eddie are malevolent, opportunistic thugs.


Johnny gets the final flashback; he’s definitely the most moral of this quartet. But his better nature goes south when, after winning an important amateur title bout, his manager (O’Malley) lets him go with nothing but a tin trophy and shattered dreams of what he could have earned during a subsequent boxing career. A slow, doleful jazz cue is heard when the four friends gather across the street from the boxing arena, and gradually work up the nerve to steal the night’s take; this takes us back to where the film began.


Fast-cut to the interrogation room: After the DA departs, a sad solo horn is heard as the four young men squabble among themselves. The shooter’s identity is revealed, but — in a way — they’re all guilty. They attempt to choose who heads for execution by throwing dice, but that just causes more arguing and anguish. Their ultimate decision — something of a surprise, particularly to the DA — comes against a portentous orchestral cue; it builds to an intense climax as the end credits appear. Fade to black.

No soundtrack album appeared alongside the film’s release, and the score remained unavailable until the arrival of The Albert Glasser Collection: Volume 3, in May 2023; the disc also features the score for 1957’s Street of Sinners. The 15 tracks for Four Boys cover the full score, and several cues run longer than what is heard in the film. (The music by Stanley Rubin and his Tigertown Five is not included.) A 16th track finds an animated Glasser briefly reminiscing about what he can recall of this assignment.