Sunday, 29 September 2013

Off… Beat Girl (1960)

"She’s nearly always here, digs all the modern gear, co-o-ol like a lager beer… Beat Girl…”

The John Barry-penned theme tune, snarled by Adam Faith with more genuine menace than Cliff or Tommy could ever hope to muster (wouldn’t mess with Joe though), is one of the surer steps of this odd film.

Whilst it’s easy to mock the “dated” battle of the generations between the hipsters and the squares, there are some interesting performances and a genuine sense of threat as well as period. Christopher Lee and Nigel Green are the pick for the grownups whilst Adam Faith’s mumbling authenticity and Gillian Hills’ youthful edgy-ness stand out for the kids oh, and one youngster name of Oliver Reed already typecast as “dangerous”.

Adam Faith: way more edgy than Cliff...
There’s also that cracking soundtrack from John Barry (that musical redeemer of so many flawed narratives…) which ranges from energetic modern jazz (still most hip in 1959) to the bruising RnB of the theme tune.

Then there’s the dancing, the Beat Girl certainly cuts a rug in the basement discotheque whilst some of Soho’s finest are employed to show just a little of what they can do in the strip club. Even now this is raunchy stuff recalling scenes from London in the Raw and other sexploitative documentaries of the period. Two of the performances shown are all the more shocking for their frankness: half a century probably hasn’t changed the watchers or the watched… the drinks are just more expensive.

David Farrar and Noëlle Adam
The beat girl in question is Jennifer (Gillian Hills who was later to turn up as a brunette sharing a cavort with David Hemmings and Jane Birkin in Blow Up!) a sixteen year old actress playing a sixteen years old rebelling against her straight-laced, radical architect father Paul Linden (David Farrar) and his pretty new Parisian trophy wife Nicole (Noëlle Adam).

No one understands her and even though she is studying art at the respectable St Martins, Jenny would prefer to be out dancing with her beat friends in their Soho coffee shop basement.

The beat girl
Her friends include Dave; a bit of rough with a guitar (Adam Faith, who does rather well), Dodo (Shirley Anne Field – a good actress who’s clean good looks make her seem forever posh, even though she’s from Bolton...) and Tony (Peter McEnery, in his first film), who is constantly swigging from a cough mixture bottle filled with gin…

As is revealed, Jenny is not alone in having generational difficulties: Tony’s father is aloof, a war hero without the courage to be a full-time parent, whilst Dave’s had to bring himself up spending so much time playing on bombsites, a world away from post-war regeneration.

Shirley Anne Fields, Gillian_Hills and Adam Faith
Alcohol is not yet “cool” for these guys and it is interesting what they do think is uncool – these beats are passionate about Dave Brubeck, rock and their own means of expression… even if you cringe at some of the self-conscious slang. “He sends me…” says Dodo describing Dave’s singing… yes, but probably not too far from the Home Counties.

Bolton's finest, Shirley Anne Field, being "sent"
Jennifer doesn’t take to her new step mother partly because of her growing alienation from her father his obsession with work and in particular his City 2000 project a model of which fills their sterile living room. See, the fault’s not just youth but career-centric middle age…

Nichole reaches out to Jennifer and seeks her out in her coffee bar haunt but things go awry especially when she bumps into an old friend, Greta (Delphi Lawrence) who she feigns not to recognise…

The days of well-dressed door men
The kids know Greta as one of the strippers in the club across the road and Jennifer starts digging deeper trying to find a way to antagonise Nichole. She goes into the club to quiz Greta and sees more than she bargained for on stage - an obviously well-practiced, sensuous routine from one Pascaline (actual stage name…) involving innovative use of a long shawl… The seediness is well done, I should imagine, and surprisingly convincing for the vintage: this looks all too real.

Pascaline performs
Jennifer doesn’t get much out of Greta but then she is noticed by the club’s shady manager Kenny (Christopher Lee) who also happens to be – just about – the older woman’s boyfriend. He takes a shine to Jennifer and makes Greta tell her about her life in Paris with Nichole… There’s more but she has to return to learn it all.

Jennifer sees more than she expected...
This is enough for Jennifer to really start torturing her step mother and you really do lose sympathy with the Beat Girl from this point on.

Nichole goes to meet Greta to try and put a cap on things yet, despite her standing up to Kenny he threatens to reveal more if Jennifer is not allowed back to the club. He’s looking for fresh blood and already has a trip to Paris planned with side-kick Simon (great stuff from Nigel Green given a rare chance to be a geezer).

Claire Gordon and Nigel Green
Jennifer starts to go wild, encouraging Dave to drive too fast in a race with other hipsters and inviting a party round to her parents’ house.  She performs a striptease mimicking Nichole’s past and Dad arrives just in time to kick out the beats…

Wicked step-mother
All is revealed and yet David is willing to forgive and forget Nicole’s burlesque past – not such a square after all!

But Jennifer has run off seeking adult refuge with Kenny. We’re shown another expert routine from a woman in a white negligee (Diane D'Orsay) as he attempts to persuade her to come to Paris with him… there’s clearly a career for her on the stage whilst Greta’s time is obviously up…

Diane D'Orsay cuts a rug...
Meanwhile some Teds smash up Tony’s car and the Linden’s race to try and find their daughter. Will the Beat Girl be corrupted for good or is there still a chance for her to re-connect with family?

Released in the US as Wild for Kicks, Beat Girl was sensationalist and must have caused quite a stir on its release in 1960. With established stars like Farrah (whose credits include numerous Powell and Pressburger such as the classic Black Narcissus), Lee and Green merged with the genuinely up and coming it was well-cast if not that well funded - Shirley Anne Field recently complaining that she got paid less than the extras.

He's behind you!
But the nudity and situations must surely have limited its distribution – certainly in the UK. How would the film be viewed if it had been French (with Bardot) or Italian? As it was, I’m not sure how many teenagers got to see it… fewer than Expresso Bongo that’s for sure!

The music also became the first soundtrack LP issued in Britain and featured The John Barry Seven & Orchestra. It’s available for download from eMusic as well as in plastic from Amazon.

Britain's first soundtrack LP?
The soundtrack has been re-mastered and the film needs a digital upgrade on the shoddy DVD that is just about currently available at rather inflated prices... we still want to be exploited it seems...

Dusty verdict: Not a classic but certainly very interesting. Almost everybody involved went on to great things from vampires to nude wrestlers and budgies…

“That’s the Beat Girl, feeding the coins into the juke box…long black stockings and no make up… she makes like she’s not over concerned about  this extravagant attention: keeps given’ me the look like I’m supposed to rate this chick high or somethin’…”
Retitled for the US market
"Fighting's for squares..." in reality Faith would have bopped 'em!
Dangerous Olly Reed
Gillian Hills went on to pop stardom in France with Zou Bisou Bisou...

Thursday, 19 September 2013

A film of two halves… The Chase (1966)

What starts out as Peyton Place ends up as Straw DogsThe Chase feels like so many southern neo-soaps with a cast of dozens each with multiple relationships and a small-town backstory as long as the pauses between Brando’s dialogue…

Directed with aplomb by Arthur Penn, it’s undeniably fascinating to see his marshaling of so many sixties big hitters with Marlon Brando and Angie Dickinson the most established stars paired with the up-and-coming Jane Fonda and Robert Redford and many others, but the story opens out in a subdued way over the first hour or so.

Robert Redford
Things kick off with a jail break which sees Charlie "Bubber" Reeves (Redford) landed in deep water when his fellow convict-on-the-run, kills a man and drives off in the car they were supposed to share. Bubber is not a killer but now, as he cradles the dead man in his hands, knows that life has just become a lot more complex…

Back home, the news spreads of Bubber’s escape – it’s initially quite difficult to imagine Redford as a man who instils fear in his townsfolk, his background is never clearly explained but with a domineering mother of poor judgement and some bad breaks he doesn’t appear to have been dealt an even hand.

Jane Fonda
One by one we encounter the good people of his home town only their not good at all, by and large, mostly selfish and guilty about something or other and in some cases Bubber… as if they’ve been complicit in his bad luck.

James Fox
There’s Jason "Jake" Rogers (James Fox, with a pretty good accent for a limey of his period), gifted son of the local dominant business man, Val Rogers (E. G. Marshall) who pretty much runs the town.

Janice Rule's cruel smile entices Richard Bradford
At his bank works the meek Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall) who has somehow ended up married to the local fireball Emily Stewart (Janice Rule) who, bored stiff of her husband, seeks action elsewhere. Outspoken and over-sexed she is carrying on with Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford) whose wife, Mary (Martha Hyer) is drinking to forget the fact.

Emily appraises long-suffering Edwin
It soon transpires that pretty much the while town is drinking and, as with Emily, they struggle to control their urge to irresponsibility…

There’s Mr Briggs (Henry Hull) nosey and misanthropic who along with his wife (Jocelyn Brando) drifts through events adding spiteful spin as they go. Bubba’s mother (Miriam Hopkins), dominates her husband (Malcolm Atterbury), with her narrow-minded paranoia and has she left it far too late to help her son…

A Fox and a Fonda
Bubba’s wife Anna (Jane Fonda) has been seeing his best friend Jake, for most of the three years he has been in jail and lives above her wicked step-father’s bar when she’s not staying in motels with Jake… himself another victim of a love-less marriage.

Angie and Marlon
At the heart of all this is the Brando’s Sheriff Calder, married to Ruby (Angie Dickinson) and with some strong but un-specified sponsorship from Val Rogers. They are the film’s moral core and the closest to heroic: with so much naked self-interest and absolute corruption around them the viewer is going to rely on them to hold steady.

And, indeed, The Chase turns fully on these two, as Bubba’s approach to his home town is concerned and the various rats get nervous in their traps.

The Birthday Party
Val’s birthday party is a swinging affair with the locals getting ever drunker and wilder; they head into town to continue their bacchanal lead by Fuller and two chums.

Mary looks on as Emily and Damon cavort
Bubba make sit to a junkyard belonging to his friend Lem (Clifton James) who he instructs to go get Anna, but Lem is spotted by Fuller and the boys and almost lynched for being in a white girl’s apartment before Calder’s intervention.

He locks Lem in a cell for his own protection but once it is learned that he may know where Bubba is, the local drunks try to force their way in. Then Val arrives, desperate to keep Bubba from Jake after being told of his son’s long-standing affair: he orders the good ol’ drunks to “restrain” the Sheriff and there follows one of the most shocking scenes of assault you’ll see from this period.

Method beating...
The men beat Calder to a pulp and all in a strangely calm way that makes the violence seem even more extreme. It signals a step change in tone and makes you feel as frustrated and helpless as any in the confused audience of early 1966… Brando called it “method acting” and he performs the scene remarkably. It’s really quite unsettling.

Calder having already enlisted Anna and Jake to go and persuade Bubba to give himself up, they are now pursued by Val who has extracted his location by torturing Lem. The drunks from all over town converge to follow… an all-ages, inebriated posse/party.

Bubba and Anna reunited but for how long?
The films climax is – literally – explosive, as there is one mighty conflagration at the junkyard with tragedy affecting all… and there’s more to come as the final scenes escalate the pointless destruction a final shocking notch.

The Chase proved far more harrowing than I expected and is a far more impressive film than I expected, even given the cast. You don't really know where it's going to go and it dares itself to greater heights of violence with every passing sequence in the last half.

Fonda and Redford are excellent, powerful screen presences on the verge of top billing. James Fox does well and it’s surprising that he didn’t move on to more Hollywood work whilst Angie Dickinson is a sublime force of nature even holding her own alongside Mr Brando.

As for the esteemed method man, Marlon is incisiveness personified for much of the film only being occasionally let down by his famous diction. He’s near his best here especially in the fraught second half as if he needed a really extreme situation to act against.

The music is by John Barry and shows what a versatile composer he was above and beyond the lounge-core reputation. He supports the action with subtle under-statement and helps maintain a mood that could all too easily run away with itself.

Dusty verdict: The pot-boiler boils over and the stellar cast push themselves to one of the most relentlessly dark cinematic climaxes of the period.  The DVD is available from Amazons and a Blu-ray will surely follow for this good-looking film with a dark heart…

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Easy-going rider… Sam Whiskey (1969)

I have fond memories of this comedy western from its television screenings – perfect family entertainment at a time when we had only three channels to choose from… we were more easily pleased.

Having not watched it since, I was unsure how the future star of the mighty Deliverance and,er Smokey and the Bandit would fare when confronted with my older, more considered, gaze…

Sam Whiskey now appears like a slightly higher-budget TV movie with extensive use of standard backlot real estate and westerners who look like they bathe and have regular haircuts. It ambles along in a pleasant way but there’s not much jeopardy or tension.

Burt Reynolds in typical pose
Burt Reynolds plays Sam Whiskey an adventurer who has failed to make the big time and yet whose reputation is enough to arouse the interest of a damsel in distress seeking criminal expertise. Laura Breckenridge (Angie Dickinson) is looking to clear her late husband’s name by returning the $200,000 in gold he stole from the Denver Mint during the Civil War.

The gold bars went down with all hands on a paddle steamer and she is convinced that they can be retrieved and then returned before the routine inspection (not sure why this has taken so long…)

Laura is a very persuasive woman...
In spite of Mrs Breckenridge’s obvious charms, Sam is reluctant to under-take what looks like an impossible task but, she reinforces monetary incentive with repeated amorous inducements leaving Sam weak enough to agree… Dickinson plays the sex-kitten very well but you do wish she’d been given just that bit more to do. She has good chemistry with Reynolds but their relationship is too much of a one-note affair.

Sam recruits local blacksmith Jed Hooker (Ossie Davis) to help even though Jed sees right through his bluff and bluster and the an old friend, inventor O.W. Bandy (Clint Walker) who just happens to have a machine gun.

Burt Reynolds and Ossie Davis
From the outset they are trailed by an overweight man with thick lensed spectacles, Fat Henry Hobson (Rick Davis) who wants to take the gold for himself.

They find the sunken boat and using Bandy’s devices, dive down into the river to start retrieving the gold bars… but all the while Fat Henry and his men are watching…

But the tone of Sam Whiskey turns in the next few scenes as Jed and Bandy are captured by some ornery lookin’ hombres who look set to torture and slice the men in horrible ways - Anthony James as Cousin Leroy was always excellent at “unsavoury” and he is genuinely so in the few frames he’s allowed.

Sam swims over from his hiding place and unleashes Bandy’s machine gun which, miraculously, mows down the baddies while leaving his pals unscathed… and it’s all over in a flash of clinical retribution.

Ossie Davis, unsavoury Anthony James and Clint Walker
The film’s uneven tone becomes more focused as Sam and the boys arrive at the Mint and have to work out an ingenious method of returning the gold. As their deadline looks more and more impossible genuine tension is felt as their scheme unfolds…

Dickinson rehashes her sexy moves as she holds a genuine Bank inspector captive, whilst Sam’s inventive criminal skill is put to the test: perhaps Mrs Breckenridge knew exactly what she was doing all along?

No giving away the ending though…

Arnold Laven directs very effectively and gives his stars full reign, although it still feels like Reynolds and Dickinson barely get out of second gear… Talking of which, a scene of Angie "bare-from-the-waist-up" was cut to ensure the film’s family friendly rating, which may also explain the shift to cartoon violence mentioned above. The film plays it very safe.

Angie Dickinson
Dusty verdict: Well worth a watch if you’re in the mood for amiable entertainment, Burt Reynold’s cheek and Angie Dickinson’s endless charm.

It’s available on DVD from the usual places and probably screens on TCM every other week… I’ll be keeping my old VHS.