Sunday, 30 October 2011

Eva - JOSEPH LOSEY - Director

Released 1962

"Do you know how much this weekend's going to cost me? Two friends, thirty thousand dollars...and a WIFE."

In the fetid Venetian lagoons, two monsters lie in wait. He is Tyvian Jones, escapee from the South Wales valleys, blustering his virility around the continent on the back of an international best-seller plagiarised from his dead brother. She is Eva, lady about town, functional schizoid and nemesis in bold type. For the next hour or so we witness a man being systematically destroyed by his obsession for a woman.

In it's longest print  the 1962 film "Eva" exists with Swedish & Finnish subtitles and a clutch of very mixed reviews. It left something of a black mark on the careers of all those involved in the making of it, yet within those footnotes remains a fascinating story.

In the month of his death, Rhondda-born actor Stanley Baker received the ultimate career accolade with the award of a knighthood. Forever engrained in the consciousness of the British cinema-going public for his role of Lt. Chard in the 1964 film "Zulu", Baker forged a reputation as a socially committed actors actor who could and should have followed the Connerys and Caines towards Hollywood action-man immortality. But having rejected the money by turning down the role of James Bond for fear of being typecast, Stanley Baker began the 1960's with the intention of bringing to life the vision of a director very much in tune with himself.

Stanley Baker
In 1961 not long after making that momentous decision, Baker found himself contracted as the male lead in a European film to be produced by Egyptian brothers Raymond and Robert Hakim, currently riding high on the back of the Alain Delon thriller "Plein Soleil" and then working on the concurrent "L'Eclisse", also starring Delon and directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni. The Hakim's notorious for a heavy hands-on supervision on all their productions, allowed themselves to be persuaded by Baker to employ the directorial services of exiled American-in-Britain, Joseph Losey. Losey had cast Baker in a couple of features and the two men had developed a rapport based largely on their shared social convictions. Losey had been black-listed in the McCarthy anti-Communist witch-hunt whilst Baker was a CND activist and ardent left-wing supporter of Harold Wilson (it would be Wilson's 1976 resignation honours list that would honour him)

Joseph Losey
The story Eve (re-titled "Eva" for the film) had been written by pulp fiction novelist James Hadley Chase and was based around the relationship between a hard-boiled detective and a prostitute. If the subject matter was entirely in keeping with the Hakim's commercial, not to mention salacious instincts, the final treatment would take a considerable detour. As was common currency with Losey, "Eva" would be shaped around the director's own particular demons, the original story a skeleton onto which a modern treatise on his own sexual dilemmas would be grafted. For the director, this film was to be his statement on the bourgeois entrapment of the female spirit and would bear direct comparison to his own marriage. The off-set intrigue surrounding his relationship with wife and mistress would actually result in a nervous breakdown for a put-upon nanny who would find herself confined to St Bartholomew's Hospital, London for the duration of filming. A fitting sub-plot to a film devoted to much madness and hate.

Jeanne Moreau
A significant departure from the plan would see Losey moving the action from Los Angeles to Venice and the American detective changed to a fraudulent Welsh novelist. Baker's collusion accounted for the character change but the geography hinted at loftier ambitions and one requiring some practical assistance due to a hangover from Losey's American ban. It has been suggested that Baker and Losey employed the services of the London underworld to secure visas and permits to enter Italy and the name of Kray Twin acolyte Albert Dimes has been mentioned. The ends pursued indicate the ambitions both men had for the project. The title role would be played by leading French actress Jeanne Moreau, then an established name on the international circuit. Fresh from her success in Antonioni's "La Notte" and the career defining "Jules et Jim", Moreau would be cast as the demonic tormentor to Baker's man skating on thin ice. Courted for the role by Losey, the actress and director shared mutual respect and the triumvirate began filming with great hope.

Michel Legrand
Reluctantly granting the director his wishes, the Hakim's did however eschew the preferred choice of composer when Miles Davis' representatives requested a little more money than budgeted. Fortunately the Billie Holliday tunes and work of French composer Michel Legrand would give the film a sophisticated yet sleazy air perfectly in tune with the fractured personality splits of the lead characters. The main theme is a particularly fascinating piece. A quietly swinging trumpet riff backed by a small jazz group is suddenly broken by a sudden sheet of discordant harpsichords and a sound not unlike Bartok or Stravinsky. Legrand would go on to score "The Go-between" for Losey but it was this soundtrack that the director would go on to cite as his favourite musical score.

In Stanley Baker's Tyvian Jones the morose Celtic division of faux machismo and brooding self-hatred is perfectly encapsulated. The films charts the self-investigation of a man who knows he is living a lie. "Stranger From Hell" the title of his dead brother's slice of life pulp-fiction, features his name on the spine and his photo on the jacket but it is only in the title that Tyvian finds the awful truth. Far off in the distance lies marriage to a beautiful fiancĂ© and a place in an establishment he can only dream about. But right before his eyes gaping cracks appear in an insecurity he is desperate to fill. This void is filled by Moreau's Eva, willing seductress through the necessity of earning money to live the life she must live. By turns childish and demonic, for Moreau it would be one of the finest performances of her career, her post-coital eyes staring balnkly through the smoke.

"Do you find me attractive?", she asks an exasperated Tyvian during one the film's many scences of desperate, doomed seduction.
"Mean...cruel...vicious...destructive", he answers.

Boasting stunning photography from Henri Decae, the film looked great too, painting a nocturnal Venice and scruffy Rome in dark forboding shades. Yet this darkness and the bitterness within the text would slip into the production like a spiked drink. Fact and fiction merged. Eva used her sex like a weapon and even disregarding Moreau's assertion of the time when she took a knife to the producers during an on-set dispute, a feeling of deep malevolence and violence hung over the whole venture. Scenes were fought over and planned budgets withdrawn. It spilled over into the action.

In one scene as Eva leads Tyvian through dark Roman streets, we glimpse piazza and fountains reminiscent of  Fellini's award-winning "La Dolce Vita", yet where in that film we recall an iconic embrace at dawn, in doomed "Eva" the lovers stumble down stairs into the hovel of a sleeping vagrant. There is nothing accidental about this fall. The scene also reminds us that "Eva" was Losey's shot at doing a Visconti or Antonioni or indeed Fellini. In the early 1960's Italy was where a film director made his international mark. Losey, Baker and Moreau were clearly fighting towards this end, the stakes were high and as the funds were withdrawn Baker found himself chipping in money from his own pocket. Like Tyvian with his repressed sensitivity, rash bursts of passion were beginning to consume reason.

The final director's cut of 155 minutes would never see the light of day. Allegedly butchered by the Hakim's down to the standard 103 minute theatrical release (though some have argued this was a conceit manufactured by a director who had already lost control). Today we have access to the Scandinavian cut which allows us 119 minutes though in markedly inferior stock. Critics have commented on the longeurs of even the shortest versions of the film so it's a moot point as to whether Losey's grand vision justified his final cut. Either way after moving on to greater things he would recoil in later years over his unrealised masterpiece. (He would describe the unseen full version as "almost an orgasm"!)

Upon it's release established opinion suggested "Eva" was fit only to lurk menacingly in the back-waters of the European cinema world, though plaudits were given to Moreau's expert performance. Yet it is Stanley Baker's portrayal of a seducer devoured who shines brightest nearly half a century on. The working class lad striking out at a time when the blurring of the classes suggested everything was up for grabs strikes a resounding note. To witness the disintegration of his very being acts as a bitter morality play of universal hubris. With another amour in-tow and Tyvian reduced to a lapdog, Eva's final put-down in Piazza St Marco reminds us of the film's unusual subject matter,

"Bloody Welshman!", she spits.

As a post-script it seems fitting to recall that the film's premiere ended as tortuously as its creation. In a split-level Paris cinema, Baker found himself downstairs before a non-plussed cross-section of the weary international press, whilst upstairs Losey partied with enough Anglo-Saxon chutzpah to suggest they'd carried the whole thing off. But the hangover from this film would last a long time.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Secret - THE VIRGIN SLEEP-45 single

Recorded 1967

By 1967, Psychedelia (for want of a better word) was the must-hear sound and the leading record companies in the UK were branching out forming sister labels ready to scoop it all up. With ready cash at hand they began speculating on the premise that anything knocked out in tune with the Zeitgeist may very well sell. Even established acts like The Rolling Stones were following this same commercial instinct by aping the innovative Beatles recordings, so critically lauded that summer. Their far-out pudding "Their Satanic Majesties Request" has it's moments but the whole concept sounds like it was conceived in the boardroom of a Marrakesh enterprise zone. (Mick Jagger would put his time doing Business Studies at the London School of Economics, to good use in the years to come). But there were other more worthy...more blissfully naive attempts that epochal year.

The Stones' label Decca launched Deram with a roster of obscure delights and there were none more obscure or delightful than The Virgin Sleep, a four-piece from the Richmond, Surrey area. They changed their name from the Themselves in around 1966 and we can only speculate as to whether they re-named themselves after the popular excerpt "Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge" from Massenet's 1880 oratorio "La Vierge". What we do know is that the band featured 4 musicians with the names of Alan Barnes, Rick Quilty, Keith Purnell and Tony Rees, the latter credited with the songwriting credits on both their singles.

The drone-like "Love / Halliford House" crept out in September 1967 and was promptly forgotten by all and sundry. It's irrelevant to say it's a shame it didn't sell because the record has triumphantly transcended it's humble fate. To connoisseurs of this stuff it's now regarded as a defining artefact of the strange fetish that is UK psychedelia. The A-side was all moody and sitar-buddhist whimsy whilst the flip was all moody and deranged in tone. It was a record company toe in the water and something must has happened because the band got another crack at the whip. This time round they had TV and film arranger Keith Mansfield in tow conducting a small but perfectly formed string orchestra. Someone managed to grab the West Hampstead mellotron and the men in white coats turned a blind eye as the bass sound was cranked up to 11. The end result "Secret" was released in the New Year and it's a little bit special in my opinion.

Keith Mansfield. Hard at it.
Musically it has an infectious, gallumphing-like rhythm, bounding out the speakers like a herd of woodland animals. Big ones. The crunching wall of sound-effect is like something label-mates The Move always seemed to be striving for. It's heavy and jig-like at the same time. But it's also got a bit of that swinging Donovan/John Cameron folk-jazz-style in there too with the bubbling-brook sound of the bass. The descending mellotron line knocks the spots off The Moody Blues use of the instrument and the matter of fact vocals make the bizarre lyrics all the more strange. One wonders if there are any other songs that devote quite as much serious attention to a bunch of gossiping vertebrates?

The "folk" element here has as little to due with pagan olde england as it has to do with ornate William Morris wallpaper on bedroom walls. This is more the glaring Alfred Bestall illustrations for Rupert the Bear which always drew you away from the text or maybe the alternative reality found just past the village hedgerows in TV's Worzel Gummidge. It's the sound made by those malevolent trees that sit unemployed in city parks, isolated from their English countryside brothers. Something quintessentially strange and British. Psychedelic-folk perhaps? No...that is stretching it a bit far. The folk element is something buried deep within the subconscious of this. There's something altogether suburban in this, in fact there always was in even the wildest sounds of British psychedelic-pop. They took drugs in search of Gandalf in America but we always seemed to be happier with a pint of cider and a shimmy down the Conservative Club.

I don't know much about what they did after this apart from guitarist Keith Purnell who went on to contribute to the Walton-on Thames sound, adding fuzz-guitar to future DJ and TV personality Mike (Mic) Read's late 60's recordings. In all likelihood they attached themselves to the next musical wave that might earn them a few bob. Enthusiasts of Glam-pop may well hold the secret in the credits on the back sleeves of their mouldering records.

But this "Secret" is the only one that really matters. Go and let it out!

"The willow tree, by the wishing well 
Saw the fireflies dance, but he won't tell, 
It's a secret he'll keep but he knows very well,  I know

The field mouse runs from his nest by the road
To tell the news to the friendly toad
They think they're the only ones that know, but I know

I know cos I was there, having my tea with a teddy bear
I won't tell I wouldn't dare, cos I promised

Dragonflies tell it to the trees
Butterflies hear it in the breeze
They go tell it to the Queen of the Bees, now she knows

Ask the old wizard or the wise old owl
Or the badger though he's not in the crowd
They don't know anyhow, but I do

I know and so does the swan, he knows what's going on
He won't tell you just as long as I'm here

The blackbirds talking in the trees 
Tell the seagull who flies the seas
The Sparrow Hawk knows but then he sees, everything

Spider spinning his web of silk 
Watching the ducks down by the mill
He'll keep the secret, until he's ready"

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Reckoning - NICOL WILLIAMSON-Actor

Released 1969

Directed by Jack Gold

Uber-macho executive Michael Marler, hrr-umphs his car over the Westway into the washed-out City of London financial district. Behind him lie the awful compromises born from living with a trophy wife in stock-broker belt Virginia Water. Before him he gazes up at the steel and glass world where the game of work unfolds. This is the only world that counts:

"On your way up Marler?", asks the boss in the lift.
"One below you sir", he quips.

Midway through a Machiavellian board room plot about "computers" he receives a call from "up north" prompting him to hurtle up the M6 to a Liverpool halfway between depression and all out demolition. It's a grim broken brick terrace, pram-pushing, Beatle-neglected reality. Here he finds the women of his forgotten family, grimly holding vigil over a dying father. The pubs are full of acned youths in leather, wizened Irish Republican-exiles and women puffing on fags, faces filled with Woolworths mascara. And it's here that Michael Marler in an electrifying performance by Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson learns a few home truths that force a detour to his more obvious ambitions.

Nicol Williamson - in the words of John Osborne,  "The greatest actor since Brando" 
The secular world of commerce is left behind as the prodigal son plunges back into his spiritual home. Family wrongs are in need of being righted and the burden of responsibility is all his. In between he finds Rachel Roberts who entices him to cheap thrills behind paisley curtains and an apres l'amour like "two dollops of steam duff". To a man who eats bacon sandwiches when he gets home from a night-out dining on partridge, she's a woman he could love.

This cathartic episode propels him back to "that" London where he ensures everything must change so everything can stay the same. On his first morning back he memorably destroys a little man from HR for placing a toff into an unsuitable provincial position.

"Have you ever been to Grimsby?", he screams, re-taking the reins.

The north like a shot in the arm, flows through his veins, pushing him headlong into conflict. It's a one-way track he can't avoid and like the jumped red lights and bent traffic cones, he leaves chaos in his wake.

The film plays out like a white-heat of technology post-script to "Room at The Top". There's a dash of the yet to be released "Get Carter" and strong echoes of  "Charlie Bubbles'". Fast moving, thought provoking and evocative, this is one of those brave character-driven British films that were being made before the money ran out. In the 1970's things like this were down-sized for television on "Play for Today" before Thatcher (aided and abetted by the likes of Michael Gove in the right-wing press) would blast them off the schedules forever.

A long way from Tipperary, J.G.Devlin as Cocky Burke
Alan Bleasdale would cast J.G. Devlin, the actor who plays Marler's father's best friend, in an almost identical role for his 1985 film "No Surrender". Marler meets him in the below club scene as they make themsleves heard over an Irish Show Band playing Goffin & King. Ubiquitous character actor Joe Gladwin is also spotted in this clip firmly reminding the viewer that they are now witnessing "the north". Within minutes he would gleefully win at bingo, get drunk watching a wrestling bout, pour his pint down a woman's front and prompt a mass brawl. I think someone should put that on You Tube.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Verlaine et Rimbaud - LEO FERRE

Released 1964

This is the story of a French musical adaptation of the work of two 19th century homosexual poets. It's a double album and four years after it was recorded the anarchist interpreter divorced his wife after she shot his chimpanzee. That's a lot of reasons for it being lost between the cracks.

In 1965 Barclay Records were still allowing Leo Ferre to release 45's. "Ni Dieu Ni Maitre" (No God No Master) would prove to be his most overtly anarchic mission-statement to date. Tucked away on the b-side was a seemingly innocuous joke-song addressed to his record company boss Eddie Barclay. In it he imagines a none too fantastic scenario where Monsieur Barclay demands him to write a hit song that can be promoted on the radio. Ferre hesitates to comply but ad-libs a moronic chorus that mocks the anodyne pop conventions of the mid-sixties; the very same conventions his boss had been influential in bringing about. He then winds proceedings up with:

"Je suis pas salaud et pour la peine                    To show I'm not a bastard    
 J'vendrai Rimbaud                                                 I'll sell Rimbaud 
 Avec Verlaine"                                                       With Verlaine

This was an ironic reference to the previous year's "Verlaine et Rimbaud" LP, a record made with  a reckless disregard for economics. It was also a record that could have stalled Ferre's long career if it had flopped. That he was able to manouvre himself into a position to even make the record was suprising. That it was a critical success is remarkable. That it is one of the greatest double LP's of the 1960's is unquestionable. 

In 1964 Ferre was 48 years old, in his 12th year as a recording artist and in his 4th year with the prestigious Barclay Records. He'd improved his rough-edged 1950's recordings considerably by developing a smoother singing style and he'd adopted a highly sympathetic orchestral arranger in Jean-Michel Defaye. In short he had made it! But Ferre was finding himself having to fight tooth and nail to get his recordings released let alone promoted. His increasingly controversial lyrics were causing discomfort to his sponsors. Rich in bohemian imagery his songs were unashamedly anarchic in their outlook. Ferre interpreted anarchy in it's individualistic-libertarian mode as a personal mission as precious as any pursuit of human love. He'd had one LP rejected by the company for it's anti-establishment sentiments including a song which openly attacked the popular war-hero image of President De Gaulle. And in his 1962 satirical song "Le Temps Difficiles" he made reference to the then torture of Algerians by French troops:

"File moi ta part mon petit Youssef                       Cough up your stuff my little Youssef      
 Sinon je te branche sur le EDF"                           Or I'll plug you into the EDF (Electricity)

Ferre was not afraid to push his material to the very limits of acceptability. This ensured he was largely hidden from French television viewers, a frustrating impasse for the company who continued to blithely encourage him to release songs that could be played on the radio. A form of resistance was underway. In France the pop singer produced 45's whilst the serious composer released albums. Ferre was squarely in the latter camp. His collections of songs were released on an annual basis to a hardcore group of enthusiasts, mixing emotional love songs with fierce polemics railing against many of the hands that fed him. Theatre tours across France popularised the material and the record company found they had a popular if cult hero. His was an un-compromising image, he was a man who said what he liked and liked what he said.  It was against this background that he approached Maison Barclay with the intention of interpreting the poems of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. After 16 years honing his style he'd fought himself into a position where they had more to lose than he did.

If a yawn falls over the english-speaking world today at the thought of reading French poetry then it should be remembered that that same yawn was probably felt by the majority of French School children back in 1964.  That generations of French children had their first meaningful appreciation for these poets through hearing this LP serves as testament to the connection Leo Ferre was able to make through his interpretations. Lest we forget - to educate people to the relevance of the seemingly unattainable is a wonderful gift. Ferre explained his method the following way: 

"It's possible to write ten different pieces of music for the same poem, but I forbid myself  from doing that. In general this is how I do it: I open the piano, I open the book, I read and immediately I accompany myself whilst I sing. I improvise. If nothing comes I move on to the next poem. That's how it goes..."

On 25th May 1964, he entered the Avenue Hoche Studio in Paris in the company of Jean-Michel Defaye and his orchestra and the additional accompaniment of Barthelemy Rosso on guitar, Lionel Galli on violin and Janine de Waleyne on backing vocals. By 28th May 14 poems of Paul Verlaine and 10 poems of Arthur Rimbaud had been recorded. 

The Verlaine adaptations are fleeting meditations on love and loss with near perfect orchestrations from Defaye. The web-like subtlety of the arrangements conjure up long walks through wintry landscapes. In "O Triste Triste Etait Mon Ame", the sense of desolation is almost overwhelmingly blissful in it's melancholy. Elsewhere there are sweet adaptations of poems filled with spring-like hope and the flowering promise of loves to come. Grappelli-like jazz touches from Galli infuse a bubbling energy into "Chanson D'Automne", whilst "Green" seems to bud and flower into brilliant life with every heavenly crescendo on the chorus. Ferre identified particularly with the auto-destructive fire of Rimbaud's imagery. In  "Chanson de la Plus Haut Tour" the piano dances seemingly out of control like a mad rush down a flight of stairs. In "L'Etoile a Pleure Rose" the background vocals of Janine De Walyne conjure up danger and exoticism in equal measure; the sound of far-off adventure and ruin. The two most aggressive-sounding recordings concern the poet's recollections of his school-days. Ferre sings these songs with a ferocity close to his own heart. His anarchy was partly formed by an oppressive and violent schooling by Christian Brothers.

If Rimbaud offers youthful rebellion and fearless insurrection it's Verlaine's bird-like caution that balances the record with the measured wisdom of experience. This immense melancholy pervades the record. It is both the saddest and most uplifting of musical experiences. An album that makes you immerse yourself in the poetry books to understand the vision of these truly sensitive souls. Such a blessing, such a curse.

Below is "Je Vous Vois Encor" from side three with a rare clip of Ferre:

The record was a critical triumph and a career high. It pushed Ferre onwards towards new adventures and new outrages. "Ni Dieu Ni Maitre" became his anthem until he peaked again at the age of 52 when a May '68 audience would re-discover him. 

But that's another story and one to be saved for another day.   

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Outside Man - JACQUES DERAY - Director

Released 1972

It seems that Los Angeles has come to define the archetypal setting for the B-movie noir. 

This vast flattened metropolis between mountain and sea, host to a web of interminable free-ways and low-rise malls, where the car is king and the pedestrian obsolete. A Ballardian dystopia with no real societal heart but one built for individual perversion. A city where silhouetted figures hidden behind dark shades and laminated glass wind-shields, stare blankly in rapt and silent surveillance. 

It's all there in "Criss-Cross", Bogart and "The Big Sleep". Mitchum's Marlowe. The hysteria of Cloris Leachman in a raincoat racing into the traffic in the backwards titles of "Kiss Me Deadly". Barbara Stanwyck's ice maiden in "Double Indemnity". Altman's hip and hard-faced take of "The Long Goodbye". 1995's "Usual Suspects", even elements of this year's "Drive". Films, actors and imagery that define the genre and place it firmly in Pacific Standard Time. A land where the sun always shines and the shadows stretch into the night.

Now let's consider another title for this list. A film lost between the cracks because it was made by a French director with a French star. "The Outside Man"

Hollywood was built by outsiders who by the end of the pioneering first half of the century, had established the formula for what American cinema actually was. But by the 1960s a new generation of foreign directors emerged who belonged to their own established cultural film industry. With the Hollywood studio system in decline these film makers found opportunities to work in collaboration with the studios and some interesting experiments were produced with L.A. as backdrop. Films like Tony Richardson's "The Loved One" and in particular Jacques Demy's "The Model Shop" stand out as perfect examples of alien eyes finding something new in familiar surroundings. The latter is particularly memorable with its languid plot and enigmatic characters wandering through a city quite transformed by colour and space. But it's the European take on film noir that added something particularly compelling to the American way of doing things. John Boorman's "Point Blank" and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" dropped an un-settling Old World element into the mix creating two of the very finest statements of the whole genre. "The Outside Man" made between the two may not reach the same peaks but it's sprinkled with their magic, matching the re-imagined iconography with a frenetic pace. 

French release
A French hitman delivers a contract to LA's Mr Big, then finds himself hunted cat and mouse across the city by a mysterious assailant.

The diminutive lead Jean-Louis Trintignant didn't really do English language films but he speaks his lines in a stuttering pidgin style that adds a disorientating layer of loneliness to his character's predicament. He is man thrown into culture shock, trapped in a battle with forces unknown. In a desperate need for refuge he holds a family hostage and then nervously joins them for a TV dinner watching "Star Trek". He wanders through the Greyhound Bus Station with it's dollar-slot ranks of personalised TV sets, like a Givenchy-dressed spaceman. Surrounded by neon, he hides out in the booth of a sleazy downtown strip-bar, conspicuously toying with a half-bottle of beaujolais.

Roy attempts a French connection
In another scene he flicks channels with raging ennui, in a probable homage to Lee Marvin's identical scene in "Point Blank". Director Jacques Deray was clearly au fait with Boorman's masterwork even casting Angie Dickinson in a supporting role as an icy black widow. The two films also mine the same sense of arctic detachment from their leads. In "Point Blank" the character of Walker is that film's towering enigma whilst in "The Outside Man" every character seems to be made of stone. The constant hum of the ant-like traffic is as prevalent as any significant dialogue and Roy Scheider fresh from "The French Connection", plays Trintignant's nemesis in virtual silence. They battle it out to the skid of brakes and the "pop" of bullets through a grid-locked Wilshire Boulevard in night time rush-hour. Then there's a showdown under a derelict and soon to be demolished Venice Beach pier complex. A fitting high noon for two men caught "outside" their own shadows.

The man...outside
The only character with any heart is a striking Ann-Margret who puts in a terrific performance as an enticing and sympathetic gangster's moll. A tired habitue of the demi-monde, she hangs around looking for her own ticket out of the maze, throwing in her lot from a position of nothing to lose. Jacques Deray had previously made his name with "La Piscine", a sophisticated cross-plot crime drama, but here he pushes the action relentlessly on making the most of what is a very simplistic plot-line. Every now and then he splashes the film with Michel Legrand's atypical score, the Hammond organ-heavy funk propelling the narrative like the cars. The film wings it's way to an unexpected finale in a scene that could only be carried off by a European Director, indeed it's the most blatantly French moment in the entire film. Deray would concentrate on period crime thrillers for his next few films but none of them match this experiment.

Track this memorably strange film down. It is out there. 


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

5.30 Plane - JIMMY WEBB - Composer

Connie Stevens (1970)  & The Supremes (1972)

Connie caught relaxing...
"All the empty reasons that we
 gave ourselves
 For going on or dying 
 in your misty eyes
 Floating in a boat
 That's so filled with both our lives
 We'll never make the shore"

TV star, Republican and former Elvis date, Connie Stevens entered 1970 as the newly divorced spouse of singer Eddie Fisher. Between time goofing on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and VIP tours of Vietnam with perennial wise-cracker Bob Hope, she recorded this single in the hope of scoring a hip hit with her less than hip fan-base. She also found time to sing the theme to a series of "Ace Hardware" TV commercials in Southern California. The housewives of America passed on the single but the commercials were very much a hit.

Walter Wanderley's 1969 LP
A climactic break-up song, it premiered in 1969 in the hands of Walter Wanderley and his singers who robotically droned the words over an oppressive bossa nova like Stepford Wives programmed into dealing with the pesky perils of divorce in brownie-baking downtime. After Connie's up-tempo version flopped, the baton was passed on to the late-flowering Supremes who took a world-weary approach to the song, slowing it down into a soulful meditation of loss. It's measured and mature and as such a very different beast to the version preceding it. This is highlighted in the chorus when Jean Terrell delivers the simple lines that define the whole song:

"I don't know what you're gonna do
 But I decided I can make it on my own" 

...better off having a fag
She gives the barely concealed impression that she'll be mulling over this break-up for a long time afterwards. As such I hear this performance as a resigned prequel to Bacharach's sublime "Check-Out Time" as sung by Dionne Warwick. A song that acts like a female perspective-homage of sorts to Webb's own "By The Time I Get To Phoenix". The weary acceptance of the inevitable break-up and then the teary and existential loneliness of the next step.

Connie Stevens approach is different! Once you've heard her belting out the above lines to a pa-pa-ing upbeat arrangement of choir and strings, the song is transformed into some sort of anthem to the new dawn of strident 1970's Womanhood. Well at least the omnipotent image of strident womanhood that would soon be patronised and exploited to high heaven over billboards and Sunday magazines throughout the western world!

Her vocals are both kittenish and assertive, mirroring all the contradictions I find and love in Webb land. She's as glossy as the adverts in those magazines with all that Hollywood oomph behind her, but there's also something honest and deep to counter the froth. She's a singer edging outside of her comfort zone but not too far. Dean Martin is somewhere looking on, tapping his foot. It's an impression conveyed in both performance and lyric. One imagines the protagonists of this song facing each other down in a late night Denny's with Connie veritably "freaking-out" over the "Mac n' Cheese Big Daddy Patty Melt"!

The Supremes 1972 "Webb" LP
There is another clue to the song that distances it from 1972. The Supremes open the song indicating the equal footing of both partners. Hell they both cheated! The 1970's are up and running so they both have to face the consequences;

"I don't wanna know about the whole affair
 You don't wanna know about his pretty hair"  

Whilst Connie's version makes all the hurt blissfully hers. Like some really dark Prom date gone wrong. Here she toots:

"I don't wanna know about the whole affair                
I don't wanna hear about her pretty hair"

The focus on her makes more sense to the song and adds a greater direction to her delivery and the overall impact of the performance. She's the real injured party in all this and she's the one that's gonna split to that "motel room" in that Bacharach song. The two versions are like two very different songs. That both are excellent prove the quality of the songwriter.

Webb at his peak

And so a lost gem nudges it's way into the bulging Jimmy Webb canon proving there is more than the classic Campbell/Harris/Houston/Fifth Dimension axis out there. Apart from the bravado and quite unique lyrical risk he employs mixing rich metaphor one minute with direct confession the next, there is another reason for these songs continued and enduring appeal. In the right hands they transcend musical genre. The same song can be taken as pop, soul, cabaret, folk-americana or singer-songwriter material and yet remain, quintessentially Jimmy Webb. For this reason alone I regard him as one of the greatest American songwriters.