Saturday, 17 July 2010

Beat Girl (1959)

This odd, lurid, often terrible, occasionally compelling film is one of the first attempts by British cinema to tackle youth culture on something like its own terms, anticipating the eruptive coming decade. It suffers, like most such early efforts did, from a gruesome mixture of patronisation and misconception, blended with some of the familiar grit of ‘50s British noir. It’s chiefly worth remembering, if at all, for John Barry’s jazz-pop score. Barry had been writing and arranging songs for young pop singer Adam Faith, and Faith's being cast in this film seems to have drawn Barry in his wake. His work here is a definite precursor in both sound and stylishness to his rendition of the James Bond theme: the main theme’s blaring urgency, scoring an opening credits sequence in which young Jennifer Linden (future yé-yé pop starlet Gillian Hills) cavorts with abandon in a cramped underground club amongst dozens of dubiously jiving Britons, promises a down and dirty melodrama of the finest vintage. Beat Girl is however neither go-for-broke trash nor attempted social realism now turned cultural relic, but a strange mixture of the two, with added elements of musical, gangster film and soft-core exploitation flick.

When middle-aged architect Paul Linden (David Farrar) returns from a jaunt to Paris with a new wife, Nichole (Noelle Adam), a former dancer in her mid-twenties, he hopes she’ll be a calming, bridging influence with his sullen teenaged daughter Jennifer. But the time he’s spent abroad has given Jennifer the opportunity to delve deeper into the nascent Beatnik scene in London, hanging out with her fellow emotional refugees and bourgeois escapees in coffee bars and underground dance clubs and appropriated cellars. She’s calculatingly disrespectful to her father, whom she perceives as an aloof, alienated prig, although it’s clear he’s found something like intense sexual fulfilment with the chic-seeming Nichole, whom Jennifer dismisses as a pretty dullard. Jennifer, offended by Nichole’s efforts to take an interest in her life and pretences to being hip, gets a scent of exploitable scandal and soon discovers that Nichole worked as a stripper and part-time prostitute in Paris, thanks to a chance encounter with one of her former colleagues who now works in the strip-joint of Kenny King (Christopher Lee). Jennifer tries to make Nichole jump through her hoops with her new-found power, and also seems intrigued by the atmosphere of King’s joint and the transgressive thrills it represents.

Jennifer’s cabal of close, jargon-spouting friends encompasses guitar-strumming Dave (Faith), and fellow emotionally bereft slummers Dodo (Shirley-Anne Field) and Tony (Peter McEnery). Faith’s character, the purest of these hipster-headed angels, is defined by his spindly, angular alienation, speaks in almost nothing but oracular scene lore (“Alcohol is for squares, man!”) and sometimes takes time out to wow the crowds with his bad lip-synching to shitty faux-rock, or, occasionally, actually performing said shitty faux-rock. Efforts to reproduce authentic jive talk are predictably horrendous (“Great dad – straight from the fridge!”). Field gets a song number too, which may require the less patient to wield the remote control. But there’s a conceptual keenness in places, and a prognosticative accuracy about aspects of both the then-current and future manifestations of youth culture that suggests a good film lurking within this mess.

In the best scene, they hang out with fellow urban refugees in a cellar turned nightspot, rude brick walls lit by thousands of candles. Dave and Tony share, in a moment of confessional angst, their memories of childhoods defined by the Blitz, Dave having come into the world in an air raid shelter, Tony having lost his mother to a V-1, and growing up playing amongst the bomb ruins. The almost neo-realist look and feel of this moment helps capture a kind of accidental poetry in the lifestyle on show: a youth culture springing out of the calamity of war, driven underground and kept there by a world rebuilt by the Paul Lindens, which offers few sensual or emotional niches. Linden is defined by his planned “city of the future”, a lovingly bland, modernistic eyesore with all the blemishes and uncleanness carefully left out of his grand scheme for the future, a scheme Jennifer rejects and which the likes of Dave perceives as inevitably doomed.

Unfortunately the film doesn’t sustain that kind of insight. The confused reading of Beat as another antisocial youth fad a stone’s throw away from more traditional forms of low-life bohemianism is the essence of square. Plain galling is the dirty-old-man’s automatic association of the faint glimmerings of feminine self-realisation and yearning for independent erotic expression as displayed by Jennifer, with urban vice and sticky-magazine sexuality. The story moves uneasily between the domestic melodrama of the Lindens, the odyssey-like vibe of the young hipsters’ search for kicks and meaning, and the quasi-gangland scene of King and his circle, which resolves in a somewhat poorly prepared climax of jealous murder and mistaken identity. It's all as if director Edmond T. Gréville never really sat down to decide what kind of film he wanted to make.

One sequence, in which Dave speeds his car through the night with maniacal disinterest in the safety of himself and his passengers, including an exultant Jennifer, does anticipate the night-ride sequence in A Clockwork Orange with surprising immediacy. Gréville and writer Dail Ambler do, however, pointedly contrast the Beat kids, especially Adam with his pacifistic credo, with the violent, anarchic Teddy Boys, and there’s something real about the way they portray the gangland sleazes, like King and his offsider Simon (Nigel Green), trying to take advantage of the youth scene to fatten their wallets and please their libidos; the climax involves Lee, always an actor possessing an unnerving mix of aristocratic grace and potent sexuality, commencing a seduction of Jennifer, trying to turn her own glaze of disaffection and self-pronounced experience to his own advantage. Beat Girl could only have been more accurately predictive of some of the grimmer bottom-feeders of the coming counterculture if they’d seen the drug scene coming.

Beat Girl was a very racy film for 1959, and several of its saucy striptease scenes, including one blindingly sexy dance from Laya Rakis, were edited out of original prints. There’s also a level of frankness in lines like, “Love…that’s the gimmick that makes sex respectable, isn’t it?” as Jennifer asks Nichole sarcastically at one point, that’s quite impressive for the time and place. Hills’ debut performance, constantly testing the patience and idealism of her elders and the mettle of her generational fellows, is a good study in that kind of grating, affected hard-as-nails, prematurely world-weary attitude. It’s worth noting however that the film’s sexual politics are actually incredibly conservative and reactionary. Jennifer’s dabbling with sexual expression has already built to a head when, having defeated Dave’s semi-flirtatious attempts to shatter her cool in playing games of chicken with cars and trains, she then begins to strip for the assembled hipsters who have invaded the Linden’s coldly featureless house. When Linden comes upon this, he explodes in repressive patriarchal fury, and throws the beatniks out; he is of course “saving” her from humiliating herself in the name of defying decency. But the film’s incapacity to suggest Jennifer’s search for sensual liberation is anything other than dangerous and shameful helps turns the film into just another fatherly fantasy: the film finally validates Linden as the real source of strength and security, whilst other women are used as the surrogates to show off their flesh and fulfil the sexual fantasy on hand. Paul does however have to wrestle with his horror at discovering Nichole’s sordid history, hypocritical considering it’s been made plain he married her for sexual compatibility.

It’s this sort of pussyfooting around an interesting concept by an ill-focused script that keeps the film from going anywhere dangerous or incisive, and the downright clumsy musical sequences, weak editing, and uneven acting doesn’t help. Noelle Adam’s utterly horrible performance is a real drag, exacerbated by her obvious discomfort with English dialogue, but that doesn’t excuse her total lack of expression or nuance, and Faith, who had some cred as a pop star at the time, is unconvincing in trying to work up a Brando or Dean-esque volatility. Gréville went on to film a remake of The Hands of Orlac, also featuring Lee, but his work here is for the most part tame and awkward; only the suitably syncopated cutting in a repeated, amended version of the opening's nightclub dance, alternating between the gyrations of the crowd and close-ups of the fingers of the instrumentalists, captures any feeling for the ecstatic release and rhythmic intensity of a nocturnal party scene. It’s worth noting that an incredibly young Oliver Reed can be glimpsed in this scene, dancing with Hills. It's a big hunk of cheese, but if you can stick it out, Beat Girl does have it small rewards and tantalising touches.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just watched the film. Enjoyed your response. Thanks for writing it.