Saturday, April 10, 2010

Great minds ...

(Misleading Italian poster for Big Deal on Madonna Street, right)

I was excited when Donald Westlake called the 1958 Italian heist movie Big Deal on Madonna Street a post-graduate workshop for comedy writers and lamented that future Americans might miss similar opportunities to absorb and learn from foreign influences. "New writers' brains are not being mulched in this way," Westlake said. "What will be produced by people who think a good time is Spiderman?"

Among other things, Big Deal...'s absurd caper gone wrong, its odd anti-climax, and its affection for its gang of robbers may have inspired Westlake's own Dortmunder novels. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when I found the following exchange in Harvey Pekar's Our Movie Year (you'll have to imagine the drawings):
Joyce: How's this Big Deal on Madonna Street?

Harvey: Oh, that's great. It's got Vittorio Gassman an' Marcello Mastroianni in it ... it's one of the best comedies I've ever seen.

Joyce: You've seen it before?

Harvey: Yeah, but it's been a long time. Take it out. I'll enjoy it again.
Among the many pleasures of Pekar's comics are that the man takes art seriously, and he has impeccable taste. These days, the former is even more important than the latter, I'd say.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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26 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

Great movie, Peter. It's on YouTube, under its Italian name.

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

I've never heard of the film but it looks great! I do like Harvey Pekar & American Splendor, though. Loved him on Dave' Mr Smug' Letterman too

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Donna said...

Oooooh Peter - thanks for bringing this one to my attention. Anything recommended by Donald Westlake is fine by me :o)

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, solo. I should add for everyone's benefit that that YouTube version includes English subtitles. What a marvelous comedy, right from the opening credits. Even the music is a fine parody of crime-movie music at the time.

Hmmm, I wonder when the fashion for exciting, jazzy scores began. This movie came out before "Anatomy of a Murder."

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, you should look online for an article by Pekar about Letterman and Bill Hicks. That dissects Letterman nicely, and, unlike Letterman's own treatment of his guests, seriously. (Once again, I don't single Letterman out. He is only slightly more grating than Leno, Colbert and probably all the others I haven't seen.)

One could do worse than to use Pekar's "American Splendor" as a guide to literature and music. The man thrives on good art, he thinks about it seriously, and he's no snob. I haven't seen him write about crime fiction, though, but that's about his only lapse.

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Donna, I think you'll like this movie. (Westlake says, in championing "Big Deal on Madonna Street," that the movie business is going to hell in a hand basket.)

I like Westlake's books as much as many readers do, but I also like his thoughtful interviews, prefaces, and other miscellaneous bits. He thought carefully and seriously about important subjects, a fact easy to miss amid his breezy manner.

April 10, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Hmmm, I wonder when the fashion for exciting, jazzy scores began. This movie came out before "Anatomy of a Murder."

Peter, I suspect one of the films Monicelli was parodying was the Jacques Becker film Touchez pas au grisbi with Jean Gabin. That was made in 1954 and has a nice jazzy score. That's just an opening suggestion. I'm sure someone else can trace jazzy scores in crime films much earlier than that.

The link is to the trailer. Unfortunately, the full film is not on YouTube anymore.

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Imagine a trailer of that length today. I've always liked that title, "Touchez paz au grisbi." Thanks.

This article about jazz in movies has much of interest to say. It appears jazz has been part of movies from their beginning, of crime movies since the early 1930s and a predominant element of crime-movie scores since the early 1950s.

April 10, 2010  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Not really on topic, but have you seen the clip of Stuart Neville on Craig Ferguson's show?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpH5b2fgAFw

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I watched the show and made a post beforehand with comments during and after. What did you think of the appearance?

You’ll see from that post and the comments that followed that I’m divided in this matter. Craig Ferguson deserves props for having a number of crime authors on his show (and for buying an option for the movie rights to Ghosts of Belfast/The Twelve). Exposure is good. And the interplay about the IRA being understood without ever being mentioned was interesting.

On the other hand, the discussion could have been so much better if Craig Ferguson were a serious person broadcasting a show for a serious audience.

April 10, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

That's an interesting article in Jazz Times, Peter, but it doesn't answer your question about the first all jazz score in the movies. That Sweet Marijuana
song in Murder at the Vanities is amusing, though, given later ideas about 'reefer madness.'

A lot of 30s and 40s movies had jazz numbers but not necessarily jazz scores. It would take someone more knowledgeable about movies than I am to tell you the first crime movie with a jazz score.

My favourite jazz number in a movie is the one in Phantom Lady (1944) with Elisha Cook Jnr on the drums (Joseph Breen must have been taking a nap when this one was submitted to the Production Code). Interestingly, Elisha had a bit part three years earlier in the Howard Hawks directed Ball of Fire
which had a real-life drummer in Gene Krupa. I think Elisha learned a thing or two from that experience.
Not a black face to be seen in either scene, though.

I watched the Neville interview on YouTube. I'd never seen Craig Ferguson before but he seems to be typical of modern day chat show hosts. Guests are merely props to allow the host to crack wise. If you're a guest, you sacrifice your dignity for the sake of the publicity. Stuart could have sent along a plastic, inflatable version of himself and it would have done just as well.

Back on the subject of I Soliti Ignoti, I can understand your appreciation of that movie. There aren't many parody films that better the films they parody. I think that's one.

April 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting article in Jazz Times, Peter, but it doesn't answer your question about the first all jazz score in the movies. That Sweet Marijuana song in Murder at the Vanities is amusing, though, given later ideas about 'reefer madness.'

Well, I was less interested in pinning down the first jazz score than in getting an idea of when it occurred to movie makers to build a score entirely or mainly of jazz. And you're right about reefer madness. I was interested in the statement that scorers would use jazz to indicate madness. We probably have a rough idea of what that meant -- clanging cymbals, screaming clarinets, and the like.

My favourite jazz number in a movie is the one in Phantom Lady (1944) with Elisha Cook Jnr on the drums (Joseph Breen must have been taking a nap when this one was submitted to the Production Code).

Oh, yeah, he maintains a tense expression when he bangs those skins. He reminds me a bit of Robert Walker during the tennis match in Strangers On a Train. In re black faces, I wonder if Anatomy of a Murder blazed a trail in acknowledging that jazz was not exclusively white music, as odd as Duke Ellington's cameo appearance was. Ella Fitzgerald's appearance in Pete Kelley's Blues in 1955 may be worth a mention here, too.

I watched the Neville interview on YouTube. I'd never seen Craig Ferguson before but he seems to be typical of modern day chat show hosts. Guests are merely props to allow the host to crack wise.

Yep.

Back on the subject of I Soliti Ignoti, I can understand your appreciation of that movie. There aren't many parody films that better the films they parody. I think that's one.

That's an astute observation.. Rififi (1955) is often as a classic caper film, in which "Four men plan a technically perfect crime, but the human element intervenes," according to a discussion I just found. Big Deal on Madonna Street betters it on both counts.

April 10, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I love the Orson Welles movie Touch of Evil(1958) beyond all measure but I think its opening scene is over-rated. Over-rated simply because it was done in one take.

It's tempting to imagine that when Welles was toiling away in Venice, LA. trying to nail down that one take, that on the very same night, thousands of miles away in Rome, Monicelli was filming the opening of I Soliti Ignoti(1958).

There are many cuts in Monicelli's opening scene but they don't detract in the slightest from the pleasure of that scene. Of the two scenes, I'd rate Moncelli's opening better than the one in Touch of Evil.

April 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a provocative statement. It would take a deliberate setting aside of preconceptions and received critical opinion to see the opening of "Touch of Evil" with fresh eyes.

The bit of technical wizardry that stays with me from "Touch of Evil" is the succession of music from the different bars as Vargas, I guess it was, walks down the street.

April 11, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

I hadn't thought of that before, but yes you're right. Pekar does have impeccable taste. Its not something one can acquire really is it?

April 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if one can acquire it, but the tendency in Pekar's stories is gradual. He always wrote about jazz and Russian literature, for example, but in the "Movie Year" stories, he writes about his meeting with Alan Moore, he mentions "Big Deal on Madonna Street," and he discusses a few rock musicians, among other things. And he'll depict himself talking about television series about Western art or the history of English. His interests, in other words, now seem similar to my own.

April 12, 2010  
Anonymous marco said...

now seem similar to my own

Ah, but who introduced you to Alan Moore? And you're not really interested in rock musicians. You favor Irish ballads over Rock songs.

Adrian, acquiring impeccable taste would put you even more out of step with popular culture. Better to remain a boganized mick.

v-word:flores

April 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may have introduced me to Alan Moore. You or Adrian or Brian Lindenmuth.

My view of rock music may be a bit more nuanced than you say. I have, after all, expressed admiration on this blog for the Clash, the Bobby Fuller Four and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." In general, though, my compliment to Harvey Pekar stands. He has excellent taste without recognizing boundaries between high and low -- an impressive catholicity of taste, you might say.

My favorite couplet pertaining to flores is from a song by the Brazilian/Canadian musician Celso Machado, about a sailor's jaunty farewell:

"Deixo um raminho de flores
Pra cada um dos meus amores."


"I'll leave a bouquet of flowers
For each one of my loves."

From that second line, one would think that sailors were randy sorts, though this one has a sentimental side as well.

April 13, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Hmmm, I wonder when the fashion for exciting, jazzy scores began.

For what it's worth, Peter, there's an article in Wikipedia on Alex North that claims that his jazz-based score for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 was the first such score in Hollywood. I would have expected it to be earlier. Of course, that tells us nothing about non-Hollywood films.

April 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would have expected a date right around 1951, perhaps because that cool, spare, fast-paced sound is the kind I most associated with movies. I know nothing about earlier styles of jazz and their use in movies.

I do know that some of Duke Ellington's earlier music sounds a bit like what came around later. I wonder if his music figured in movies before its splashy role in "Anatomy of a Murder."

April 13, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

Love the movie, - own the dvd,- and love the jazz score.

And if you love crime movies with great jazz scores, you really must see 'Odds Against Tomorrow', which has a beautifully bleak, spare score by Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis.
The movie's pretty good, too, with Robert Ryan at the top of his game.

As for 'Big Deal', isn't Claudia Cardinale a stunner?.
And anybody who loved Toto in the film, try and catch Pasolini's 'Hawks and Sparrows'

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had not heard of that movie, but you give a tantalizing advertisement. I hope Robert Ryan plays a villain or at least a scary good guy.

Yep on Claudia Cardinale, and thanks for the Toto tip. I did enjoy his performance in "Big Deal on Madonna Street." I know he has a big reputation as a comedian, but I know nothing about any of his other performances.

May 15, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

Ryan's character is something of a reprise of his 'Crossfire' character.
When you do get to see 'Odds', I'm sure youu'll spot what movie its ending surely was an homage to.

'H&S' isn't a crime movie, but its a fascinating mixture of surreal road movie/cum wisecracking Marxist philosophising
I seem to recall Toto being upstaged by a talking crow, but he gives him a run for his money

btw, been in town today and just picked up Declan Hughes latest, a Declan Burke, and a James Lee Burke
(who I don't think I've ever read)

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

btw, been in town today and just picked up Declan Hughes latest, a Declan Burke, and a James Lee Burke

I ought to check a list of Robert Ryan's movies to see which ones I've seen.

You ought to read Alafair Burke any other Burkes and Declans you can think of, and if you can't find any more Declans, you could at least listen to some Elvis Costello records while you read.

May 15, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I have read Edmund Burke on the French Revolution; I passed by his statue in front of Trinity College today,- both before and after buying the Burke books, - and my first science teacher was a Brother Burke.

Declan McManus' 'Shipbuilding' is a favourite song of mine; I've a cousin called Declan - not the 'My Perfect Cousin' of Undertones fame, though.

Ryan is a popular name in Tipperary, my home county.

I think thats enough 'connections' for one post

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, Edmund Burke. Now, there's a conservative I could probably do business with.

May 16, 2010  

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