Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: BEAT GIRL (1960)

Gillian Hills means business, buster.
The following review was originally written for the unpublished VIDEO WATCHDOG #185.

1959, BFI Flipside, £19.99, PAL BD-B + DVD-1

BEAT GIRL (1960; US title: WILD FOR KICKS) is probably the quintessential British teensploitation picture - but also a good deal more. Directed by a middle-aged man who reportedly didn't understand the material or his young cast, the film clearly took its spin from James Dean and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, but it moves beyond that film's ken to become something moderately ahead of its time: a very early example of the baleful, insolent, aggressively confrontational films of generational divide that would surface near the end of the decade in films like RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (1966), PSYCH-OUT (1967) and WILD IN THE STREETS (1968). It's a bit overdone in places, now and then even laughable, but its camp value is proud cover for an historically revealing depiction of post-war British youth - a product of traumatic times, reviling anything and everything proposed by their parents, absolutely hedonistic yet fearful of real human contact because, the way things are going, no one can really be trusted and it could all be over tomorrow. And make no mistake, one of the reasons the film plays so well today is because we can recognize ourselves in it.

BEAT GIRL has been released by BFI Flipside in the UK in a remarkably thorough set that includes no less than three versions of the film, identified as Theatrical, Alternative and Extended , as well as some rather significant extras. The Theatrical version represents the original UK release version, the Extended adds an introductory scene of the film's two mature newlyweds, Paul (David Farrar of BLACK NARCISSUS) and Nichole (Noelle Adam), and the Alternative adds this scene as well as spicier versions of certain scenes intended for continental release.

Despite the film's title and coffee bar milieu, BEAT GIRL is not really about beatniks, nor even mods and rockers; its young characters are becoming something that (as Jefferson Airplane once sang) hasn't got a name yet. Whatever they may be, it is unmistakably rooted in British post-war experience and the knowledge that anything that has happened before can happen again. Take, for example, this exchange, between Paul (a culturally clueless architect who is ironically designing a city of the future for Third World Countries) and his daughter, the film's pouty heroine Jennifer Linden (Gillian Hills, fresh from Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses):

PAUL: Where do you get your kicks from? Sitting around in cafés, listening to gramophone records? Jiving in underground cellars and caves?
JENNIFER: You are a real square, aren't you?
P: This language! These words! What does it mean?
J: It means us! Something that's ours! We didn't get it from our parents. We can express ourselves and they don't know what we're talking about. It makes us different!
P: Why do you need to feel so different?
J: It's all we've got! Next week - voom! Up goes the world in smoke! And what's the score? Zero! So now, while it's now, we'll live it up! Do everything. Feel everything. Strictly for kicks!

Shirley Ann Field, Gillian Hills and Adam Faith huddle in the underground.
Jennifer and her friends are contemptuous of their elders and express themselves in impressionistic slang - showing its origins in comics ("Voom!"), radio ("Over and out!") and television ("Fade out!") - that feels vaguely science-fictional, post-war yet pre-apocalyptic - or is it more accurately post-apocalyptic with its young survivors embodying, John Wyndham-like, England's inheritance by a new mutant strain? To quote the fractured English of Dave (Adam Faith), a musician resting between songs at the Chiselhurst Caves:

DAVE: Some dump, this is. It's like the war, coming down in the underground. There she was, my old lady, snug as a bedbug in the dark on the floor. That's where she had me. She was bombed-out, so that's where we lived. Just scared rats, underground. That was the first home I ever had. When it was over, I played on the bomb sites, amongst the rats. I'm tellin' you, man, this is a home from home for me. We're like rats, we are - the Rat Race Rock!

Such questions are only amplified by the presence in the supporting cast of Oliver Reed (cast in the film as a favor to his uncle, director Carol Reed) and Shirley-Ann Field, whose respectively unnamed/nicknamed characters - Plaid Shirt and Dodo - avoid one another in their shared scenes much as siblings would normally do, which allows BEAT GIRL to play as an accidental yet perfectly plausible prequel to Joseph Losey's THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1961). Indeed, BEAT GIRL concludes as  THESE ARE THE DAMNED begins, with the introduction of Teddy Boys.

Much as the young characters are depicted as works-in-progress, mutations in flux, dangerously in-between, the music to which they are shown abandoning themselves is not yet rock 'n' roll. John Barry's breakthrough film score (performed by his band The John Barry Seven) is a kind of hellbound jazz with wicked rockabilly accents - not too far afield from the gnarling guitar landscapes of Howard Shore's music for David Cronenberg's CRASH.

From the outset, Dail Ambler's script trivializes the real causes for pain and displacement among its young, citing parental neglect rather than existential uncertainty. Both the Alternative and Extended cuts open with a scene not found in the Theatrical version, which introduces middle-aged Paul and his new bride Nichole (THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN's Noëlle Adam) - in a shared British Railways compartment, their post-marital flirting observed with conservative disdain by fellow travellers and ticket punchers - implying that youth lives wherever it is felt, and is always resented by someone. Without this scene, the Theatrical cut plays more bluntly, and Nichole - who, like Jennifer (raised by a French nanny), is young, blonde and speaks with a Gallic accent - is felt much more as a sudden affront to our protagonist. Jennifer's petulant resentment of her new stepmother leads her to snoop into her past and unveil an embarrassing history of exotic dancing and prostitution. In the course of these investigations, Jennifer ventures into dangerous territory, namely a strip club operated by the tall, spidery-fingered Kenny King (Christopher Lee), who takes a covetous interest in Little Miss Dynamite that is timed to explode in his own face.

Christopher Lee proposes some intimate travel to the Beat Girl.
The above description may make BEAT GIRL sound like grim viewing, but it's actually hot fun from the very first "What ya got?" close-up of our simmering, sullen-faced heroine, after which it explodes into a main titles dance sequence that's equal parts divine and ridiculous, like the best of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, with Oliver Reed embarrassing himself on a dancefloor. Like the notorious Russ Meyer film, part of the balance is over-the-top melodrama but the only sense of humor here is whatever the viewer brings to it. It is fundamentally a serious film, a product of concern over what was happening to British youth and what might become of all that Britain had fought for, yet at the same time an exaggerated commercial exploitation of these fears that its target audience could dance to, laugh at, and flip off.

Director Edmond T. Gréville - a former journalist and critic who had served as an assistant to both Abel Gance and René Clair - would continue to work with Christopher Lee over the next few years on a couple of surprising continental productions, a 1960 remake of THE HANDS OF ORLAC starring Mel Ferrar (himself hot off another Vadim picture, BLOOD AND ROSES) and Antonio Margheriti's THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG aka HORROR CASTLE (1963), which he had a hand in writing. What all of these ventures share in common is a sensationalist edge, expressed in this film by a series of surprisingly torrid striptease acts, evidently impressed upon it by producer George Willoughby (who subsequently went on to co-produce THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP for American International).

Gillian again, dancing to the end of the world with Oliver Reed.
BFI Flipside's two-disc BEAT GIRL set offers three distinct cuts of the film: the UK theatrical release (84m 11s PAL DVD/87m 46s BD), an alternate version with two bonus scenes and softer versions of certain scenes (complete on BD, represented on DVD with 3m of alternate scenes), and an extended version previously issued on DVD including the two bonus scenes and the full-strength versions of the softened sequences (88m 55s PAL DVD/92m 42s BD). The three versions of the film are presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, in English with hard-of-hearing English subtitles, with a PCM mono track on BD and a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track on the DVD9 disc. An accompanying booklet collects a brief reminiscence by Gillian Hills, essays by Vic Pratt (on the film, with quotes from co-star Adam Faith), Johnny Trunk (on Barry's score) and Jo Botting (on Gréville) and notes on the various extras, which offer rewarding context for the main feature.

Aside from the bonus cuts, the most exciting of the supplements is "An Interview with Gillian Hills" (24m 25s PAL DVD/25m 27s BD), in which the still-attractive star proves herself articulate and clear in her recollections of the production, its particulars, and her co-stars, most of whom she sketches with remarkable insight and sensitivity. One only wishes that she had remained available to hold court on the rest of her fascinating career, from her bit parts in BLOW-UP and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to her fuller roles in THE OWL SERVICE mini-series, Hammer's DEMONS OF THE MIND and Georges Franju's La faute de l'abbé Mouret. Some of our readers might be still more impressed by the film short CROSS-ROADS (1955, 18m 31s PAL DVD/19m 18s BD), which relates to BEAT GIRL on two counts: it's about the salacious, exploitative side of show business and features a pre-Hammer top-billed performance by Christopher Lee. Written and directed by John Fitcher, the second half of the film is an extended meeting between Lee and fellow future vampire Ferdy Mayne, which suddenly takes a surprising supernatural twist and delivers the cinema's earliest close-up of Lee's piercing gaze. Also included are a pair of 3m titillation shorts, BEAUTY IN BRIEF (1955) and GOODNIGHT WITH SABRINA ("c.1958" though it looks a bit later to us), in which a couple of busty ladies from our mother or grandmother's generation change clothes and bubble-bathe.

One of the best Blu-ray releases of 2016, BEAT GIRL can be acquired at the other end of this link.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.