Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Quirky Crime Jazz of Michel Magne

Melodie en Sous Sol / Un Singe en Hiver

Michel Magne


Les Tontons Flingueurs /
Ne Nous Fachons Pas

Michel Magne / Bernard Gerard

One of the great French film composers, Michel Magne (Fantomas, OSS 117) scored his fair share of classic '60s flicks, and Universal has released several of them on a handful of compilations.

A recent Magne double bill from Universal pairs his jazz-tinged score for Henri Verneuil's heist drama Melodie en Sous Sol (aka Any Number Can Win, '63) and his more exotic work for Verneuil's Un Singe en Hiver (aka A Monkey in Winter, '62).

When Magne teamed with Verneuil he was in his early 30s and already displaying a penchant for unconventional orchestration (prepared piano, bursts of percussion) and catchy melodies. In the main theme for Monkey the composer juxtaposes expressive Oriental lute and percussion with sections for solo harmonica against lush strings. The Oriental and harmonica bits reoccur throughout the score, juxtaposed with baroque strings ("Yang Tse Kiang"), Spanish guitar and Mariachi brass ("Corrida Ethylique"), Argentinian accordion and tango tempo ("Pekin-Buenos Aires") and jazz trio ("China Jazz Hot").

For Any Number, Magne favored a big band jazz sound bolstered with swinging string sections ("Palm Beach"), but also explored a glamorous orchestral sound featuring regal brass, chorus and cascading piano chords ("Hymne a L'argent"). The high drama supplied by strings and earthy tones of the jazzier sections is reminiscent of Alex North's score for Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire ('51). The main theme is a scorcher, enflamed by crashing percussion and blaring brass. For Magne's more eccentric side check out "Hold Up (Part 2)," which starts with scraping pizzicato strings and what sounds like a Theremin before swinging away into beat jazz. It's cool, daddy-o.

The Number/Monkey CD closes with jazz organ legend Jimmy Smith's classic take on "Any Number Can Win" as well as a couple of Fred Pallem's unusual modern mixes of themes from both films.

An earlier Universal CD that celebrates the films of Georges Lautner juxtaposes Magne's scores for the action crime comedy Les Tontons Flingeurs (aka Monsieur Gangster, '63), action comedy thriller Les Barbouzes (aka The Great Spy Chase, '64), comedy spy thriller Le Monocle Rit Jaune (aka The Monocle's Sour Laugh, '64) and the crime drama Galia ('66) alongside Bernard Gerard's scores for the crime comedy Ne Nous Fachons Pas (aka Let's Not Get Angry, '66) and the crime drama La Grande Sauterelle ('67).

Among the Magne highlights is the crime jazz of "Route de Nuit," the playfully eccentric "Tamoure," the early rock 'n' roller "Tamoure Hully-Gully," the Western trotter "Barbouzes en Folie," the episodic and atmospheric "Du Rififi au chateau," the modal jazzer "Le Monocle Rit Jaune," the musically comedic "Monocle Story," the Bach-like Swingle Singers showcase "Largo," and the West Coast-style jazzer "Piege Party."

For his part, Gerard provides a big sky Western theme for Ne Nous Fachons Pas, a bit of baroque jazz ("Ballade Romantique"), some slick '60s surf rock ("Rosbif Attack"), a "Gloria" rip-off ("Akou," featuring an English language vocal by Graeme Allwright) and tense theme combining fuzz guitar, strings and drums for La Grande Sauterelle as well as a full throttle fuzz guitar rocker for the same picture ("Mechoui").

All told, these Universal discs display Magne's penchant for experimental flourish as well as the under-heralded film work of Bernard Gerard.

This review previously appeared on the author's site

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