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Beat Girl

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Dual Format BD/DVD
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Edmond T. Gréville
Gillian Hills
Adam Faith
David Farrar
Noëlle Adam
Christopher Lee
Bottom Line: 

The Flipside label is the signature moniker attached to a series of dual-format Blu-ray and DVD releases put out by the BFI with the intent of giving a high quality home to some of Britain’s less loved and less revered instances of the art of film. Inaugurated several years ago, the series developed out of a monthly screening slot at London’s Southbank that was set up to provide opportunities for audiences to reappraise previously lost or rarely seen instances of marginal British cinema that, by conventional categorisations, fall outside the accepted cannon of recognised classics. Finally released in 1960, after delays caused by a run-in at the BBFC that resulted in it being slapped with an X-certificate, the latest newly mastered HD release in the revived series is “Beat Girl”: a quintessential piece of late ‘50s British exploitation disguised as a swinging youth movie of the pre-Beatles period. It represents an odd mishmash of period ingredients - with a youth rebellion theme, but a peculiar one to pin down, born as it was of the tempestuous changeability and apparent contingency of the popular music culture of a late-1950s that was apparently supposed to lend the film’s less salubrious content a more credible contemporary context.

Ostensibly, this is a rock ‘n’ roll cash-in movie. Inspired by the success of the 1956 Bill Hayley & His Comets picture “Rock Around the Clock” , it was one of the very first British ones to have its soundtrack released as an LP that managed to reach number 11 in the British album charts. The title sequence establishes the contemporary teen milieu through what turns out to be an edited down version of a sequence repeated later in the movie: Gillian Hills is Jennifer Linden, the ‘Beat Girl’ of the title -- a petulant wild child 16-year-old beatnik. All sulks and moody pouts, wrapped in regulation tight sweater and slacks, framed by a cloud of big hair and dark mascara, pictured frantically jiving with a mixed crowd for ‘kicks’ to The John Barry Seven at the top of the picture in a dingy coffee bar basement. The slender plot is purest melodrama cast in luscious monochrome, courtesy of Free Cinema cinematographer Walter Lassall. Jennifer’s remote, ultra-square architect daddy (ageing, once-renowned Powell and Pressburger alumni David Farrar, now reluctantly slumming it in British b-movies) unexpectedly returns home to his exclusive Kensington abode (with interiors, behind an Edwardian façade, that look like a modernist Ken Adam-designed Bond set) from a business trip in Paris with a brand new, beautiful 24-year-old platinum blonde French bride called Nichole (Noëlle Adam). The resentful neglected daughter, already alienated by her father’s fixation on his model plans for an ultra-futuristic cityscape in which rows and rows of anonymous white tower blocks are to be fenced in by a giant bevelled concrete wall to keep out wind, rain, noise and undesirable people (too much contact with other people is the leading cause of neurosis, apparently), finds solace in hanging out in a Soho coffee bar called The Off Beats with a disparate assemblage of disaffected but good-looking friends that include Shirley Anne Field (“Horrors of the Black Museum” [1959], “Peeping Tom” [1960],  “Saturday Night - Sunday Morning” [1960],  “The Damned” [1961]) and Peter McEnery (“Entertaining Mr Sloane”  [1970], “Tales That Witness Madness” [1973], “Footprints on the Moon” (1975]), descending with them to the lower basement to jive away her alienation from the staid and grey, post-war British society her father represents, despite his plans for a sterile future without grime, filth, noise and 'hustle-&-bustle'.

 By chance Jennifer discovers that Nichole has a connection with a striptease artist called Greta, who works across the road at the sleazy strip joint owned by Machiavellian sleaze-merchant Kenny King (a few days’ work but a memorable turn from a stick insect-like Christopher Lee) and run by the perpetually sweating, ciggie-chewing manager Nigel Green specifically to groom prospective hot young ‘talent’ harvested by Greta from the beatnik café scene across the road as jail bait to be prepped for the stage for the dirty mac brigade who make up the middle-aged clientele at Les Girls. Rebuffing all attempts by her still-youthful French stepmother to bond over shared lifestyle, clothes and an interest in Trad Jazz (“I started smoking when I was fourteen,” Nichole nonchalantly tells a defiantly unimpressed Jennifer, whose developing figure is displayed Lolita fashion in baby doll negligee as she tries to shock with saucy statements calibrated to poke at the marriage, rejecting the older generation’s hypocritical attitude to sexuality -- “Love! That’s the gimmick that makes sex respectable, isn’t it?”), Jennifer goes exploring at Les Girls looking for answers, and discovers all sorts of juicy incriminating gossip about her step mum’s secret pre-married life as a stripper and prostitute in ‘Gay Paree’ that she can use to take spiteful revenge on Nichole for stealing away her father’s already limited supply of attention. Unfortunately, Jennifer is also spotted by Kenny – who plays the role of sympathetic surrogate dad in order to get into the girl’s head and exploit her desire to reject the staid hypocrisies of the older generation in favour of self-expression as a means to try to turn her on to the art of stripping (‘it would be a shame to waste such a nice figure’). When Nichole discovers that Jennifer has been hanging around Les Girls, Kenny also attempts to use the threat of exposing her less than respectable past life to her husband in order to buy Nichole’s silence while he pursues his own designs on the vulnerable sulky beat child.   

One of the first anatomies in British film of the phenomena of the Beatnik movement, this nascent effort turns out to have a rather more innocent and sympathetic attitude to its ostensible subjects than Guy Hamilton’s later 1963 exploitation opus“The Party’s Over” (also an excellent recent Flipside release), by which time the term Beatnik stood not just for “a gimmick from America” that describes disaffected jazz-loving art school deadbeats and dropouts (“hopeless and soapless” is how one of Jennifer’s fellow pupils at Saint Martin’s School of Art cutely describes this eccentric subgroup) but for dangerous, self-destructive, highly impressionable and over-privileged hooligan nihilists, prone to extreme violence. This dark turn is summed up by the young Oliver Reed: In “Beat Girl”, this reckless, razor cheeked youth (in his first screen role) is a brooding plaid-shirted party goer on the fringes of Jennifer’s groovy set. By the time of “The Party’s Over” however, he’s become a charismatic cult leader with Charles Manson-like abilities for getting doped-up Kensington dropouts to cover up murder for him if necessary. Reed’s character in “Beat Girl” becomes a rival for Hills’ photogenic male co-star Adam Faith, who plays the film’s boyishly cool, semi-acoustic strumming, Vince Taylor-mimicking cafe rocker Dave, seen stepping up to perform several pseudo-British rock numbers during the course of the movie, pitched in a tremulous, late-‘50s Billy Fury register but penned for the occasion by Faith’s collaborator at the time John Barry (with lyrics by Trevor Peacock –  the same one, apparently, who later played Jim ‘No, No, No … Yes!’ Trott in “The Vicar of Dibley”). But the fault line in “Beat Girl” between the characters played by Faith and Reed is rather amusingly defined by Dave’s unlikely puritanical disdain for alcohol and fighting, both of which he proclaims to be ‘for squares’ at numerous junctures in the movie. Cut to three years later, and the once-banned Hamilton film (which also sports a swinging early John Barry score) would rather have it that there is apparently no vice these rowdy Beatnik drop-outs wouldn't countenance.

“Beat Girl” documents the beginnings of this change in public perception with regard to youth culture, from it being maybe a slightly silly but essentially harmless fad that will soon pass, to a dangerous threat to the moral order. It features sympathetically rendered party scenes filmed at Chislehurst caves of Jennifer’s disillusioned gang (condemned by her father for wasting its time ‘listening to gramophone records”, and “jiving in underground cellars and caves!”) reflecting on the stultifying conservatism and rigid orthodoxies of the 1950s that appear to offer nothing to their generation other than the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. However, Jennifer’s dangerous sexual allure, heightened still further as she becomes embroiled in the sordid world of striptease, partly in order to embarrass and threaten Nichole, threatens to turn their innocent games sour, driving a hijinks & partying lifestyle of kicks & beats towards evermore dangerous pastimes such as high-speed roadster racing and games of chicken on railway lines that involve trying to be the last to remove one’s head from the path of an on-coming train! Events culminate in Jennifer performing a striptease at an illicit party held at her Pa’s house, unaware that her distraught step mom is still resting upstairs.                

Watching this now, it’s clear that Hills’ performance is pivotal to the film’s success in combining some rather confused but apparently sincere attempts at youth identification with lurid, cynically formulated X-rated striptease material that was probably aimed at a very different audience from the usual teenage market, and which led Time Out to describe the film as being ‘fascinating partly for the sheer prurience of its content’. The on-stage strip scenes at the Soho club, and the backstage depictions of semi-nudity – extremely racy for the time – interrupt the flow of the narrative as frequently as do the pop numbers from Faith and Shirley Anne Field, or the instrumental basement jiving of the John Barry Seven; but Hills’ angsty, sexy, sultry persona stitches it all together rather more seamlessly than the material perhaps deserves thanks to Dail Ambler’s screenplay exploiting a simple conceit: locating The Off Beat coffee bar just across the road from dastardly Christopher Lee’s sleazy strip joint, and creating an unlikely cross-pollination of 'straight-from-the-fridge' Beatnik posturing and exotic, quivering gyration from the likes of Paris’s Crazy Horse saloon stripper Pascaline.

The work of french-born director Edmond T. Greville was becoming renowned for this sort of eroticism, and it seems rather likely that the whole melodrama-and-sex formula inherent to the script pre-dates any particular concern with the British rock scene of 1959. Dail Ambler (the nom de plume of ex-Fleet street journo and ‘50s female hard-boiled pulp fiction writer Betty Mable Lilian Williams, who once wrote gloriously trashy paperbacks with titles such as The Dame Played Rough, and who also penned Lindsay Shonteff’s sleazy 1969 strip-‘n’-slash thriller, “Night, After Night, After Night”) loads the screenplay with references that suggest a much earlier cultural province, that Jennifer might originally have been written as a child of a mid-‘50s that was at the time grounded in the rivalry between aficionados of modern Jazz and the movement of British jazz revivalists who spawned the DIY proto-rock ‘n’ roll genre of Skiffle by combining folk and blues with jazz rhythms, rather than the Teds we see abusing the peaceful Beatniks at the climax. It’s likely that the producers and writers were hedging their bets, since many at the time assumed that the rock ‘n’ roll craze was coming to an end by 1959, to be replaced by the Dixie sounds of Trad Jazz! Even the art direction picks up on all this by decorating the walls of Jennifer’s bedroom, and the coffee bar she and her fiends hang out in, with the covers of jazz records rather than the latest pop hits of Billy Fury or Marty Wilde -- although it is these acts the Jack Good-discovered Adam Faith is being employed to emulate through his good looks and appropriation of the classic British rock ‘n’ roll musical style.  An interesting side note is the ingenious way in which composer John Barry, Faith’s collaborator on early TV rock ‘n’ roll show Drumbeat, bridges the gap between these jazz and later chart pop influences with a title cue that combines rocky guitar twang with bold brassy jazz swing and thus, almost as a by-product, invents the sound of the James Bond theme, first heard a year later on “Dr No”!    

“Beat Girl” is featured in three versions on this BD/DVD double disc edition from the BFI. The British theatrical cut features the full ‘hard’ version of the main striptease sequence, while the alternative cut, prepared for some overseas territories, has a softer version of that scene but also features two extra scenes of exposition, one of them coming immediately after the title sequence and giving some context to the relationship between Paul Linden (David Farrar) and Nichole (Noëlle Adam), as they discuss the marriage and Jennifer's possible reaction to it on the train back to London; while the other reveals Jennifer’s Beatnik lifestyle and love of jazz to be rooted in her idolisation of her dead mother, a jazz singer pictured in a book about Dixieland jazz that Jennifer shows Nichole. The third extended version is a hybrid that combines the longer saucier strip sequences with the missing scenes of exposition.

Gillian Hills is the heart of “Beat Girl” and one of British cinema’s unsung cult heroines. Despite her ‘introducing’ credit in this film, she first appeared in Roger Vadim’s scandalous “Les liaisons dangereuses” at the age of fourteen. She returned to France for a brief career as a pop chanteuse that included the obligatory duet with Serge Gainsbourg, before returning to cinema in order to appear Zelig-like on the edges of a number of classics such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up”,Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, Peter Sykes’ “Demons of the Mind” and Spanish-Italian giallo “The Killer Wore Gloves”, as well as the cult Granada Television adaptation of Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”. Hills recalls her career and her experience of making “Beat Girl” both in a brand new 25 minute interview and a written introduction to the release’s accompanying booklet, which also features an entertaining essay by BFI National Archive curator Vic Pratt; Trunk records founder Jonny Trunk’s assessment of John Barry’s very first film score; and a biography of director Edmond T. Gréville by Jo Botting - along with credits and publicity stills from the period. Also included on the disc are several relevant, context-setting short movies. Two of them take us back to the world of 1950s striptease – 1955’s coy “Beauty in Brief” (4 mins) from Pin-Up productions (an under-the-counter series of 8 and 16mm shorts) and a 3 minute colour short featuring the home life of Arthur Askey discovery (?!), voluptuous model Sabrina - shot in her own luxury flat! The most interesting extra here though is a British-made one reel black-and-white supernatural short from 1955 starring Christopher Lee that offers an early example of his ability to exude magnetic, smouldering sexy menace on screen. Lee plays the avenging brother of a dead actress called Susan Cooper. The twist is that brother and sister died together in an automobile accident as Lee was rushing his overdosing sister to hospital, prompted by the discovery that she had been made pregnant as a result of shady impresario Ferdy Mayne's casting couch activities. In the space of twenty minutes Lee gets the chance to play the romantic lead during a tender flirtation with Mercy Haystead - a female joy rider who offers him a lift to what transpires is an appointment with the man he blames for his sister's demise - then a more familiar role, during an encounter that reveals Lee to be something other than totally of this world. There is a close-up shot of his burning, hypnotic eyes during this scene that memorably anticipates his persona as Dracula three years later.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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