While also known as an arranger for jazz crooner Jula de Palma, Gianni Ferrio's occasional film output followed the path of genres that were in vogue in Italy from the sixties to the seventies: spaghetti westerns, gialli, and crime thrillers, with a rare dabble in sex comedy, and fantasy, like the 1971 Omar Sharif version of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (released on CD by that bedeviled label, Tsunami).
In the giallo realm, Ferrio met his match with Luciano Ercoli, the nutty writer-director of the Susan Scott- Simón Andreu triptych Le Foto proibite di una signora per bene / Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), La Morte Accarezza A Mezzanotte / Death Walks on High Heels (1971), and La Morte accarezza a mezzanotte / Death Walks at Midnight (1972).
Ferrio's score for Midnight is gentle, funky, luxurious, and far too brief; with the exception of key main theme renditions, there's material that could easily have been spun off into long-form cues with lots of rhythmic foreplay or jazz improv, but what's on the album is largely memorable and guaranteed to please fans of funk-lounge music.
Like Lalo Schifrin, Ferrio's style is clean, organized, and melodic, although a number of cues also show inspiration from Quincy Jones.
A vocal version of "Valentina (Contrulce)" starts the film and album (also released by Easy Tempo as a 2-LP set), and it's a gorgeous use of wordless female vocals (by Mina), alternating male vocals (cooing "Va-len-tee-nah"), and selective instrumentation that shifts the cue's timbre from sad to wistful. The parallels to Quincy Jones are evident even in this version, particularly when set beside Jones' underrated music for John and Mary (1969).
A female voice dances around a smooth trumpet and undulating strings, and the male vocals repeat her name just before drums start a new rhythmic pattern and propel the cue, with a three-note motif alternating between a supportive and plaintive element. The expressive female voice - breathy, and longing - becomes tragic when the soloist shifts octaves, with trumpet carrying the melody while the vocalist goes for jazz-styled pleas.
Ferrio's stereo design positions each component in very precise areas: male vocals coo from the right, the female soloist croons from the centre, and a dub vocal track layers her material in the cue's final third, on the left side.
A second rendition, "Valentina (Ritratto di una Ragazza),"isolates the interplay between trumpet and strings, and benefits from a slower tempo, and warm vibes carrying the "Va-len-tee-nah" vocals. The master tapes shows some subtle distortion, but the clarity of the stereo recording reveals a lot of detail absent from the mono mix-down used for the film, including a faint cello. The album also features a gentle chamber string orchestra intro in "Valentina (Una Ragazza Inquieta), and a low-key, classical brass version in the short "Valentina (Idee Confuse)," which recalls a similarly arranged version of the Quincy Jones-Alan & Marilyn Bergman song, "Maybe Tomorrow," from John and Mary.
Ferrio and director Ercoli use the Valentina's theme to accent Susan Scott's character - a fashion model dragged into a sleazy murder plot, while her boyfriend mines her pretty face for some photos and exploitive copy. Like most giallo films, plot often doesn't matter, and what makes Midnight such a crazy experience is the comedic aspects Ercoli applies to many scenes, including the violence. Maybe the director recognized the chemistry between the attractive leads could be furthered by stylizing this giallo entry, because Ferrio's suspense cuts are pretty tongue-in-cheek.
A major stylistic ingredient in Italian music of the era is the electric organ, and Ferrio mines the instrument for every funky vibe and comedic overtone he can squeeze from its electric bellows; it may not dominate the score's suspense theme - a rhythm-heavy phrase with electric bass & kick-drum - but it's a coloration that perfectly matches the film's modish furniture, colours, and cars.
When menacing, as in "La Morte Accarezza a Mezzanotte (Valentina)," Ferrio adds male and female vocals screaming melodic fragments; it's a notable modification from Quincy Jones' use of the Don Elliott Singers, which the composer featured as a larger and more influential component in scores like $ (Dollars) and The Hot Rock. Ferrio's vocals are more strained, and really convey the image of a final scream as the life of the film's first victim is bludgeoned from her head by a three-pronged gauntlet (a chief tool of torment in Mario Bava's nasty Sei Donne per l'assassino / Blood and Black Lace).
Ferrio drags the vocals over several bars, while the murderer's taunting is given a slick, cool bass beat, and a multitude of color effects from rattles, alternating brass sections, and piano flourishes accent Susan Scott's surreal ability to 'see' through the killer's eyes as he kills. On one level, the cue shows Ferrio's skill in applying jazz minutia to fit a dramatic scene - the man was no hack who dabbled in films insincerely - but it also shows the sexed-up style Ercoli maintained in this kooky film.
Intentional or not, the best moment of tension-plus-comedy in the film has Scott bursting from a mansion after she finds a man dead, and running through streets like a shell-shocked peacock. Ercoli's camera favors Scott's long legs and high heels, and her bird-like motions are underscored with a dominant organ in "Valentina (Tra la Folla)." Unlike the melancholy so exquisitely conveyed in the title track, Ferrio funks up the theme with close-miked electric bass and thumping syncopated drums, with the bassist fingering a groovy undertow under the theme rendition on harp. Ferrio makes his strings swell forward and back like a luxurious wind, and after short side-bursts from the organ, he lets the organist improv for a few bars before the cue comes to a too-soon end. Functionally, the cue kineticizes the sequence; but aesthetically, it heightens the ridiculousness of Scott's ongoing plight as she keeps encountering dead people and weird suspicious figures.
It's not quite bathos, because we've already seen her wiggle out of danger with semi-amusement from herself and her sleazy boyfriend, but Ferrio's music clinches an absurd, sometimes laughable style that Ercoli maintained in Midnight, and Death Walks on High Heels (effectively scored by Stelvio Cipriani, and released on CD by DigitMovies).
The score does repeat the main theme a heck of a lot, but Ferrio's variations are more skillful than the minor retouches Cipriani utilized for his High Heels theme. "Valentina (Un po' di Tenerezza)" uses solo violin for the melodic line, yet the timbre Ferrio employs is very tragic; even the organ take-over that follows isn't upbeat. There's a distinct sincerity to Ferrio's cues, and while he may have recognized the silliness of Ercoli's oversexed story, it's the music that keeps the film mostly grounded.
"Il Viaggio" is more straight underscore, but it's an unusual use of stereo imaging of two distinct levels of dissonance: abstract patterns, vocals, and theme fragments on the left side, and alternative dissonance on the right side, pulling the listener in opposite directions. Like Cipriani's music for Bay of Blood, the score was composed and recorded in stereo, and it's clear the composer treated the stereo image with extra care not just so the sonics wouldn't clash, but to achieve additional oomph in case the film was released in stereo.
(This certainly brings up one option that film music fans must have pondered: if the stereo stems exist and are identical to the cues in the final mix, why not create a new stereo mix that improves upon the mono mixes which, for exploitation films, often felt like hasty multi-language mixes recorded simultaneously under a tight schedule and tighter budget? While costly, the reasoning may also lie in separate rights holders for the master music and mix-down versions, or more complex vagaries of music ownership.)
Easy Tempo's album contains what appears to be the full score, plus several source cues that play in a dance club, and two previously unreleased alternate takes that are evenly balanced between the other chronological master takes. It's still a repetitive album (and one lacking any bio notes on the composer), but it's a memorable collection of variations that would work extremely well as the basis for a re-recorded album with meaty jazz improvs & solos.
A decent amount of Ferrio's material exists on CD, including La Morte Risale A Ieri Sera / Death Occurred Last Night (1970) and Amico, Stammi Lontano Almeno Un Palmo / Ben and Charlie (1972) from DigitMovies, and Una Farfalla Con Le Ali Insanguinate / The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) and Tony Arzenta (1973) from Easy Tempo.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan