Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sweet Love, Bitter (aka It Won't Rub Off, Baby!) (1967) It's Noirsville, Baby!

paean to bebop jazz. A Jazz Noir.

We have our Noir protagonists as detectives, femme fatales, newspaper reporters, truck drivers, wronged men, railroad workers, amnesiacs, the falsely accused, victims of circumstances, revenge seekers, gangsters, hit men, prisoners, telephone electricians, armored car drivers, ex cons, sailors, insurance salesmen gone bad, drifters, ex cops, bad cops, nut jobs, killers, hitch-hikers, kids looking in windows, writers, promoters, boxers, hash house owners, floozies, carnies, doctors, postal workers, secretaries, serial killers, housewives, radio program hosts, prostitutes, taxi drivers, and in this a jazz musician.

The film is based on the novel "Night Song" by John A. Williams, which itself was loosely based on the last years of the life of jazz great Charlie (Bird) Parker. The film is an eloquent portrait of the 1960's jazz scene. Though the story takes place in New York, the film was partly shot with Philadelphia, filling in for NYC. No matter it's all Noirsville.

"(Charlie) Parker was an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, personifying the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just an entertainer." (source Wikipedia)

There is a very small sub genre of Classic Film Noirs and also Biographies or "true story based" films that have a quasi noir vibe, I call them Bio Noir's. Films such as Dillinger (1945), Young Man with a Horn (1950), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), I Want To live (1958), Baby Face Nelson (1957), and Neo Noirs In Cold Blood (1967), The Honeymoon Killers (1970), Lenny (1974) and Raging Bull (1980). There are probably a few others out there.

Sweet Love, Bitter shadows Charlie 'Bird' Parker's story arc through the fictitious tale of Richie 'Eagle' Stokes, a quasi famous bebop sax player, who's life is a series of flying highs and gutter lows, boozin', geezin', screwing, and blowin'. He's got a jive ass crumb for manager whose sole qualification is that he used to sell zoot suits, a pusher who keeps him buzzed, and friends who give him shelter from the storm. When he's out of doe he panhandels, puts the touch on his admiring devotees, or pawns his saxophones.

Produced by Lewis Jacobs. Directed by Herbert Danska known for, The Gift (1962), and  Right on! (1970). Written by Herbert Danska, and Lewis Jacobs. The cinematography was by Victor Solow, and the soundtrack was by American jazz pianist Mal Waldron and his Orchestra, with Charles McPherson ghosting for Dick Gregory.

Richie 'Eagle' Stokes (Dick Gregory)
Keel Robinson (Robert Hooks)
David Hillary (Don Murray)
Della (Diane Varsi)
The film stars Dick Gregory, an African-American comedian, civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur and a perennial guest on countless talk shows during the 1960s, Robert Hooks (Trouble Man (1972)), Don Murray (A Hatful of Rain (1957), The Hoodlum Priest (1961), Twin Peaks TV Series (2017– ), Diane Varsi (Bloody Mama (1970), Johnny Got His Gun (1971)), Jeri Archer, Osborne Smith, George Wilshire, Bruce Glover (Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965), Chinatown (1974)), Leonard Parker (Malcolm X (1992)), John Randolph (The Naked City (1948), Fourteen Hours (1951), Seconds (1966), Serpico (1973), Prizzi's Honor (1985)), Woody King Jr. (Serpico (1973)), Florette Carter (probably Aroused (1966), she looks like the same actress who plays Angela and just spells the first name differently), Carla Pinza, and Barbara Davis (The Front Page (1974)).

The film begins with David (Murray) and Keel (Hooks) combing the streets looking for their friend Richie "Eagle" Stokes (Gregory), a cool cat, a sad genius, a beboppin' sax blower, a Jazz God, crusin' down his personal boulevard of decaying dreams. Eagle is a high flying junkie, a hard drinking boozer, and a reefer smokin' womanizer. They find him dead of an overdose on the bed in David's crib, a back room in Keel's coffee house "Sadik's."

The whole film is told in a long flashback after an unforgettable brilliantly filmed stylistically minimalist and abstract title sequence of a saxophone wailing Mal Waldron's "Losers Lament."

David is a self pitying drunk, an ex professor, a jazz hipster, who blows into Manhattan like trash in the gutter. He's from a hicksville flyspeck, Onondaga, up in fly over country, upstate New York. He's got a battered old suitcase heading to a flop hotel someplace.

He's a broken man. He's  boozing because he killed his wife in an auto accident, he's lost his job, and his way. David's broke. Been sleeping in his clothes apparently, from all the dust on his coat. He pawns a hundred dollar "eye-talian" ring for a Jackson. Life's a drag.

Eagle dips into the same shop. He queues up behind David. He's wearing an ascot cap, shades, and a toggle coat, he's cradling his sax in a paper bag. Eagle is coolly maintaining, but he's also running on empty. He scopes out David and sees a kindred spirit, a just fell off the turnip truck, fellow busted flat loser. A damaged soul. Knowingly he gives him directions to the closest gin mill.

In the tavern David breaks his bill for a beer and a shot. Eagle joins him at the bar. David eventually recognizes him as jazz great Eagle Stokes. They both blow their wads talking music and getting drunk as skunks.


They cut into the night. Out on the cold concrete stroll, looking for some more scratch, Eagle spots an older white couple up at the corner. Turning to David......

Eagle: Wait here baby. And watch me good, and you'll never have to starve.
(Eagle walks up and successfully puts the touch on the old couple, then walks back)

Eagle: You see that baby.
David: (chuckles)

Eagle:Too weak to tell you to go to hell, Too guilty to tell you to kiss their as- (laughs), so they pay for it. They tell themselves it's like to keep you away man. And you know, I take it all man.
Bread, that's your only friend. Jenzie. Don't try to make your ol' lady, always around when you need it, and when there's enough it screams baby..... It screams to tell you!

Morning. David and Eagle. Three sheets to the wind. Passed out in a doorway. A cop rousts them awake. He's about to run them in when Keel, a good friend of Eagle finds them. Keel wants to leave David to the cop, but Eagle tells him he's jake, so Keel and Eagle, with David in tow head to Keels pad. Keel offers David a backroom crib at his coffee house in exchange for work.

Keel is an ex street preacher who now owns a successful coffee house down in the Village. Keel's reluctant at first charity, which in itself is somewhat racially motivated, soon sets David back on a trail to redemption. Keel's got a fly girlfriend Della (Varsi) who is white.

In the ensuing weeks, David starts to get a grip on life, integrating himself into Eagle, and Keel's lives. In the process he bridges boundaries, grasps black and white dynamics, encounters the complexes of racism, miscegenation, discrimination, impotence, forbidden love, he deals with drug addiction, and OD'ing, and gets immersed in the bewitching mystic world of jazz, jazz, jazz, that makes the outer world go away.


 Florette Carter 

When David finally gets back on track Eagle helps him buy some new threads to go to a professor job interview back at a college in Onondaga. David gets the job, but Eagle while waiting for David is roughed up by a baton wielding local hick policeman for standing around being black. David walking on the street with the college president sees the altercation but does nothing to stop it. He doesn't want to get involved or jeopardize his new job, he's back in "Whitelandia."

His guilt is overpowering. When Eagle finds out that David saw the whole deal go down, his depression sends him off to see a wealthy society dame Candy, (who represents Charlie Parker's patroness the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter) through her contacts Eagle gets the fixings for his fatal overdose of junk and makes his way to Sadik's where in Davids bed, he crashes and burns. Keel tells David that Eagle's cause of death was  "resisting reality."

The performances of the main characters are all good for such a low budget production. Dick Gregory's is particularly moving, Don Murray is very convincing as the kid who finally gets into the jazz candy store. Robert Hooks and Diane Varsi have some touching sequences but you get the feeling that there should have been more, either their relationship was somewhat tacked on to the predominant tale as an afterthought, or that some of their story was left on the cutting room floor. The film was re-cut and shown at art houses under the alternate titles of Black Love--White Love as well as It Won't Rub Off, Baby!  Which of the three versions of the film is on the EFORFILMS DVD reviewed here, is not known by me.

The film does include some dream segments and amusing fantasies. A real treat for jazz fans.  7/10

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