Cool Sounds from the Vault: A Cinematic Detective Story
Editor’s note: We originally ran this story about the resurrection of Sidney J. Furie’s Canadian independent feature film A Cool Sound from Hell (1959) in June 2014. Now, as Daniel Kremer‘s biography Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films finally hits the book stands, we are rerunning the article in a slightly updated and revised form. Kremer‘s book, the first ever written about Sidney J. Furie, features never-before-recorded stories about working with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford, and many others.
Having a “Scorsese moment” could mean many things. If you walk into a bar feeling like the flurry of activity around you is grinding into slow motion and you hear the Stones playing on the nearby stereo, that qualifies as a Scorsese moment. Check. If you’ve just taken a few moments to assert or reassert your machismo while standing wide-eyed in front of a mirror, that could also be a Scorsese moment. Check. Or, if in standing your ground during an intense argument, you say something colorful but no less inspired…and, yes, generously laced with four-letter words, ’nuff said. Check. There are other varieties of this as well, but chances are that if you’ve lived in New York long enough, you’ve had at least one such moment.
I recently had what I like to call “my Scorsese moment.” I do live in New York, but it did not involve any of the scenarios I recounted above. The iconic director is known, perhaps secondarily, for his burgeoning involvement with film preservation and restoration. In 1990, he founded The Film Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the protection of film elements festering carelessly in vaults that are deteriorating with age. Prior to that, he oversaw many individual restorations, including one for one of my all-time favorite films, Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Recently, as chairman of the Cannes Classics committee, he rescued Ted Kotcheff’s excellent Wake in Fright (1971), while simultaneously his World Cinema Project rescued unsung international films like Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (1973). He is among the elite few of those in power who have the wherewithal to recognize what should be obvious — that our cinema past is part of our broader cultural heritage and that it is in grave danger. Because of this, he has committed himself to tirelessly insuring cinema’s magical permanence. You might say he is a motion picture archaeologist.
Every filmmaker and cineaste, it seems, has a pet film and a pet filmmaker they champion and wish to see given their due. Scorsese, in some respect, is the ultimate righteous man of the cinema. He wants to see respect given to most any pieces of old celluloid that sit in vaults, whether they are widely appreciated or neglected and forgotten.
Granted, my recent Scorsese moment only involved preserving a single film, relative to the countless number of preservation projects he has undertaken (often simultaneously), but the detective work that surrounded the process, and the dogged perseverance I was forced to maintain throughout, made me respect and applaud Scorsese even more for his prodigious efforts. When I met him briefly about two years ago, the very first thing I made sure to do was express my deep gratitude for what he does on behalf of film lovers who find our cinema past vital and important.
I dedicated three years of my life striving to get Sidney J. Furie the reappraisal I feel his work richly deserves. My book on him is only the first step in this one-man crusade. Covering the life and career of the director of The Ipcress File (1965), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Boys in Company C (1978), The Entity (1982) and many others, the book is due for publication from University Press of Kentucky’s Screen Classics Series on November 5, 2015. This is the same press that published Nick Dawson’s wonderful book on the similarly shafted Hal Ashby, who had also been scantly covered before its 2009 publication.
It has been a labor of love and an ultimate expression of admiration to a filmmaker who has been a hero of mine from age eleven, making my first amateur Hi-8 films by mimicking shots from The Ipcress File, which showed one day after school on Bravo (in its early/mid-’90’s incarnation, when old movies were shown and before reality TV took them over). Over the years, it actively pained me to see Sidney forgotten, maligned and marginalized, as I came to equally appreciate his other work, especially his British New Wave classic The Leather Boys (1963). While writing the book, I became quite close with the 81-year-old Furie. He became a friend and mentor. I have had a number of discussions with him, both taped and untaped, about his career and his films, which I believe, when seen collectively as a body of work, are a treasure trove for those who value auteurist analysis, despite his befuddling skill as a genre chameleon who turned to helming direct-to-video action films beginning in the ’90s. As he himself told me, “Making a movie, any movie, is my golf. It’s what I do to enjoy myself.”
Throughout my coverage, there was one film that stuck out, both because of its “cool” title, its subject matter and its status as a true pioneer effort. A Cool Sound from Hell, shot in Toronto in 1958 and released in England in 1960 shortly after Sidney’s arrival there, is the story of a small Canadian branch of the Beat Generation, starring Anthony Ray, one of the lead actors in John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959) and the son of Nicholas Ray. Having won the Canadian Director’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, Sidney has rightfully been recognized as one of Canada’s cinematic forefathers in that he mounted two independent feature-length film projects in a time in Canadian history when there was neither an easy way to make such projects nor a way of getting the final products seen inside their native country. Canada imported films from the U.S. and England, but neglected and outright rejected their own product, or what little there was of it.
“I remember in 1957 taking my first Canadian feature, A Dangerous Age, to a Canadian distributor,” Sidney recalls. “He looked at it and said, ‘Throw it in the garbage. It will never play in a Canadian theater. Just forget about it.'” A year later, the film picks up excellent reviews and good press on England’s Odeon circuit, with the Evening Standard proclaiming, “Only 24, but what a filmmaker!” This became habit with Canadian cinema. In 1965, Don Owen’s first independent feature Nobody Waved Good-bye had to play to good reviews in the U.S. before returning for a contained, no-frills release in its home country. Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road (1970), had to suffer some of the same slings and arrows before becoming Canada’s first big hit.
As Canadian film writer Martin Knelman aptly asks in his book This is Where We Came In: The Career and Character of Canadian Film, “How can one explain that Canadians have been content to exist for most of the twentieth century without films of their own, while living next to a country whose movies have culturally colonized the world?” Thankfully, things have gotten a bit better there since Knelman’s frustrated and frustrating question was posed. Sidney once told the British press, “I wanted to start a Canadian film industry, but nobody cared.” As the old joke goes, why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.
A Cool Sound from Hell as a missing piece of Sidney’s career and as a piece of Canadian film history fascinated me. What also fascinated me was the fact that, in 1958, Anthony Ray was shuttling between New York City and Toronto to make Shadows and A Cool Sound from Hell respectively. There seemed to be an odd kinship between these two pictures.
In doing an extensive search on Google, I was (as the Brits would say) gobsmacked when I discovered that a DVD was selling at Best Buy that claimed to be A Cool Sound from Hell! I ordered the disc for $20 and exclaimed, “Well, that was easy!” Three weeks later, the package arrived. Opening the padded envelope revealed a badly designed disc entitled “Cool Space Stuff,” an hour of generic NASA footage with bad Muzak playing in the background. What the hell was this?! Talk about the air going out of your tires! This defeat revved my engines even more to actually find the film…somewhere.
I ordered the same disc that claimed to be A Cool Sound from Hell on the Barnes & Noble website, thinking that perhaps a shipping error had been made. Again, my hopes were dashed and my resolve was heightened. More space shuttle launchings and bad Muzak. Caveat emptor! I just dismissed it as a strange computer error at the distribution company. Sidney and I have long considered it an incredibly odd red herring. Up to the time of the publication, this falsely represented DVD is still being sold on both vendor websites.
The Library of Congress, while listing the film, only held a record of its previous existence and cited it in a survey of jazz in films (ironically, yours truly has the same kind of Library of Congress listing, and my first feature is cited in the same survey). The Canadian National Archives, while having restored and housed a print of Sidney’s first Canadian indie A Dangerous Age, had nothing whatsoever on A Cool Sound from Hell. “How typical of Canada,” a prominent Canadian actor friend of mine told me in a cynical tenor.
The cards were stacking more and more against me and my quest. Sidney’s friend Paul showed me a book about Canadian filmmaker Don Owen. Owen played a bit part as a poet for Furie, and in his book, A Cool Sound from Hell was referred to as lost. Director Ted Kotcheff, when discussing Wake in Fright‘s restoration, mentioned that an acquaintance of his from the Toronto International Film Festival, who specialized in films shot in Toronto, could not locate the film either. Other sources, including a site called Canuxploitation, likewise used the word “lost” to designate its status. It had vanished without a trace, clouded by decades of disinterest that made forgetting a foregone conclusion. I became more and more crestfallen.
Despite everything, I became determined to find A Cool Sound from Hell, and I was miffed because these bad discs being sold made a substantive Google search more difficult. I hit up various friends on the video grey market (i.e. bootlegs of older, unavailable titles) who had often sent me ultra-rare stuff in the past. No go.
My best friend (and cinematographer) Aaron, who has always been the best audience throughout this literary project vis a vis my Furie yammering, then mentioned that he had a friend named Frank studying documentary cinema at the British Film Institute.
Aaron and I had seen a wonderful BBC documentary called Hollywood U.K. (1993), a comprehensive four-part program that examined the British film industry in the 1960’s. In the third episode, titled “Strangers in the City”, series narrator Richard Lester (yes, the filmmaker) discusses Sidney Furie’s arrival in England and how A Cool Sound from Hell had been featured as a double-bill with Karel Reisz’s block-busting hit Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). An old British Pathe newsreel of the theater showing both films accompanied Lester’s voice-over. Emblazoned over the theater entrance was A Cool Sound from Hell, in large letters. I remember wanting to jump into the newsreel, Purple Rose of Cairo-style, and buy a ticket.
“No,” I told Aaron, “BFI seems like a bureaucracy to me, and it’s a longshot that they have it.” For some reason, I was quite doubtful about the prospect. I think perhaps I had begun to lose hope, having passive-aggressively thrown in the towel. When he persisted, I emphasized, “Why would they have it? The original distributor, Galaworldfilm, is obscure and long defunct!” Frustrated with my strange stubbornness on the matter, he implored me to reconsider. When it took me awhile to respond, Aaron took it upon himself to contact his buddy and get a BFI contact with whom I could consult. When I got the e-mail address of a woman at the BFI National Archives named Lynn, I decided to give it a shot just for kicks and giggles, not expecting anything.
In this life, we usually always like to be right about things. But in this instance, was I ever glad to be wrong!
Discovery and Excavation
On May 1, 2013, we received a response from Lynn: “Dear Daniel Kremer and Sidney Furie, Thank you both for your enquiry. The BFI holds a master picture and sound negative only – for the title A Cool Sound from Hell (1959). The cost to access the negs and to digitise to produce viewing material (DVD) will run into several hundreds of pounds. I’m attaching an application form for you to return – should you wish to continue, and I will then obtain a quote for you for the work involved.” We would later look back and realize that Lynn’s conjecture of “several hundreds of pounds” had been a rather conservative underestimation. By the end of our quest to unearth the film, the bill had considerably mushroomed.
Despite her caveat that things would be expensive if we wanted to undertake digitizing and preserving the film, I was thrilled that the negative still existed, in whatever shape. When Sidney told me to spark the whole thing, Lynn responded to my e-mail by reiterating the considerable cost and by mentioning that a DVD already appeared to be available for purchase in the U.S. “I would therefore assume this would be a far more preferable option for you.” She was referring to the space shuttle disc with the Muzak. I fumed for a few moments about the red herring and reasserted our need.
Once we got the ball rolling, we were asked for proof of copyright and documentation. This is something we could not provide, for obvious reasons. Sidney financed the original film under the banner Caribou Productions with the help of his father, who invested in his second film when the first paid off. He sold the film to a B picture distributor Galaworldfilms on a ten-year lease. Now, we were being asked to provide proof that the copyright rested back with Sidney, a forty-some-year-old document that would have never existed in the first place. Paper trails can be difficult to navigate, let alone one that finds you in the dark, dense forest without crumbs.
I replied in kind, “You must understand that this film is over 50 years old and Caribou Productions was established for the sole purpose of producing A Dangerous Age and A Cool Sound from Hell. It was not a formal production company, had no formal office, letterhead or paperwork. Additionally, it is also highly doubtful that Sidney or Kenneth Rive’s defunct companies possess still existing and/or readily available documentation to support such claims, nor would it probably exist under the aegis of any other outfit or company. The film has literally lain dormant for decades, with no outside interest.”
Sidney told me that he would sue if it meant getting the materials back into his possession. Around the time, I read with great interest about how William Friedkin had to sue both Universal and Paramount, not for monetary gain but just to discover who owned the rights to his film Sorcerer (1977). Friedkin’s film, recently crowned a rediscovered masterpiece and given a wide re-release, was caught in a legal stalemate while awaiting its own restoration…and meanwhile, the film elements weren’t getting any younger.
Sidney himself responded to this inconceivable request: “Isn’t a biographer wanting to see a lost film the very purpose for which the BFI was formed? I realize that you need to be vigilant about protecting the donations that you hold in trust, but if a filmmaker who wrote, personally financed and directed a film can’t get access to that film for a biography of that filmmaker’s life and career, than what is the purpose of even holding the materials in the first place? The last thing I want to get into is who gave you the materials to begin with. I certainly didn’t authorize it and I never gave my permission as the copyright holder for anyone else to give it to you. The UK distributor certainly had no legal right to do so. Of course, I’m glad you have it at all. I only mention that if you want to stick to legalities, it works both ways.”
Sidney is one of the most passionate personalities I’ve ever encountered, and that facet of him had come out in fine form. Yes, we were both eternally grateful that the BFI held the materials, but never bargained about having to fight to see it once it was located.
Our pleas seemed to do the trick for the BFI, and, after weeks of back-and-forth on this point, the inspection of the elements was mounted. In the meanwhile, to get into the mood of mounting a preservation project, I started reading Ronald Haver’s book about the detective work surrounding the restoration of George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954). That film had been cut down by a meddling Jack Warner from its 182-minute premiere length to a release version of 154 minutes, much to the horror of the director, who always harbored resentment and hurt about what had been done to a film to which he felt close. In 1983, Haver took it upon himself to find the missing pieces of the 182-minute version and, through a great deal of detective work, premiered a 176-minute version the day after Cukor’s death.
I was rapt by Haver’s account of the false leads, the heartaches, the leg work and the time and energy that went into the restored cut of A Star is Born. In the middle of reading this, we received news of the inspection. The condition of the 35mm mute dupe negative was noted as “ok,” i.e. slightly shrunken and bearing some scratches. The pH acetic level on the film tested at P1, thankfully the lowest level.
The bad news was that the magnetic sound track and one of the 35mm reels had gone missing. A search was about to be conducted in the BFI’s vaults. Without the sound and a missing part of the story, what use would it all be?
Finding Hell’s Cool Sounds
Months passed as the BFI folks searched for these missing elements. Sidney and I remained hopeful, but were prepared for the worst. At this point, I was prepared to shell out just to view what existed of the soundless reels. I worked away on the book, interviewing various actors and crew members with whom Sidney worked over his more than 55-year career. I watched other films that I knew had been excavated and preserved, but whereas I was grateful for the salvaging of these other films, I pined to see my own restoration project fully realized. It was part idle dreaming, part envy, part compulsion, part something else. Scorsese probably suffered worse battle scars in this endeavor than what we’ve had to withstand, I thought.
Sidney told me during this waiting period, “Don’t get your hopes up too much. It’s not really a good film, but it’s important for you to see for the book.” I hoped he was just being modest or underselling it for some other reason. In any case, good or bad, it was an important piece of film history. This was a true grass roots independent production, written, produced, financed and directed by Sidney, shot in 10 days, on little money and resources, on the streets of Toronto. It predated many of the other films labelled as independent filmmaking landmarks. Even if it didn’t win medals and statuettes for quality, that counted for something in my book. As Sidney told me in our original taping sessions, “It was just me, the cameraman, the sound man and the actors on Dangerous Age and Cool Sound. It was extremely intimate.”
We received good news in the fall of 2013. They located both the magnetic sound track (a revised mix track dated June 29, 1959) and the missing reel, both having been misfiled under the title “Beat Generation.” The magnetic track had tested with dangerously high acetic levels, but they transferred the audio to a digital WAV file with minimal damage. When a Canadian donor (who shall remain anonymous) stepped up to the plate to finance the preservation/restoration project, we were ready to go, and I was ready to inspect the elements myself: 6,267 feet of film, translating to a relatively modest 72 minutes of screen-time.
In something of a cosmic moment, Lynn sent us a list of development, post and telecine houses in London from which we had to choose to have the film’s work done. Near the top of that contact list was the name Tony Ray, who worked for a post-house in London called Dragon We, of course, knew it wasn’t the same Tony Ray as the actor in the film, but it caused Sidney to exclaim, “It’s a sign! An omen! That’s our man! Take our stuff to Tony Ray!” We had a laugh, one that made both of us feel oddly fulfilled, that perhaps the aggravation was about to pay off.
The lost film of one of my favorite filmmakers was about to be restored! To me, it was a privilege akin to a Monet enthusiast discovering a painting of his no one ever knew about. We’d come a long way from making annoyed returns to the Best Buy website, and unsuccessfully confronting cheap DVD companies about false product information.
Is It Any Good?
Just a few days ago, I finally received the spec DVD of the BFI’s work on A Cool Sound from Hell, after over a year of false leads, copyright entanglements with a non-existent paper trail, missing reels and mag tracks, the minutia, the waiting, when patience was in short supply and eagerness was in surplus. As Yiddish would have it, I had a case of year-long chronic schpilkes, or “pins and needles of anxiousness.”
Does the film measure up to expectations I might have had for it? As expected, it is not a perfect film. It is, in many ways, the work of a filmmaker still growing and discovering his voice. Against the likes of Kubrick’s similarly flawed Fear and Desire (1953) and other blood-sweat-and-tears debut features, it holds up remarkably well, however. It certainly merits being called an item of fascination, as I would actually consider a few scenes and sequences real standouts (especially the “late-night jazz-blasting motor rave” sequence) because they exude a vigor, a raw ambition, an exuberance, and a glorious youthful impetuosity often present in the best filmmakers’ less-than-perfect debut films, even though this was Furie’s second. I have provided three video samples from the film to consider vis a vis. The film also treats the city of Toronto much like a character in the film, and one could easily write a paper just about its extensive use of Toronto locations.
Upon seeing the film for the first time in over half a century, Sidney found himself flabbergasted. Shortly after viewing it with his wife Linda, he phoned to tell me how grateful he was that I helped to dig up the film, then expressed how proud he was seeing it today. “I was a crazy kid making A Cool Sound from Hell, and it’s written all over every frame,” he said, recounting scenes and moments where he perceived the general influence of On the Waterfront clearly overtaking his 25-year-old self. It was emotionally overpowering to him. The next day, he reiterated his feelings to me in an e-mail: “Indebted to you for pursuing Cool Sound. Seeing it really inspired me.” By inspired, he means concerning his upcoming film project, the first he has written solo since 1961’s During One Night, his first British independent film. He claims this will be his final film. I don’t believe him for a second, because he’s got too much spunk, even for me as a 29-year-old. He says this will be his swan song and a return to personal filmmaking on a shoestring budget, with my own usual crew of young filmmakers, including my usual cinematographer, helping him to achieve it.
Piers Handling and Steve Gravestock of the Toronto International Film Festival are now working to schedule and finally screen the film for its first-ever Toronto premiere. It is a most vital part of their history. There have also been inquiries made by distributors about a theatrical re-release of the film in arthouses. Nothing has solidified on this yet, though.
The people reading this article are, no doubt, film lovers and buffs, at least to some extent. An impassioned appeal is in order. Preservation has become imperative in an age when digital processes have overtaken photochemical ones, and as elements decaying in vaults face an obliteration that is often deliberate. Yes, deliberate. Recently, on the phone, Ted Kotcheff recounted to me the story of his old editor’s visit to Pinewood when they were in search of the Wake in Fright negative. While leaving the archives that day disenchanted with the chief archivist’s nonchalance, another man standing next to a lined-up row of film cans asked if he recognized any of the titles on the cans. When he did not, the man informed him that these films were slated for demolition, to be burned and discarded, never to be seen again. Later, the last remaining source of Wake in Fright was found in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, in a bin marked “For Destruction.”
There are many grandstanding speeches in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men about the importance of preserving cultural heritage, and how the job of art historians and their comrades is just as important as the job of the soldiers fighting the battles. I’m not making a claim that Clooney’s sanctimonious adventure flick is making a sweepingly original statement, but I cite it perhaps because it is more fresh in the collective consciousness. Although simply a nice little yarn of a movie, it did express a startling and immediate reality, most of all, for our cinematic cultural heritage, one that Scorsese strives to make permanent. With many film prints and photochemical sources comprised of elements that disintegrate, deteriorate and/or remain on the shelf indefinitely while people stuck on the outside of the vaults yearn to see even more obscure titles in the best way they can be seen, the clock is ticking.
As a single person lacking the resources that organizations and committees have at their disposal, I will continue to seek ways, even in small strides, to insure the permanence of filmmakers’ visions. Scorsese, bless him, cannot be the only one doing it. If possible, have yourself a Scorsese moment that doesn’t involve an inspired insult or slow-motion daydreams with an oldies soundtrack. Easier said than done, but I recommend having one that might be everlasting.
A very big thanks to the anonymous donor, and to the British Film Institute, and everyone there who helped us uncover this neglected film. Thanks to Aaron Hollander and Frank Verano, who suggested I contact the BFI. Thanks to Martin Scorsese for the inspiration. And Sidney, ditto.
Daniel Kremer is a filmmaker and author living in San Francisco. He is currently working on his second book, on filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, and editing a biographical documentary entitled Sidney J. Furie: Fire Up the Carousel!