These are just a few of the nuggets you can hear in the classic b-movie/morality play Beat Girl (dir. Edmond T. Gréville, 1960), certainly a high point in the genre of disaffected youth exploitation flicks. French ye-ye chanteuse Gillian Hills plays Jennifer, a teenage drawing student who sneaks out of her home every night decked out in makeup, tights and a loose button-down to hang out with her hooligan friends at The Off Beat, a coffee bar/dance club in London’s Soho district. Beatnik, you ask? “A gimmick from America, hopeless and soapless,” opines one of Jenny’s peers at art school. It’s unclear what Beat Girl’'s attitude is toward the subculture. Despite indulging in all the violent teenage rituals of the 1950s, such as playing chicken, lying down on railroad tracks, or having illicit shindigs at their parents’ homes, they aren’t without their merits. In particular, Jenny’s friend Dave (a somewhat lackadaisical Adam Faith) proselytizes against drinking (totally square) and fighting (what squares do in the army). Jenny’s friends reveal themselves to be children of wartime, drawing connections between the bomb shelters they were born in and the underground caves they dance in. No wonder Jenny can only scoff at her wealthy father’s architectural schemes for a utopian city—“City 2000”—claiming it will finally give modern man peace of mind by being the world’s first “almost-silent place, sound-proofed,” purified of “poverty” and “grime.” The adults attempt to maintain order, but the children were born in ruins they feel compelled to carry with them into the present.
Video samples are beneath the fold...
Jenny wages psychological warfare against her father (David Farrar) and his new wife (Noëlle Adam), almost sells herself into a world of prostitution and striptease, and kills a man (leering horror icon Christopher Lee) with a letter opener, all in the name of “kicks”. More importantly, however, she hears some bopping tunes along the way and dances a mean beat-spazz. The soundtrack is by the John Barry Seven and has all the elements that would give Barry such success with the later Bond motif: gauche, melodramatic, moodily descending chord progressions set over an elastic bass line and honking saxophones playing vulgarized crime-jazz riffs—even more vulgar than earlier work by Elmer Bernstein and Duke Ellington. Watch the opening credits, a true descent into the inferno of sweating teenage bodies, boys and girls thrashing like possessed demoniacs, a world of shadows and palpable sex buffering Barry’s superb title theme.
Gillian Hills is great. This is after the “Spécialisation” singer’s role in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959) and before her iconic appearances in Blow Up (1966) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Personally, I like her best in Beat Girl, her gaze smoldering beneath a heavy layer of eyeliner, lynx-like, lower lip puffed out in sardonic glee, hair pulled back into an imposing lion’s mane. “This language, these words, what does it mean?” her father bellows after being labeled by Jenny as a square. Her reply is priceless: “It means us! Something that’s ours! We didn’t get it from our parents!” A rough formulation to be sure, but not without its kernel of truth. The difference plays itself out most clearly on the body: watch below as a young Oliver Reed (before the paunch, and before drunkenly mauling Kate Millett, here simply credited as “Plaid Shirt”) practically makes love to the camera in what Parker Tyler once called “not an apt and subtle art of ecstasy and happiness so much as a crude, inept propaganda of ecstasy and happiness...” Watch the head bob, the eyes rolls back, the mouth quiver with that spasm of exhalation that only cheap rock’n’roll can produce; it was a brand of male hysteria that would serve Reed well throughout his acting career. But first there was Beat Girl, that masterpiece of overacting and conservative mores: too tame to feed the counterculture, yet enjoying the pose far too much to serve as youth’s bad conscience. Unlike bad prose, bad movies almost always have some element of excess that keeps them fresh and startling for the seasoned viewer.
[If you have Netflix, you can stream the movie on demand—though my impression is that this version is censored by about 6 minutes or so.]