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A Cool Sound From Hell

(AKA The Young and the Beat) 1959, Starring Anthony Ray, Carolyn Dannibale, Albert D'Annibale. Directed by Sidney J. Furie (Caribou Productions).

After virtually kickstarting the modern Canadian filmmaking era with his 1958 drama A Dangerous Age, Toronto-born director Sidney J. Furie made the scene with a swinging follow-up feature, A Cool Sound From Hell. Departing from the more thoughtful and measured approach of his debut, this previously "lost" film is a no-nonsense genre effort bursting with jazz, sex, dope and crime. At a time where most players were still discussing the best way to foster a Canadian film industry, Furie was blazing a new path and honing talents that he would later use to build a long and impressive career. Already frustrated with distribution woes for his debut film, Furie nevertheless pressed forward with a more commercial and accomplished work that delved into the Toronto's subterranean beatnik subculture.

Though dramatic works exploring Canada and its culture were most prized by local critics, the late 1950s saw a new generation of Canadian filmmakers like Furie focused on time-tested genres in an effort to attract foreign distributors and produce the Canadian film biz's first modern success story. By 1959, beatniks had just started to become a fixture in North American pop culture, with a small coffee house scene emerging in Toronto's Gerrard Village. Amongst increased media reports and a slate of similar American exploitation films such as A Bucket of Blood (1958), The Beat Generation (1959) and The Rebel Set (1959), Furie and fellow Canadian film pioneer Julian Roffman both jumped on the emerging trend by mounting their own beatnik crime movies in 1959. While Roffman's The Bloody Brood was more about the criminal infiltration of largely innocent kicks-seekers, Furie returned his focus to characters that question cultural norms, but now within the framework of the beat movement.

In the film, a young square named Charlie (Anthony Ray) is having trouble meeting girls until he's introduced to Steve (Carolyn D'Annidala), a sultry beatnik chick who likes to unwind with jazz and the occasional joint. Though not the "nice" girl he was seeking, Charlie is nevertheless intrigued with Steve, in part because she's so different from other girls like his mostly straitlaced neighbour Debbie (Madeline Kronby). Though initially wary of the beat scene, Charlie begins hanging out with Steve at local coffee houses, parroting the latest beatnik slang and adopting new mannerisms and clothes. But Charlie soon realizes he's in way over his head after learning that Steve's an ex-con and prostitute tangled up with a criminal gang. Charlie narrowly avoids the cops when out scoring heroin for Steve's favourite jazz musician (Albert D'Annibale), only to end up bloody and bruised when the gang fingers him as a suspected informant. As Steve tries to convince him to take a late-night skydiving lesson, Charlie slowly realizes that the beat lifestyle is not for him.

Despite all the twists, turns and beatnik baggage, A Cool Sound From Hell isn't really anything new, a simple cautionary tale of getting mixed up with the wrong crowd that ultimately forces the ambitious protagonist to reconsider his previously "boring" life. But in this case, it's capped off with a clumsy, out-of-nowhere skydiving finale that seems intended only to quickly resolve some aspects of the story (kicks are kicks, but who ever heard of skydiving beatniks?). However, the film is often visually striking, especially compared with other Canadian films of the time, with several strong scenes and effective location shooting by cinematographer Herbert S. Alpert, who worked on all of Roffman and Furie's early Canadian films. There's a tense, well-constructed sequence where Charlie is followed by the police on his way to buy drugs, as he ducks in and out of the Toronto subway and makes a shady deal behind some lockers at Union station. In another scene, several carloads of beatniks cruise the city with jazz blasting, laughing and living it up before they're ultimately hauled before a judge for disturbing the peace, a notable set piece that illustrates Charlie's indoctrination into the movement.

Immediate comparisons can be made to the film's fellow Canadian beatnik tale The Bloody Brood, in which Peter Falk's criminal killer Nico is able to manipulate and take advantage of a group of mostly law abiding beatniks. While the beats of The Bloody Brood are largely respectable nine-to-fivers who like to unwind at dingy coffeehouses, A Cool Sound From Hell is far less subtle, employing clichés straight out of the pages of a comic book—Steve wears black eyeliner and black tights, and is often found listening intently to jazz on her record player, while beat-convert Charlie soon dons a cap, dark sunglasses and a ratty sweater, as much to look cool as to avoid police detection. A good portion of the action takes place in a brick-lined coffee shop they hang out at, with its rows of bored-looking bohemians and a steady cycle of poets and jazz combos. Though in both cases the films are focused on the connection of the subculture to criminal activities, The Bloody Brood presents a much more nuanced and sympathetic view of those that aligned themselves with the beat movement. This is a little strange since, as a 26-year-old, Furie was likely in a better position to understand beatniks than the 44-year-old Roffman, already a National Film Board veteran.

Despite this, A Cool Sound From Hell feels more real and energetic than the sometimes stiff, claustrophobic The Bloody Brood. Part of the reason is the performance of Anthony Ray, a then-emerging American actor who was reportedly running between Toronto and New York City to star in John Cassavettes' independent landmark Shadows (1959). Ray, more experienced and confident than the largely Canadian supporting cast, brings some humanity and complexity to his role, which is lacking in Roffman's film. It also helps that Furie minimized the use of studio sets—A Cool Sound From Hell unfolds largely on neon-lit streets, dingy back alleys and bright train station interiors that help ground the film in a real place (though it obviously falls far short of what Cassavettes was doing south of the border).

With no apparent theatrical release in Canada, A Cool Sound From Hell has mostly been passed over by official Canadian film histories. While other films from the period emerged thanks largely to 16mm versions created for television, A Cool Sound From Hell was long considered lost until a copy was located at the BFI by American filmmaker and writer Daniel Kremer in 2014. Now, more than 50 years after its original European theatrical run, A Cool Sound From Hell reveals itself as not only the most thorough time capsule of the streets of Toronto at the end of the 1950s, but also a missing piece of Canadian film history that saw Furie, departing just weeks later for better opportunities in England, pass the torch off to a handful of eager independent filmmakers to continue to develop their skills and successfully lobby for much-needed government arts support.

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