Directed by Guy Hamilton, who refused credit, and scripted by Marc Behm, whose eclectic CV includes the screenplays for Help! and The Mad Bomber and the novels Eye of the Beholder and The Ice Maiden, this was made in 1962, when beatniks were the baddest drop-outs in town, but held up for release – emerging long after the jazz, fashions and slang were outmoded and almost quaint – because it offers at least one genuinely upsetting, censor-baiting idea.
Carson (Clifford David), a stiff American in a suit and tie, comes to London to track down Melina (Louise Sorel), his fiancée – who has fled him and her businessman Dad (Eddie Albert) and fallen in with a wild crowd whose antics are somewhere between La Dolce Vita, Beat Girl, The Damned and Dracula AD 1972. For a reel or so, she avoids him and he gets more and more steamed up as he keeps running into those damned meddling beatniks (‘Well well well, if it isn’t my friends, the Chelsea aborigines’) – then she disappears after a wild party, and one of the weediest of the gang (Jonathan Burn) – commits suicide. Carson has to get overlapping, contradictory explanations of what’s happened – and why Melina’s clothes and jewelry are being worn by the rest of the girls – which suggest a bad scene even before her corpse shows up. The awful truth, seen twice from slightly different viewpoints, is that the girl fell from an upper storey and was dead when the stoned or drunk crowd stripped her and gave her a mock (but actually) real funeral. The first flashback version of this includes the sensational bit, an implication that the guy who kills himself at least fondled and at most had sex with Melina after she was dead – though when we see it all again with the knowledge that she’s already a corpse, this isn’t repeated (at least, not in the version I saw).
The chief crazy is the wonderfully-named Moise (Oliver Reed), pronounced Mo-eeze and probably spelled ‘Moïse’: he pouts scruffily, has reams of cynical banter, chews an eternal cigar-end, and sleeps with most of the women in the cast but was really stuck on the girl who wouldn’t put out, and does all sorts of mocking voices (like Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty) to needle the unwanted Yank visitor. His coven is full of interesting faces, though – apart from Mike Pratt of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) as a wild jazz drummer called Geronimo – this isn’t one of those wild youth films which gains a later hilarity value from the antics of performers who would become more staid later in their careers. The oddest hanger-on is a bald German (Maurice Browning) with scars inflicted by the Nazis, but Katharine Woodville – the woman whose death the Avengers were avenging – is luminous as the English girl (from Stowe-in-the-Wold) who is shocked into growing up by this bad scene, and the rest of the gaggle are kooky presences who should have gone further (Annette Robinson – nearly a Doctor Who companion; Ann Lynn, who sings the blues – probably with Annie Ross’s voice; Alison Seebohm). It has some great jazz club freak-out scenes, misty traipses around Chelsea in the pre-dawn light and enough bite to get past the horrible moralising – then again, when the film concluded with an exhortation for all these jaded young things to ‘grow up’, Hamilton had no idea what the rest of the 1960s was going to be like.