Saturday, March 12, 2022

Smog, featuring Chet Baker Trumpet Solos

The film is Italian, from the early 1960s, so the existential angst is suavely stylish. Yet, the setting is Los Angeles, so the weather is nice—but the air quality is lacking. Best of all, it sounds terrific, thanks to Piero Umiliani’s soundtrack, featuring Chet Baker’s trumpet solos. An elite Italian lawyer will be immersed in California car culture and expat ambitions throughout Franco Rossi’s Smog, which screens tomorrow at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Vittorio Ciocchetti is connecting through the recently completed, space-age-looking LAX, on his way to Mexico City, where he will handle a quickie divorce for a well-heeled client. Since he is a VIP customer, Ciocchetti need not spend his layover with the rest of the rabble. No, the airline lets him circumvent customs, so he can spend the day in LA.

Of course, even back then, enjoying LA without a car is easier said than done. Somehow, he makes his way to a gallery showing an Italian artist. There he meets Mario Scarpelli, an ambitious immigrant fixing the AV system. Deducing Ciocchetti could be a valuable contact, Scarpelli volunteers to show him the city and introduce the lawyer to his social circle. Through the younger man, Ciocchetti meets Gabriella, an alluring expat, who has apparently made good. She seems to have the means to buy the modernist Stahl House, but she hasn’t moved in yet. She just visits to swim in the pool.

is not exactly a plotty narrative, but it was quite a shoot, visiting dozens of LA locations. It really is an early forerunner to Lost in Translation, but there is also a clash of ideologies and cultures, between the tacky, striving Scarpelli and the standoffish, old world Ciocchetti. Even though Scarpelli resorts to some less than edifying behavior, the cold, detached Ciocchetti might even come out of the film looking worse, not that such judgments mattered a fig to Rossi. This was definitely an exercise in style, steeped in the aesthetics of mid-century European art cinema.

It also sounds amazing thanks to Umiliani’s themes and Baker’s solos. This is a soundtrack I’ve listened to dozens of times, without having first seen the film to know what visuals the tunes accompanied. The music definitely stands on its own, particularly “Twilight in Los Angeles,” “Thinkin’ Blues,” “Smog,” and “Alone in a Crowd.” As a notable bonus, Helen Merrill also sings two dreamy noir selections, including a vocal arrangement of “Smog,” which perfectly match the film’s dusky vibe.

Enrico Maria Salerno is super-cool as Ciocchettil, but Annie Girardot is exquisitely sad and seductive as Gabriella, arguably one of the great unheralded performances of the era. The film also includes the notable casting of Len Lesser (Uncle Leo in
Seinfeld) and Howard Koch (who co-wrote Orson Welles notorious War of the Worlds radio broadcast) in minor roles.

Just the music and the time-capsule Los Angeles locations make
Smog very much worth seeing. Girardot performance on top of that should have made it iconic. Highly recommended for fans of Baker and the early work of Fellini and Antonioni, Smog screens tomorrow (3/13) at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater.