An unnamed civil war, in an unnamed country. A truck carrying a shipment of fruit and vegetables is stopped crossing a bridge, and subjected to unusual scrutiny. The soldiers find a cache of weapons hidden in the fruit crates; the truck drivers — De Castro and Smith — try to escape, but Smith is wounded and De Castro is killed.
Ten year later, in New Orleans, De Castro’s widow Lina (Perla Cristal) goes to a club. The leader of the club band, an old, sad-eyed trumpet player, seems to recognize her. The trumpeter’s face is at first hidden from us by the bell of his horn; and even when we get a clear glimpse of him, it isn’t easy to recognize the prematurely aged Smith. Lina certainly doesn’t recognize him. Smith turns to his band members and asks if they remember an old number called “Blues de Tejado”. It’s been a while since any of them have played it… but Smith calls out G-minor, and the band (with Jess Franco on sax) launches into a melancholy number.
Once she hears the music, Lina realizes who the bandleader is. A look of anguish crosses her face…
And suddenly, through the worst set of edits in all Franco’s early films, we find Lina on a boat, sailing back to her home in Jamaica. The transition is so abrupt that at first I thought I was watching a bad print. I’ve since been able to cross-reference with other versions of the film, and they’re all edited the same. The pacing of these edits is all wrong… it would have been better for the flow of the picture if they’d skipped any attempt at transition and just cut from the club back to Jamaica.
Lina’s new husband, Paul Radeck (Georges Rollin), is fascinated to hear that Lina’s run into such an old, old friend. He wonders what they talked about, but Lina merely says they had a desultory conversation. Radeck asks if Smith had asked about him; Lina laughs and tells him Smith didn’t even know they’d been married.
By strange coincidence, Julius Smith the bandleader is run down by a car outside the New Orleans club shortly afterwards. Before he dies, he confides to a New Orleans policeman, Inspector Fenton, the truth about the old arms-running days: he and De Castro had been betrayed by their third partner, Vogel, who wanted them out of the way so he could build his own criminal network. It’s Vogel, he’s certain, who’s caught up with him and run him down…
Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, a new singer named Moira has been lined up for Radeck’s night club. Moira cheerfully tells Radeck that she might know a pair of his old friends, whom she used to run into back in Spain: their names are De Castro and Vogel. Vogel? says Radeck. That name doesn’t ring a bell. But De Castro? Federico De Castro? (Moira says yes). That’s impossible, says Radeck. The Federico De Castro he knew is dead.
And Radeck should know. For Radeck is Vogel. He’s the man who arranged for Smith and De Castro to be caught on their last arms run. What could Moira mean by confronting him with evidence of his past life? She seems utterly unaware of what a dangerous game she’s playing — if she’s working some sort of scam, what she’s doing so obvious it’s stupid. But Moira does not appear to be a stupid woman. What’s really going on? Vogel/Radeck’s concerns only deepen when he receives the news that Smith didn’t die at once after being hit by the car… he had time to give some information to the cops. How much is known, and who knows it?
In the meantime, a tough, seemingly dull-witted sailor has just landed at the docks in Kingston. He calls himself Joao (Conrado San Martín), though this is clearly not his real name. Joao gets along well with the feisty but friendly community around the docks. After he’s built up the trust of the locals, he starts asking questions about a certain Mr. Radeck. The locals warn him to stay away from Radeck, whose hands are very dirty indeed.
Strain and paranoia begin to gnaw at Radeck. His marriage is also starting to fray, and just to torture himself he decides to throw on an old LP of Julius Smith and his band, playing “Blues de Tejado”… the song De Castro had written for his then-wife, Lina. As he wallows masochistically in the sound, he goes through his correspondence… and his staggered to find a letter addressed to him as Vogel. The letter describes his activities peddling adulterated penicillin on the black market during the war, and how he betrayed his two associates to keep his underhanded dealings a secret. The letter is signed by the long-dead De Castro. Radeck compares the handwriting to the inscription from De Castro on his Julius Smith LP: they’re the same.
That very night, sailor Joao breaks into Radeck’s mansion. He seems to know his way around. Not only that, he also seems well-versed in Radeck’s personal habits: he guesses the location of Radeck’s wall safe, and it takes him only a few minutes to get it open. Joao takes a gun and a sheaf of papers from the safe. On his way out, he puts the recording of “Blues de Tejado” on the turntable and raises the volume…
La Muerte Silba Un Blues is a moderately enjoyable film noir. With the exception of the terrible editing in the transition between the New Orleans jazz club and Radeck’s house in Jamaica, the movie is very competently shot. The musical score by Anton García Abril (Tombs of the Blind Dead) is excellent, and is rounded out by some good small-ensemble jazz by Franco himself (which is much to be preferred to his music from Vampiresas 1930).
The movie runs into problems because of the ridiculous complexity of its plot. Most of the characters (living or dead or both/neither) seem to have at least two identities. Radeck is really Vogel; Joaoa turns out to be a detective named Al Pereira; and though we understand Moira is clearly not who she appears to be, it doesn’t make things any easier when we’re introduced to her wearing a blonde wig… when we see her next, she’s no longer wearing the distinctive wig, and she looks like a completely different person! When all our mixed-up characters subsequently show up at a costume party, we’re tempted to just give up trying to keep them all straight.
In spite of the confusion, La muerte… manages to work up a decent amount of suspense. There’s a gripping fight scene that takes place in a boathouse, in which Joao struggles for his life against Radeck’s henchman Carlos Moroni. Note that Franco remains true to form here, giving Radeck’s henchman the same name he had in Labios Rojos (1960). Note, also, that this is the very first appearance of the detective Al Pereira, who would show up (in name, anyway) more regularly than practically any other character in Franco’s repertoire (even Orloff). This is the most competent incarnation of Al Pereira we’re ever going to see: Franco called Pereira “One of [his] favorite creations… [A] private detective who takes on the dumbest cases for miserable compensation.” (Pavlović, Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies, pp. 108). Similarly, this is the most believable, human incarnation of the villainous Radeck in Franco’s output.
(Thinking of returning characters, the cast of Le Muerte Silba Un Blues is very similar to that of Gritos en la Noche, with Perla Cristal [Arne] and Conrado San Martín [Inspector Tanner] figuring among the leads, and Ricardo Valle [Morpho] and María Silva [Dany] filling in minor roles. Howard Vernon had originally been intended to play Radeck, but was unable to get along with the movie’s producers. Many references, including the IMDb, list La Muerte… as having been made in 1964, but most Franco-specific resources give the date as 1962; the proximity to Gritos en la Noche is made evident by the large number of returning cast members.)
On the down side, Franco seems to have had no idea what New Orleans was really like: he uses stock footage of (what looks like) Broadway to set up the club scene. He does a better job of suggesting Kingston, Jamaica by including some footage of the actual city… The Spanish Mediterranean coast looks more like Jamaica than New York City resembles New Orleans. Years later, when he made Night of the Skull, Franco set the movie on Louisiana’s rocky, mountainous coast, so I guess he never learned much more about the area.
On the whole, though, La Muerte Silba Un Blues is a solid thriller… so solid, in fact, that viewers who know Franco only from his uneven later work are in for a real shock. According to Franco, it was La Muerte Silba un Blues that first attracted the interest of Orson Welles, who subsequently hired him as second unit director on Chimes At Midnight. At least that’s the version recounted by Tohill and Tombs in Immoral Tales; according to an interview with Howard Vernon, it was Tenemos 18 Años that Welles was impressed by. Of course, the whole story may be apocryphal — according to other sources, the two directors were simply introduced by a mutual friend. But there’s enough of Welles’s influence evident in the movie to make the story believable. There are even a few quotes: e.g., Quinlan’s habitual refrain, “I don’t drink!” from Touch of Evil is used in the setup of a joke in Franco’s film. Furthermore, La Muerte…‘s plot seems to be trying to outdo The Lady from Shanghai in confusing the hell out of the audience. Then, too, there’s a good deal of planning and craft evident in the structure of the movie, which is not something we normally associate with the work of Jess Franco. For instance, the movie begins with death on a blocked bridge, and ends with death on a pier, giving the story the feel of a completed arc. Of course, that last sentence represents the sort of pretentious film-school striving for meaning that Franco detested… so maybe I’d better quit while I’m ahead.
Seven movies into Franco’s feature-film output, the firsts continue to pile up: La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (“The Hand of a Dead Man”, aka “The Sadistic Baron von Klaus”) marked Franco’s first collaboration with composer Daniel J. White. The two men had a similar propensity for working fast; and having nearly been killed during World War II, White’s outlook on life — do what you love, and to hell with the rest — meshed perfectly with Franco’s. The two men worked together in remarkable harmony, with White frequently providing production assistance in addition to his duties as a composer.
It’s White’s hands that are seen playing the piano in the shot which opens the French cut of the film. It’s rare to see hands on a piano in a film, and have the fingers match the music! The hyper-romantic piano piece that serves as the principal theme of the movie seems to be based on a four-note idea taken from Franz Liszt’s famous “Second Hungarian Rhapsody”, but transformed beyond recognition into something much more languid and French-sounding (it starts in the key of E-major, and eventually comes to rest on B-flat, spanning the interval known as the “Devil in music” and giving us a subtle hint of what’s to come…).
La Mano de un Hombre Muerto takes place in a German village called Hölfen. Hölfen is a location created by Franco for his films — like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, or Ramsay Campbell’s Brichester, or Franco’s other stomping ground, the fictional French town of Hartog. Hölfen was formerly the demesne of the family von Klaus. The first Baron von Klaus was a legendary sadist, who is said to have sacrificed young village girls to the Devil… or if not to the Devil, then worse: to his own unspeakable lusts. Some say the old Baron never really died, but wanders forever through the swamps around Castle von Klaus, looking for fresh victims… or at least, that’s what Hansel, the village odd-job man, tells the visitng Professor Kalman (remember: “Kalman” is the name Franco often gives to his relatively minor subordinate character. This Kalman is a researcher, come to research the folklore of the Hölfen region for a book he’s preparing).
Hansel has even more disturbing things to tell Kalman: the return of the evil baron’s ghost is supposed to be foretold by certain signs, and according to Hansel the signs have begun to appear. It’s just the way things happened fifty years ago, when Hansel was a child. There had been a series of terrible murders, and the locals had blamed the current Baron von Klaus. The then-Baron had fled into the swamp and drowned… just like his ancestor.
Meanwhile, up at the castle, the dowager Baroness lies dying. Her last, urgent wish is to see her son Ludwig (Hugo Blanco) again, and her younger brother Max (Howard Vernon) promises her that he is on his way. When Ludwig finally arrives with his fiancée after a 180-kilometer journey, the Baroness insists on speaking to him alone. With her last breath, she tells him about his grandfather’s secret torture chamber in the depths of the castle. They key is hidden in a secret compartment in her bureau; he must go to the hidden room, confront the terrible secret of the von Klaus family, and then destroy everything. She makes him promise to leave Hölfen forever once he’s done it, and Ludwig swears he will.
At the same moment, Hansel and his partner Theo have just discovered the body of a young woman lying in the snow. The sadist killings have begun again, after all these years! Naturally, the von Klaus family falls under suspicion; but the younger man wasn’t anywhere near the area yet, and the older brother seems to have a solid alibi. Inspector Borowsky (Georges Rollin) seems unable to make any progress figuring out the killing, but he has soon gets help from a journalist named Karl Steiner. Steiner writes for a rag called “Maidens and Murder”, but in spite of the lurid name of his magazine he’s much cleverer than Borowsky… and much less bound by the rules of investigation.
La Mano de un Hombre Muerto could have been much better. If it had been filmed with a little more attention to style, it could have eclipsed even Mario Bava’s The Evil Eye as the seminal proto-giallo. As it is, the script — written for the most part by Pío Ballesteros (Vampiresas 1930) — is heavy on talk, and light on actual action. When something does happen, for the most part the results still aren’t very interesting… for examle, when a character goes to see the police, the camera insists on following her from her door, all the way across the square, down a long alley, and finally to the door of the police station; then, when she comes back, the camera follows her again every step of the way. Now, all the while, she’s being stalked by a black-clad killer, and this would have been the point of the same sequence had it been shot by, say, Bava. But in Franco’s film, there’s so little attention paid to the waiting killer that there’s never any real sense of suspense.
The movie really only springs to life at a couple of points: there’s a moderately suspenseful episode in which the killer, foiled at the last moment, runs through the shadowy streets of Höfen with a growing crowd of villagers behind him. Miraculously staying a step ahead of his pursuers, he tries to shake them off by running through the swampy woods. The villagers pick up torches — yes, torches! It makes sense under the circumstances — and follow him, but stop when they see him disappear into the cemetery. Beyond those gates the villagers will not go. Karl Steiner is with them, however, and he insists the killer is no ghost. He plunges into the cemetery… only to see the killer apparently disappear into one of the tombs. The name on the mausoleum? Von Klaus.
Best of all is a torture sequence that pops up near the end. The killer first arouses, then flogs and kills a naked young girl. Up to this point, the story has only been hinting at its potential to be disturbing. Suddenly, with this sequence, it commits itself to the sort of giallo-esque mayhem it’s been promising all along. The music and the photography suit the action perfectly, though they seem out-of-place compared to the staid setup we’ve have in the movie so far. Here, too, we have the mad killer realizing for the first time that he really is the killer. He achieves this moment of self-awareness because at that moment, for the first time, his compulsion has driven him to kill someone he really cares about. If only the rest of the movie lived up to this one fervid scene!
Franco does succeed in creating a suitably grim atmosphere around Hölfen in deep winter. The snowy fields around the town don’t seem in the least picturesque; when the police are out examining a body in the snow, you can feel their discomfort in the damp and chill. We remember the impression later on, when characters are slogging through the nearby swamp… that water has got to be cold! Unfortunately, that atmosphere is about all the movie has going for it, until that wonderful moment of sadism later on. There’s never any real mystery about the identity of the killer — though the movie pretends there is, and keeps the murderer’s face hidden until very near the end (as if the Dying Mother scene didn’t give the whole game away, just look at the English title!). Karl Steiner’s detective work wouldn’t hold up for a moment in the courts of any civilized country in the world; and though he realizes some of his hunches are wrong, he generally admits this only after the wrong person has been arrested.
With its theme of the sins of the fathers literally haunting the sons, this movie seems like it would fit in among Franco’s Bad Father films. Actually, the connection is a little hard to justify. The ghostly grand-father never makes a physical appearance, and the voice the killer hears in his head at the very end of the film is very likely only in his head… Though the killer seems to have some personal recollections of the dead grandfather, that’s impossible, since the old man died half a century earlier. The conclusion of the movie does look forward very clearly to Franco’s ultimate Bad Father movie, A Virgin Among the Living Dead… though here the conclusion seems less tragic than funny: as the killer slips into the quicksand of the swamp, Inspector Borowsky and the police (perhaps realizing they’re about to be saved a mess of paperwork) don’t lift a finger to save him.
La Mano de un Hombre Muerto was considered a lost film for a while, but around the turn of the millennium a print of the French edition was found and released on DVD. While it’s a wonderful thing that the movie’s been brought back from oblivion, it’s unlikely to win Franco any new friends. It’s certainly competently made, but the story drags, and the visuals are far too uninteresting for the lurid sort of mystery it should have been. There’s at least one more Franco in-joke buried in the script: at one point, a hotel employee being interrogated insists he’s too new to know anything. His previous employment had been at the Negresco, from Vampiresas 1930.