You’d think a cowboy movie by Jess Franco would attract a little attention. Yet the one quasi-Western he directed — which takes place in Venezuela rather than the Old American West — is practically unknown, even among Franco fans.
El Llanero (“The Cowboy”, aka “Jaguar”) opens in the mid-1860’s during the Venezuelan Civil War. Colonel Santierra (Georges Rollin, La Muerte Silba un Blues) arrives in Madero looking for the house of the family Mendoza. Getting directions from the local whorehouse madam (whose pianola, yet again in a Franco film, suggests Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil), he and his men ride out to the hacienda… where they massacre the whole family.
Or rather, most of the family. For the Mendozas’ loyal servant Juano, hearing the gunfire, rushes up to the room where the Mendozas’ youngest son José lies sleeping and carries the boy off into the night. As the story proper begins, it’s twenty-some years later: the hacienda Mendoza has long been the home of Col. Saltierra, where he lives with his wife and his pretty young daughter. Saltierra is now the Governor of Madero; his command of the soldiers has now passed to his young adjutant, Kalman. Unfortunately, Saltierra’s and Kalman’s authority is continually being undermined by the activities of a notorious local bandit, known as “The
Fox” — excuse me; that’s a different story… of course I mean “The Jaguar”. The Jaguar and his men live in caves in the nearby mountains. Somehow they’re always one step ahead of the authorities. It’s almost as though they have the cooperation of somebody in town…
Somebody like Lolita, the local barmaid. As you might have guessed, judging by Franco’s tendency to recycle names and characters, Lolita is a vivacious dark-haired gypsy (à la Reina del Tabarín) who captivates everyone with her singing and dancing… especially Comandante Kalman. One night when Kalman is safely knocked out from too much alcohol, Lolita sneaks out to the garrison to search through his files. Lolita proves remarkably resourceful at scaling walls and avoiding guards… but there are disadvantages to sneaking around in full-length skirts, and eventually she is overheard. Lolita flees through the garrison, and is only seen directly once: as she runs through the prison, she momentarily awakens the sleeping guard (played by Franco himself). The guard takes one look at the gorgeous Lolita, standing over him without the slightest hint of fear, and figures he must be dreaming… so he simply goes back to sleep.
This time, Lolita’s managed to cadge the secret of a shipment of gold that’s about to be sent across the border. She rushes out to El Jaguar’s secret camp to bring him the news. The bandit, I’m sure you’ll have realized, is José Mendoza grown up. He’s been raised entirely in the mountains by Juano; and now, with his absurdly literal copy of “Little John” and his own band of Merry Men, he behaves as a sort of Venezuelan Robin Hood.
Lolita is not the only woman in town whose sympathies El Jaguar has captured. Col. Santierra’s daughter Inés is also fascinated by the tales she’s heard of the brave bandito. Kalman warns her that the romantic tales are exaggerated… that he’s really nothing more than a common criminal. Certainly José might agree with him: after cleverly robbing the gold shipment, he finds himself faced with the very mundane and businesslike task of deciding how to parcel out the loot. By the time he’s done a thorough accounting of what everybody needs or deserves, there’s very little left in the kitty for day-to-day operations. This doesn’t stop him from doing his duty, though, and giving a portion of his proceeds to kindly Father Francisco, the sympathetic local priest.
One day, José stumbles across Inés having a swim. Though José’s idea of wooing is more or less what you’d expect of a guy who grew up in the mountains with a bunch of burly men, but he manages to get his point across. Soon the two of them are meeting regularly by the riverside. Inés learns who José is right away, but José, though he knows Santierra is his enemy, does not yet realize he’s fallen for the daughter of the man who murdered his family.
When one of the Jaguar’s men spends his share of the gold a little too obviously (having never seen Rififí), Kalman captures him and tries to force him to betray the whereabouts of the Jaguar’s cave. The man doesn’t break at once, though, giving José and Juano time to plan his escape. The jailbreak, like most of the rest of the movie, is played with the same lighthearted tone you might expect from a TV western series of the time; the injured man is taken off to Father Francisco’s church, where the good padre will hide him while he recovers.
Unfortunately, the church is the very first place Kalman thinks to look. When he finds that Francisco has been hiding the fugitive, he takes them both back to the garrison and condemns them to death. Now, the two men know that José will try to rescue them… but their expectations lead them to some more serio-comic misunderstandings, as they mistake the hangman for José in disguse (he isn’t). Still, José hasn’t abandoned them. He engineers a remarkably dangerous-looking escape, which is probably one of the most hair-raising sequences in Franco’s output. Kalman’s men set off after them… but the chase is played for laughs, and ends with some harmless fun that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney movie.
This whole episode serves to show how Father Francisco ends up as the Jaguar’s very own Friar Tuck. Juano even builds him his very own altar out of scraps in the cave… and in place of a Bible, which none of the men have, Juano leaves a copy of his one and only book: “The Three Musketeers”. It all seems oddly appropriate…
The breezy, kiddie-matinée tone of the film is matched, for the most part, by Daniel White’s music. The main tune of the movie, sung by the South American group Los Machucambos, is a lovely and particularly haunting song; but White’s arrangement of it for the action sequences is just awful… it sounds as if it would be more appropriate for a high school driver’s ed movie of the same vintage. Much better is the fugue for strings that seems to symbolize Inés. White wrote several fugues for Franco’s movies, oddly enough, and this one is particularly interesting in that Inés actually attempts to whistle along with the cantus firmus the first time we see her.
But then, roughly two-thirds of the way through the movie, the tone shifts dramatically. The change begins with the sudden death of one of the major characters, and from that point on the movie becomes much darker. All of a sudden, the cartoonish characters we’ve come to know start revealing hidden depths. It turns out that José is not the only one who has family to avenge… and in the big gun battle at the climax of the movie, Kalman — the jealous suitor of Inés — does something so cruel and unexpected that it no longer seems we’re watching the same movie. The subplot involving Santierra and José’s family is brought to the fore and dealt with in a completely different way than you might expect… though the final fight to the death with Kalman is pretty much what we’ve anticipated from the beginning.
El Llanero isn’t exactly essential Franco. It has no real connection to the style of film-making we’ve come to associate with Jess Franco, and that’s probably one of the main reasons even die-hard Francophiles have ignored it for so long. But it is entertaining, in a kiddy-matinee sort of way… and the sober conclusion balances out the juvenile silliness of the rest of the movie surprisingly well.
(The role of Santierra was the last for Georges Rollin, who died the next year. But for Rollin’s untimely death, he might have gone on to be as regular a participant in Franco’s movies as the better-known Howard Vernon.)
I’ve never made any secret of my interest in Jess Franco, and as a result there’s one question my fellow Bad Movie buffs ask me regularly: did Jess Franco ever make a really good movie? An unambiguously well-made movie — the kind that any reasonably well-rounded movie fan could watch and enjoy without apology, without reservations, and without any prior exposure to the rest of Franco’s work?
The people who ask this are generally well acquainted with Franco’s most notorious movies, so I understand the question behind the question: Where’s the evidence we should trust this guy? Is it worthwhile to look for meanings in flicks like A Virgin Among the Living Dead? Was Oasis of the Zombies really the best Franco could do, or are there hidden depths to him? I think it’s reasonable to ask these questions. We all know that Franco was a cinematic rebel, but did he really understand exactly what he was rebelling against?
Gritos en la Noche doesn’t quite fit the requirement: as much fun as it is for the Franco enthusiast, it’s so clearly a hodge-podge of other movies, and shows its seams in so many places that its status as a “classic” is a little tough to defend. Miss Muerte from 1965 probably comes closer, but is so laden with in-jokes for the Franco aficionado that many of its charms are lost on the casual viewer. La Muerte Silba un Blues misses the mark as well, but just barely: its overly-complicated plot and at least one jarringly bad editorial decision keep it from scaling the heights.
Now at last I have the answer. If you’re looking for a Jess Franco movie that’s not a “Jess Franco movie”… that’s the polar opposite of the stereotypical Jess Franco movie… a movie that combines exciting visuals with good storytelling, and which maintains its discipline through to the very end… then the movie you want is 1963’s Rififí en la ciudad.
Franco’s Rififí has only two things in common with Jules Dassin’s classic 1955 film Rififí (Du Rififí chez les hommes). The most obvious is the presence of actor Jean Servais in one of the lead roles. The other point of similarity is its attitude. You may remember from Dassin’s film that “Rififí” isn’t a character: it means something like “dust-up”, a fight just for the hell of it. It conveys a certain a state of mind… the take-no-prisoners, smack-my-bitch-up, not just “gangsta” but genuinely gangster code of tough-guy behavior that the French pull off better than anybody else. 1
That rififí kind of attitude is everywhere in Franco’s film, from the subtle behind-the-scenes cruelty of Servais’s power-hungry LePrince… to the amoral thuggishness of LePrince’s enforcers… to the single-minded, two-fisted obsession of Frenando Fernán Gómez’s Sergeant Mora, a good cop finally pushed over the line into enforcing a moral code beyond the limit of the Law.
The movie takes place in an unnamed Central American country. French immigrant Maurice LePrince (Jean Servais) is running for the local Senate on a broad populist platform. LePrince had come to this country in the mid-1940’s… “for his health”, according to his biography, but there’s a strong hint that he may have been running from some Nazi connections in occupied France. In the intervening years, he’s managed to become very rich and very powerful, all while keeping his reputation completely beyond reproach. Under his velvet gloves, though, there are iron fists gone rusty with spilt blood. When it comes to drug smuggling, influence peddling, murder… any shady dealings going on in the capital city, chances are Maurice LePrince is secretly involved in it. He’s probably running the whole business.
LePrince covers his tracks very, very carefully. One particularly ethical and hard-working policeman, Detective Sergeant Miguel Mora (Fernando Fernán Gómez), has been working for years to find hard evidence against him; but LePrince always stays at least one step ahead.
The headquarters for the local underworld seems to be the notorious Club Stardust. Mora had seemed to be on the verge of a break, when one of his informers — a young punk off the street named Juan, whom he’d personally saved from a life of crime and drug dependence — started working there as a bartender. He’d told Mora that he’d gathered information that would absolutely incriminate LePrince… but unfortunately, Juan disappeared before he can give Mora the evidence. As the movie opens, he’s been missing for days.
Late one night, Mora receives a desperate phone call from Juan: he’s escaped from LePrince’s men, but they’re after him. Mora and his wife try to persuade Juan to come hide at their house. It’s only natural: after all the time Juan’s spent with them, Mora has come to feel the boy is like a son. But Juan insists he doesn’t dare try to make it that far. Instead, he arranges to meet Mora in a public square in 30 minutes.
Juan never arrives.
Mora, sick at heart, fears the worst; he attempts to put some pressure on LePrince, but his plan goes horribly wrong. Late at night, LePrince’s goons throw Juan’s broken body through Mora’s front window and drive off. 2
After this, something snaps in the rigidly-moral Sergeant Mora. Against all sense, against all the rules of police work, he goes to the Stardust to confront LePrince (even though LePrince has claimed he has nothing to do with the Club). In one of the movie’s best and most horrifying sequences, LePrince’s men drag Mora into the stairwell and proceed to beat him nearly to death… while in the meantime, just upstairs, the Stardust clients are watching an eye-poppingly tacky musical number. The movie keeps shifting back and forth between the hokum on stage (in which dancers in historic costumes from ancient times up to the present, including a man in a full suit of armor and a girl in a bikini, gyrate to the music) and the brutality unfolding just a few feet away.
The thugs’ plan is to drop the unconscious Mora in the ocean and let him drown, thereby ensuring they can get an easy ruling of “natural death” on the coroner’s certificate. What nobody’s been counting on — not LePrince, not the thugs, not even Mora himself — is that there are other people investigating Juan’s disappearance/murder, too. One of these Juana, is a woman who works in LePrince’s business operations. Another is Nina Laverne, a chanteuse at the Stardust, who’s currently enjoying some extracurricular fun with the boss. Another — it may be one of the previous two; it may be somebody else… we just don’t know — is a woman we don’t see on-screen, whose thoughts we hear as voice-overs against lonely montages of the sea and the city. All these women have one thing in common: they were all at one time passionately, obsessively in love with young Juan (Mora is later stunned to realize the number of women Juan was involved with). It’s Juana, with her friend Manolo, who sees LePrince’s men dump Mora’s body in the ocean. At first they think it’s Juan himself, since they haven’t yet found out about the murder. Manolo fishes Mora out of the water before he can drown, and the pair drop him off at the hospital anonymously.
LePrince is perturbed to find that Mora is still alive. Nevertheless, he and his lawyer pay an official visit to the police station, where they inform the Chief that LePrince will not be pressing charges against Mora for the violent assault he attempted the night before. As for Mora’s condition, well… after LePrince had escaped from the obviously unbalanced detective, Mora had apparently got into a drunken brawl in the Stardust. Whoever beat him up had only been defending themselves. Since Mora had clearly been acting outside his duties and responsibilities as a policeman, the Chief has no other option than to put him on probation while he recovers, and order him to stay away from Maurice LePrince.
Mora is released from the hospital to recuperate. Though he has been relieved of his duties, he still wants to keep watch on the men who injured him — the men he is sure murdered Juan. Things start to get complicated for Mora when one of the men he’s been trying to tail — Ribera, the most sadistic of the three, whose conscience has been starting to give him trouble — ends up being murdered himself… stabbed to death on the same stretch of beach where he attmepted to drown Mora. We get a brief glimpse of the killer, who whispers, “Remember Juan Solano?” before stabbing him. Could it be Mora? Whoever the killer is, he seems to be far more mobile than Mora is, with his broken foot. Yet who else would want to see Ribera dead so urgently? And who else is known to be watching the goons from the Stardust Club?
LePrince gets a call soon afterwards. An unidentifiable woman’s voice asks him if he remembers Juan Solano. The she tells him that Ribera is dead, and his other two thugs will be next. The second killer is dispatched in his own apartment, while his girlfriend is out of the room getting him a drink. When she returns to the dimly-lit bed, she doesn’t realize the man is dead. So, in a delightfully horrifying moment, she starts kissing and caressing the bloody corpse. Realizing almost immediately that something’s terribly wrong, she turns on the light…
Rififí en la Ciudad functions equally well as a political thriller, a film noir, and a murder mystery in which the identity of the killer comes as a real shock. Part of the reason Rififí… is such a solid, coherent piece of work is that Franco derived the script from an award-winning book: “Vous souvenez-vous de Paco?” (1958) by the French crime novelist Charles Exbrayat. The novel provided a very solid scaffold for Franco to construct his movie. But Franco didn’t just make a literal adaptation of Exbrayat’s story: he made a number of changes, some minor (like renaming the dead man “Juan” instead of “Paco”, and giving new names to most of the male characters), and some far more significant… but all of them intelligent.
To take the most obvious example: Exbrayat’s novel had taken place in Barcelona, and Franco realized the Spanish censors would never allow him to make a movie about corruption and revenge in the Spanish government of 1963. Franco also changed his villain’s identity from a Spaniard to an expatriate Vichy Frenchman.
Franco’s screenplay allows Detective Mora to figure out the identity of the killer stalking LePrince; in the novel, that particular mystery was solved after Mora’s part in the story is over. This change makes a crucial difference in the tone of the dénoument. It also moves the conclusion of the murder-mystery portion of the story to just before the confrontation between the detective and the politician, where it makes a great deal more sense. The motivation of the killer is very much the same in both versions, but the killer’s attitude to the detective is drastically different, and is in fact much more believable in Franco’s adaptation. What happens to that killer in the movie is one of Rififí en la ciudad‘s relative weak spots… it involves the usual wild drive off a cliff, though this time, mercifully, the car does not explode.
The climax of Exbrayat’s novel is actually bleaker than that of the film. In the novel, Detective Lluji is a man defined by what he has lost. He’s described as a man “without youth, without love”; his only real attachment is to the Law, and when the Law fails him, he devotes himself utterly to raw Justice. In the beginning of the book, he’s already lost his father to the criminals, and he soon loses his adopted “son”… a son he’s acquired not in the usual, human way, but only through the pain of his work. Lluji’s last confrontation with the crime boss Villar is just another episode of frustration and betrayal; and if Justice is served in the end, the detective is denied an active role in it. By contrast, in Franco’s version Mora stays at the heart of the story all the way through to the end. Unlike Lluji, Mora is defined by what he chooses to sacrifice in the name of what he thinks is just and right.
Mora’s dramatic confrontation with LePrince is well-handled in the movie, but the action that follows immediately afterwards seems determined more by convention than by the demands of the story. That’s OK, though: Exbrayat’s conclusion may also be predictable by the conventions of the hard-boiled romain policier… still, grim as Exbrayat’s events are, they’re a bit more convincing. Nevertheless, Franco’s changes to Exbrayat’s original all make sense, and are internally consistent with each other. The end result is a thoroughly satisfying film, derived from the novel yet independent of it, which is fully deserving of recognition as a new work.
Visually, Rififí en la ciudad is one of Franco’s most appealing and energetic films. The lighting, photography and screen compositions are all strikingly effective, and a far cry from the zoom-laden, out-of-focus movies he made later on. As far as the actors are concerned, the only slightly disappointing performance is that of Agustín González, as the psychotic Ribera. As Ribera’s conscience begins to get the better of him, González overacts the part and goes way too far. But the film is carried by the rock-solid performances of its two leads, Jean Servais and Fernando Fernán Gómez. Franco considered Fernán Gómez the greatest of Spanish actors; in addition to acting, Fernán Gómez was also a director, writer and poet. 3
Though Fernán Gómez gives a fine performance, his appearance was part of the reason Rififí… failed on its initial release in Spain: Spanish audiences were used to seeing him in harmless comedies, and were not yet ready to accept him as a serious artist.
According to legend, Rififí en la Ciudad was the movie Orson Welles’s producers showed him to dissuade him from using Franco as his assistant director on Chimes at Midnight. Instead (so goes the story) Welles was sufficiently impressed by the movie that he insisted on hiring Franco at once. On one hand, that story is credible, since Rififí en la Ciudad is Franco’s best-ever internalization of the lessons he learned from watching Welles’s movies. There’s even a crucial scene involving a secret rendezvous in an aquarium, just like in The Lady from Shanghai… though unsurprisingly, the aquarium is a much more modest, low-budget institution in Franco’s film.
On the other hand, the story started with Franco himself. Franco was known to embellish his life story, and it seems likely the Welles anecdote something he made up years later. By this point in his career, Franco hadn’t yet made an embarrassingly bad movie (Vampiresas 1930, which I personally find cringeworthy, was perfectly acceptable by the standards of contemporary Spanish comedy). There was really very little reason for his detractors to try to discourage Welles from working with him! 4
Even if Welles’s Spanish producer had wanted to convince him that Jess Franco was a terrible hack, it’s very unlikely he’d have seized on Rififí en la Ciudad as the evidence. It’s not just a good Jess Franco movie… it’s a good movie, period. On the basis of Rififí…, it would have been clear to anybody watching that Franco was a capable and talented director.
TRIVIA NOTE: At one point, just before Juan’s body is thrown through their window, Mora and his wife are seen watching a terrible Zorro show on TV. This is actually an excerpt from Joaquín Romero’s 1962 film Shadow of Zorro, which Franco co-wrote.