Posts Tagged ‘France’

Jess Franco: 1966

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Once upon a time, in the mid-1930’s, there was an English crime journalist named Peter Cheyney. Cheyney had tried writing fiction, as well as war poetry, but had failed to make a name for himself. Bewildered by the popularity of American hard-boiled thrillers, he remarked to his friends that anybody — absolutely anybody — could dash off a book in that style. His friends bet him five pounds that he couldn’t do it himself. So Cheyney sat down and wrote “This Man is Dangerous”, featuring a hard-drinking, two-fisted American secret agent named Lemmy Caution.

The book was a huge success. Of course, Cheyney knew his subject — because he himself was a hard-drinking, two-fisted crime investigator who had spent a year running “security” for a far-right British political party. Like Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Lemmy Caution had a bit of his creator’s soul in him. After the success of “This Man is Dangrous”, Cheyney went the Edgar Wallace route, writing several parallel series of crime novels and stories, and enjoying tremendous commercial success.

Like Wallace, Cheyney came to emphasize quantity over quality; and after his death, his reputation (like Wallace’s) suffered an immediate decline (though Wallace’s books, unlike Cheyney’s, have never gone out of print). There’s a further similarity between Cheyney and Edgar Wallace: both are known less today for their writings than they are for the series of continental European movies they inspired… though again, it must be said that more people know Lemmy Caution these days than have ever even heard of Peter Cheyney.


Once upon a slightly later time, there was an American entertainer named Eddie Constantine. Constantine had tried to establish a career in the US, but had failed to make a name for himself. Having studied in Vienna, Constantine decided to make use of his European connections and try to start over as an expatriate. He caught the attention of the legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf, who helped make him a star.

In 1953, two years after Peter Cheyeny’s death — yet while his reputation as an author was still relatively high in France — film-maker Bernard Borderie was looking for a convincing actor to play Lemmy Caution in the movie La môme vert-de-gris / Poison Ivy. Though Constantine was inexperienced as an actor, having appeared only in bit parts in a few movies back home, Borderie thought he looked the part, and cast him in the role.

Poison Ivy is a very strange movie. It begins with an atmopsheric POV-camera crawl through the streets of Casablanca — though it’s not done as a single take, it does prefigure the amazing opening tracking-shot of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. There’s something very Wellesian about the opening scenes, too, as we witness a murder in a Casablanca night club. The mood, the lighting, the camera angles are all classic film noir, and when one of France’s most recognizable actors, Gaton Modot, appears as a police inspector, we think we have a pretty good idea where the movie is going to go. But then, suddenly, everything changes. When Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy appears on the scene, Modot’s police inspector disappears from the story entirely. From that point on, it’s Constantine’s show, as he faces off against crime boss Howard Vernon in a film that’s much more action than noir.

Constantine’s performance has been criticized as overly amateurish, and I suppose that’s fair… considering this was his first major role. But if you watch Poison Ivy carefully, I think you’ll see that Constantine’s performance is better and more nuanced than you might expect. To a viewer more familiar with the American accent, it should be clear that in many scenes Constantine is modulating his ability to speak French depending on the situation: there are times Lemmy Caution wants to appear to be a clueless American, out of his depth.

Regardless of the critical reception, French audiences loved Constantine’s Caution. Poison Ivy launched Constantine’s career as a movie star, which for a while even overshadowed his considerable success as a singer. Within the year, Borderie had completed another Lemmy Caution flick, Cet homme est dangereux — that’s right: the first Lemmy Caution book inspired the second Lemmy Caution movie (“Poison Ivy” being the third novel in the series). Cet homme est dangereux is a prequel to the earlier film, with FBI agent Caution undercover as an escaped convict. In the opening scene, we’re told Caution has managed to escape from prison in Oklahoma and has fled by car to the nearby city of New York. This ignorance of American geography is matched by the whole series’s ignorance of the way the FBI really works, but who cares? In the second film, Lemmy preserves his cover by behaving like a completely amoral gangster, killing people in cold blood. Constantine’s performance cemented his popularity as an action film star, and led not only to a ten-year series of Lemmy Caution films, but also got him cast as American detective Nick Carter in yet another series of movies… not to mention a number of imitation Lemmies.


Once upon a still-later time, in the mid-1960’s, there was a Spanish director named Jesús Franco. Franco had tried his hand at making movies in a number of different genres and styles… and had made a terrific reputation for himself. In fact, he was considered one of Spain’s top rising young film-makers, on the strength of movies like Rififí en la ciudad. But Franco was stifling in the cultural atmosphere of a Spain ruled by that other Franco, and spent as much time as possible enjoying the freedom of early-sixties Paris. While he was there — eating good food, listening to (and playing) good jazz, and avoiding his bigoted Spanish chaperone — he made the acquaintance of many other international artists who’d gravitated to Paris as the cultural center of post-War Europe.

One of these artists was the writer Jean-Claude Carriè, who was fluent in Spanish and had recently begun working with Luis Buñuel. Franco and Carrière worked together on Miss Muerte / The Diabolical Dr. Z, often described as Franco’s best horror film, and possibly his best movie of any kind. After Miss Muerte, at the request of the producer Serge Silberman, the pair started work on a vehicle for Eddie Constantine. According to Franco, Silberman was apologetic about hiring such talent for a purely commercial B-movie. But Franco and Carrière, confident that neither Siberman nor the Spanish co-producers would even glance at the script before the shoot began, decided they’d subvert the genre.

It’s not as though they were the first to do this: in fact, Jean-Luc Godard had just cast Constantine as Lemmy Caution in his film Alphaville. In Godard’s movie, the world of interplanetary science fiction looked depressingly like contemporary Paris; Lemmy Caution, fighting against a computer that was taking over the minds of humanity, looked old and tired and sick of the whole tough-guy persona. Alphaville is considered a classic today, but at the time it was so unexpected and baffling that it just about killed Constantine’s acting career.

Franco admired Godard above all others, and thought Alphaville was the best film Constantine ever appeared in; but even he wasn’t willing to go quite that far in subverting the action genre. Certainly, having spent so much time at the movies in Paris, it’s likely he’d seen many of the actual Lemmy Caution films — though by the last official entry in the series, 1963’s A toi de faire… mignonne, Borderie had run out of both ideas and energy. A toi de faire… mignonne had sort-of kind-of pointed the way toward Alphaville with its hint of science fiction in its McGuffin (a kidnapped scientist with a revolutionary new fuel). But far more than A toi de faire… mignonne, or even Alphaville, Franco’s and Carrière’s eventual script seems to have been influenced by a non-Caution Constantine film: Marcel Ophüls’s Faîtes vos jeux… mesdames!.

Marcel Ophüls was the son of the great director Max Ophüls (La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame de…), and is probably best known for his powerful documentaries, such as The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus. Yet in 1965, the man who would go on to become one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of human barbarity made one of Eddie Constantine’s best, most lighthearted and funny films. Faîtes vos jeux… mesdames! again uses a quasi-scifi backdrop, involving the abduction of the brilliant son of a brilliant scientist by an international spy ring. The key difference — and this could not possibly have escaped Jess Franco’s attention — is that in this case, the spy ring is an organization of women, dedicated to the overthrow of the world’s patriarchal governments.

In Ophüls’s movie, women spies from both sides of the Iron Curtain have grown tired of being used as playthings by their governments. The last straw was when they were required to seduce several old and repulsive Generals over secret state documents… which turned out to be completely blank. The added joke is that the revolutionary organization of empowered women wants their ransom in the form of fur coats and jewelry. While Eddie tries to navigate between the opposing camps — he sympathizes with the women, all the while he hopes to seduce them — the abducted young genius falls in love with the daughter of one of his captors… much to the distress of her man-hating mother. In an amusing epilog, it’s revealed that the young man has become a complete imbecile without regular sex, so Eddie has to arrange his girlfriend’s release from the Iron Curtain. Then it’s revealed that the young man has become an imbecile due to sexual satisfaction… nobody wins (except maybe the young ex-genius), and the war between both the sexes and the ideologies ends in the usual stalemate.

It’s impossible to believe that Franco would have missed seeing this movie during his time in Paris. The idea of a secret high-tech base full of women who want to take over the world would have been irrresistable to him. His later filmography features several scripts in which a male idiot uses his sexual charisma to take on a society of powerful (and superior) women, from The Girl from Rio through Robinson and his Sexy Slaves and Maciste vs. the Queen of the Amazons. He even named his production company, Manacoa, after the Land of Women featured in a popular comic book.

In any case, Franco’s Cartes sur table / Attack of the Robots (1966) is much closer in spirit to Ophüls’s film than either Alphaville or any of Borderie’s Lemmy Caution films. Franco and Carriè hit on an idea that Franco would return to again and again over his career: they would populate the movie with idiots, but treat the script as though it was completely serious. They realized that if they told the actors that their characters were ridiculous, they would overplay their parts and be too broad. On the other hand, if they allowed the actors to take the parts totally seriously, the result would be much better comedy. The only other person to get the joke was Eddie Constantine, who had a great sense of humor and loved the idea of parodying himself.

The setup of Cartes sur table involves a spate of high-profile assassinations carried out by men with curiously-dark skin. All the assassins wear black clothing and dark glasses. When one of the assassins is caught and deprived of his glasses, he turns into a mindless babbling lump; but when someone puts the glasses back on him again, he returns to life… and tries to escape from custody with superhuman stregth. In the ensuing fracas, the assassin is shot and killed. As he dies, his skin turns back to its normal color.

Lee Wee, oui. All the way home.
No, no, NO! When I said I wanted Elvis
impersonators, I meant Presley… not Costello!

INTERPOL determines that the dead killer was, in fact, a perfectly ordinary man who’d disappeared from a holiday several years ago. Further investigation shows that a number of people around the world have disappeared under similarly mysterious circumstances, and all of them share one distinguishing characteristic: they all had a rare (and utterly nonsensical) blood type.

The plan INTERPOL comes up with to defeat the network of killers, whoever they might be, is surprisingly similar to Franco’s plan for shooting the movie: they’ll hire an idiot and not tell him what’s really going on. The identify an agent with the same blood type, and set him up to be kidnapped. They plan to set him up with a plethora of James Bond-style gadgets: a cigar filled with poison gas, and a penny-whistle that activates the antidote… an umbrella that explodes when you open it (hope it doesn’t rain)… all of which are ridiculous, and none of which really work.
The poor sap will then fall into the clutches of the evil conspiracy, whereupon the authorities will move in and take over.

There’s only one agent with the precise blood type they need — not to mention the requisite stupidity — and that’s Al Pereira (Franco’s regular name for his hero). Pereira’s long since retired from duty, but his superiors know where to find him: “between a blonde and a bottle of whisky.”

Jess Franco's 'Cartes sur table' (1966)

Meanwhile, in a Hong Kong casino, Al Pereira sits sipping a Coca-Cola while chatting up a brunette (“Faîtes vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs,” says the croupier, in what I’m sure is a purely coincidental reference to Ophüls’s film). Unfortunately for both Al and the Western bloc, the Communist Chinese have also got wind of the mysterious blood control device, and they force Al into cooperating with them as well.

(Now, the idea that white people suddenly turn dark-skinned when they become slaves is troubling enough to modern sensibilities. But when we come to the casting of the Chinese spymaster Lee Wee, we have the usual problem of a Caucasian being cast in the role. Franco insisted in his memoirs that he tried very hard to get an authentic Asian actor to play the part, but that language problems eventually dissuaded him.)

Lee Wee, oui. All the way home.
Lee Wee. Still more convincing as an Asian than Lee Christopher.

So poor Al Pereira is thrust into a spy game where he’s the unwitting pawn of everybody involved. To make matters worse, everybody — even little children — seem to know that he’s the famous secret agent Al Pereira, making his attempts at subterfuge completely useless.

Lee Wee, oui. All the way home.

The movie establishes a connection with Alphaville not only by having Constantine end up confronting a mind-controlling computer, but also through the musical score by Paul Misraki, who provided the score for Alphaville, and had also done the music for several of the canonical Lemmy Caution movies. Franco also mentions Godard’s movie by name in an announcement on a public bus, heard in the background of the original French print of the movie. Thinking of movie connections, Franco regular Marcelo Arroita-Jaureguí (Dr. Orloff’a Monster) returns in this film as an agent who is killed trying to help Al infiltrate the lair of the villainous Sir Percy (Fernando Rey). Arroita-Jaureguí also appears onstage during a night club number, providing bass to Franco’s own keyboard-playing.

Eddie Constantine.

Unlike Alphaville, or even some of the late-period Borderie films, Eddie Constantine seems to be having the time of his life playing the clueless hero. Particularly amusing is the epilog, in which the triumphant Chinese reveal to Al Pereira that in spite of his success, he’s been played for a fool by all sides. As he tries to escape with his useless James Bond gimmicks, the Chinese just laugh all the harder… until one of them opens the “exploding umbrella”, only to find that that actually works. Lee Wee’s disgusted mutter, “Oh, shit…” is one of my favorite moments in the film.


Franco’s second and last film with Eddie Constantine, Residencia para espías (School for Spies, aka Golden Horn), is not particularly well-known even to Francophiles. However, it’s a crucial part of Franco’s filmography… not because it’s particularly good (it isn’t), or because it’s particularly original (it isn’t), but because of the number of firsts is represents.


Vegetable Cart!

For instance, it was Franco’s first film for producer Karl Heinz Mannchen, with whom he would work regularly thereafeter (Mannchen, as a reluctant German soldier, had been taken prisoner in France at the end of the Second World War; he’d escaped from France, but was recaptured in Spain. After his release, he decided he preferred the climate in Spain and started a new life there). It was also Franco’s first film shot in Istanbul, and Franco so fell in love with the city that he returned to it every chance he got (this helps explain why random bits of Turkish keep popping up in his later films).

Residencia… also marked the first time Franco tried making two very similar movies in quick succession. Franco was always a fast film-maker, and later on he often took advantage of the availability of his cast and crew to shoot part (or all) of a second feature. Sometimes he did this without telling anybody… not the actors, and certainly not the producers, since the second film would often be done for some other company, but at the first company’s expense. In the case of Residencia para espías, Franco shot his second Eddie Constantine film perfectly legitimately, shortly after (though not quite back-to-back with) his first. But according to actor Michel Lemoine (quoted in Obsession: the Films of Jess Franco), when he found he needed more footage for a re-release of the film, Franco convinced Howard Vernon to shoot his brief unscripted scene during the making of Necronomicon the following year. Sure enough, if you watch Vernon’s scene closely, you’ll see that Constantine isn’t clearly visible, and might be a stand-in when both he and Vernon are required to be in the same shot; and when Eddie gets attacked by thugs, Vernon’s body mysteriously disappears from the following shots. Vernon later found out he’d been cheated and raised holy hell.

Howard...
... no Howard.
Howard Vernon suddenly disappears

Residencia… was also the first Franco film to be released in color since his feature film debut, 1959’s Tenemos 18 Años. But from a technical standpoint, this movie is probably best remembered as the movie in which Jess Franco discovered the zoom lens.

Zooms seemed to Franco (and, sadly, other directors including Mario Bava) to be a way to add visual interest to his movies without the time and expense of additional camera setups. The modern zoom lens had been developed in the 1950’s, so the now-hackneyed device was still reasonably fresh when Franco started using it. The technique has not aged well, and Franco’s detractors often refer to his supposed overuse of zoom as evidence that he was a lazy hack with no interest in real cinematography. That’s a grotesque oversimplification; but it’s true that Franco did use zooms rather more than he should have in many of his films, and in the first half of Residencia… it seems to be used more for the novelty of it than for any particular aesthetic purpose.

In fact, Franco seems to have become bored with the plot of Residencia…, and used the movie as an excuse to try out all sorts of new technical tricks. The style of the photography does not match the story through much of the movie’s length. For instance, in addition to the zooms, there are also some moving-camera POV shots that work up a singular degree of menace, and would be perfectly suited to a horror film… but we invariably find these shots represent the point-of-view of our hero.

The plot, such as it is, casts Eddie Constantine as intelligence agent Dan Layton. Layton gets called away from his romantic entanglements to help get to the bottom of some stolen Cold War secrets. Somebody’s told the Russians that the Americans were moving nuclear materials into Istanbul. Fortunately the Americans are able to deny the accusations with a clear conscience (the move isn’t until next week). But it’s still an embarrassing incident. The source of the leaks seems to have something to do with a US-run girls’ school, located (for some incomprehensible reason) on the banks of the Bosporus in the Golden Horn section of Istanbul. Layton is to be sent there at once, to get to the bottom of the affair. If he has to get to the bottom of a few of the pulchritudinous students, too, well… duty is duty.

Residencia para espĂ­as

Layton is due to receive his orders in detail from an agent named Radek — played by Howard Vernon (dressed like Dmitri Shostakovich) in the briefest of cameos. This represents one of the few times that a character named “Radek” actually tries to help the film’s hero. Agent Radek is murdered before Layton can intervene, but Radek is just able to mutter the words “Istanbul… Hilton… Spokane!” before dying. Fortunately Layton understands this means he’s to meet with Col. Spokane at the Hilton in Istanbul, rather than going to meet Col. Istanbul at the Hilton in Spokane.

The girls’ school is run by the iron-fisted Captain Pendleton — who turns out to be a fiery middle-aged woman, ha-ha. Layton tries to chase the skirts at the school while avoiding Pendleton… as well as his on-again off-again CIA girlfriend, who keeps popping up in inconvenient places. Layton also finds himself having to fend off the attentions of Col. Spokane’s overly-affectionate wife (Diana Lorys)…

The lovely and talented...
... Diana Lorys

… who represents a very strong temptation. But all these romantic asides have a place in his plan, and bring him step by step closer to the truth. Somebody always seems to be one step ahead of him in his investigation, but fortunately most of the enemies he meets have no idea when to use a gun… or if they do, then they just don’t know how. The action stays pretty light-hearted and light-headed — including one of the worst versions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” you will ever hear — until the end approaches, and Layton suddenly finds himself surrounded by falling corpses. Then the movie turns grim, and the very last scenes are disturbingly different in tone from the comedy of the opening scenes.

One of the movie’s highlights is a fight to the death in a fully-occupied chicken coop. Another climactic fight scene is viewed through a shelf of distorting jars. Thinking of jars, other scenes seem jarringly wrong: for instance, Layton’s final confrontation with the person who’s really behind the espionage takes place just as a violent thunderstorm starts up… yet the storm is miraculously over a few seconds later, when Layton wanders outside. All in all, you get the feeling from Residencia para espías that Franco was varying his approach as the filming went along — trying all sorts of new tricks to see what worked. Some of his experiments succeed, many do not… but overall the film comes off disjointed and uneven.

The chicken coop scene
The fight seen through jars...
... and reverse shot.

Residencia… allowed Franco to work once more with Diana Lorys (Gritos en la Noche) and Marcelo Arroita-Jaureguí, while Dr. Mabuse himself, Wolfgang Preiss, is also cast in a small role. The film is minor Franco, certainly, but it’s not without interest, and it certainly isn’t a disaster — the movies that would destroy Franco’s good reputation were still at least two years away.

Jess Franco: 1961

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

To review La Reina del Tabarín, Jess Franco’s 1960 musical, I had to watch both the Spanish and French versions of the film several times. La Reina del Tabarín is Franco’s least typical film, a painfully uninteresting romantic comedy with a singularly unsympathetic male lead. Yet I would gladly watch that film — either version, or both — over and over and over, if it meant I never had to watch Franco’s next film, Vampiresas 1930, ever ever again.

Like his previous film, Vampiresas 1930 was intended as a vehicle for Mikaela (Wood). In this film, she plays Dora, a major star of the silent screen; she’s a vampiresa in that her agent has decided she should play up the whole Theda Bara act and make herself as mysterious and sexy as possible. Privately, she’s fed up with her public image as a frail, ethereal creature, prone to fits of overwhelming emotion. What she really wants is a nice plate of cheese.

Yves Massard, Fernando from La Reina del Tabarín, plays a struggling musician named Tony. He and his friend Daniel (Tenemos 18 Años‘s Antonio Ozores) play jazz at a little Italian restaurant to make ends meet. One day, a young girl newly arrived in Paris stumbles into the restaurant — her name is Carolina (Lina Morgan), and she’s starving. She’s also really cute, so Tony and Daniel rush to offer her some of their own food. When customers come in, Tony and Daniel rush to the piano and break into a number; whereupon Carolina’s eyes light up. She runs to the unattended double-bass and begins playing along. She’s not only a jazz musician herself, she’s a darned good one.

Tony and Daniel take her back with them to their lodgings. They live in a sort of commune for out-of-work musicians, where jam sessions are always breaking out unexpectedly, and where the landlady doesn’t want a security deposit — she wants an audition. Well, everybody bursts into a number, and Carolina gets to singing and dancing like mad. She’s in.

Tony and Daniel’s other job, the one that really pays the bills, is as technicians on the movie sets. Daniel is a stuntman, whose duties include riding a car into an exploding building. Tony provides mood music for the actors during the shoots… particularly for Dora, who thinks he’s just dreamy. When Tony makes a special visit to Dora’s dressing room to speak to her, she’s thrilled. When she finds out he’s there to ask for help getting Carolina some work, she’s heartbroken… though in fact it’s Daniel who’s got a thing for Carolina. Dora manages to get Tony to agree to a date at her place…

… which strikes her agent as pure publicity gold: a handsome musician for the notorious vamp! The scandal sheets will love it! This leads to a halfway-amusing scene in which Tony shows up for his “date”, not realizing there are reporters stuffed in every closet, under every piece of furniture, and behind every screen.

Now then: I’d go on about the various turns of the plot, but it turns out there’s no point. The whole story comes to an abrupt halt when it’s suddenly announced that the Talking Pictures have arrived. The silent studios have all gone bankrupt, and everybody’s out of a job.

Some of you reading this synopsis may already be starting to clutch your heads in pain. No wonder: it’s obvious the first half of the flick is a heavy-handed “homage” (sic) to Singin’ in the Rain… with Yves Massard in the Donald O’Connor role, and Antonio Ozores — yes: bug-eyed, round-faced, Jerry-Lewis-meets-Peter-Lorre Antonio Ozores — in the Gene Kelly role.

Vampiresas 1930: our heroes Singin' In The Rain: our heroes

It’s Ozores who gets to plunge into an exploding building, just like Gene Kelly:

Vampiresas 1930: Kaboom! Singin' In The Rain: Kablam!

Dora the vamp is actually costumed to look suspiciously like the character Olga Mara, who appears a couple of times in Stanley Donen’s film and has (as I recall) a single line.

Vampiresas 1930: Dora Singin' In The Rain: Olga Mara
Rear view:
Vampiresas 1930: rear view Singin' In The Rain: rear view

Dora’s director is a carbon copy of Roscoe Dexter, the stressed-out director in Singin’ in the Rain.

Vampiresas 1930: the director Singin' In The Rain: the director

Two other minor characters, the elderly impresario we meet in Mr. Radeck’s night club and his young blonde girlfriend, may also be patterned after Rita Moreno’s character “Zelda Zanders” and her boyfriend, the “eligible bachelor”.

Vampiresas 1930: etc. Singin' In The Rain: etc.

Here’s the trouble: Franco’s movie so far has been a painfully ordinary romantic comedy. Singing’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is not only one of the best movies ever made, it’s one of the best movies about movies ever made. It’s a spectacular exercise in pure cinema — one that delights in its artificiality, while at the same time commenting on the artificiality of the movies (my favorite line in a movie stuffed full of favorite lines is given to R.F., the producer, just after Gene Kelly’s Don has finished pitching the “Broadway Melody” number [“Gotta dance!”]. We’ve just been treated to a show-stopping, 13-minute production number of such stunning virtuosity that it’s hard to believe any movie could contain it. Just after this incredible sequence, Don turns to the producer and asks him what he thinks of the idea. R.F. replies, “I can’t quite visualize it…”)

Cinema — love of the cinema, passion for the cinema, understanding of the cinema — is woven into the fabric of Singing’ in the Rain from beginning to end. The plot device of the coming of the Talking Pictures is central to its story. In Vampiresas 1930, on the other hand, the advent of the Talkies comes as a complete shock. It’s introduced by newspaper headlines. Sure, newspaper headlines had heralded the triumph of The Jazz Singer in Singin’ in the Rain, but the bad news had been built up to gradually (not as though we didn’t know what was going to happen). Nor did ruin come to the characters right away, the way it seems to do in Vampiresas…. Far from building up a sense of comic foreboding, as Donen and Kelly did, and examining the change’s impact on the characters, Vampiresas… only shows up newspaper clippings. One states that 24 silent stars have all killed themselves in despair. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Vampiresas 1930: announcing the demise of the silent film Singin' In The Rain: announcing the demise of the silent film

Now, you can’t really blame Franco for the disparity between Vampiresas… and the movie it depends on for its first half. The story and screenplay were the fault — ahem, work of Pío Ballasteros, with dialogue provided by Franco. Who was Ballasteros? I have no idea; I do know, however, that the film was made at Estudios Ballasteros, so you can read into that anything you want.

But when we come to the second half of the flick, I am willing to assign plenty of blame to anybody who had anything to do with it.

You may have noticed I mentioned the name “Radeck” very briefly in my description above. In Franco’s films, “Radeck” is the name of the villain — the name first turns up in 1960’s Labios Rojos, and would continue to signify the Bad Guy all the way through Franco’s career. There’s been no room for a stock Bad Guy in the movie so far, just as there was no place for one in Singin’ in the Rain. That’s about to change: earlier, Daniel and Carolina had gone out for a night on the town, and while dancing in Radeck’s night club, had become so carried away by the music that they’d jumped onstage and given an impromptu performance with the band. We’re given the impression they’re about to be discovered by an elderly producer, who (just as in La Reina del Tabarín) just happens to be in the audience. That’s not what happens. The real point of the sequence is to introduce Radeck and his associates… the photography changes style drastically when we meet Radeck, becoming all noirish and Wellesian.

Radeck’s nightclub is really a front for his nefarious activities. When one of his underlings tries to double-cross him and rob the club, Radeck sneaks up on him and shoots him dead. Radeck and his girlfriend dump the body in a Paris park, but they neglect to remove the stolen money from the corpse. The next morning, when the starving Dora and her friends sit alone in the park, the stolen money blows across the park. Dora and the others find the money just as a passing policeman finds the body… and soon the four friends are on the run, under suspicion of murder.

Yeah, I know… it sounds like the scriptwriter ran out of ideas halfway through, and decided to throw in a chase scene. If only it were so innocuous. In fact, either Ballasteros or Franco had seen (and been impressed by) Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, which had come out a year or so before. In Wilder’s film, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis played musicians on the lam, who disguised themselves as women and joined up with an all-girl band. Because of its cross-dressing theme (and Joe E. Brown’s infamous final line), Some Like It Hot had been held up by the Spanish censors, who did not allow it to be released in Spain until 1963. Perhaps Ballasteros and Franco thought they could subvert the censors by turning the second half of their movie into a near-remake of Wilder’s film. Perhaps they thought they could rip off Wilder, and nobody would notice… since the original film hadn’t been released yet to a local audience. Whatever their motivation may have been, rip off Wilder is exactly what they did; and if the thought of Yves Massard and Antonio Ozores in drag scares you, you’ve only scratched the surface of the horror in store.

To give you a better idea of what’s to come, the French title of Vampiresas 1930 is Some Like It Black. And they’re not talking about coffee.

You see, the four fugitives need to find some way to sneak out of Paris to avoid the police. While Dora and Tony are waiting to speak to their agent, they overhear a phone conversation with Radeck: it seems he’s hired an all-black jazz band to play at his Club Negresco in Nice (you see where this is going, don’t you?). Tony, Dora, Daniel and Carolina rush off to the train station, where they meet the jazz band disembarking. Since the players don’t speak much French, they’re very happy when these four friendly Parisians offer to help them find their connecting train to Nice. They don’t notice that the “helpful” quartet has really put them on a train for… Siberia. Ha. Ha. Ha.

With the actual band out of the way, this means that not only Dora, Tony, Daniel and Carolina, but the entire population of the musicians’ boarding house are free to dress up in drag and blackface, and go down to Nice to take their place.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the result:

Vampiresas 1930

No, no… take a good long look; I insist:

Vampiresas 1930

Bear in mind we’re really only halfway through the picture. We have a good long time to suffer through this miserable indignity. To pad out the plot, it turns out that the Club Negresco is actually Radeck’s front for a major counterfeiting operation. Our terribly convincing and not-at-all offensive pseudo-black musicians have gone from one criminal mess straight into another.

Clearly this movie presents a lot of problems for a modern audience. But one of the problems it ran into early on stemmed from its origin as a vehicle for Mikaela. The trouble was, Vampiresas 1930 also featured the cinema debut of the gamine-ish Lina Morgan, who was an established stage actress and a natural physical comedienne. Miss Morgan wiped Mikaela off the screen with her every appearance. Take, for example, one of Mikaela’s big emotional numbers at the musicians’ boarding house: there she is, singing her heart out in a loving close-up… and over her left shoulder is Morgan, pretending to play the double-bass, making Harpo Marx faces and stealing the show. I guarantee that not a single eye in the theater was watching Mikaela while that scene went on. Mikaela’s career stalled after Vampiresas 1930, but Morgan’s was only beginning.

Vampiresas 1930

If Franco’s film had ended halfway through, Vampiresas 1930 might have made a good intro for Morgan. Unfortunately, once she starts doing Harpo Marx in blackface, her performance goes from charmingly eccentric to horrifying. Her “ethnic” schtick becomes so broad that it brings to mind every ghastly minstrel-show stereotype. Her antics are highlighted by the fact that nobody else seems to be trying in the least to do anything with their roles in disguise. All together, the band’s stage show performances are certainly unique: you can’t bear to watch them, but you can’t look away, either.

The nadir comes when the band is caught onstage after discovering the counterfeiting plan. Their way offstage is blocked by gun-wielding thugs, so they have to keep repeating and repeating and repeating the same tepid number (“Lara-Lara”, written by Franco himself) while they mosey en-masse through the crowd from one exit to the next. By this point, Massard’s shoe-polish makeup is already starting to rub off; the fact that the piano continues to play on the soundtrack even after Massard’s got up to join the others is a relatively minor problem by comparison.

Vampiresas 1930 is (so far) my single least favorite Jess Franco film. Admittedly, there are a whole raft of mid-eighties Franco flicks I haven’t seen yet; but since Vampiresas… contains so few of the (ahem) qualities we associate with a Jess Franco film, I find it unlikely that any of his more characteristic work will inspire such loathing. The Spanish DVD doesn’t help anything by cropping the frame to the wrong aspect ratio.

At the very end of the film, I kept waiting for the members of the real jazz band to come back from their inadvertent trip to Siberia and beat the living shit out of the principal cast. Alas, that’s not what happens… but it’s a beautiful dream.


 


While they were in Nice filming the latter half of Vampiresas…, Franco took the producer Sergio Newman to see Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula. Franco later claimed he loathed the Hammer horror films. “Terence Fisher is one of the worst film-makers that ever was,” said the director of Lulu’s Talking Asshole (Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco [Balbo/Blumenstock/Kessler], p. 244). But at the time, Franco seemed to find the Hammer films’ approach inspirational: if only their lurid, explicit approach to horror could be extended to the erotic implications of the stories, then, maybe, there’d be something worth watching…

Out of that experience in Nice emerged Franco’s first horror film, and his best-known film of any kind: Gritos en la Noche (“Screams in the Night”, aka “The Awful Dr. Orlof”).

Gritos en la Noche opens in the very early 20th century, as a series of abductions is terrorizing the town of Hartog. Young girls are disappearing off the streets at random, never to be seen again. In fact, they’re being abducted by the awful Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon), a former prison surgeon who needs young bodies for his medical experiments. His dirty work is done by his blind, disfigured, zombie-like servant Morpho, a psychopath rescued from prison at the expense of his mind; Morpho subdues his victims by tearing out their throats with his teeth. Orlof’s goal is to restore his daughter Melissa to life. She had been burnt in a fire, and now languishes in a coma, her once-beautiful face scarred beyond recognition.

On the trail of the disappearances is a policeman called Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin). Tanner has some good ideas: for example, he is seen to virtually invent the facial composite during the course of the movie (though I think the practice was already in use by that time). But overall, he’s a bit of a blockhead. Most of the real detective-work in the movie is done by Tanner’s fiancée, the danseuse Wanda Brodsky, with some help from a clever, sharp-eyed beggar named Jeannot.

Orlof’s method is to woo young girls with champagne and jewelry, convince them to go off with him, and then leave them to Morpho. Unfortunately for him, one of his victims loses the necklace he gave her in the struggle; when the beggar Jeannot finds it and sells it to a jeweler, its unique design is recognized by a policeman who was among the last to see the girl alive. While Tanner struggles to figure out what to do with this information, Orlof and Wanda encounter each other. Orlof is enthralled, because Wanda is the living image of his daughter Melissa (the two women are both played by Diana Lorys). Wanda, however, recognizes Orlof from Tanner’s attempt at creating an Identikit, and realizes that he must be the monster. Without telling Tanner what she’s up to, Wanda disguises herself as a prostitute and starts visiting the bars where she last saw Orlof. She hopes she’ll be able to attract his attention again, so she can get close to him and find out what he’s really up to…

But poor Wanda hasn’t bargained on the existence of the half-human Morpho, and soon finds herself in over her head. She’s able to send a last-minute emergency message to Tanner, but the Inspector (dunderhead that he is) thinks it’s just another false lead and refuses even to read it… until it’s nearly too late. While he dithers, Wanda attempts to escape, and discovers the hideous truth behind Orlof’s experiments. In the meantime, Orlof makes a bad mistake in his dealings with his ex-lover and assistant, Arne (Perla Cristal), which may spell doom for all of them…

Gritos en la Noche exists in two main versions: the better-known international version, which contains some notorious footage of bare breasts, and the version made for release within Franco’s conservative Spain. The Spanish version, while missing the nudity, is actually longer than the international version, and holds together slightly better. The brief nudity has drawn all sorts of notice in books and articles on Franco, but it’s really pretty uninteresting today: there’s a scene in which Dr. Orlof draws a scalpel between the breasts of his victim on the operating table, and a second scene in which the lust-crazed Morpho tears the dress off the heroine. The first of these scenes never made much sense to me: why (other than for giggles) is he working on her chest, when he is supposed to be cutting off her face? The footage has also been shoehorned in, in a very sloppy way that doesn’t match the surrounding sequences. The second of these scenes was shot using a stand-in, since Diana Lorys refused to do it herself. So neither of these famous moments is really integral to the film. (Nice boobies, though!)

In the Spanish cut, the opening credits extend into the first scene as far as the moment in which the drunk girl, soon to be a victim of Morpho, peers at herself in a mirror. This explains the weird disconnect between the action and the music — wonderful, avant-garde improvisation involving keyboards, percussion and slide whistle… Because the credits are missing, the action and the music seem totally at odds with each other in the international version… and this gives the opening an eerily-appropriate feeling of malaise. Thus the Spanish cut has a slightly more conventional feel, though it’s well worth tracking down as a valid and enjoyable alternative version.

Orlof and his blind henchman Morpho are lifted from the old Béla Lugosi film, The Dark Eyes of London. Lugosi had played a dual role of Dr. Orloff (with two “f”s) and kindly Professor Dearborn; though the movie was based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, the name “Orloff” did not appear in the book (in which the villain’s real name was Judd… “The Awful Dr. Judd” just doesn’t have the same ring to it). Lugosi’s Orloff had been aided by his lumbering, disfigured henchman “Blind Jake”, who’d ended up turning on his master in much the same way Morpho ends up turning on his.

Melissa and her disfigured face are clearly derived from Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (“Eyes Without a Face”, 1960), the hugely influential art-horror film that inspired a decade of European rip-offs. Franco would return to Franju’s original many times throughout his career, most notably in his 1987 film Faceless. The Awful Dr. Orlof is sort-of an anti-Franju film, since Les Yeux Sans Visage was specifically intended to avoid all the exploitative elements and horror-movie clichés that Franco’s film wallows in.

Orlof is Franco’s most famous film, but it’s not his best. The screenplay is crammed with terrible expository dialogue — which is unfortunate, considering how effectively Franco uses visual cues alone to convey Morpho’s ability to hunt by sound. Inspector Tanner’s investigations slow the movie to a crawl whenever he’s on screen; and no matter how clever his “Identikit” idea may be, it’s hard to believe that anyone would really be identified through the terrible drawings that result.

The actual horror elements of the movie work much better. The black and white photography lends everything a dank and decadent atmosphere (Franco’s use of light and shadow in his black and white films is very effective; he would not make another film in color until 1967!). The scenes of Morpho hunting his prey through an empty house are certainly disturbing, but there are quiet, subtle moments as well: when Howard Vernon’s Orlof sits considering his prospective victim, he’s captured in half-shadow, while the eyes of the girl he’s watching are fully illuminated. Vernon thus appears so dark by comparison to the girl, yet is so clearly visible, that he almost seems to be a living negative image (which is appropriate).

Orlof

 
Morpho

Vernon himself was an inspired choice for the sinister doctor. Born Mario Lippert, this Swiss-American actor had played important roles in films by Jean-Pierrre Melville, and could have gone on to a career making Important Films. He didn’t want a career like that, though. He preferred the unusual, the unexpected and the outré… which is why he got along so well with Franco, and continued to make films with him for most of the rest of his life. Vernon approached his roles in Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer and the Franco-scripted Zombie Lake with equal commitment and enthusiasm, and that’s the attitude that endeared him not only to Franco, but to legions of bad movie fans everywhere.

Still, even the horror aspect of the movie makes very little sense. There’s no reason why poor Melissa’s state should hinge on the condition of her face. There’s also no real explanation for the fact that once Orlof dies, Melissa dies, too. It’s absurd, but in this case the absurdity constitutes the core of the movie. The two are entwined in a sick, quasi-incestuous, quasi-necrophiliac sort of relationship; Melissa’s ailment might be more charitably described as poetic rather than clinical. Orlof and Melissa are two of Franco’s most important recurring characters. Various Melissas return throughout the Franco filmography, and in his bizarre tarot deck the “Melissa” card tends to suggest both innocence and doom. In The Secret of Doctor Orloff (two “f”s), a Melissa must lead her zombified father to his final death; in Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, Melissa is the blind bird-woman “daughter” created by Howard Vernon’s Cagliostro as an answer to Frankenstein’s male creation.

As for Orlof, he represents the first appearance of the Bad Father in a Franco film. Names recur often in Franco’s movies: Orlof(f), Radeck, Kalman, Al Pereira… sometimes these names have a symbolic significance (or at least, they assume this significance over time): for example, “Linda” is usually the innocent to be corrupted; “Lorna” often represents the corrupting influence. Other names and roles are taken from their literary sources: de Sade’s Eugénie, Justine and Juliette make repeated appearances throughout his filmography. But the Bad Father is different… actually, it’s one of the few elements in any of Franco’s movies that seems to go deeper than the surface. With Gritos…, such an early movie, we can’t tell yet what deeper significance the Bad Father may have. We’re still mostly in monster movie territory. But we’ll be revisiting the Bad Father many times as we go through Franco’s output. I have yet to decide if the depth of the image is real or apparent… but then again that’s exactly why I’m watching so many Franco films in chronological order.

Orlof again

Lastly, if there’s one truly awful thing about Dr. Orlof, it’s the English dubbing on the international version. I have the old Image Entertainment DVD, on which the viewing options are either English or French with no subtitles. Fortunately, my dimly-remembered high school French is quite enough to carry me through the French version. The English dialogue is so bad it’s unlistenable.

PS — the terrible opera seen briefly in La Reina del Tabarín is identified in Gritos en la Noche as Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Faust. Meyerbeer never wrote an opera based on Faust. He did wrote a very similar opera called Robert le Diable… but this ain’t it.

Jess Franco: 1959/60

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

I’ve already written a full review of Jess Franco’s first film, Tenemos 18 Años (“We Are 18”, 1959). Tenemos 18 Años was a virtually plotless road movie; it followed two girls on a trip across Spain in an absurd yellow car. The girls are hoping for excitement, but all they get are car problems and road fatigue. So they begin to imagine picaresque adventures for each other, and these fantasy sequences — which blend uneasily in with reality as the movie progresses — form the main part of the film. Midway through the movie, the lead male actor (comedian Antonio Ozores, playing the character “Mariano” — an in-joke reference to Ozores’s brother, the director Mariano Ozores) has his own fantasy sequence that turns into a 15-minute horror film parody. This bizarre sequence is filmed in a completely different style from anything else in the movie, and quotes many of the familiar horror tropes that would become Franco’s stock-in-trade for most of the rest of his career.

Unruly, scattershot, chaotic, unconstrained by narrative… Tenemos 18 Años certainly was a far cry from the typical Spanish comedy of the time. Franco hoped the movie would come as a breath of fresh air, and would inspire both audiences and film-makers to start looking for new directions in their light entertainment. But there was a reason most Spanish comedies of that time were so conventional and repetitive: they were still heavily controlled by the government of that other Franco. By the mid-50’s, satirical films and parodies had started to appear, questioning the values presented by the state-approved españoladas and other cozy depictions of an isolated Spain; but a first feature from a brash young unknown was much more likely to attract the scrutiny of the censors than the work of established artists. With his very first film, Jess Franco found himself in trouble with the Authorities.

Tenemos… was kept from release by the state for two years. Ostensibly, this was because of a fantasy sequence involving escaped prisoners: one of the girls imagines falling in love with a convict and helping him evade the law, and this was considered unacceptable. In fact, there’s much more about Tenemos… that ran counter to the tenets of fascist entertainment: Tenemos… did not present a picture of Spanish youth, or of Spanish femininity, that conformed to the image the censors wanted to convey. Here we had two 18-year-old girls on their own — traveling freely, expressing themselves freely, exercising their imaginations, being thoroughly independent… neither madonnas to be worshiped nor whores to be redeemed; neither idealistically-depicted domestic figures, nor victims of that same repressive idealism. They were just a couple of girls, engaged in a free-spirited rite of passage that had only been imaginable, up to this point, as a journey for young Spanish men (Pavlović, Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies, pp. 109-110).

It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened to Franco’s development if Tenemos… had been given a fair chance. As it stands, the trouble Franco ran into with a relatively harmless movie like Tenemos… only deepened his distrust of the Authorities, and paved the way for the truly transgressive films he’d make later on.

Aside from Antonio Ozores’s prophetic turn as the monstrous “Lord Marian”, this first film introduces one of the most important recurring elements in Franco’s career: the decision to place his story, however insubstantial, firmly in the hands of his female characters. Men in Franco’s films tend to think they’re the ones controlling the situation, and indeed Franco often encouraged his actors to believe this was the case. In fact, these men are usually helpless fools who can’t do anything without the women’s help. Franco never told his actors that this was his intent: he was afraid that if he told them they were supposed to be saps, they’d play their parts too broadly. Thus he encouraged them to think of themselves as typical movie leading men. In the context of a Franco film, this made them look like “incorruptible idiots” (Tohill & Tombs: Immoral Tales, p. 107).


 


Many of Franco’s later films would follow Tenemos… and center on two strong female protagonists. His very next film, Labios Rojos (“Red Lips”, 1960, also starring Tenemos…‘s Isana Medel, who was his girlfriend at the time), featured two young women who ran a private detective agency. At the request of a mysterious man named Kalman, the “Red Lips” detectives try to track down a jewel thief named Radeck. Neither the jewels nor the thieves turn out to be what they seem, and soon the girls are on the run, wrongly accused of murder…

Labios Rojos is, if not a lost film, at least an elusive one. I’ve never been able to track down a copy. Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco (Balbo/Blumenstock/Kessler) says the file “seems to have disappeared totally from circulation” (p. 37), and bases its own review on the photonovel that was derived from the movie. Nevertheless, the Red Lips girls returned many times throughout Franco’s filmography: Sadisterotica (aka Rote Lippen, 1967) is a sort-of remake of Labios Rojos, and that film was followed by a sequel, Bésame, Monstruo (Kiss Me, Monster) the same year. Les Emmerdeuses (“The Pains in the Ass”, 1974) was yet another reboot of the concept, with the lesbian subtext of the girl-girl partnership made explicit; while La Chica de los Labios Rojos (“The Girl with the Red Lips”, 1986) condensed the two girls into one, probably for budgetary reasons. The last appearance of the two female detectives came nearly 40 years after the first, with Seda Roja (Red Silk, 1999).

But the Red Lips girls aren’t the only recurring characters to be introduced in Labios Rojos. “Radeck” — a name taken from a Georges Simenon novel — went on to become one of Franco’s stock names for his villains, just as “Kalman” became shorthand for a character that was uninteresting in himself, but was still important to the plot. Franco recycled the name of the henchman, “Carlos Moroni”, as a generic henchman name several times in his early films, but discarded it before long.


 


Before Franco could get his directing career started in earnest, he still had some journeyman’s jobs to do. At the same time Franco was making his first two films, he also provided screenplays for a couple of films by León Klimovsky. When Klimovsky backed out of doing a musical, his producer Sergio Newman remembered Franco, and thought the energetic, imaginative young man would make a good replacement. That’s how Franco, the man who thought he was going to revolutionize Spanish comedy with Tenemos 18 Años, ended up making the safest, most conventional movie of his entire career: La Reina del Tabarín (“Queen of the Tabarin Club”, 1960).

La Reina del Tabarín was a Spanish/French co-production, with Newman sharing credit (at least on paper) with the legendary French producer Marius Lesoeur. It was intended as a vehicle for a rising star named Mikaela Wood, aka “Mikaela”. In spite of its Spanish setting, the story of La Reina del Tabarín is puerile Ruritanian comic-opera nonsense, about a poor-but-honest girl of the street who falls in love with a callow nobleman and gradually teaches him to love truly.

Now, in spite of its hackneyed, uninteresting plot, there are several reasons to pay attention to La Reina del Tabarín. First, most obviously, this was Jess Franco’s third feature film — out of nearly 200 — and as his least characteristic film, it’s noteworthy if only as a curiosity. Even in such a conventional film, there were still a couple of opportunities for Franco to express his own emerging style; there are several moments in the film, some only seconds long, that are recognizably Franco’s, and which probably would not have succeeded as well had they been left to Klimovsky.

But the main reason to study La Reina del Tabarín — its chief appeal to the Franco-ologist — is this: it’s La Reina… that introduces us to the Franco Version Problem.

Now, as a devotee of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, I am very familiar with Version Problems. But the catalog of Jess Franco is probably the ultimate example of the phenomenon. As if it wasn’t confusing enough that he frequently re-used his own scripts — sometimes for movies of completely different genres — his films often went through so many changes in post-production that it’s hard to tell if some versions should even be considered the same movie… or even be considered a Jess Franco movie at all. Sometimes Franco himself was responsible for the changes — for example, he shot a version of Erotic Rites of Frankenstein in which the actors were always clothed for distribution in conservative, pre-destape Spain, and an entire second version with much more nudity for distribution in the rest of Europe. But for the most part, the edits were likely to be done without either Franco’s knowledge or permission. For example, his first Marquis de Sade adaptation, Justine (1968), was heavily censored by its Anglo-American producers (AIP!); while A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971) was completely recut by Eurocine, first with extraneous softcore inserts… then with hardcore inserts… then, in the early 1980’s, with terrible zombie attack footage shot by Jean Rollin… before finally being edited out of all recognition and showing up on US home video as “Zombie 5”. So it went throughout Franco’s career.

And the troubles all start here.

I’ll explain by providing a synopsis of the Spanish version, which is the longest. The movie begins with credits displayed over footage of the streets and rooftops of Madrid. The background music is a collage of all the movie’s songs, in the manner of an operetta overture (This opening, too, has a sort of backhanded appeal for the Franco fan: at some point in his brief time at Film School, before he got thrown out, Franco must have heard one of his teachers explain that a good way to create visual interest in the frame is to include one of the many antique street lamps that feature in Spain’s urban architecture. Certainly in some of Franco’s later films, El Conde Dracula (1969) and Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1971), street lamps and hanging signs feature so often they deserve their own credits. Well, in the opening credits of La Reina del Tabarín, there’s a street lamp in nearly every shot).

The movie opens with a neat crane shot that gives us an overhead glimpse of our heroine, Lolita (Mikaela), singing and dancing for coins in the streets with the help of her uncle and brother. Lolita’s performance is blocking traffic; and it just so happens that one of the people stuck watching her is a theater manager, who’s very impressed by her voice and her beauty. He puts a generous contribution in her tambourine, and tells her to come see him about a job. Her uncle and her brother, who are tired of being poor and hungry, are thrilled… but Lolita insists she will never compromise herself by singing as somebody else’s servant.

Once they all get home, though, Lolita finds it difficult to maintain her defiant attitude. In spite of some bad comedy and a pretty good song — “La luna me engañó” — Lolita can no longer ignore her family’s hunger. So she goes to rent some decent clothes and audition for the theater manager. Of course, the show for which she’s auditioning, like the revue-within-the-musical in “Guys and Dolls”, is just awful… an intentionally-overdone example of the worst kind of amateur show. The club concièrge doesn’t want to let Lolita and her family in, thinking she’s a non-paying customer; but Lolita gets the attention of the management by singing such a fiery flamenco number that the producers can’t even hear the rehearsal any longer. Lolita starts her audition — but before she’s even begun, one of the producers gooses her. That’s enough for Lolita.

In the meantime, we’re introduced to Fernando (Yves Massard), who appears to be a harried commercial traveler saying farewell to his belovèd before going away on a long business trip. However, no sooner has he parted from one girl than he’s run into the arms of another — a harried commercial traveller, just returning to his belovèd from a long business trip. In fact, he’s not engaged to either girl, and he’s not a businessman: he’s a wealthy nobleman who serves in the Spanish diplomatic corps. He’s engaged to a young French heiress named Monique, the daughter of a diplomat… but until he’s actually married, he’s determined to play the field as aggressively as possible.

Sneaking away from Girl No. 2, he returns to his mother’s home just in time to join a costume party. He’s had a double planted in costume to give him an alibi for his wanderings, and he quickly exchanges clothing with him. Brushing off yet another young lady who’s recognized him as her sometime-boyfriend, Fernando rejoins Monique as though nothing had happened.

The sounds of the party carry out into the street, where a despondent Lolita and her family are dragging home their cart and barrel-organ. Realizing that these rich people must have more than enough food, and remembering her success fighting her way into the audition, Lolita climbs over the villa walls. Pretending to be part of the scheduled entertainment, she bursts into song. The partygoers are thrilled by her singing and dancing, and since it’s a costume party nobody thinks twice about her shabby clothes. Fernando’s mother rewards her for her performance by promising her a good meal.

On her way to the kitchen, Lolita bumps into Fernando, who’s bringing champagne for Monique. Lolita mistakes Fernando’s military costume for servant’s livery; Fernando, seizing his chance to get to know this pretty young girl, goes along with the misunderstanding. He tells her he’s “Rigoberto” (“Roberto” in the French version), the valet. Fernando/Rigoberto watches as Lolita unselfconsciously polishes off an entire chicken. He helps her carry food out to her cart, and promises to come see her with more groceries the next day.

Fernando tries all his usual pick-up lines with Lolita, but the streetwise girl sees through all of them. Fernando is horrified when he catches himself actually blurting out the truth about who he is and what he does — our first indication that he’s seriously falling for Lolita. As the two grow closer, he comes to see her when she performs at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, others in Fernando’s circle also go to this restaurant, and one of his peers catches sight of him and Lolita in mid-snog. Soon their affair is the subject of gossip all over town, and the news eventually reaches both Monique and Fernando’s mother.

The grande dame summons Lolita at once. The girl thinks she wants to hire her to entertain… but when she finds out Fernando’s true identity, she’s devastated. Fernando’s mother is amused that the girl had no idea who her son really was, but insists that this impropriety cannot be allowed to continue. Why (she chuckles), the very idea of a man in Fernando’s position being seen with a mere street singer! Lolita bristles: which of them is it, really, who has been behaving disgracefully all this time?

When Lolita confronts Fernando with his deception, Fernando assures her that whatever he meant to do at first, he has now genuinely fallen in love with her. He’ll give up his position, he says — he’ll cut the ties with his family, and he’ll break off his engagement with Monique — if only she’ll elope with him. He promises to return to her tomorrow, a free man; and Lolita, not fully believing him, shakes his hand sadly in parting.

In fact, what Fernando does next is look for the guy who betrayed him. Finding him drunk, he knocks him out and throws a glove in his face… challenging him to a duel. In the duel the next morning, Fernando deliberately fires his bullet into the trees. His “friend” does no such thing. Fernando is not killed, but is left grievously wounded. Naturally, he never shows up to run off with Lolita; and Lolita thinks he has abandoned her (which, really, he has). When an impresario from Paris hears her perform and offers to take her back to France with him, Lolita accepts.

In Paris, Lolita gets the full Pygmalion treatment from her impresario and his associate, Professor Picardi, who turn her from a coarse Spanish spitfire into a sophisticated Parisian chanteuse. She makes her début at the Club Tabarin as “Lola Miranda”, and quickly becomes a national sensation. Because of her artistry, she’s celebrated as a social equal by everybody-who’s-anybody. Back in Madrid, the convalescent Federico reads of her success. “Quickly!” he cries to his valet, “We must go to Paris…!”

And you can fill in the rest yourself.

Here’s where the fun begins: when La Reina was released in France, Eurocine’s Marius Lesoeur considered it his movie. To make this clear, he made some drastic changes to the film. First, he took most of the Spanish crew’s names out of the credits, which he also altered by removing the shots of Madrid. The French version opens with a backdrop of the Tabarin Club, advertising the performances of “Mariquita, la Belle du Tabarin”. One one hand, this alteration suggests that the important part of the film is the portion that takes place in Paris. On the other hand, the change suggests the producer never actually watched the film… since “Mariqita” is the name of a song Lolita sings at the club, not the name of the performer.

The next important change Lesoeur made was to cut out the entire first 15 minutes of the film. This meant a couple of songs were cut from the picture, but no matter: the French version even cut the references to those songs out of the music for the opening credits! Thus La Belle du Tabarin begins with Federico rather than Lolita.

This is a very big change, and one that affects the entire tone of the picture. The original Spanish version is Lolita’s story all the way through; in spite of the movie’s conventionality, this emphasis makes it thematically consistent with Franco’s later work, in which the female characters are almost always at the heart of the action. The French version has Lolita intrude unexpectedly into Fernando’s story — and considering Fernando is played by a French actor, we can perhaps see why. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a mistake. Fernando is a despicable cad at the beginning of the movie, and by the end, “happy ending” notwithstanding, he still seems like a despicable cad who doesn’t deserve a second chance (of course, the movie’s finale takes place on New Year’s Eve 1913-14; considering what the next year hold for everybody it’s not really much of a “happy ending”, in either version). His decision to provoke a duel, then deliberately lose the fight, suggests that he would rather die than be honest with the women in his life; and though Lolita’s male friends see his survival of the duel as proof of his masculinity and honor, in hindsight it looks like nothing of the sort.

Most tellingly, the French version changes the very last scene of the movie. In the Spanish original, Fernando and Lolita walk off into the breaking dawn, talking about how nice it will be to get the hell out of Paris and go back to beautiful, sunny Spain. In the background, we hear the energetic Spanish song “La luna me engañó”, from earlier in the film. Fin. But in the French version, the song has been cut out — just as it was cut from the first part of the film, along with the whole opening 15 minutes. It’s been replaced by a continuation of the sedate, romantic theater music from the scene before. The dialogue has also been removed: the lovers take their walk without saying a word to each other. There’s no mention of Spain at all.

So even as early as Jess Franco’s third film, producers were meddling with his work. Lesoeur managed to turn Franco’s movie, slight and uninteresting though it might have been, into something worse… without his knowledge or permission. Perhaps it was destiny.

Here are some other notable facts about La Reina…: To begin with, Franco gives classical music a ribbing. He presents it as stuffy and pretentious, and inferior to the “music of the streets” or even the music of the Club Tabarin. We get to see a few moments of a hilariously awful opera, shot in a broad comic style, which emphasizes all the stereotypes of Grand Opera (French opera, that is; not the Wagnerian type, which has stereotypes all its own)… The heroine cries, “No!” The villain sings back, “Yes! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The heroine cries, “No!” The villain sings back, “Yes! Ha! Ha! Ha!” And so on. It’s no wonder that Fernando and Monique walk out. Then, later on, Professor Picardi gives a soporific recital. In the French version, he introduces Beethoven’s 1808 “In Questa Tomba Oscura” by saying, “Now, my dear friends, I have the honor to present a new song…

Thinking of music, the song “Amor, amor” — which is featured prominently in Franco’s The Awful Doctor Orlof, makes its first appearance in Franco’s work here… in the scene where Fernando challenges his “friend” to a duel.

Next, there’s the case of the actress Dora Doll, who’s credited with a Special Appearance in the film. She plays another singer at the Tabarin Club, who at one point sings “La Petite Tonkinoise” (made famous by Josephine Baker and later featured in Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980)). Dora Doll had a fairly busy career in European cinema; but by the mid-eighties, she’d ended up making terrible movies for Lesoeur’s Eurocine studio with director Andrea Bianchi (Burial Ground). One of her movies for Bianchi, by most accounts her worst, was the Franco-scripted Mengele Commando (1986).

More significantly, La Reina… marked the first screen appearance of an actress who became very important to Franco’s development. Her name was Soledad Miranda, an astonishingly beautiful young woman who was one of the small army of actors and artists who hung out around Mikaela. Franco gave her a brief cameo as a French noblewoman in the audience at the club. The brief appearance helped her get her foot in the door of the industry; she continued to appear in a succession of minor roles and minor films until Franco had the opportunity to cast her as Lucy in his version of Dracula. From then on, he cast her in a succession of wild and sexy starring roles. She became his muse, his inspiration… and then she died at the height of her career, after a horrible car crash. Franco was devastated by the loss.

And finally, in spite of the generic nature of the movie, there are a handful of scenes in which Franco manages to create some real visual interest. One of these is the duel scene, for which Franco seems to have unleashed his inner Orson Welles. Part of the duel is filmed from underneath the doctor’s carriage, which at first seems like a pointlessly arty setup… until the final shot is fired; the horse starts, and the carriage shakes. Suddenly the reason for the odd framing becomes clear.

The climax of the duelling scene

The other places where Franco’s camera seems to come alive are the several club scenes. All through his career, Franco never passed up an opportunity to put a some kind of stage show in his movies. Here, at least, the idea makes sense as part of the plot. He would never again have the chance to mount something so big… so elaborate… so eye-killingly colorful. It’s obvious why Newman wanted Franco to take over from Klimovsky: what works in La Reina del Tabarín works because Franco made it work.



 

Livide (2011)

Monday, September 17th, 2012

I’d like to tell you all about one of my new favorite movies, Livide (2011). I’d like to go into detail about its sense of style… its amazing fantastique imagery… its references to horror icons, including one jaw-dropping throwaway scene that pays tribute to a very famous director through one of his least-appreciated movies. I’d like to analyze the ways writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside / À l’intérieur) subvert the conventions of the films they so clearly love, or wax rhapsodic over the way they combine reality and fantasy so that it’s difficult to decide which of the two is more believable.

I’d like to. But I can’t. At least, not as much as I want to.

For the truth is, Livide‘s plot is so slight that if I give away any more than the most basic details, I’ll have spoiled the wonder of it. If I tell you exactly what conventions are being overturned, what film references are being made, even what kind of monsters lurk in the shadows, I’ll have ruined the experience for any first-time viewer.

Normally, I don’t particularly care about including spoilers in a review, since most of the movies I write about are so old their secrets are well-known… that, or else they don’t rely so much on the first-time surprises to make them watchable. But this one… this one’s different. This one’s special. It will certainly bear repeated viewings after the twists and shocks have been revealed; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you decide you want to watch it again and again — starting from the very moment you’ve finished watching it for the first time. But the thrill of the discovery… the gradual unfolding of those secrets and shocks… that represents an experience I wouldn’t keep from anyone.

I suppose I can tell you a little bit, hopefully enough to whet your appetite. After all, the basic setup of the plot is so familiar and shop-worn that you may be tempted to pass the movie by, if you’re just going by bare outlines:

Chloé Coulloud plays Lucie, a 20-year-old student nurse on her first day of field training. Lucie lives in a small town on the northern coast of France. The only thing remarkable about Lucie is that her left and right eyes are different colors. The only thing remarkable about her town is the number of young children who’ve been disappearing from it.

(What’s happening to the children is revealed to us very early in the movie, so you needn’t pay much attention to that. The knowledge increases our sense of unease, but has much less to do with the unfolding story than you might think.)

Lucie accompanies an older woman, Catherine, on her rounds, visiting various invalids and shut-ins to give them their injections, clean their bedding and make sure they’re all right. It’s pretty uneventful and routine, and Lucie proves herself to be very good for a novice.

But then… the two women arrive at the house of Mrs. Jessel. Yes, Mrs. Jessel; no apparent relation… her screw is probably still loose. Anyway: Mrs. Jessel is in a permanent coma. Having no surviving relatives (since her daughter died tragically young), the old woman is left alone, silent, unaware of her surroundings, in her antique bed on the top floor of her ancient house.

The house is terrifying. If ever a house looked haunted, it’s this one… except you can’t help but think any sensible ghosts have long since fled, gibbering in terror. But poor old Mrs. Jessel seems like the perfect inhabitant for such a house: grey and still, rendered faceless by a respirator; smothered by the richness of the furniture and drapery; her fingernails grown to horny claws, and a bag of vivid red blood hanging by her bedside.

LIVIDE: The house.

Catherine confides to Lucie that Mrs. Jessel is rumored to have some sort of treasure hidden in the house. She’s even looked for it, in the brief times she’s been alone in the house; but she’s never found a trace of it. Later on, when Lucie half-jokingly tells her fisherman boyfriend William about what Catherine said, she’s horrified when he becomes determined to go look for it.

Eventually, thanks to some developments I’m not going to reveal, Lucie, her boyfriend, and their friend Ben end up going out to Mrs. Jessel’s house, intending to break in and look for the treasure. That’s right: young people trapped in the haunted house. Oh — and it’s Hallowe’en night. Naturally. Where have you heard that sort of setup before, right? What’s to differentiate this from, say, Spookies, or The Unnameable?

Forget your expectations. Even though I’ve explained the setup of the plot, I’ve told you next to nothing about what happens thereafter, and what they find.

Let me give you one tiny taste of the attitude this film has: when the three young people set out for Mrs. Jessel’s house, it’s emphasized that Ben’s car — which they’re forced to use, because Ben’s the only one who has a car, let alone a driver’s license — is in terrible shape, and never starts up the first time. Aha, we think. They’re setting up the old monsters-are-after-us-car-won’t-start gag. It’s a reasonable assumption. But after this expectation has been firmly planted in our postmodern 21st-century heads, the car doesn’t even reappear in the second half of the movie.

But perhaps I’ve already said too much.

Let me put it this way: the better you know horror movies, the more subtleties you will find to enjoy in Livide. But if you are familiar with 19th century French ballets, that will help, too. If you’re not so big on the horror, you may still find so many astonishing, beautiful, even poignant images in the movie that you’ll still find it rewarding. Maybe even more so: I thought the horrors lurking in Mrs. Jessel’s mansion were much scarier when they were lurking in the shadows, waiting, than when they were doing their terrible deeds. But that’s fitting, somehow: for all their skill in realizing the obligatory shock scenes, Bustillo and Maury seem less interested in them than they are in, well, everything else.

For Livide isn’t just another horror film: it’s an amazing piece of cinematic storytelling. When Bustillo and Maury want to explain something, they do so visually, and with perfect economy… for instance, we learn everything we need to know about Lucie’s family with barely a word being spoken. When Bustillo and Maury want to leave something unexplained, the strength of their images is enough to make an impression in the viewer’s imagination… the images will stick there, resonating quietly and making their own self-sufficient meanings.