Archive for the ‘Jess Franco’ Category

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.

... 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 espías

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: 1965

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Miss Muerte, also known as The Diabolical Dr. Z, is often referred to by Franco’s fans and detractors alike as his best horror film — maybe his best movie of all. Enough has been said about it that I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief in discussing it.

The movie begins with a jailbreak, one of the oddest in film history. The “jail” looks more like a dungeon or old mine, and it’s hard to imagine one prisoner being locked away in it. Still less can we imagine that one prisoner getting out of it… but get out of it he does. Miles away, where the mad Dr. Zimmer is carrying out some equally odd experiments, the laboratory phone rings: Dr. Zimmer’s daughter Irma answers, and discovers it’s someone named Bresson who’s called to tell them “un condamné à mort s’est échapé” — a condemned man has escaped. Who’s Bresson? A cipher; a reference to the director Robert Bresson and his 1956 film. Franco and his co-writer, Jean-Claude Carrière (a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel), have thrown him in like a Family Guy cutaway.

By strange coincidence, the escaped killer winds up on Dr. Zimmer’s doorstep. Zimmer sees his arrival as a perfect chance to experiment on a human test subject: nobody knows he’s there, and nobody will miss him if — when — things go horribly wrong. Mind you, in this case there’s not much difference between the experiment succeeding or failing; the result is going to be pretty drastic for our poor escaped convict one way or the other. For Dr. Zimmer is a student of the legendary Dr. Orloff. His area of study is human behavior, and he has a pet theory that what we refer to as “good” and “evil” are purely physiological responses that can be modified by a little creative surgery. He’s already done plenty of tests on animals, changing wild creatures into docile pets, and turning pets into ferocious killers. Now, at last, he has a chance to use his sinister Mad Science Device on a human being! He will turn this “evil” criminal into a “good” — that is, useful and subservient — member of society.

It’s obvious that Dr. Zimmer has some conceptual problems with the ideas of “good” and “evil”. He’s especially confused in the way he equates moral behavior in human beings with the perfectly reasonable behavior of wild animals. When he goes to present his “findings” to the big Scientific Conference headed by Dr. Vicas (Howard Vernon), he’s quite properly laughed at. Facing both ridicule and censure by Vicas and his associates, Drs. Moroni and Kallman, the frail, wheelchair-bound Zimmer goes into a rage that results in a sudden, fatal heart attack.

Irma Zimmer, a scientist in her own right (and just as crazy as Dad), swears revenge on the men who drove her father to his death. When the late Dr. Z’s faithful assistant refuses to continue his unethical experiments without him, Irma throws the woman into the clutches of the Morpho Machine and turns her into yet another obedient robot. Then she decides to fake her own death, so she can continue her plans for revenge in secret. To this end, she murders a hitch-hiker who resembles her. Unfortunately, in disposing of the body, Irma gets caught in the fire and is horribly disfigured.

Now, “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco” describes Miss Muerte as one of Franco’s grimmest films, and I suppose it is — if you take it at face value. I can’t possibly take it at face value. From the opening, pointless “Bresson” joke, to the moment when old Dr. Zimmer, disciple of Dr. Orloff, is confronted by the mad scientists from two previous Franco “Orloff” films — Howard Vernon as Dr. Vicas, and Marcelo Arroita-Jaureguí as Dr. Moroni — it’s clear that Franco’s tongue is in his cheek.

By now, we expect recurring character names in Franco’s films, so we can hardly be surprised by the presence here of a Moroni and a Kallman. But we might be surprised by everything else… particularly the way Franco seems to subvert even his own previous movies as the story goes on. For example, the original one-“F” Dr. Orlof had been driven by the desire to restore the scarred face of his daughter Melissa. In this film, the mad doctor exits before the movie’s really begun… so the disfigured daughter gets to perform the face-restoring operation on herself!

The method of Irma Zimmer’s revenge is also bizarre, even by the standards of a Jess Franco movie. She abducts a night club performer named Nadia (the lovely Estella Blain), whose act has her impersonating a scantily-clad angel of death, and throws her into the Morpholator. Once Nadia has been zombified, Irma outfits her with curare-laced artificial fingernails and sends her out to kill her enemies.

The Diabolical Dr. Z

But Irma’s plans are undercut by some unusual developments. First, there’s the little matter of Nadia’s boyfriend. The lovers had planned to run off to Paris for a vacation, just at the time Irma abducted Nadia. To throw off suspicion, Irma plants a note for the boyfriend, in which Nadia says she’s been called away unexpectedly to a modeling job. In Paris. To make matters worse for Irma, it turns out that Nadia’s boyfriend is an old colleague of Irma’s and her father’s, who’s quick to pick up the clues and associate the supposedly-dead Irma with Nadia’s disappearance.

Next, there’s the really, really obvious fact that the theories of Orloff and the Doctors Zimmer are completely bogus. The Morpholator may have a certain effect on people whose moral sense has already been compromised — such as an escaped murderer, or a mad scientist’s assistant — but when it comes to controlling an innocent victim, it is far less effective. Though Zombie Nadia starts carrying out her assassinations, her conscience gradually begins to awaken and rebel. At one point, as though to underscore the inadequacy of Zimmer père‘s animal experiments, Nadia turns feral and attacks her captors; Irma must fend her off with a whip and a chair, in the manner of a cartoon lion tamer.

But the biggest threat to Nadia’s grand scheme — and the one thing I love most about this movie — is that once Dr. Vicas has been killed, Dr. Moroni and Dr. Kallman immediately realize they are in danger, and refuse to fall into Irma’s traps. Moroni simply panics and runs away, allowing Irma to catch up with him and dispatch him. But Kallman not only expects some sort of crazy mad-scientist scheme… he even has a Plan B in place to respond to it.

Of course, Irma expects that, too, and has her own Plan C…

In the meantime, Nadia’s boyfriend, Dr. Phillipe Whitehouse, has begin to suspect that her abduction and the deaths of the scientist are all related. Also on Irma’s trail is Police Inspector Tanner — yes, Tanner; not only is this the name of the bumbling detective in the original Awful Dr. Orlof, in this case he’s played by Jess Franco himself. This version of Inspector Tanner isn’t quite as boneheaded as the version played by Conrado San Martín four years earlier. However, Tanner’s faculties have been dulled by two additional responsibilities: first, he’s just become the father of triplets, which keep him awake all night; and second, he has to play host to a visiting detective from Scotland Yard, one Inspector Green (played by composer Daniel White).

How can I take any of this seriously? How can I not laugh when the victims thwart the villain’s elaborate schemes with good old-fashioned common sense? How can I let all the twisted references to Franco’s other films, let alone the conventions of everybody else’s horror films, go by without a whistle of appreciation? How can I not giggle over a guy named White playing a guy named Green?

Well… actually, I do take it fairly seriously. I just don’t take it at face value. In fact, there’s plenty of interesting stuff going on in the movie that tempers the underlying humor. Take the design of the Zimmer Machine, for example. Its minimalist design makes it look exactly like we’d expect a home-made Morpholator to look — it’s a very menacing creation. Nadia’s struggle to regain her humanity is certainly anything but funny — and on that subject, the ambiguity of the movie’s very last image is haunting. Irma’s scene with the hitch-hiker works pretty well, too: it veers uneasily between seduction and murder. Irma’s subsequent fire injury, though, is just another movie reference (like the Bresson gag from the opening), and contributes relatively little.

The Diabolical Dr. Z

From his very first film, and all through his career, Franco made it very clear that his female characters were always central to the action. Often it would be a pair of strong women who took the lead in whatever passed for a plot in these films, as we’ve already seen in Tenemos 18 Años and Labios Rojos, and as we’ll soon see again in films like El Caso de los Dos Bellezas and Besame, Monstruo. In Miss Muerte we see the negative version of this partnership, as the story is driven forward by Irma Zimmer and her unwilling partner in crime.

Nadia may emerge as the tragic focal point of the story, but for most of the film’s duration it’s Irma’s story. Franco would return several times to the Cornell Woolrich-inspired theme of the woman who takes revenge on the men who robbed her of her man; but in this, his first variation on “The Bride Wore Black”, the story has been strapped into the Machine and given the Orloff Treatment. The Orloff saga so far has been dominated by the idea of the Bad Father; in El Secreto de Dr. Orloff, the focus had shifted from the corrupted father (and uncle, as well) to the innocent daughter… and in this film we’re given a further twist, as the daughter turns out to be even more reprehensible than the father.

The men who follow in Irma’s track aren’t as helpless as they will become in some of Franco’s later movies, but they are far from the standard movie heroes, saving helpless women from their own frailty. Nevertheless, Nadia’s night club number — in which she dresses as a sort of sexy predator and first seduces, then attacks a male mannequin — is a stunning visual metaphor for Franco’s handling of the relations between the sexes.

The Diabolical Dr. Z

While we’re on the subject of gender conflict… the American distributors of The Diabolical Dr. Z seem to have been completely at a loss to deal with the movie. They just weren’t prepared for a horror movie in which all the most active roles were taken by women. If you look at the English-language promotional materials, they suggest that the title character is Irma’s father, who looks like a combination of Dr. Strangelove and the blind fortuneteller from The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. I guess they thought American audiences weren’t ready for the vision of Jess Franco.

Jess Franco: 1964

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Of all the films of Jess Franco’s early career, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff (“Dr. Orloff’s Secret”, aka “Dr. Orloff’s Monster” and “Les Maîtresses du Dr. Jekyll”) is the first that really feels like a Franco movie.

Coming as it does right on the heels of his two eminently successful thrillers, La Muerte Silba un Blues and Rififí en la Ciudad, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff feels like a step backwards in quality and professionalism… though this could be attributed mostly to the lack of funding. After the French co-producers he’d lined up for Rififí en la Ciudad had failed to come through, Franco found himself on the hook for some of its production expenses; then Rififí didn’t perform well at the Spanish box office, making the situation worse. Gritos en la Noche, Franco’s first horror movie from three years earlier, had done well, both in Spain and internationally. But so few prints had been struck of the film that even given its success, Gritos… still took several years to show a profit. Thus Franco had to cut a few corners to get El Segreto… finished, giving the movie that uneven, slightly unbalanced feeling that fans of the later Franco know so well.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff also features far more gratuitous nudity than his previous pictures. It’s not just the fact that we see more naked female bodies: it’s the context… or should I say lack of context… for the nudity that looks forward to the Franco of the 1970’s and beyond. Furthermore, by this time Franco had written and directed enough films that his patterns were starting to become recognizable. This was the first of his films in which so many elements of his prior scripts had been drawn together. Sure, a movie like Gritos… had also been a patchwork of references, but those had been to other people’s movies; in this film, Franco was clearly quoting himself.

The film begins with an eerie and atmospheric sequence: the awful Dr. Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui) lies on his bed, smoking a cigarette, while his troubled conscience tortures him with memories. He had surprised his wife and his brother (Hugo Blanco, from La Mano de un Hombre Muerto) in bed together, and had murdered his brother. Since Fisherman is a respected doctor, he’d been able to pass off his brother’s death as an accident… but he’d never been able to rid himself of the image of the two of them together, nor the image of his brother’s eyes widening in fear as he’d killed him.

Fisherman’s crimes go much further than this. He’s also stolen his brother’s corpse and brought it back to some semblance of life. He keeps the reanimated cadaver in his laboratory, in the attic of his castle. There — out of a weird combination of guilt and the desire to continue punishing his brother even after death — he uses the living-dead man as his human test subject.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

The arcane knowledge Fisherman uses to restore life to dead tissue comes from his work with another scientist, the elderly Dr. Orloff (two “f”s, and [cough] presumably no relation to Howard Vernon’s character from Gritos en la Noche). Orloff is dying, and on his death-bed he confides in Dr. Fisherman his segreto — his method for not only making corpses breathe and twitch, but actually move and obey commands. His secret is this: in place of the “eleven herbs and spices” he advertises, he really uses only one ingredient, monosodium glutamate, which… ummm… wait a minute. Excuse me. That’s the horrible secret of Colonel Sanders. Orloff’s method involves ultra-high frequency sounds (sort of a zombie dog whistle), which have no effect on living human beings, but which stimulate reactions in creatures which no longer have the ability to filter them out. Yes, it’s nonsense, but it looks forward to the wacky behaviorist theories of Dr. Zimmer in Franco’s next movie, Miss Muerte (1966), as well as Jorge Grau’s 1974 zombie flick, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.

With the Secret of Dr. Orloff in his hands, Dr. Fisherman is ready to complete his experiments. Partly out of a spirit of scientific curiosity, partly to avenge himself on his late brother, and partly to avenge himself on all womankind for his wife’s betrayal (but mostly because he’s in a Jess Franco movie), Fisherman takes to picking up bar girls. He seduces them with costly gifts, and then uses those gifts — necklaces with receptors built into them, which pick up the sound waves from Fisherman’s control device — to mark the wearer as the next target. Perhaps The Secret of Kindly Dr. Carruthers might have been a good alternate title? Of course, necklaces were also part of Howard Vernon’s Orlof’s technique, so perhaps the Secret also involves dating tips.

Unfortunately for Fisherman, there are a few complications that crop up and interfere with his experiments. The first is the arrival of his niece, Melissa. Fisherman’s been appointed her guardian until the following year, when she will come of age and inherit her father’s estate. Of course, she doesn’t realize that her father (now called “Andros”) is standing in a glass coffin just upstairs… though she nearly stumbles upon him when she first arrives at Castle Fisherman. Fisherman is anxious to be relieved of his guardianship, but that process takes time. For the moment, he’s stuck with her.

And she’s stuck with him… and the other dreary inhabitants of the castle (in fact, Castle Fisherman is the same castle used in Gritos en la Noche, which had also been the scene of the “Lord Marian” dream sequence on Franco’s first feature, Tenemos 18 Años. It’s a little disconcerting to see the same castle in both of Franco’s imaginary towns, Hartog and Hölfen, just as it’s equally disconcerting to see that the castle really stands in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It had looked so lonely and isolated in the previous films!). Dr. Fisherman’s assistant, Ciceron, is an odd little man, while Melissa’s Aunt Inglud (understandably, under the circumstances) is a bitter, drunken wreck of a woman. It looks to Melissa like it’s going to be a grim Christmas chez Fisherman.

Melissa’s arrival also brings about a completely unexpected complication. Though Melissa never knew her Dad, and fails to recognize his photograph when she sees it, there’s still an odd connection between father and daughter. The longer Melissa stays in the castle, the more “Andros” becomes aware of her — and becomes attuned to her thoughts and fears. We start to realize that the theories of Dr. Orloff are inadequate: Andros is not merely a puppet. He has begin to remember what is is to be alive and fully human.

When Melissa, unsatisfied with the explanation of her father’s death, determines to break into his sealed room and go through his belongings, Andros senses her presence. He breaks out of his glass box, staggers downstairs and surprises her. His appearance is so horrifying that Melissa faints. Fisherman tries to get Andros back under control, but the living dead man ignores him and plunges off into the night.

But even if Andros is beginning to regain his humanity, old habits die hard. So his first act of rebellion is… to go continue his master’s vendetta against women of easy virtue. He breaks into the home of the local club’s jazz pianist (played by Franco himself), murders his girlfriend after she takes a long bath, and then makes short work of the helpless pianist on his way out.

The bathroom-stalking episode is really pretty cheesy; but the clumsily-handled nude scene is followed, in typical Franco fashion, by one of the most powerful images in the movie. As dawn breaks, Fisherman and Ciceron go looking for Andros with the high-frequency sound generator. They find the living dead man standing over his own empty grave. Andros’s face is as expressionless as ever, but we get some idea of what’s going on in his mind by watching him clench his fists compulsively…

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

All the ingredients are here: we have the mad medico, killing young girls to further his nefarious plans. We’ve got the zombie henchman, who begins to develop a will of his own (much to his master’s consternation). Here the henchman is Andros instead of the expected Morpho, but that’s OK: the mad scientist is Fisherman instead of Orlof. Hugo Blanco’s Andros does look remarkably similar to Ricardo Valle’s Morpho; though instead of being blind, Andros’s disfigurement comes from the fact that his body had already started to undergo autolysis by the time he was revived from death. Thus the skin of his face has started to separate from the tissue below, giving him a ghastly look. Hugo Blanco had also played the murderer in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (no real spoiler there), so his appearance is a sort of synthesis of both Franco’s earlier horrors.

What else? Let’s see: there’s the expected Melissa, the daughter of the Bad Father (in this case, the adulterous Andros, who is now her uncle’s killing machine)… but this time, Melissa’s also the ward of the Bad Uncle! We’ve got the barely competent Hölfen police inspector — “Klein” this time; Georges Rollin was dead by this time, and no doubt so was his “Inspector Borowsky”. The character “Karl Steiner” from La Mano… is back in Hölfen, but in name only: rather than being an intrepid reporter, he’s a retired boxer in this story. Steiner is the sometime-boyfriend of one of the murdered girls; whereas the “Steiner” of the previous film had been the man who solved the mystery, this Steiner only serves as a red herring for Inspector Klein.

The deathbed scene with Dr. Orloff early in the film serves a similar purpose to the deathbed scene in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto: to kick off the story with the revelation of a deep, dark secret… though the secret turns out not to be quite as important as it seemed.

As usual for a Franco film of any genre or any vintage, there are also plenty of club scenes and musical numbers… but here they seem less related to the story than they’ve been in his movies so far. The first of these interruptions features the danseuse to whom Fisherman’s just given a deadly necklace. Her act is a striptease, and oh boy is it cheap and sleazy. It’s not as though the stripper’s very carefully dressed when she starts: her skimpy lingerie is put on so haphazardly that it looks for a moment as though we’re about to get the first of Franco’s famous pubic shots. But once she starts wiggling, her performance is staggeringly banal. She’s not on stage: she’s just standing in a clear spot between the patrons at the club, shaking her body in a way that could only be described as “dancing” as a euphemism on the “occupation” line of her tax return. For most of the number, she keeps her eyes glued to the camera. Then she takes off her top, and the act is over. It looks and feels remarkably like a real striptease in a shabby, disreputable bar somewhere — and heaven knows Franco had seen enough of those by this time.

Perla Cristal’s (literally) show-stopping number later in the film, “Pepita que horror”, is far more dignified (and better-dressed), though like the musical numbers in Franco’s later films it does grind the story to a halt. Fortunately, the song is so good that we don’t much care… However, Franco does manage to work in another delightfully sleazy striptease, this time in the guise of a murder set-piece. When the pianist’s girlfriend goes upstairs to take her bath (where Andros is waiting for her), the pianist (Franco) stays downstairs working on his latest blues composition. His music filters up to the bathroom, where the girl disrobes. The music continues as she steps into the tub and splashes the water all over her body, paying particular attention to her breasts… The blues in the background makes it a musical strip show with an added hint of voyeurism. It’s the clearest example we’ve had to date of the sort of thing the later Franco has in store for us.

'Pepita que horror'

Though these striptease sequences may match our expectations of the Franco of the future, they really don’t fit in this particular movie. The rest of El Segreto del Dr. Orloff is heavy with Gothic atmosphere, but those brief scenes are blunt and comparatively dull. They could have been shot by, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis and inserted afterwards, that’s how out-of-place they feel in this context.

Another thing I can’t help but think is out-of-place is our mad Doctor Fisherman himself. Franco regular Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui is a good actor, and he gives the movie’s strongest performance as the temperamental Dr. Fisherman… but after Howard Vernon’s turn as the Awful Doctor, Arroita Jáuregui just doesn’t look the part. To me, the bearded, rotund actor looks less like the successor of Orloff and more like Father Christmas (the Saint-nic Baron von Claus?). The Christmas setting of the story doesn’t help me take him more seriously. OK, OK: I admit this is my problem, not his nor Franco’s. But really: Dr. Fisherman? That’s not the most sinister and suggestive of names, is it? The French seem to have realized this, and renamed the character “Dr. Jekyll”, though this makes it difficult to explain why Andros goes to stand beside the Fisherman family crypt. Franco claimed for a time that the name “Fisherman” was a sort of homage to the English director Terence Fisher, though later in life he called Fisher “one of the worst directors that ever was” (in a 1986 interview reprinted in “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco”).

Nevertheless, for all its problems, the movie redeems itself with its final sequence — a long fatal walk that seems to look forward to the endings of the films of Jean Rollin. Daniel White’s elegiac score and Andros’s one-and-only spoken line contribute to the feeling of tragedy and despair. Again, this is a touch of the later (dare I say “mature”?) Franco: like his later Virgin Among the Living Dead, El Segreto… ends with a gesture that suggests the whole film might have been deeper than we realized. It’s an illusion, but it’s a remarkable illusion, and it helps explain why viewers like me keep going back time and time again into the frustrating world of Jess Franco.

Jess Franco: 1963

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

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

It’s ludicrous that in America the French and their culture have the reputation of being somehow weak or effete. But I suppose it’s their own fault, when even French slang that’s supposed to suggest hard-boiled machismo has the word “fifi” in it.

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

I think Juan is supposed to be dead in this scene, though his “corpse” blinks obviously several times. Either he’s just mortally wounded, or this is the only moment in the movie that looks forward to the later, careless Jess.

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.

Nightclub number from Jess Franco's 'Rififi en la Ciudad'

Jess Franco's 'Rififi en la Ciudad'

Nightclub number from Jess Franco's 'Rififi en la Ciudad'

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.

Jess Franco's 'Rififi en la Ciudad'

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.

Jess Franco's 'Rififi en la Ciudad'

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

Having been given the lead in Franco’s film, Fernán Gómez returned the favor by casting Franco in a major role in his film El Extraño Viaje the following year. El Extraño Viaje was not well received when it was released, but in 1996 it was listed as the seventh greatest Spanish film of all time, in a survey prepared for the centennial of Spanish cinema.

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.

Aquarium scene from Jess Franco's 'Rififi en la Ciudad'

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

…unless it was because of the dancer in the bikini. The very first bikini to be shown on-screen in Franco’s Spain was worn by Elke Sommer in Juan Bosch’s Bahía de Palma in 1962, and the event caused a national sensation (Pavlović, Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies, p. 8). The censors were not particularly happy about this. While Franco was finishing production on La Muerte Silba un Blues that same year, he shot some extra night club footage in Paris that he hoped to include in the film; but the authorities found the footage much too risqué. This was very likely the first time that Franco had the label “pornographer” applied to him. So it’s just remotely possible that the Spanish producer was worried a bikini was too permissive for Orson Welles!

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.

Jess Franco's 'Rififi en la Ciudad'

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.

Jess Franco: 1962

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

An unnamed civil war, in an unnamed country. A truck carrying a shipment of fruit and vegetables is stopped crossing a bridge, and subjected to unusual scrutiny. The soldiers find a cache of weapons hidden in the fruit crates; the truck drivers — De Castro and Smith — try to escape, but Smith is wounded and De Castro is killed.

Ten year later, in New Orleans, De Castro’s widow Lina (Perla Cristal) goes to a club. The leader of the club band, an old, sad-eyed trumpet player, seems to recognize her. The trumpeter’s face is at first hidden from us by the bell of his horn; and even when we get a clear glimpse of him, it isn’t easy to recognize the prematurely aged Smith. Lina certainly doesn’t recognize him. Smith turns to his band members and asks if they remember an old number called “Blues de Tejado”. It’s been a while since any of them have played it… but Smith calls out G-minor, and the band (with Jess Franco on sax) launches into a melancholy number.

Once she hears the music, Lina realizes who the bandleader is. A look of anguish crosses her face…

And suddenly, through the worst set of edits in all Franco’s early films, we find Lina on a boat, sailing back to her home in Jamaica. The transition is so abrupt that at first I thought I was watching a bad print. I’ve since been able to cross-reference with other versions of the film, and they’re all edited the same. The pacing of these edits is all wrong… it would have been better for the flow of the picture if they’d skipped any attempt at transition and just cut from the club back to Jamaica.

Lina’s new husband, Paul Radeck (Georges Rollin), is fascinated to hear that Lina’s run into such an old, old friend. He wonders what they talked about, but Lina merely says they had a desultory conversation. Radeck asks if Smith had asked about him; Lina laughs and tells him Smith didn’t even know they’d been married.

By strange coincidence, Julius Smith the bandleader is run down by a car outside the New Orleans club shortly afterwards. Before he dies, he confides to a New Orleans policeman, Inspector Fenton, the truth about the old arms-running days: he and De Castro had been betrayed by their third partner, Vogel, who wanted them out of the way so he could build his own criminal network. It’s Vogel, he’s certain, who’s caught up with him and run him down…

Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, a new singer named Moira has been lined up for Radeck’s night club. Moira cheerfully tells Radeck that she might know a pair of his old friends, whom she used to run into back in Spain: their names are De Castro and Vogel. Vogel? says Radeck. That name doesn’t ring a bell. But De Castro? Federico De Castro? (Moira says yes). That’s impossible, says Radeck. The Federico De Castro he knew is dead.

And Radeck should know. For Radeck is Vogel. He’s the man who arranged for Smith and De Castro to be caught on their last arms run. What could Moira mean by confronting him with evidence of his past life? She seems utterly unaware of what a dangerous game she’s playing — if she’s working some sort of scam, what she’s doing so obvious it’s stupid. But Moira does not appear to be a stupid woman. What’s really going on? Vogel/Radeck’s concerns only deepen when he receives the news that Smith didn’t die at once after being hit by the car… he had time to give some information to the cops. How much is known, and who knows it?

In the meantime, a tough, seemingly dull-witted sailor has just landed at the docks in Kingston. He calls himself Joao (Conrado San Martín), though this is clearly not his real name. Joao gets along well with the feisty but friendly community around the docks. After he’s built up the trust of the locals, he starts asking questions about a certain Mr. Radeck. The locals warn him to stay away from Radeck, whose hands are very dirty indeed.

Strain and paranoia begin to gnaw at Radeck. His marriage is also starting to fray, and just to torture himself he decides to throw on an old LP of Julius Smith and his band, playing “Blues de Tejado”… the song De Castro had written for his then-wife, Lina. As he wallows masochistically in the sound, he goes through his correspondence… and his staggered to find a letter addressed to him as Vogel. The letter describes his activities peddling adulterated penicillin on the black market during the war, and how he betrayed his two associates to keep his underhanded dealings a secret. The letter is signed by the long-dead De Castro. Radeck compares the handwriting to the inscription from De Castro on his Julius Smith LP: they’re the same.

That very night, sailor Joao breaks into Radeck’s mansion. He seems to know his way around. Not only that, he also seems well-versed in Radeck’s personal habits: he guesses the location of Radeck’s wall safe, and it takes him only a few minutes to get it open. Joao takes a gun and a sheaf of papers from the safe. On his way out, he puts the recording of “Blues de Tejado” on the turntable and raises the volume…

La Muerte Silba Un Blues is a moderately enjoyable film noir. With the exception of the terrible editing in the transition between the New Orleans jazz club and Radeck’s house in Jamaica, the movie is very competently shot. The musical score by Anton García Abril (Tombs of the Blind Dead) is excellent, and is rounded out by some good small-ensemble jazz by Franco himself (which is much to be preferred to his music from Vampiresas 1930).

The movie runs into problems because of the ridiculous complexity of its plot. Most of the characters (living or dead or both/neither) seem to have at least two identities. Radeck is really Vogel; Joaoa turns out to be a detective named Al Pereira; and though we understand Moira is clearly not who she appears to be, it doesn’t make things any easier when we’re introduced to her wearing a blonde wig… when we see her next, she’s no longer wearing the distinctive wig, and she looks like a completely different person! When all our mixed-up characters subsequently show up at a costume party, we’re tempted to just give up trying to keep them all straight.

In spite of the confusion, La muerte… manages to work up a decent amount of suspense. There’s a gripping fight scene that takes place in a boathouse, in which Joao struggles for his life against Radeck’s henchman Carlos Moroni. Note that Franco remains true to form here, giving Radeck’s henchman the same name he had in Labios Rojos (1960). Note, also, that this is the very first appearance of the detective Al Pereira, who would show up (in name, anyway) more regularly than practically any other character in Franco’s repertoire (even Orloff). This is the most competent incarnation of Al Pereira we’re ever going to see: Franco called Pereira “One of [his] favorite creations… [A] private detective who takes on the dumbest cases for miserable compensation.” (Pavlović, Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies, pp. 108). Similarly, this is the most believable, human incarnation of the villainous Radeck in Franco’s output.

(Thinking of returning characters, the cast of Le Muerte Silba Un Blues is very similar to that of Gritos en la Noche, with Perla Cristal [Arne] and Conrado San Martín [Inspector Tanner] figuring among the leads, and Ricardo Valle [Morpho] and María Silva [Dany] filling in minor roles. Howard Vernon had originally been intended to play Radeck, but was unable to get along with the movie’s producers. Many references, including the IMDb, list La Muerte… as having been made in 1964, but most Franco-specific resources give the date as 1962; the proximity to Gritos en la Noche is made evident by the large number of returning cast members.)

On the down side, Franco seems to have had no idea what New Orleans was really like: he uses stock footage of (what looks like) Broadway to set up the club scene. He does a better job of suggesting Kingston, Jamaica by including some footage of the actual city… The Spanish Mediterranean coast looks more like Jamaica than New York City resembles New Orleans. Years later, when he made Night of the Skull, Franco set the movie on Louisiana’s rocky, mountainous coast, so I guess he never learned much more about the area.

On the whole, though, La Muerte Silba Un Blues is a solid thriller… so solid, in fact, that viewers who know Franco only from his uneven later work are in for a real shock. According to Franco, it was La Muerte Silba un Blues that first attracted the interest of Orson Welles, who subsequently hired him as second unit director on Chimes At Midnight. At least that’s the version recounted by Tohill and Tombs in Immoral Tales; according to an interview with Howard Vernon, it was Tenemos 18 Años that Welles was impressed by. Of course, the whole story may be apocryphal — according to other sources, the two directors were simply introduced by a mutual friend. But there’s enough of Welles’s influence evident in the movie to make the story believable. There are even a few quotes: e.g., Quinlan’s habitual refrain, “I don’t drink!” from Touch of Evil is used in the setup of a joke in Franco’s film. Furthermore, La Muerte…‘s plot seems to be trying to outdo The Lady from Shanghai in confusing the hell out of the audience. Then, too, there’s a good deal of planning and craft evident in the structure of the movie, which is not something we normally associate with the work of Jess Franco. For instance, the movie begins with death on a blocked bridge, and ends with death on a pier, giving the story the feel of a completed arc. Of course, that last sentence represents the sort of pretentious film-school striving for meaning that Franco detested… so maybe I’d better quit while I’m ahead.


Seven movies into Franco’s feature-film output, the firsts continue to pile up: La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (“The Hand of a Dead Man”, aka “The Sadistic Baron von Klaus”) marked Franco’s first collaboration with composer Daniel J. White. The two men had a similar propensity for working fast; and having nearly been killed during World War II, White’s outlook on life — do what you love, and to hell with the rest — meshed perfectly with Franco’s. The two men worked together in remarkable harmony, with White frequently providing production assistance in addition to his duties as a composer.

It’s White’s hands that are seen playing the piano in the shot which opens the French cut of the film. It’s rare to see hands on a piano in a film, and have the fingers match the music! The hyper-romantic piano piece that serves as the principal theme of the movie seems to be based on a four-note idea taken from Franz Liszt’s famous “Second Hungarian Rhapsody”, but transformed beyond recognition into something much more languid and French-sounding (it starts in the key of E-major, and eventually comes to rest on B-flat, spanning the interval known as the “Devil in music” and giving us a subtle hint of what’s to come…).

La Mano de un Hombre Muerto takes place in a German village called Hölfen. Hölfen is a location created by Franco for his films — like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, or Ramsay Campbell’s Brichester, or Franco’s other stomping ground, the fictional French town of Hartog. Hölfen was formerly the demesne of the family von Klaus. The first Baron von Klaus was a legendary sadist, who is said to have sacrificed young village girls to the Devil… or if not to the Devil, then worse: to his own unspeakable lusts. Some say the old Baron never really died, but wanders forever through the swamps around Castle von Klaus, looking for fresh victims… or at least, that’s what Hansel, the village odd-job man, tells the visitng Professor Kalman (remember: “Kalman” is the name Franco often gives to his relatively minor subordinate character. This Kalman is a researcher, come to research the folklore of the Hölfen region for a book he’s preparing).

Hansel has even more disturbing things to tell Kalman: the return of the evil baron’s ghost is supposed to be foretold by certain signs, and according to Hansel the signs have begun to appear. It’s just the way things happened fifty years ago, when Hansel was a child. There had been a series of terrible murders, and the locals had blamed the current Baron von Klaus. The then-Baron had fled into the swamp and drowned… just like his ancestor.

Meanwhile, up at the castle, the dowager Baroness lies dying. Her last, urgent wish is to see her son Ludwig (Hugo Blanco) again, and her younger brother Max (Howard Vernon) promises her that he is on his way. When Ludwig finally arrives with his fiancée after a 180-kilometer journey, the Baroness insists on speaking to him alone. With her last breath, she tells him about his grandfather’s secret torture chamber in the depths of the castle. They key is hidden in a secret compartment in her bureau; he must go to the hidden room, confront the terrible secret of the von Klaus family, and then destroy everything. She makes him promise to leave Hölfen forever once he’s done it, and Ludwig swears he will.

At the same moment, Hansel and his partner Theo have just discovered the body of a young woman lying in the snow. The sadist killings have begun again, after all these years! Naturally, the von Klaus family falls under suspicion; but the younger man wasn’t anywhere near the area yet, and the older brother seems to have a solid alibi. Inspector Borowsky (Georges Rollin) seems unable to make any progress figuring out the killing, but he has soon gets help from a journalist named Karl Steiner. Steiner writes for a rag called “Maidens and Murder”, but in spite of the lurid name of his magazine he’s much cleverer than Borowsky… and much less bound by the rules of investigation.

La Mano de un Hombre Muerto could have been much better. If it had been filmed with a little more attention to style, it could have eclipsed even Mario Bava’s The Evil Eye as the seminal proto-giallo. As it is, the script — written for the most part by Pío Ballesteros (Vampiresas 1930) — is heavy on talk, and light on actual action. When something does happen, for the most part the results still aren’t very interesting… for examle, when a character goes to see the police, the camera insists on following her from her door, all the way across the square, down a long alley, and finally to the door of the police station; then, when she comes back, the camera follows her again every step of the way. Now, all the while, she’s being stalked by a black-clad killer, and this would have been the point of the same sequence had it been shot by, say, Bava. But in Franco’s film, there’s so little attention paid to the waiting killer that there’s never any real sense of suspense.

The movie really only springs to life at a couple of points: there’s a moderately suspenseful episode in which the killer, foiled at the last moment, runs through the shadowy streets of Höfen with a growing crowd of villagers behind him. Miraculously staying a step ahead of his pursuers, he tries to shake them off by running through the swampy woods. The villagers pick up torches — yes, torches! It makes sense under the circumstances — and follow him, but stop when they see him disappear into the cemetery. Beyond those gates the villagers will not go. Karl Steiner is with them, however, and he insists the killer is no ghost. He plunges into the cemetery… only to see the killer apparently disappear into one of the tombs. The name on the mausoleum? Von Klaus.

Best of all is a torture sequence that pops up near the end. The killer first arouses, then flogs and kills a naked young girl. Up to this point, the story has only been hinting at its potential to be disturbing. Suddenly, with this sequence, it commits itself to the sort of giallo-esque mayhem it’s been promising all along. The music and the photography suit the action perfectly, though they seem out-of-place compared to the staid setup we’ve have in the movie so far. Here, too, we have the mad killer realizing for the first time that he really is the killer. He achieves this moment of self-awareness because at that moment, for the first time, his compulsion has driven him to kill someone he really cares about. If only the rest of the movie lived up to this one fervid scene!

Franco does succeed in creating a suitably grim atmosphere around Hölfen in deep winter. The snowy fields around the town don’t seem in the least picturesque; when the police are out examining a body in the snow, you can feel their discomfort in the damp and chill. We remember the impression later on, when characters are slogging through the nearby swamp… that water has got to be cold! Unfortunately, that atmosphere is about all the movie has going for it, until that wonderful moment of sadism later on. There’s never any real mystery about the identity of the killer — though the movie pretends there is, and keeps the murderer’s face hidden until very near the end (as if the Dying Mother scene didn’t give the whole game away, just look at the English title!). Karl Steiner’s detective work wouldn’t hold up for a moment in the courts of any civilized country in the world; and though he realizes some of his hunches are wrong, he generally admits this only after the wrong person has been arrested.

With its theme of the sins of the fathers literally haunting the sons, this movie seems like it would fit in among Franco’s Bad Father films. Actually, the connection is a little hard to justify. The ghostly grand-father never makes a physical appearance, and the voice the killer hears in his head at the very end of the film is very likely only in his head… Though the killer seems to have some personal recollections of the dead grandfather, that’s impossible, since the old man died half a century earlier. The conclusion of the movie does look forward very clearly to Franco’s ultimate Bad Father movie, A Virgin Among the Living Dead… though here the conclusion seems less tragic than funny: as the killer slips into the quicksand of the swamp, Inspector Borowsky and the police (perhaps realizing they’re about to be saved a mess of paperwork) don’t lift a finger to save him.

La Mano de un Hombre Muerto was considered a lost film for a while, but around the turn of the millennium a print of the French edition was found and released on DVD. While it’s a wonderful thing that the movie’s been brought back from oblivion, it’s unlikely to win Franco any new friends. It’s certainly competently made, but the story drags, and the visuals are far too uninteresting for the lurid sort of mystery it should have been. There’s at least one more Franco in-joke buried in the script: at one point, a hotel employee being interrogated insists he’s too new to know anything. His previous employment had been at the Negresco, from Vampiresas 1930.

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).



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.


Operation: Jess Franco

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

The (in)famous Spanish director Jesús “Jess” Franco died on April 2, 2013. I found out about his passing on April 3, as soon as I got home from a funeral. Immediately I checked the B-Masters’ site, to see if any of my colleagues had heard the news and posted something on the subject. That’s when I first noticed the B-Masters’ site had gone down. Just when you think a day couldn’t get any worse…

Naturally, on hearing of Franco’s death my instinct was to sit down and watch one of his movies. That turned out to be impossible: April 2013 just got worse for everybody the longer it dragged on. Eventually things calmed down a little. But by the time I finally got a chance to sit down and savor a few Franco flicks, I really couldn’t decide which film or films made the best memorial. Oasis of the Zombies? Female Vampire? Lust for Frankenstein? (OH GOD PLEASE NO!)

Suddenly it hit me: Tim Lucas has always insisted that to understand Franco properly, you had to see all of his films. So why not watch everything of his I could get my hands on? The idea made a surprising amount of sense. If I forced myself to watch as much of his filmography as I could stand get my hands on, in chronological order, I might finally come to terms with the whole Jess Franco phenomenon. I would get a better idea about his creative choices, his treatment of his material, his thematic concerns… and I could finally figure out exactly how I felt about him. Franco has always been a divisive figure in film history, so I guess it’s no wonder he’s divisive even in my own brain: half of me loves him, half of me thinks he’s a total fraud. Perhaps it was time to find out which half had the strongest argument.

So that’s what I intend to do. And I’m going to post my thoughts here, as I go over Jess Franco’s output year by year, from Mariquita to Mari-Cookie, from Doctor Orlof to Doctor Wong.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t intent to review everything he ever did, or even directed… some of his movies are lost, others were left unfinished, and some — honestly — I just don’t feel like tracking down. This is particularly true of his porn films: I’ve suffered through Lulu’s Talking Asshole; I don’t feel I need to see Lulu’s Lollipop too. I’ll watch A Crack for Two if I must, but is A Cock for Three really necessary? I’m also not going to torture myself by trying to track down every version of the movies I do watch. Most of Franco’s films exist in multiple versions, some prepared by the man himself, others done without his knowledge or permission. Keeping them all straight is a nightmare. I’m not trying to make a definitive statement, à la Lucas or Pete Tombs; I’m just trying to come up with my own suitable memorial for a man who — whether I like the idea or not — has been an important part of my movie-going life since I was a child.

The tip of the iceberg.

The Tally So Far:

Tenemos 18 Años

Labios Rojos — not reviewed (lost?)
La Reina del Tabarín

Vampiresas 1930
Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr. Orlof

La Muerte Silba un Blues
La Mano de un Hombre Muerto/The Sadistic Baron von Klaus

El llanero
Rififí en la Ciudad

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

Miss Muerte/The Diabolical Dr. Z

Cartes sur table/Attack of the Robots
Residencia para Espías/Golden Horn