23 October, 2011

Franco's lost opportunity: DOWNTOWN HEAT (CIUDAD BAJA) (1994)

Opinions among Jess Franco’s followers differ wildly when it comes to DOWNTOWN HEAT. Some place it among his worst films; others feel it’s his last “real” film before he became self-conscious; and for the rest, it’s hard to encounter any opinions at all, such is the obscurity surrounding it even within the narrow confines of Franco's fanbase.

What certainly makes it untypical for a start is its standalone status amidst the densely bunched minions of his filmography. One can easily group the man’s works into periods, as part of a “batch” made for a specific production company, but DOWNTOWN HEAT, made in 1990 but shown four years later, simply appears to lie unaccompanied right in the middle of a rare productive desert in Franco’s career. Moreover, although Fernando Vidal was still behind the proceedings, and Antonio Mayans was yet again performing production duties, Franco’s surroundings this time marked a radical change from what had long become the norm in his films.

In other words, the Madrid-based filmmaker, fond of shooting in Andalusia, Valencia and the Canary islands, had found himself back in Barcelona (or, more precisely, its surroundings) for the first time since the early seventies. The production team thus includes Iquino’s collaborator Antonio Liza and much of the cast is drawn from the Marta Flores acting agency –not only Víctor Israel and Craig Hill but also Jaime Mir Ferri as one of Hill’s unsavory partners and an uncredited Francisco Jarque as a bystander seen alongside Israel’s tramp character. Even the future star actor Sergi López turns up briefly in the opera house scene – as the tenor playing Cavaradossi in a performance of Tosca.

This new environment; the time he may have had to think things over since his last, comparatively distant film; plus a reasonable budget – all these factors may have stimulated Franco into reconsidering the character of his product. If the action scenes still seem rough (albeit more polished than usual in him at the time), the formal quality ostensibly suggests a greater patience at work. What is most striking, however, is that Franco managed to eschew the increasingly alienated and self-absorbed parallel world that had characterized practically his entire 80s output – an incestuous backdrop composed of references to other films and to his own work, with the same revamped plots and recurring character names. The action is still (perhaps wisely) set in an imaginary country (somewhere in Latin America); the Melissa name turns up again (and attached, in fact, to Lina Romay); but Franco here seems intent on presenting a world that is recognizably our own, even if he draws (more discreetly than on previous occasions) from a long film noir tradition. The overall approach could be termed one of stylized naturalism and, indeed, Franco does a very good job turning Vilanova i la Geltrú, Barcelona into a metallic-looking noir setting with the harsh aesthetic beloved to the director from the early 80s onwards. I, for one, beg to differ with those who have compared Downtown Heat to a TV movie.

However, despite some good performances (mainly from Craig Hill and Philippe Lemaire), the results are uninvolving and poorly-paced. The story tells of a group of domestic cops, an American agent (Mike Connors) and a jazz musician who, on realizing that the country’s leading drug lord (Craig Hill) has become unassailable thanks to his connections, form a vigilante commando and set him a trap by kidnapping his daughter. At the end, once all has been resolved, the camera rests on the daughter, now weeping over her father’s death, as the credits roll. This innocent young woman, hitherto a marginal character or depicted as a tease, is given her due at the end, which would have had some poignancy if it had had a well-structured storyline to grow out of. SPOILERS END

As it is, the narrative moves in a meandering, unsteady manner. Franco might have gone in for a plotless film and one with an ensemble cast but instead, he bunglingly attempts a plot and a hierarchy of characters, as if he had not bothered to revise his script once finished. At first, it looks as if Ladoire’s cop will be the lead; then the musician takes over for a while (and is given a completely irrelevant romantic involvement with the Josephine Chaplin character); then it’s the commando as a whole. And it takes two thirds of the running time for the premise to become established.

Also detrimental to the film’s enjoyment is its English-language soundtrack. Barely seen theatrically in Spain, Downtown Heat aired inconspicuously on the same country's TV in a Spanish-dubbed version called La punta de las víboras; having not seen it, I can’t help thinking nevertheless that it is probably more coherent (in more ways than one) than its Anglophone counterpart even if the latter clearly represents the standard version. Several scenes, mainly indoors, were clearly recorded with direct sound, while others are post-synchronised. The results are variable: Victor Israel is inadequately dubbed by an American actor; Lina Romay, speaking in her own voice, is barely understandable; Óscar Ladoire (miscast for a start) plods through his English lines; and the delivery of a native English speaker (one Steve Parkman) is just plain boring.

Downtown Heat is certainly not a satisfying film, but it probably looked at the time as the possible harbinger of better work from Franco than had been the norm of late, as if the director, breaking the inertia, had decided to revitalize his product by looking all the way back to his past - not to the seventies or his spell with Harry Alan Towers but indeed to his initial black-and-white period. If with Downtown Heat he was pointing in the right direction, however unsuccessfully, it’s all the more depressing that what really lay in store was Killer Barbys and the spate of One-Shot productions, not to mention the controversial version of Welles's Don Quixote.

Text by Nzoog Wahlrfhehen


scott said...

I have still to see this Franco title, shamefully enough. If it were a stand alone title for sale, I would buy it..but I don't need that box set with the duplicates in cut versions. Sad to hear this is such a bad film as the stills I saw years ago in THE LINA ROMAY FILE looked interesting, for sure. Oh well.

Great article.

firirinabe said...

I liked Downtown Heat more than I thought I would but don't really know why. I remember a couple of nice shots, one a reflection in a glass door and another a scene on the beach, but it was all rather anonymous.

For all their faults I prefer the One Shot films (some of them anyway). Broken Dolls is one of my favourite Franco films and the opening of Vampire Blues is as good as anything he's ever done. The English soundtracks really spoil them though (except Broken Dolls, where we get Mavi Tienda's own voice which isn't on the Spanish dub I've heard)

Late era Franco - A great sense of location and use of music, but too many boring sex scenes.