12 October, 2014

LABIOS ROJOS (Jess Franco, 1960) Reviewed by Francesco Cesari

[Many thanks to Francesco Cesari for submitting this review of one of Jess Franco's most rarely seen films RM]

REVIEW by Francesco Cesari:
Each Franco fan knows that Red Lips are a pair of sexy and smart female spies, but almost nobody has viewed the first film of the Saga (the second Jess Franco feature film) since it was never released for the home video market. Shot in 1960, Labios rojos is also Franco’s first hommage to classic American cinema. The comedy side isn’t so much developed as will be in the following Red Lips movies, starting with Bésame, monstruo and El caso de las dos bellezas (English titles: Kiss me Monster and Two Undercover Angels, buy pay attention: they are just clumsy reeditings and rewritings of the original Spanish versions), the couple of 1967 films with Rosanna Yanni and Jeanine Reynaud playing the lead roles. Basically, Labios rojos is a stylish b&w noir with additional elements of comedy. All the film highlights belong to the noir genre, such as the curt and powerful scene in which Carlo Moroni, the right-arm man of Kallman – the boss and the gangster – is killed in an ambush, in a lonely place close to a grove, while the headlights of the cars break the darkness of the night.

Moroni, Kallman, Radeck… all names recurring during the whole Jess Franco’s filmography, always as noir characters, and here used for the first time. Antonio Jiménez Escribano, a friend of the director’s, better known as the Dr. Zimmer in Miss Muerte/The Diabolical dr. Z., plays one of the best Kallman and, in general, one of the best gangsters in Franco’s cinema.

Even though it’s a very well made work, with an undoubted artistic value, Labios rojos isn’t as successful as neither the following Franco’s b&w film noirs La muerte silba un blues and Rififí en la ciudad, nor the already mentioned Red Lips films with Yanni and Reynaud. First of all, the script is overlong and overstuffed with gags and details for a director who was always, in his essence, a silent cinema filmmaker. Secondly – and it isn’t of little account – the actresses playing the couple of female spies simply don’t work. The main problem is Isana Medel, who plays the more cunning and cold of the pair girls (Jeanine Reynaud in the 1967 films), but looks just like the good and naive girl she played the previous year in Tenemos 18 años, Franco’s first feature film. No doubt that her casting was a mistake of the director, who at the time was engaged to her. On the contrary, Ana Castor, who plays the foolish of the pair (Rosanna Yanni in the 1967 films), looks terrific, as both actress and sexy doll, but her countenance of a strong woman (years later, Franco wanted her for the role of Irma Zimmer in The Diabolical dr. Z., eventually played by Mabel Karr) makes her character appearing what it shouldn’t: a clever and sometimes even evil femme-fatale.  

Anyway, thinking about the lack of money which Franco had to deal with during the second part of the shooting,  Labios rojos is almost a miracle. One of the main authors of this miracle, besides the director and some other actors (for example, Manolo Morán, playing Commissary Fernández), is Juan Mariné, the director of photography, at least until he left the set because he hadn’t been paid and had a call for another work… Talking with Robert Monell, Franco said that Mariné was the best among the directors of photography whom he worked with. One can understand why, especially looking at a masterpiece as La muerte silba un blues. But also Labios rojos, as well as the former Franco/Mariné documentary short film El destierro del Cid, looks a fascinating gallery of perfect pictures and shots which largely compensates the narrative defects.

(C) Franceso Cesari, 2014


Simon Birrell said...

I saw this in 1993 at the Spanish Filmoteca's retrospective. It's my favourite Franco film.

It hasn't been seen because the lab was never paid for work on the negative way back in the 60s. The Filmoteca got show it by special arrangement. Some enterprising DVD label honcho (hey, Pete!) should pay the bill and release this.

The scene where the two girls dance in the nightclub is great. So many Franco bits of business started here.

Simon Birrell said...

I saw this in the Madrid Filmoteca retrospective in 1993. It's my favourite Franco film.

I think it was only shown twice, on that one screening and again last year when Franco died. The reason for the "limited" release is that the lab was never paid for the negative work way back in the 1960s. Some enterprising cult DVD label head honcho (hey, Pete!) ought to pay the bill and finally release it.

Many Franco bits of business started here. I love the scene where the two girls dance in the nightclub. I once told Franco it was my favourite film of his and he snorted, "That was my white period!"