28 October, 2021

FRANCO NOIR Blu-ray


Above: Images of a would-be political authoritarian looms over the characters in RIFIFI IN THE CITY (1963) and CITIZEN KANE (1941). The plots tells a different story. 

FRANCO NOIR, the new Blu-ray release from Severin Films, is not only very good news for fans of Jess Franco, it's a feast for the eyes and ears of fans of classic Film Noir, Eurocrime cinema, jazz enthusiasts and rare cult movies. 

 


 DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES (1962) filmed directly after Franco's first horror film, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF), set on such Bond-style locations as South America, Jamaica and New Orleans, is best described as a crime film immersed in a jazz environment, shot in the high contrast black and white, including the Dutch camera angle style referencing classic Film Noir. Given that the villain (Georges Rollin) is ultimately defeated by the appearance and aggressive investigation of Interpol Agent 069 (a Franco joke which survives on the soundtrack of the French language version), it also turns out to be a Eurospy film with jazz interludes, including an on-camera appearance by Jess Franco as saxophone player with the Whisky Jazz Club band.

In 1947, somewhere in a South American police state, Julius Smith and Frederico de Castro, drivers in the employ of international criminal Radeck, are stopped by police and arrested for smuggling guns in their fruit truck. They manage to escape before being taken into custody, but Castro is shot dead while Smith (Manuel Alexandre) escapes, turning up as a jazz trumpeter in New Orleans over ten years later under a different name. The action of the remaining story is triggered when Castro's widow (Perla Cristal EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF), visiting underworld figure Carlos Moroni's nightclub, recognizes a song played by the band as ''Blues del Tejado", written by her late husband. This Franco composed melody, used again and again throughout the film in different contexts, becomes a haunting anthem of the grief which lingers after the loss of a loved one. Her current husband is, in fact, the same Radeck, now in semi-retired/hiding status as Vogel, who set up Smith and Castro for arrest years before. When she mentions the song to Radeck she signs the death certificate of Smith who her husband orders murdered in a staged traffic accident a few nights later. Grief, revenge, fear all amp up the odds as Radeck decides to silence all those who might reveal his past and present crimes.

The plot becomes more complex when Jao, a ship worker, arrives and starts asking questions about Smith's death. At the same time Moira (Danick Patisson), a new singer who has debuted at Moroni's nightclub, also seems to have a hidden agenda. As Radeck/Vogel, the villain of the piece, the French actor Georges Rollin (THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS) gives the character an understated menacing quality which is very effective and really pays off in the final turns of the narrative when the true identity of the noir femme fatale is revealed. Under his surface charm and elegance Radeck is a ruthless killer. The fact that the film moves with such dispatch illustrates Franco's skill at packing so much plot and atmosphere into a well-paced 81 minutes.

DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES is action packed, atmospheric, filled with delightful jazz music and a fascinating cast of sinister characters. As the secret agent-protagonist actor Conrado San Martin, who played the relentless police inspector in Franco's previous THE AWFUL DR ORLOF, does not quite have the charm of Sean Connery's James Bond, the actor was even renamed "Sean Martin" on the theatrical and video adverts. The fact that his character's real name is Al Pereira gives Franco's perennial favorite detective/spy a good origin story.  Highlights include a surprisingly well-staged lethal fistfight in a dark alley between the agent and the thuggish Moroni (Gerard Tichy) which has the gritty flavor of similar scenes in such classic 1950s American noirs as KISS ME DEADLY (1955) and Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL(1958).

The unmasking of Radeck at a Gothic styled masquerade ball also shows Franco at his most visually arresting and anticipates the surreal, frenetic masquerade ball which opens his 1967 Eurospy spoof, LUCKY THE INSCRUTABLE. It should also be noted that the local homicide cop Inspector Fenton in DEATH.... is played by Spanish actor Fortunio Bonanova, who also appeared as the voice coach of the wife of the title character in Orson Welles' most famous film, CITIZEN KANE. This would be Bonanova's final film. CITIZEN KANE has a much more prominent influence of the other film on this release, the 1963 RIFIFI EN LA CIUDAD. 

Alternate titles of the French version of DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES included 077 OPERATION JAMAIQUE and 077 OPERATION SEXY. No one has yet located a print of that SEXY version, according to Franco writer Stephen Thrower on the Bonus featurette included on the release. The version presented on the Blu-ray is the original Spanish language release, before Eurocine retitled, dubbed, and reedited it. This feature, scanned in HD from original negative elements, is presented in 1.78:1 (16:9), no significant loss of image was noticed during playback. Both features are in Spanish 2.0 mono audio with new English subtitles. Scanned from original negative elements the video quality is far sharper, with superior overall definition to the dupes that have been floating around for years.

Speaking of Orson Welles, that legendary director's trademark visual style is written all over both of these features. It is well-known that Orson Welles was impressed with a screening of RIFIFI IN THE CITY, which he was shown to him by a Spanish producer to discourage him from working with Franco. Welles liked it so much, probably recognizing the influences of his own filmography, including CITIZEN KANE (see top images), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, TOUCH OF EVIL, that he decided to hire Franco to be his assistant on his two upcoming projects, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and TREASURE ISLAND (1965).  Franco and Welles reportedly had a falling out and TREASURE ISLAND, which Franco had started directing with Welles in the lead role, was left unfinished. When I asked Jess Franco who was his favorite director when I interviewed him he answered without hesitation, "Orson Welles." He followed that up by saying another top favorite was Robert Siodmak, a German born director who moved to the US in the late 1930ss to make a top notch series of Film Noirs, including a Jess Franco favorite, THE KILLERS (1946). Franco also mentioned that he especially admired the use of jazz music in Siodmak's thrillers, terming them "Jazz-Noir". Both of these films in this release would fall into that classification.

RIFIFI IN THE CITY could indeed be termed Wellesian from its very first shots of huge posters of corrupt businessman-senate hopeful Maurice Leprince (Jean Servais). Leprince is a major player in the cocaine smuggling racket and is being investigated by veteran detective Miguel Mora (Fernando-Fernan Gomez). The severe expression on Leprince's face and the sinister edge to his bearing on the poster suggest a threatening personality rather than a helpful, benevolent one which a politician might desire. One night a key informant, Paco, is delivered literally onto Mora's doorstep, dead on arrival. Mora is outraged and steps up his game, informing his colleagues that he's talking the gloves off and will take Leprince down without regards to laws, rules or regulations. But there are more related murders, mysterious clues, twists and turns which delay Mora's plan, leading to frustration, violence and tragedy along the way. 

Based on the 1958 novel by Charles Exbrayat VOUS SOUVENES_VOUS DE PACO?, the key to the murder mystery and conspiring architect of Leprince's downfall lies in the book's title, DO YOU REMEMBER PACO? The last section of the film contains a number of sharp turns and fatal twists giving the violent endgame a one-two punch. This is a sprawling, complex film which employs music, melodrama and political intrigue to create one of Franco's darkest, most stylistically elaborate immersions into a noir nightmare world. The character driven plot is worth the wait it takes to unravel. Daniel White's wide ranging score, from hot jazz, to Latin blues, mambo to big band salsa and beyond, with an especially haunting main theme, is one of his most accomplished for Franco. 

What we are left with is more of a downbeat contemplation of a genre than a straightforward crime thriller. The destruction of the villain necessitates the loss of good people and the feeling of being dropped at the edge of a precipice at the last moment. As with many of his better, more personal films, Franco seems reluctant to give us a completely happy ending, so he gives us complicated one instead with food for thought on the side.  The high contrast black and white cinematography by Godofredo Pacheco creates a sense of ratcheted-up visual delirium both in the violent set pieces and the painstakingly choreographed musical numbers. In fact this film could be also be called a musical-noir. Led by the over-the-top blonde persona of Marie Vincent (the secretary in Benazeraf's once controversial crime-noir, JOE CALIGULA), whose alpha style singing and dancing are set off by her deliciously stylized outfits and hairstyles. One must take into account that Franco had already made two large scale musicals by this time, THE QUEEN OF THE TABARIN and VAMPIRESAS 1930 (both 1930), and that music was as important to him as writing, directing, acting and visual stylistics. It was published as a 1968 photo-novel in Spain in Aventuras de Ciencia-Ficcion #6., according to the review in OBSESSION: THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO.*

This feature, like DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES, is presented in 1.78:1/16:9; although shot in 1.66:1 there is no significant loss of image. Scanned  in HD from negative elements there are a few moments which lack the focus and definition of the rest, but this is the absolute best this film has ever looked on home video. This is full-blown noir, consistently composed with atmospheric poise. The new English language subtitles are an accurate translation of the 2.0 mono Spanish language soundtrack. A 60 plus minute featurette interview with Stephen Thrower details the career of Franco up to the early 1960s, along with discussing the plots, influences, and performances in both films. He also adds some observation and criticism of Franco's seeming lack of interest in conventional plot construction. My own feeling is that both are just about pitch perfect in tone and style, representing Franco's final word on classic Film Noir and his own early steps into a personal brand of neo-noir which would continue to evolve until the very end of his career. 

*Balbo, Lucas, pp 46-47, 1993.

Released by Severin Films.

(C) Robert Monell , 2021

20 October, 2021

LES EBRANLEES/DOLLS FOR SALE/VIBRATING GIRLS/LA MAISON DU VICE (Clifford Brown, 1972)

 

This was the third Jess Franco film featuring the sleazy Private Investigator Al Pereira as the protagonist. Franco demonstrated his lifelong cinephilia by naming him after the Hollywood production designer Hal Periera (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, REAR WINDOW), who was at least as prolific as Franco, designing some over 280 films. His most memorable artwork is seen in the Film Noir format. In that area he mastered the black and white aesthetic as well as the blushing colors of VERTIGO. One could draw a parallel with Jess Franco, whose monochrome noir DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES is lit and composed in the dynamic yet layered tones of Robert Siodmak's THE KILLERS, a personal favorite of Franco. LES EBRANLEES is a different story and a different kind of production, it looks almost threadbare and is as stylistically sleazy as the world it depicts. Perhaps a HD release would throw a different light on mise-en-scene of this Robert De Nesle production. This is the director's grittiest entry into the Eurocrime trend which was taking off in the early 1970s and would pretty much rule the rest of the commercial landscape in European genre cinema of that decade.

 

ABOVE: Conrado San Martin (the police inspector in Jess Franco's first horror film, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE), was the first actor to portray Al Pereira, as Agent 069, in DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES (1962), coming on Blu-ray from Severin Films.

 

 An abridged (approx, 69m) French language version (original title: LES EBRANLEES, although the title card is missing on the version I saw, a transfer from French video to VHS). This fullscreen transfer, the grungy cinematography was by Gerard Brissaud, looks like it came from a 35mm print which played every grindhouse in France for the last few decades. This downmarket quality somehow seems perfectly appropriate considering this is an utlra-sleazy, sweaty foray into a feral Euro-underworld investigated by Jess Franco's favorite private eye, Al Pereira. The fact that Al is incarnated by the legendary Howard Vernon, an elegant stylist who brought a haggard dignity to his work for Franco, Godard (ALPHAVILLE), Melville , Lang (DIE TAUSEND AUGEN DER DR. MABUSE) and many others, gives this grade Z Eurocrime obscurity a gravitas amid its porno designation. This is a deep, dirty dive into the continental prostitution racket and its related Euro underworld activities in the morally compromised 1970s. As usual with Franco films of this era, much of it appears to be shot in hotel rooms, specifically the Hotel Catalina.

 

ABOVE: Antonio Mayans is once again cast as Al Pereira in Franco's final neo-noir featuring his favorite PI. This was Franco's final completed film. He passed away white shooting the follow-up, THE REVENGE OF THE ALLIGATOR LADIES (2013), which was completed by Antonio Mayans. Call him Al Crosby, Al Pereira, whatever, the name might change, the character is the same.

 

The plot synopsis published in OBSESSION-THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO bears little or no relation to the version under consideration here.* But since the continuity is so choppy, it's hard to offer an alternative scenario. Periera seems to be investigating a drug/prostitution ring operating out of a number of hotels and clubs. After brushing off some pimps and thugs, he becomes involved with a stripper (Montserrat Prous) whom he uses to infiltrate the criminal organization. The boss turns out to be a club owner (Doris Thomas), who has an amazon girlfriend (Kali Hansa) also adept at kidnapping, torture and seduction.

 

ABOVE: The 1980 remake of LES EBRANLEES features Antonio Mayans as "Al Crosby" in this iteration.

As with so many Franco titles the action commences in the middle of an erotic performance (cf: SUCCUBUS (1967), EXORCISM (1967), to name just a couple). A trashy nightclub where garishly attired patrons gawk at one of the "vibrating girls" thrashing around on a red and white checkerboard stage to Janin and Hermel's electrified lounge score. A later minimalist striptease by Montserrat Prous seems all the more erotic because she removes nothing more than her black leather gloves. Her slow, deliberate movements are absolutely hypnotic. Hansa getting the drop on an exhausted looking Vernon (after he has just had rough sex with Hansa) by holding a gun against his private parts and threatening to pull the trigger is typical of Franco's dark, absurdist tone throughout. There is little is any intentional or unintentional humor here. Vernon's depiction of Pereira's slow burn when he discovers that the stripper he has been using has been tortured to death is an acting high water mark and an emotional low point in the film These arresting, very brief encounters are afterimages which play in the mind long after the porno loop design burns itself out. Some might find it largely dismal and depressing.

Alternately hypnotic and narcotic, this is a rather grim tidbit which will be of interest to Franco collectors due to its long standing unavailability on video and those who need to see another chapter in one of the director's longest running roadshows- the Al Pereira Chronicles. Over 20 years after I first saw and reviewed this there is still no official DVD and no Blu-ray in sight. The story and atmosphere of this film were recycled in Franco's 1980 PICK-UP GIRLS,* which is every bit as sleazy and slightly less somber, also dealing with a transexual character's spiral into criminality. 

Thanks to Michelle Alexander for her assistance.  

*See pp.501-568, A Shot in the Temple in "THE JESS FRANCO FILES, VOL.1" by Francesco Cesari and Roberto Curti, where the script for the unfinished "RELAX BABY" is compared to the completed films,"LES EBRANLEES" and "PICK-UP GIRLS (La Chica de las Bragas Transparentes)".

(C) Robert Monell, 2021