Friday, 4 July 2014

Franco Files:
La Muerte Silba un Blues /
‘Death Whistles a Blues’

NOTE TO READERS: having recently posted several truly epic Jess Franco reviews that ended up sprawling across a fairly untenable word-count, and with over thirty Franco films potentially awaiting review (god help me), I thought I’d best shake things up a bit, in an effort to present a greater variety of the director’s work, before I (and more to point, YOU) start to lose interest entirely. As such, I’ve decided to go to work on what will hopefully be some shorter reviews, sticking the section-headers and ratings I’ve previously been using at the bottom of the post, in order to instead present a single block of (hopefully slightly more concise) text. Hope that’s ok with everyone?

Though often dated to 1964 (or even 1966, when it was re-released in France under the title ‘O77: Opération Sexy’, in a dubious attempt to jump onboard the Eurospy craze), ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’ (‘Death Whistles a Blues’) actually dates back to 1962, and it appears to have been Jess Franco’s immediate follow-up to his first breakthrough in the international movie market, The Awful Dr. Orlof.

Largely unseen in the modern era prior to the emergence of a fan-subbed Spanish TV-rip I found floating around on the internet last week (and seriously, GOD BLESS the hard-working, multilingual movie obsessives who are able to anonymously bring us this sort of treasure on a semi-regular basis these days), this modest crime thriller has been rather overlooked by Franco fans, and is usually only mentioned in reference to the oft-repeated anecdote about how Franco got the job working as assistant director to Orson Welles, when the latter arrived in Spain to shoot ‘Falstaff’ (aka ‘Chimes at Midnight’) in 1965.

The story goes that Welles had somehow got hold of Franco’s name, and asked his Spanish backers whether he might make a good assistant. They attempted to dissuade Welles, telling him that Franco was a useless hack (a reputation that apparently proceeded him even this early in his career), and, just to prove their point, they arranged to screen one of his films. Unfortunately for them, the film they chose was ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’, which contains a number of stylistic nods to Welles’ own work. His ego perhaps tickled by this, Orson apparently liked the film so much that he immediately offered Franco the job, and invited him on a memorable “getting to know each other” location-scouting road trip, much to the chagrin of his producers.

The way that that working relationship ended is another story for another day, but, returning to the film at hand, it is easy to see why Welles might have been impressed. ‘La Muerte..’s script may be forgettable b-picture nonsense, and its performances strictly average,* but there is nonetheless a real sense of visual style at work here, with striking compositions, fine black & white photography and smooth, gliding camera movements in evidence throughout. In purely technical terms, it finds Franco at the absolute top of his game, working on a level that will prove quite a shock to those who know him primarily for his sloppier ‘70s and ‘80s work.

Following a sketchy opening that sees a pair of bohemian gun smugglers meeting a sticky end at a police check-point on their way into a city that purports to be New Orleans, we are ushered into a Golden Age Hollywood style nightclub scene that really takes off once Franco's camera begins to concentrate on the band (including Jess himself on sax, if I’m not mistaken), who are playing some pretty rollicking ‘50s style be-bop.

The way this sequence is edited, intercutting tight shots of the musicians with expressionless close-ups of glamorous onlookers making eyes at each other, strongly recalls similar scenes in Venus In Furs, a film that seems to have benefited from the use of more than a few re-fried riffs from this one. (I mean, if you’re taking notes here, ‘La Muerte..’s opening credits play over the image of a lonesome trumpet player laying (apparently) dead on a beach, even though the events pertaining to this circumstance subsequently move us forward, rather than backward, in time.)

Next we move to a bird-like aerial crane-shot panning in over a swimming pool towards a man reclining on top of a diving board – just a few seconds of the film, and of zero narrative import, but a pretty breath-taking bit of stylistic extravagance in terms of what you’d expect from a low budget film in 1962, and it’s hard to imagine Orson sitting through it without immediately deciding that he’d found his man.

Much of what follows is the kind of standard Euro-decadence business that was big at the time in the wake of ‘Le Dolce Vita’, with yachts, swimming pools, nightclubs, beautiful ladies, endless parties, and travelogue shots of places that REALLY don’t look like anywhere within easy reach of New Orleans. The details of the plot-line are fairly standard programmer stuff really, so I shan’t bore you with the specifics.

As usual in his thrillers, Franco is having a lot of fun here with genre tropes, but without hitting the pastiche too heavily. The scene in which the trumpet-player (who survived his earlier scrape on the beach, it transpires) is run-down by a car outside the night-club, his smashed horn at his side, has a wonderful sense of pulp poetry to it, and some shots later in the movie perfectly capture the ‘beach houses & Venetian blinds’ essence of ‘40s L.A. noir, without ever rubbing it in our faces or turning it into a joke. I get the feeling that homages to specific shots from movies of that era are frequent, but I’m too dumb and scatter-brained to definitively place any of them, so instead I’ll just sit back and enjoy.

The most welcome surprise in ‘La Muerte..’ though isn’t its technical acumen, but its pacing. Somehow or other, this one manages to almost completely avoid the stretches of procedural padding and ‘down time’ that weighed heavily on just about every subsequent thriller or detective story Franco attempted. So whilst we might not really give a hoot about the story or characters here, it’s hard to deny that there is always *something* happening on screen to maintain our interest - and furthermore, it’s often happening at great speed too! (Some of the action sequences and car chases are even under-cranked to lend them extra velocity – a pretty startling occurrence, given the sort of languorous drift we’ve learned to expect from later Franco productions.)

Events frequently veer off into totally random digressions, showcasing a great deal of garrulous, somewhat charming humour. But, rather than serving merely to pad out screen-time (as might have been the case in a later film), some of these sequences, such as the one in which the hero engages in an arm-wrestling showdown with a couple of guys in a waterfront bar, absolutely explode with life – exhilarating bits of romantic-realist cinematic business that momentarily take the film completely outside its hum-drum generic trappings, recalling the kind of thing you might see in a ‘50s Fellini movie, and suggesting the presence of a young, live-wire director straining at the leash to make ANY kind of film.

For the finale, Franco even stages a chaotic masked ball in a vast, baroque ballroom, as the gun-toting characters fight their way to a showdown through a haze of streamers and confetti, elbowing aside throngs of outlandishly costumed revellers – an overwhelming visual spectacle that the director would recreate almost exactly a few years later in his decidedly strange eurospy effort ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’ (1967).**

The presence of a much remarked upon “Lina” amongst the central characters (the other cast members say her name a lot) initially seems positively eerie, coming a full decade before Franco began working with the much-missed Ms. Romay… until that is, we remember that it was Franco who chose Romay’s screen-name for her in the first place, stealing it from a slightly known Mexican actress and jazz singer, no less. Given this movie’s jazz theme, the pre-existing Lina Romay may have already been on the director’s mind when he threw the script together, and so, as is ever the case in the endlessly self-referential and culturally aware world of Franco, things come full circle in the end.

Francophiles will be equally unsurprised to learn that the millionaire bad guy in ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’ is named Radeck, or that, in a final reel twist, the heroic undercover police detective turns out to be none other than one Alfred Periera (perhaps making his first screen appearance?).

Despite lacking just about all of the surface level trademarks of the Franco’s later oeuvre (no sex, no horror, no dreamy weirdness), those in the know will instantly recognise ‘La Muerte..’ as a Jess Franco film. Not just the character names, but also the scene set-ups, plot developments and camera angles - even the hair & make-up choices - all seem to cast uncanny echoes into the future, reminding us of tropes that would turn up again and again in his later career, their origin(?) in this film lost or barely acknowledged. Even the ‘Roof Blues’ itself, which plays a significant part in the film’s storyline, will sound distantly familiar to Franco fans; though perhaps not instantly recognisable, it is a melancholy melody that I’m sure I remember reappearing in some form on the soundtrack to many of his other movies.

Overall, I found ‘Death Whistles a Blues’ to be a wonderful surprise. Though its boilerplate script and self-consciously ‘minor’ ambitions stop it from ever attaining the level of a capital letters GREAT MOVIE, it is nonetheless one of the most technically impressive and unpretentiously entertaining films Franco made during the ‘60s, and probably one of the best thrillers or crime films he *ever* made, so it is a shame that circumstances have seen it more or less lost to history as a footnote to a footnote in the big book of obscure movie-making anecdotes. Given the film’s aforementioned lack of sex, horror and strangeness, the low-ish scores awarded to it below do not really reflect the extent to which I enjoyed it, and I would certainly encourage curious fans, or those who enjoy off-beat ‘60s genre movies in general, to track it down.

Kink – 2/5
Creepitude – 1/5
Pulp Thrills – 4/5
Altered States – 1/5
Sight-seeing – 3/5

* No big names or Franco favourites are present in the cast, but some IMDB clicking reminds us that much of the supporting cast from ‘..Dr. Orlof’ reappears here, including Perla Cristal, Conrado San Martín and María Silva, thus lending weight to the idea that the films were made at around the same time.

** And there was me thinking that 'Lucky..' ripped off the opening to George Franju's 'Judex', released a year after this film...


Anonymous said...

God, this sounds great. Thank you for the write-up. I never would have discovered this film otherwise.

vwstieber said...

Tremendously enjoying your Franco reviews, being a fan of his work myself. This review exemplifies his strange appeal: no matter what, there is always a glimpse of talent/genius that breaks through the surface like a golden fish in the scummy pond of a fairy tale--only seen but never caught, grilled, eaten and digested.

My 74 year-old mother loves oddball films, and among a stack of DVDs I gave her to watch last week was the Tonfilm edition of GRITOS EN LA NOCHE. She came back to me and said "I don't know this guy, but do you have any more of his films for me?" She couldn't explain it--superficially it's standard gothic fare but it works like optical quicksand for your brain.

I won't be giving her any of the Dietrich films (she's my mom!) but I handed her DR ORLOFF'S MONSTER, SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, DIABOLICAL DR Z, and the Towers production of VENUS IN FURS.

Interestingly, my wife and my dad don't get Franco at all. His appeal remains inexplicable.