Franco directed nine FILms for British producer Harry Alan Towers in a productive two-year period at the very end of the sixties. Unfortunately, while the relationship is undeniably significant in terms of the director’s career, the resultant films are something of a mixed bag. Towers was able to arrange budgets and stars to which Franco had not previously had access, but the films themselves often lack the conviction and singular vision we tend to associate with the director. An auteur by most definitions, it would be naive to imagine he had sole creative control over every project with which he was involved, especially when working for worldly,  successful producers such as Towers.  The Fu Manchu films, for instance, were the third and fourth entries in a series, meaning Franco is likely to have been little more than a hired gun.

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Of the films I will discuss, the earliest is 99 Women, which dates from 1968 and came directly after The Girl from Rio in Franco’s filmography. Indeed, it incorporates twenty minutes or so of footage shot opportunistically in Brazil when that wrapped up ahead of schedule. In it we see three women – prison escapees – making their way through the jungle, encountering and ultimately being pursued by a gang of similarly incarcerated men. This was apparently based on a scenario by Towers himself, who then used the footage to secure funding to complete the film back in Europe, as it would transpire, in Alicante.

“From now on you have no name, only a number. You have no future, only a past.”
Thelma Diaz

Cinema’s first real ‘women in prison’ film begins with three recently convicted women being transported by boat to their island jail, nicknamed The Castle of Death. Once there they are assigned a number and swiftly introduced to the realities of prison life. One (Luciana Paluzzi) begins to exhibit signs of drug withdrawal but her distress is ignored. When another – Maria Rohm, the 99th woman – protests, she is accused of insolence and threatened with punishment. Shortly thereafter she is also confronted with the prison’s informal hierarchy, as she is attacked by Number 76, the beautiful Rosalba Neri, the conflict setting up a meeting with the Island’s ill-intentioned governor, played by Herbert Lom.

Though it’s almost family fare when compared to Franco’s later prison movies, we should be clear from the outset that this is an exploitation movie. The inmates – mostly young and frequently beautiful – wear uniforms that amount to slightly oversized shirts, barely containing their breasts and positively showcasing their legs. Indeed Neri – who looks stunning here – struts around in black stockings throughout. That said, there is more going on here than in many of the films which subsequently adopted the template, as evidenced by the conflict between Mercedes McCambridge – the incumbent superintendent, who insists that prisons are for the punishment of criminals – and the liberal Marie Schell, who is sent to the island to investigate the deaths of two inmates. Whether the ultimate resolution of this conflict represents the thoughts of Towers or Franco on penal policy is not something I can really assess. My suspicion is the narrative is driven more by the demand for drama than the personal convictions of the author(s) though.

In cinematic terms this is competent but fairly conventional stuff and mostly lacking in Franco’s trademarks, for better or worse. The three scenes that buck the trend are the flashbacks in which Rohm and Neri recall the events leading up to their crimes, which boast expressionist, coloured lighting and surrealist flourishes. The sex scene between the two is even better, being shot in tight close-up and very soft focus, rendering body parts abstract and indistinguishable. It’s all a far cry from the gynaecological zooms which would feature in later forays behind prison walls.

It would be remiss of me not to return to the subject of the cast in concluding, as both Mccambridge and Schell were bankable stars at the time and present the conflicting ideologies of their characters credibly here. Herbert Lom more than holds his own as the weathered, malevolent authority figure, though I imagine exploitation fans will be more drawn to Rohm – who was married to Towers at the time – and Neri, whose looks alone grant them considerable screen presence. Either way, the ensemble contribute significantly to a film that was a major box office success and remains among the most engaging of the set. Indeed, it’s probably the best women in prison film Franco ever made, although I can understand why some of the others have their fans.

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Far less satisfying is Justine, or Deadly Sanctuary, Franco’s first adaptation of the Marquis De Sade which dates from 1969. What makes it doubly disappointing is the obvious care and attention that went into the production, which apparently boasts the largest budget the director ever worked with and allowed for a seven-week shoot.

Another film written by Towers, Justine draws from both the novel of the same name and it’s companion piece Juliette in telling the tale of two sisters whose different temperaments lead them down wildly divergent paths. The naive Justine, played by Romina Power, is used and abused at every turn, while the more worldly Juliette, the returning Maria Rohm, accumulates wealth and power by flouting 18th – or indeed 21st – century morality.

“I’ve learned from my own experiences in this world, that it’s only the wicked who prosper.”
Justine

Direct adaptation of Sade’s work is problematic for a number of reasons, which I think we can see here. First and foremost is the issue of sexual violence, present throughout much of his published work and frequently taken to ludicrous extremes. While Franco often seemed to relish depicting acts of sadism on screen, literal representations of the horrors of Sade’s work would have been unthinkable in the late 1960’s, as they would be today. There is also the problem of the lengthy philosophical dialogues that are integral to the source material but do not translate easily to cinema. Sade’s rejection of religion and man-made morality can come across as simple-minded in the wrong hands, and here they are in both the wrong hands and the wrong mouths. Perhaps Pasolini handled it best, by incorporating storytellers into Salo and having them quote directly from the text. It also seems to me – and it’s a long time since I’ve read Sade – that the characters are little more than ciphers, pawns used to illustrate the underpinning philosophy, and to empathise or relate to them is entirely beside the point. In conventional cinema, on the other hand, that sort of thing is generally considered to be important.

Exacerbating what we might consider inherent problems are some of the central performances, especially that of Romina Power. Franco was perfectly clear in later years that she was not his choice and having her in the lead prevented him from making the film he had intended. While she is certainly not the only problem here, she is totally unconvincing and this contributes to the lack of jeopardy one feels when watching the film. However hopeless her situation may appear, there is never any doubt that she will survive long enough to sleepwalk into the hands of another villain of one sort or another.

The other main offender in the acting states is, perhaps surprisingly, Hollywood’s own Jack Palance, whose portrayal of Brother Antonin, leader of an order of libertine monks, is utterly bizarre. His delivery of lines suggests someone who is totally unfamiliar with the language, who has tried to learn their lines phonetically and whose emphasis and inflection are thus wholly unnatural. The word from the set – specifically from Franco – is that the performance owes more to alcohol than art.

The director and producer must obviously take their share of the blame for the finished product, and not just for the poor casting choices. Some of the scenes towards the beginning of the film, in which Justine is chased around the room by a troll-like man who has made her his maid, have an absurd tone which is quite out of keeping with the majority of the film. The set design is also rather odd during this episode, calling to mind a stage set which, again, is quite out of keeping with the remainder of the film.

Whether we attribute the uneven tone to Franco, Towers or some combination of the two, the latter must take responsibility for the unsatisfactory resolution of the narrative, which owes more to Hollywood sentimentality than Sade, and must have had the Marquis turning in his unmarked grave.

Episodic and unconvincing as it is, the film is not entirely without redeeming features. As we said at the outset, a great deal of care went into the production, and this is evident in the costumes, locations and technical aspects of the film. Artistically, the most successful sequences are those which feature the charismatic Klaus Kinski as Sade, imprisoned, compelled to write, and seemingly haunted by images of bound, naked women. Sadly, these are little more than punctuation marks amid the tedium.

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Franco and Towers would return to the well of DeSade in 1969 for Eugenie . . . the story of her journey into perversion, a loose adaptation of Philosophy in the Boudoir. This time around Maria Rohm takes the lead as Marianne St. Ange, who consents to give herself to Mistival (Paul Mueller) in return for a weekend with his daughter. Eugenie (Marie Liljedahl) is duly delivered into the clutches of Marianne and her libertine brother Mirvel (Jack Taylor), for whom the games are about to begin.

“There are thorns everywhere, but along the path to vice roses bloom above them.”
Mirvel

Standing head and shoulders above most of the Towers productions, one of the principal reasons Eugenie . . . succeeds where Justine fails is the air of transgression that pervades it’s brief running time. Justine made Sade seem safe, which is something I would have struggled to imagine had I not seen it with my own eyes, where Eugenie . . . feels dangerous, daring and deviant. We learn – indeed we see – that Marianne and Mirvel are lovers, and while they are occasionally referred to as step-siblings, this is the merest, most transparent of fig leaves and does little to lessen the shock of the seeing them in bed with an unconscious Eugenie. And if drugging and raping an innocent young woman is not shocking enough, we are also in rather choppy waters with regards to the age of the titular Eugenie, which is 15 in the source material and, while it’s never explicitly addressed in the film, there are indications she is significantly younger than the 19 year old playing the part. For instance, she is seen with a doll on more than one occasion, and having arrived on the island, makes reference to her mother believing she is with school friends.

Setting the majority of the film on a private island, the coastline and landscape of which feature prominently, is actually something of a master stroke. It serves to isolate our protagonists from outside interference and physically separates Eugenie from everything with which she is familiar. When she steps off of the boat and into the arms of Marianne, she is effectively entering another world, one of which she has no experience. Transposing Sade to the present day is also a wise move, with the trappings of wealth – sports cars, speedboats and servants – adding glamour to the decadence of the sinister siblings.

On the subject of glamour, Rohm has probably never looked better than she does here and dominates the screen like a reimagined, psycho-sexual Grace Kelly. Her acting is also better than one might expect, as she switches from charming hostess to libertine and convinces as both. Much the same could be said about Jack Taylor, here in his second Franco film, and Marie Liljedahl, who had already starred in Sarno’s Inga, conveys naïveté where Romina Power could only manage stupidity. The biggest star on show is actually Christopher Lee, albeit his role as Dolmance – a sort of master of ceremonies for an order of costumed sadists – is little more than a cameo. It’s important in a number of respects though, both narratively – I don’t want to spoil a significant plot-twist – and in terms of the film’s construction. Going back to the review of Justine, we spoke about the problems of translating Sade’s lengthy philosophical dialogues to the screen, and having Lee read aloud during some of the set pieces leaves Rohm and Taylor to embody Sadean ideas without really having to articulate them.

Franco is on record as saying that of all his films, this is one he hates the least, and while I’m not sure it’s my favourite it’s certainly in the top ten, perhaps the top five. It’s an extremely stylish affair – aesthetically it reminds me a lot of Metzger’s brilliant Camille 2000 – with a compelling premise, great locations and a fantastic score. There are issues though. Manuel Marino’s cinematography, which had been perfectly competent in the earlier features without being especially noteworthy, is a genuine asset here. Whole sequences are bathed in infernal red light, household objects are used to frame key shots and the camera itself seems to glide around the action. A host of shots are out of focus shots though, and while I imagine this was intended to be evocative – they’re too plentiful to be mistakes – it’s actually rather distracting. The conclusion of the film is also a problem, serving to significantly undermine the drama that preceded it. Interestingly I had totally forgotten the final scene prior to revisiting the film, perhaps I’d repressed it, and believed things had wrapped up with a naked, distraught Eugenie running through the sand dunes. It really should have.

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The other artistically significant film from the Towers set is 1969’s Venus in Furs, which sits between the Sade adaptations chronologically but is an outlier in many respects and perhaps best addressed here, at the end of the piece.

James Darren plays ‘Jimmy’, a jazz musician who spots a figure drifting in the sea while walking along the beach. Pulling the body ashore, he is struck by the feeling he recognises the woman (Maria Rohm), possibly from a party he played a week prior, at which he saw a beautiful blonde being stripped and beaten.

Seeking refuge in Rio, embarking on a romance with a singer named Rita (Barbara McNair) and seemingly having rediscovered his mojo, he finds himself thrown into turmoil once more when the dead woman, or perhaps her doppelgänger, walks into a bar he’s playing.

“When I was with Wanda it was like time just didn’t exist anymore.
The real world had suddenly vanished and I was hypnotised.”
Jimmy

The films we’ve discussed thus far have all been written by Towers, albeit with input from the director in two of the three cases. Venus in Furs was written by Franco, which is probably sufficient explanation for the radically different tone. Whereas the other three seemed concerned primarily with telling stories, here that seems more a means to an end, specifically a means to representing an altered state of consciousness. This is borne out by Franco’s acknowledged inspiration for the film, a conversation with legendary jazzman Chet Baker, who spoke of seeing images from his life flash before his eyes when improvising a solo, and likened the feeling to that of drowning. While I can’t really comment on that – either the improvising of a solo or the drowning – the film seems to me to adhere to something approximating dream logic, in which objects appear in unexpected places without the need for explanation, and people’s appearance changes from one moment to the next. Time too, seems to ebb and flow unpredictably here, as if adhering to a rhythm other than the ticking of a clock.

On the subject of rhythm, the director’s sensibility is also evident in the use of music, principally modern jazz, which is given great prominence. A significant portion of the score is actually diegetic, with Darren, McNair and Franco himself performing extended numbers on screen. Of course nightclub scenes are a staple of Franco’s cinema and a number of his films are blessed with wonderful scores. I can’t think of many to which the music is so central though, both thematically and structurally. The score here is, incidentally, by Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg, with the former also performing on screen.

While music is undeniably at the heart of the film, the cinematography of Angelo Lotti is also worthy of note, being among the most flamboyant of the Towers set. Technically this amounts to slow motion footage, the use of filters and even some posterisation effects during the final act. It’s the evocative imagery that leaves the lasting impression though, whether that’s feathers falling over a sapphic kiss, Klaus Kinski, suspended by his wrists or Maria Rohm descending a staircase, titular furs trailing behind her. The overall production design is also a considerable asset in this regard. For example there is a memorable scene in which Rohm’s apparent killers, now dead themselves, stand over her prostrate body in a red-walled room that calls to mind the black lodge from Twin Peaks, though I have no way of knowing if that is more than coincidence.

Going back to the narrative, it’s interesting to hear Franco refer to the romantic triangle formed of Darren, McNair and Rohm (the mysterious ‘Wanda’) as the core of the film, because I did not attribute it that much weight. If we assume the events on screen to be oscillating between the real world and Jimmy’s unconscious – and that we can distinguish one from the other with some degree of certainty – the ‘imagined’ world seems to me to be the driving force, not the other way around. It all makes me wonder who the ‘Black Angel’ of the working title was intended to be – McNair, who is Afro-Caribbean, or Rohm, who can be seen as an avenging angel or sorts. I had always assumed it to be the latter.

I can understand that the narrative aspects of the film could be a barrier to some viewers because we are a long from realist cinema here and the resolution, such as it is, is never likely to be described as ‘neat’. I think the film succeeds admirably as a sensory experience though, as an esoteric, audio visual delight, and exploitation cinema is probably not the best place to be looking for nuanced writing and / or character development. A more meaningful criticism is the repeated use of stock location footage, which does slightly undermine the overall aesthetic. The use of language – much of which is actually comprised of Jimmy’s internal monologue – can also be rather jarring to modern ears, and I’m slightly sceptical as to whether people in the late sixties really spoke in such ‘hip’ terms. These are fairly minor points though and do not significantly impact my enjoyment or qualify my recommendation.

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Again, the speed with which these films were shot means the chronology is difficult to state with any certainty. My understanding is that The Bloody Judge and Count Dracula, both starring Christopher Lee and both from 1970, were the last films Franco directed for Towers. In an interview with Carlos Aguilar twenty-one years later, the director referred to being a “functionary” making ‘B’ movies for the American market, albeit with European producers. He wanted more freedom, and the films he would direct during the early seventies seem to me to be among the most personal, the most idiosyncratic of his career. The next set we will look at all feature Soledad Miranda.

 

Notes:

WordPress does not lend itself to footnotes, but the following were consulted in constructing this review:

Immoral Tales, by Pete Tombes and Cathol Tohil (1994)

Bizarre Sinema! Jess Franco, by Carlos Aguilar (1999)

Various documentaries which appear on the US releases of these films from Blue Underground.

I’ve also read Lucas’ ‘How to read a Franco film’, albeit not specifically in the preparation of this piece.