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  Death Whistles the Blues Orson Welles' favourite Jess Franco movie
Year: 1964
Director: Jess Franco
Stars: Conrado San Martin, Danik Patisson, Perla Cristal, Georges Rollin, Manuel Alexandre, Maria Silva, Adriano Dominguez, Marta Reves, Gérard Tichy, Fortunio Bonanova
Genre: Thriller, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: At a swanky Jamaican nightclub chic Lina (Perla Cristal) recognizes jazz trumpeter Julius Smith (Manuel Alexandre), a friend of her first husband, onstage when he plays a familiar tune. It reminds Lina of happier times before her husband, a gun-runner named Frederico Castro, was betrayed by his partner and shot by the police. When Lina mentions this chance encounter to her current spouse Paul Vogel (Georges Rollin), he immediately has Julius killed in a hit-and-run. For it was he who double-crossed Castro two years ago. Suspecting Vogel is up to no good, police commissioner Fenton (Fortunio Bonanova) asks nightclub chanteuse Maria Santos (Danik Patisson) to spy on the wealthy businessman whose real name is Radek. Meanwhile a hearty sailor calling himself Joao (Conrado San Martin) arrives in town, assembles a gang of colourful friends and breaks into Vogel's home to steal important documents. Could he be Castro out for revenge?

A screening of Death Whistles the Blues for Orson Welles landed infamous trash auteur Jess Franco a job directing second-unit on Chimes At Midnight (1966). Little wonder since Franco's playfully convoluted Spanish language thriller plays like a loving pastiche of exactly the kind of jazzy, free-form film noir Welles used to dash off between more 'serious' projects, especially The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Note the reoccurring use of mirrors to reflect a key character's multiple identities along with the sailor hero styled almost exactly like Welles' character from the cult noir favourite. And so began one of the unlikeliest collaborations in film history, an intersection between high art and 'trash' that would surprisingly endure as, decades later, Franco laboured to reconstruct Welles' unfinished adaptation of Don Quixote.

Made at a point when Franco's storytelling could still counterbalance his impulse to improvise Death Whistles the Blues ranks among his most controlled, coherent works. Jointly credited as cinematographer with veteran Juan Marine, his precise camera moves and velvety noir lighting tricks are genuinely impressive. Typical for a Franco film the scenes where Moira breaks into torch songs cue his most dynamic angles - later echoed in 'trashier' works like Kiss Me Monster (1967) and Vampyros Lesbos (1970) - although a fight scene is also very well shot and edited with playful use of light and shadow. Even so the film has a dreamlike, disorienting story-structure that might be an acquired taste. As always with Franco mood and ambiance are more important than story. Still the labyrinthine plot, co-written with Luis de Diego, just about makes sense (which is a novelty, for a Franco film) and features visual, thematic and story motifs he would continue to rework time and again even as his career moved from 'serious' thrillers to increasingly trashy horror films and eventually hardcore porn. Notably the use of music (here by Spanish composer Antonio Garcia Abril) as the trigger for a haunting memory or the transformation of nightclub singers into sultry avenging angels.

Danish actress Danik Patisson had a few minor roles in Hollywood films, such as The Sun Also Rises (1957), but carved a niche largely in racy continental thrillers and Eurospy fare. Here she beguiles as the feisty, seemingly complicated heroine though her character is a red herring. Although Moira intersects with key characters throughout the film and proves instrumental in the denouement her own vague subplot goes nowhere. Death Whistles the Blues switches from one character's viewpoint after another, turning from sober thriller to pop culture pastiche laden with film buff in-jokes (names like Radek, Al Perreira and Lina reoccur throughout Franco's movies and of course his future partner and frequent collaborator used the screen name Lina Romay) and jazz music references to melancholy, if melodramatic character study. In scenes where Lina and Vogel/Radek, a disarmingly vulnerable villain in the mould of Claude Rains in Notorious (1946), lament their failing marriage the pace lags but the story continues to engage. The climax unfolds amidst a well-staged, eye-catching costume party that evokes To Catch a Thief (1955) and pulls off a few fun twists. While Death Whistles the Blues does not quite transcend its status as B-movie fluff it nonetheless ranks up there with Lucky the Inscrutable (1967) and Eugenie... The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) among Franco's more accomplished efforts.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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Jess Franco  (1930 - 2013)

Legendary director of predominantly sex-and-horror-based material, Spanish-born Jesus Franco had as many as 200 directing credits to his name. Trained initially as a musician before studying film at the Sorbonne in Paris, Franco began directing in the late 50s. By using the same actors, sets and locations on many films, Franco has maintained an astonishing workrate, and while the quality of his work has sometimes suffered because of this, films such as Virgin Amongst the Living dead, Eugenie, Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy remain distinctive slices of 60s/70s art-trash.

Most of his films have been released in multiple versions with wildly differing titles, while Franco himself has directed under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. Actors who have regularly appeared in his films include Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee and wife Lina Romay; fans should also look out for his name on the credits of Orson Welles' Chimes of Midnight, on which he worked as assistant director.

 
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