Saturday 25 April 2020

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’immortelle (1963)

L’immortelle (The Immortal One), released in 1963, was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first film as director. He was already reasonably well known as a novelist and as the co-writer of the classic film Last Year at Marienbad which came out in 1961. Last Year at Marienbad is a movie that has puzzled, delighted and exasperated viewers ever since and many viewers will have similar reactions to L’immortelle. It certainly is one weird-ass movie. The cinematic world of Alain Robbe-Grillet is a very strange world (albeit a fascinating one).

L’immortelle was shot on location in Istanbul, which was one of the conditions Robbe-Grillet had to accept in order to be able to make the film. As it happens he was delighted, Istanbul having been where he met his wife and thus being a city with all sorts of romantic connotations for him. And this movie is a love story. Of sorts.

A man (we later discover that his name is Andre), newly arrived in the city, meets a woman (played by Françoise Brion). She tells him her name is Leila. She seems to be French but she tells I’m that she isn’t. She later tells him her name is Lale. He is immediately besotted by her. And she seems to be interested in him. She does however seem to be holding back. She will promise to meet him, but not show up. And then suddenly she will show up. When she disappears he tries to find her but nobody seems to know anything about her.

Perhaps she is running away from someone. It could be the man with the dogs. Is she his wife or his daughter?

Or perhaps she might even be his slave. There are mentions of girls being kept as slaves. And she sometimes behaves in a manner that might suggest she is a slave, or of course it might also suggests that she enjoys playing at being a slave, or even that she’d like Andre to enslave her. It might be worth pointing out that Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the director’s wife (who plays a supporting rôle in the film), was the author of the celebrated sado-masochistic novel L’Image (filmed by Radley Metzger in 1974 as The Image). And sado-masochistic themes recur in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s filmography.

It also seems that there is someone watching Lale. There is someone watching Andre as well. And Andre seems to be watching people as well. He’s watching the man who is watching him. Perhaps Lale is a spy. Perhaps Andre is a spy. Of course while these characters are watching each other we, the audience, are watching them watch each other.

Andre continues to pursue Lale. She continues to puzzle him, sometimes being stand-offish, sometimes being flirtatious, sometimes being just mysterious. He grows more and more obsessed, she grows more elusive.

There are also the doubles. Lale has a double, or perhaps more than one double.

And then they go for a drive and things get really strange.

If you read synopses and reviews of this film elsewhere you’ll find that they reveal rather a lot of plot details, in my view perhaps too many. I do not intend to do that. Some of the events of the story may in retrospect seem inevitable but I personally think it’s better to just experience the film.

All I will say is that Andre runs through the events of the story over and over in his mind, trying to make sense of them, trying to make sense of the girl’s actions and his own.

It’s not just the events of the movie that are odd and unsettling. The entire style of film-making is odd and unsettling, with lots of scenes in which people do not move. They do not move at all. They are like figures in a painting.

You don’t expect a straightforward linear narrative in a Robbe-Grillet film and you don’t get one here. But the narrative is perhaps not quite as non-linear as it appears to be, once you figure out what is going on. And you do figure out what is going on. The essential mystery does become clear. Or at least there are several related possible solutions to the mystery. There are several very definite clues (which I don’t intend to reveal). There are other mysteries in the film that remain mysteries.

You may become frustrated at times, felling that the director is just playing games with you. Of course he is playing games with you, that’s the whole point of the exercise, but he doesn’t actually cheat. If you stick with it you’ll find that the possible explanations make sense. Although it should be added that Robbe-Grillet had definite surrealist tendencies so the film makes sense on its own artistic terms rather than on the terms that we associate with everyday reality.

The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous.

This is, as Robbe-Grillet admits, the Istanbul that tourists expect to see and this is deliberate. While Andre doesn’t like to think of himself as a tourist he is one really, seeing the Istanbul he expects to see. The fact that this might not be the real Istanbul is irrelevant. And this is significant. In the Istanbul of Andre’s tourist imagination white slavery still exists and there are still harems filled with slave girls  (in fact the Turkish government had closed all the harems forty years earlier). The Istanbul of Andre’s imagination is also a place filled with spies (the city having been the setting for countless spy thrillers). So Andre is a man who expects Istanbul to be a city of intrigue, which may well colour his responses to some of the woman’s actions.

The British Film Institute has released this movie as part of a boxed set (on both DVD and Blu-Ray) called Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974. The anamorphic transfer looks lovely. The extras include an audio commentary by Tim Lucas and a fairly lengthy interview with the director (who comes across as an extraordinarily jovial and open sort of guy who loves talking about his movies).

There are thematic and stylistic similarities between L’immortelle and Last Year at Marienbad (and a few direct visual references) but also important differences. L’immortelle is not in any sense merely a rehash of Last Year at Marienbad.

L’immortelle, being made in 1963, does not possess the full-blown eroticism of later Robbe-Grillet movies such as La Belle Captive but the eroticism is certainly there.

Critics and audiences at the time were lukewarm about this movie, perhaps because Andre is (intentionally) a colourless protagonist and they felt that the film dragged a little in the middle third when Lale temporarily disappears. L’immortelle is still a strange surreal but fascinating film. Highly recommended.

Friday 17 April 2020

Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden (AKA Succubus, 1968) revisited

Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden (retitled Succubus for its US release) was an important film for Jess Franco. Released in 1968, it was the first time he had the opportunity to make a film exactly the way he wanted to. The result is a bizarre erotic dreamscape but surprisingly Necronomicon was a major commercial success. Perhaps even more surprisingly it was a film that attracted the admiration of Fritz Lang.

The Necronomicon is of course a fictional book of occult magic invented by H.P. Lovecraft. There have been numerous books that have made the claim that the book actually existed and there have even been bogus translations published. Franco came across one of these and was convinced it was the real thing. An excerpt from this “translation” provided Franco with the inspiration to combine it with a story he’d already written and it became the basis for the movie.

So what is this movie about? That’s an excellent question. When it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival people told Franco they didn’t understand it, to which he replied that he didn’t understand it either. He notes with amusement that this admission created an even greater buzz for the movie. He also notes that it was at this time that he realised that audiences didn’t really care if they understood a movie or not, what mattered was whether it had a visual or emotional impact on them.

And Necronomicon is all about the images.

Lorna (Janine Reynaud) does a kinky nightclub act, very popular with the decadent arty crowd. She may also be a murderess. Or she may not be. There are certainly several murders. Or perhaps there aren't. Lorna may be a demon, or she may not be. The things that happen to her may be quite real. Or they may not be. They might be her own dreams, or possibly someone else’s. Someone could be trying to send her mad, or she could be imposing her madness on others. She may be insane, or she may be perfectly sane. The movie does not commit itself and makes no attempt to explain the strange events that occur. This was a bold decision but it was the right one. It has multiple contradictory meanings and you choose the one you prefer, or you just sit back and enjoy the ride.

And it’s quite a ride. This is Franco at the peak of his ability to create unsettling psychedelic dream landscapes. It is visually arresting to say the least. Franco does not use any of the accepted cinematic tricks to signal that a sequence is a dream sequence. There are none of the usual pop psychedelic camera tricks. He uses the settings and props (just as mannequins which have often been used for such purposes but rarely so effectively as here), he uses costumes and he uses Janine Reynaud’s strange and disturbing presence. Her dresses were by Karl Lagerfeld and they’re stunning and (being a model rather than an actress) she knows how to wear them.

He does shoot the Lisbon scenes differently compared to the Berlin scenes, with lots of soft focus, but we have no way of knowing whether the Lisbon scenes are dream and the Berlin scenes are reality or whether it’s the other way around or whether they’re all dreams or all reality.

Being a Franco film the music is all-important and adds to the strange atmosphere.

Speaking of music, Franco was a jazz fanatic and the structure of a Franco movie tends to  make a lot more sense when you bear that in mind. They’re not so much unstructured as jazz-structured. The settings also matter, not just as settings. They are essential ingredients contributing to both the atmosphere and the emotional content. In this instance, as usual Franco has found some truly striking settings. And as usual he mixes old but strange architecture (such as Lorna’s castle home) in Lisbon with stark modernist architecture in Berlin. In fact the contrast is so great that you might wonder whether these are not just different geographic settings but entirely different worlds and possibly even entirely different timelines.

Like most of his movies of the 60s Necronomicon is more polished technically than some of the director’s later efforts.

In the late 60s Franco seemed to be on the verge of establishing himself as a major force in European cinema, straddling the worlds of genre film, the art film, the erotic film and the exploitation film. For a variety of reasons it never happened. He had a lengthy, colourful and extremely interesting career (and directed at least 200 films) but he never did achieve the respectability that seemed within his grasp in the period from 1968 to 1970. He probably didn’t care. He just wanted to make movies and he was still doing so right up to his death in 2013 at the age of 82.

The fact is that Franco was too obsessed with his own personal vision, too undisciplined and too determined to make his movies his way to achieve any lasting mainstream or critical success. Of course it’s these very things that make him so interesting as a film-maker. His filmography is a hit-and-miss affair but when he hit the target he did so with extraordinary effect.

His best movies (such as Necronomicon, Venus in Furs, Vampyros Lesbos and Doriana Grey) are just not like anybody else’s movies. Like Jean Rollin he was pretty much indifferent to what anybody else thought was the right way to make movies. He was an original.

Blue Underground’s DVD release (which came out some years ago) offers a very good anamorphic transfer. The highlight of the extras is a 22-minute interview with Franco.

Necronomicon is one of Franco’s most interesting movies. It’s almost a horror movie but shot as an entirely different kind of movie with a decidedly arty kind of feel. Highly recommended.

I’m rather enjoying revisiting some of the Franco films that I haven’t seen for years so you can look forward (with joy or trepidation depending on how you feel about how work) to more Franco reviews very soon.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Oddo (1967)

Oddo is a 1967 film by Nick Millard which is partly a standard sexploitation feature (definitely falling into the roughie sub-genre) but it also has pretensions to being an underground political film.

Millard (who made movies using countless pseudonyms) was the son of S.S. (‘Steamship’) Millard, one of the legendary Forty Thieves of the exploitation movie business during its heyday from the late 1920s to the 1960s. Nick Millard started making exploitation movies in the early 60s. He made lots of sexploitation features in the 60s and 70s and low-budget action movies in the 80s.

Oddo starts with an American serviceman returning home from a tour of duty in Vietnam. In Vietnam he was a hero. He felt like he fitted in. He got to kill, which he enjoyed, and he got to feel good about killing which was even better. Now he’s back home in San Francisco and frankly he’d prefer to be back in the jungles of Vietnam. He’s been away for two years and he doesn’t understand the world any more. There seem to be lowlifes everywhere. And hippies.

He heads back to his father’s house but there’s not going to be any warm welcome for returning hero. His father is a drunk. And hates his stepmother Jan. Jan is a bad woman.

He is more alienated and lost than ever before and he reacts the way he’s learned to react. With anger. And with violence. He’s like a prototype for Travis Bickle.

He hates the decadence of contemporary America. Particularly the women. Such as his stepmother Jan. And Jan apparently likes girls.

This is one more thing to make him angry. Tramps like Jan need to be punished.

This is the point at which he topples over the edge into madness. We assume that his experiences in Vietnam put him right on that edge although it’s likely that a lousy childhood didn’t help and the lack of any emotional support when he got back home certainly made him a candidate for big problems. When the violence comes we don’t actually see anything but it’s still a shock. This is very dark stuff for a sexploitation movie, in its own way even darker than the films that Michael and Roberta Findlay were making at the time.

The San Francisco setting is at least a little unusual for a sexploitation movie, most of which were shot in LA or New York.

This is a Nick Millard film so you’ll be wondering if there’s any shoe fetishism? The answer is yes. High heel shoes do get lovingly caressed. And of course in a Nick Millard movie you can be confident that all the women will be wearing stockings and suspenders and heels. Or boots. It’s not just that there is sexual fetishism. Everything about the way Millard approaches sex is fetishistic. Even Jan’s beret seems like a kinky touch.

And Millard introduces us to a whole new sexual kink of which I had never heard - topless shoe shines. Yes, you get your shoes shined by a topless girl. What do you mean it doesn’t sound very sexy to you? She’s topless, man. Boobies.

The scene in which the hero (or anti-hero) hires a prostitute and the girl then makes frantic attempts to tease him into arousal is oddly touching. This girl is as desperate and lost as he is. We don’t know why. Maybe Millard is suggesting that the protagonist is right in some ways - this is a society in which we’re all lost.

Nick MiIlard was not a man to worry about fancy refinements like synchronised sound. That stuff costs money! Millard, like his Dad, knew how to keep costs to an absolute minimum. He relies on voiceover narration, although perhaps surprisingly it’s a third person narration.

This movie illustrates a lot of the reasons the movies of the past were better than the movies of the modern era. In 1967, even in a sexploitation movie, there was only so much you could get away with. There was also only so much violence you could get away with. There’s certainly violence in this movie but it’s done in a stylised indirect way, which for my money is always more effective. And in 1967 you were not going to get away with explicit sex, not even explicit simulated sex. So the sex is treated in the same stylised, indirect way which makes it more fetishistic, and also more sexy in some ways than explicit sex. And certainly much more bizarre and disturbing.

It would be fascinating to know if Martin Scorcese ever caught this movie in a 42nd Street grindhouse. Of course I have no idea if Mr Scorcese even frequented such places. There are however definite parallels with Taxi Driver which Scorcese made about seven years later. Not just in theme but in mood. But not in style. If you can imagine Jean-Luc Godard doing an early version of Taxi Driver but with lots of naked chicks you’ll have a vague idea what to expect from Oddo. Not that I’m suggesting that Millard was San Francisco’s answer to either Scorcese or Godard, but he is aiming for something arty and if he doesn’t always succeed at least he gives it the old college try.

Retro Seduction Cinema has released three late 60s Nick Millard films on DVD in their San Francisco Sex Collection. They’re all on one disc which is no problem - these are very short movies. Oddo looks extremely good, good enough to suggest that they may have found a negative rather than just a print.

Even sexploitation fans are not united in praising Nick Millard’s work but I think he was an interesting film-maker. If you want really grungy and incredibly bleak sexploitation you can’t do much better than Millard’s Roxanna or his Lustful Addiction.

Oddo is a strange little film. This is existential angst-driven erotica. Lots of people will hate it. I rather liked it. Highly recommended.

Saturday 4 April 2020

Pin-Down Girl (1951)

Pin-Down Girl (AKA Racket Girls) is very low-budget (and I mean very very low-budget) 1951 American exploitation movie about lady wrestlers. There’s a flimsy plot about racketeering and lots of footage of women wrestling. The tag-line is The Strange Love-Life of a Wrestling Gal. That was enough to hook me.

Timothy Farrell (a character factor who was especially good at playing sleazebags) plays Umberto Scalli, a mobster who runs a variety of rackets. He uses women’s wrestling as a front for his operations. Farrell played the same character in the very entertaining Dance Hall Racket a couple of years later.

Scalli has been skimming off a lot of money from the rackets and now he’s in big trouble with the local Mr Big of organised crime, known as Mr Big. Mr Big wants Scalli to repay $35,000 pronto but Scalli doesn’t have the money and that could be real bad for his health if he can’t come up with a solution.

He tries various schemes to fix horse races and wrestling bouts but he discovers that lady wrestlers are proud women and they’re incorruptible.

Scalli has other problems. While he’s been cheating Mr Big his own employees have been  cheating him. And his book-keeper is informing on him to Mr Big. So the last thing he needs at this point in time is to be dragged before a Senate committee but that’s the next misfortune that befalls him.

Scalli has just bought the contract of a buxom lady wrestler named Peaches Page (played by Peaches Page). Although the other girls try to warn Peaches she falls for Scalli anyway. She’s a nice girl but maybe a bit naïve. Scalli’s approach with women is painfully obvious but I guess that a lot of the girls who come into contact with him want to believe his lies.

A criticism often made of this movie is that there’s too much footage of women’s wrestling, or women practising their wrestling in the gym. What on earth is wrong with some people? The whole point of watching a movie like this is to see lady wrestlers wrestling. You just can’t please some people.

The acting is terrible of course (this was a true exploitation movie and thus even further down the food chain than Poverty Row B-pictures) but it’s the right kind of terrible acting for this sort of movie. It works for me. And Timothy Farrell is awesomely slimy. Peaches Page can’t really act but she has a certain presence, and she has the kind of body that men went nuts for in the 50s. The cast includes actual champion women wrestlers (or so we’re told and they certainly seem to know their stuff).

There are only about three sets and they’re basic to say the least. This is another odd criticism levied at this movie. These exploitation movies were made for next to nothing, certainly far less than even the cheapest Poverty Row B-movies, and on absurdly tight shooting schedules. Of course they look ultra-cheap. If you enjoy the exploitation movies of the 30s to the 50s then you’ll find that the cheapness is part of their charm. It makes them more fun.

This is the kind of movie that relies on promising subject matter that is more lurid and more sensational than the movie can actually deliver but that’s what exploitation films were all about. There’s zero nudity. There is however an atmosphere of hard-boiled sleaze which is rather appealing.

Writer-director Robert C. Dertano also helmed the absolutely fantastic 1954 juvenile delinquent flick Girl Gang (which is an absolute must-see and also features Timothy Farrell) so this is a guy with a definite knack for exploitation sleaze. That’s my kind of guy.

Alpha Video’s DVD release offers a very basic VHS-quality transfer and the sound is kinda scratchy at times. Given that it’s not very likely this movie is ever going to get a Special Edition Blu-Ray release and it’s not likely to ever get any restoration at all then if you want to see it the Alpha Video DVD is your only option. And it’s not like you’re missing out on appreciating any visual brilliance or any stunning cinematography.

Pin-Down Girl combines gangsters and lady wrestlers. Serious, what’s not to love about that? OK, as wrestling women movies go maybe it doesn’t have the inspired craziness of Mexican masterpieces like Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy but it’s still a great deal of disreputable fun. I recommend it.