Monday, November 16, 2015

The Girl From Rio (1969)

This sequel to Million Eyes of Sumuru is a completely different kettle of fish to its predecessor.  Whereas producer Harry Allan Towers had succeeded in stifling much director Lindsay Shonteff;s characteristic cinematic style in the earlier film, here he seems to have left Shonteff's successor behind the camera, Jesus Franco, to his own devices.  The result is pure, full on Franco - and not bad Franco (as in most of the films he directed for Towers), but surreal and psychedelic Franco, as seen in Venus in Furs (also, ironically, a Harry Allan Towers production). Indeed, Venus in Furs and Girl From Rio share both Brazilian locations and cast members, leading me to suspect that the Rio sequences in the former might have been shot at the same time as those for the latter. 

But to focus on Girl From Rio - stylistically, it is completely different to the first Sumuru film.  Whereas the earlier movie was basically an exotic crime thriller, played largely for laughs (particularly with regard to the heroes),  Franco's film boldly strides into James Bond territory, with the villain's lair featuring stylised, boldly coloured and minimalistic sets, her minions wearing striking, albeit entirely impractical, skimpy costumes and a much more conventional, square jawed hero.  There's still plenty of humour on display, but it is much better integrated into the plot than it had been in the first film, with much of it provided by George Sanders' secondary villain, Masius.  Indeed, it has to be said that Franco succeeds in eliciting an excellent performance from the veteran actor.  By this late stage in his career, Sanders' performances were all too often characterised by weariness, as he went through the motions with his stock suave villain schtick.  Maybe it was the tropical climate in Rio, perhaps he had a good pay cheque, whatever the reason, for Franco Sanders provides a lively and drily comic performance, seemingly enjoying every moment of his turn as a master villain who 'doesn't like to be crude' and consequently doesn't like having to watch his henchmen's brutal 'interrogation' techniques.  At one point he hides his eyes during the beating of a character, at another he chuckles as he reads a Popeye comic rather than watching his henchmen beat and partially drown one of Sumuru's agents, played by Maria Rohm.  He even gets away with delivering a variation on an old Laurel and Hardy phone gag - 'It's a long distance from Spain', his female assistant tells him as she answers the phone, 'I know that,' he replies, 'but who is it?'.

Girl From Rio also looks superb, with excellent cinematography, (Franco keeps his penchant for the zoom lens firmly under control), and moves at a cracking pace.  The locations are used to great effect, with Franco contrasting the gaiety of Rio and its carnival, pulsing with colourful life, with the anti-septic emptiness and silence of Sumuru's all woman city, Femina.  Whilst Rio is depicted as lush with greenery and composed of older, whitewashed buildings showing every sign of being lived in, Femina is all glass and concrete, with nothing moving and no indication that any of it is remotely habitable.  Where Rio has a constant background of music and human noise, the only background noise in Femina is that of the wind whistling around the vast, empty buildings.  Perversely, the only parts of Sumuru's city which show signs of life are her elaborate, high tech torture chambers.  Which brings us to another area where Girl From Rio delivers in a way that Million Eyes of Sumuru (and, indeed most Towers productions) failed to - that of the perversity, decadence and torture which is always implied by this type of film.  Here, though, Franco gives us the full on kink with some of the goings on in the torture chamber - all presided over by a clearly aroused Sumuru.

Of course, Girl From Rio isn't without its faults.  Despite fantastic design, costumes and art direction, which give the film a glossy, expensive look, Towers' typical cheapness is visible at the film's climax, where it is obvious that the budget wouldn't run to blank rounds, so the warring factions have to simulate things like recoil as they fire their weapons, with sound effects dubbed post production.  Moreover, the destruction of Femina is simply represented by lots of coloured smoke drifting past the camera.  Richard Wyler is also somewhat wooden as the hero and, despite being played straight, is often as ineffective as Frankie Avalon and George Nader were in the first film, as he finds himself a pawn in the conflict between rival villains Sumuru (played once again by Shirley Eaton) and Masius.  The plot is somewhat perfunctory, with Wyler sent to Rio having supposedly absconded with ten million dollars of his employer's money.  The idea being that this will attract Sumuru's attention and induce her to abduct him, so that he can penetrate Femina and rescue the millionaire employer's daughter who is being held there.  Masius, however, proves to be a fly in the ointment, determined first to the obtain the phantom ten million, then to use Wyler against Sumuru in a plot to steal her riches.  But the details really don't matter - the plot is simply there as a device to allow Franco to deploy his superb visuals.

If Girl From Rio never quite matches Franco's Venus in Furs in conjuring up a dream like atmosphere, where reality constantly seems to be in danger of melting away, at times it comes close, particularly in the scenes of Wyler and his female sidekicks escaping from the torture chamber , running through fog filled corridors.  As I've made clear elsewhere, I'm ordinarily not a fan of Franco - he turned out far too much dull, low budget dross, often with perfunctory direction in his career - but I'll concede that when he's good, he's very good.  A handful of his films achieve a bizarre blend of the art house, psychedelia, eroticism and, well, just downright lunacy.  With these, he achieves heights of film making that most other commercial directors can only dream of.  Of course, cynics might suggest that in a career that saw him direct over 150 movies, the law averages dictated that at least some of Franco's movies had to be good.  By contrast, I prefer to believe that Franco was a decent film maker who simply decided that, most of the time, earning a living took precedence over his art, hence the amount of hack work he did as a director for hire.  But sometimes he took the trouble to lavish a little more care and, in the process, succeeded in producing true schlock poetry.     



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