Reviews & Commentary

Downtown - Die nackten Puppen der Unterwelt (1975)

Christine Lembach
Jess Franco
Jess Franco, Lina Romay, Paul Muller
Jess Franco
Walter Baumgartner

Downtown stars Jess Franco himself as Al Pereira, a down-trodden, debt-ridden private eye. One day a dame enters his office and—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—offers him a job he can’t refuse. The dame (Lina Romay) claims she’s the wife of a local mobster and wants Pereira to get photos of him (the mobster, not Franco) cheating on her. As you might already have guessed, things don’t go quite as planned, and Pereira gets entangled in the con Lina Romay’s character, Cynthia, has got going with her girlfriend, Lola (Martine Stedil). As you do.

If you’ve ever wondered if Franco knows how to zoom, look no further than Downtown. He has a zoom lens and he’s not afraid to use it. The opening sequence is like watching a holiday movie shot by a coked-up preschooler: clouds, water, zoom in on boat, zoom out on clouds, cut to tree, zoom in on tree. But once the plot gets going, and as long as there isn’t a naked woman on screen — though that gets rarer and rarer as the film progresses — the camera-work really is fairly competent. There’s no denying that, excepting his penchant for zooms and leaving the camera running, Franco does have a certain visual flair. It’s not Vampyros Lesbos, but it’s got its moments. Among the funnier shots is of Pereira’s girlfriend (Beni Cardoso) crying: we know she’s really upset because Franco zooms in on her naked ass. If there’s one thing Jess Franco will teach you about women, it’s that they don’t like wearing clothes. He’s quite pedagogical.

And while we’re looking at all those trees and clouds and boats and asses and — hey, look! Motorcycle! … Where was I? Oh, yes: The film opens with Al Pereira’s manic over-dubbed German narration; it’s like a parody of noir voice overs, trying to cram as much near-nonsensical exposition and back-story as possible into the shortest amount of time; the subtitles whiz past in a blur of over-written noir prose. My theory: Franco or Lambach, or both, got paid by the word: there’s not a scene in the film that isn’t filled with bad dialogue, delivered at a break-neck pace, in German. Nudity needs no narration, Jess, old buddy. I would’ve thought you of all people knew that. I would say that the film would be better off just showing Lina Romay in various stages of undress, but, having seen Female Vampire (a.k.a. Les avaleuses(Franco, 1973)), that might not be such a good idea. Franco really does have trouble balancing the sleaze with the plot.

I’ve always had a thing for 70s Lina Romay; she’s sexy in a seedy, strung-out kind of way — not to mention a dead-ringer for Fairuza Balk (which can make watching Return to Oz a very disturbing experience). However, the over-dubbed German moaning masquerading as her voice doesn’t really do her any favours. I don’t remember ever hearing Lina Romay’s real voice (or for that matter, any Franco film actor’s real voice) but what must it sound like if this was considered an improvement? The mind boggles. The worst dubbing job crown however goes to Raymond Hardy (you might know him from such Jess Franco classics as Mondo Cannibale and Frauengefängnis), who seems to be chewing gum rather than reading his lines — a novel approach to acting, if ever I saw one. It’s right up there with Coleman Francis having all dialogue occur off-screen because he couldn’t afford synch sound (or because he was exploring the Verfremdungseffekt and the limits of audience enjoyment, depending on how pretentious you’re feeling).

There is something entertaining about this ham-fisted mix of noir-pastiche and euro-sleaze: both Romay and Stedil are attractive women (and if you’ve ever wondered what Lina Romay’s vulva looks like, well, buddy, this is the film for you; barely a shot of her (or Stedil for that matter) doesn’t start or end on her naked crotch. I know she’s your girlfriend, Jess, but show some restraint), Franco plays Pereira with a quite charming bemused cynicism, and the story isn’t as moronic is it could be (and when it is, it’s funny moronic, not annoying moronic). All in all, one of the more enjoyable Euro-sleaze films of the era. While the sex scenes are pretty terrible (if I were a lesbian, I’d be more offended by the IKEA erotica scenes between Stedil and Romay than by the predatory-lesbian stereotypes) they are funny, and unlike a lot of Franco’s work it doesn’t leave you feeling like you need a shower. Penicillin maybe.

Written by Kalle on Tuesday July 7, 2009
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 1970s, jess-franco, lina-romay

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