Saturday, November 22, 2008

Venus In Furs (1969)

(aka: Paroxismus/Black Angel/Puo Una Morta Rivivere Per Amore?)

Jess Franco's 1969 film Venus In Furs is considered by many (including myself, who'd place it in his top "5") to be one of the prolific director's best. Two years after Jazz trumpeter Jimmy Logan witnesses three demented members of the upper class-elite whip, rape and mutilate a beautiful young socialite in an Istanbul back alleyway, he discovers the body of a woman washed up on the shores of the Black Sea. The woman seems strangely familiar to him, and when he sees her again, very much alive...he becomes sexually obsessed with her, unaware that the mysterious beauty has returned from the grave on a deadly mission of revenge.

Originally entitled Black Angel, Franco got the general idea for the story following a conversation with Jazz musician Chet Baker, who told Franco that whenever he performed a solo piece it was as if he lost all sense of reality and time, reliving all his passions and desires, whether real or imaginary..."like a drowning man who sees his whole life flash before his eyes". Franco intended on having a black trumpeter player who falls in love with a mysterious beautiful white girl; however, was forced to change the story when producers said that American audiences weren't "ready" to see a black man and a white woman in bed. Ironic that there was no problem having a white man in bed with a black woman. I guess in the last thirty-nine years, America has come a long-way-baby... Again getting his inspiration from Baker, Franco rewrote the script, having a white musician with a black girlfriend (evidently, Chet had several black mistresses throughout his career). Typical of Franco's other films produced by Harry Alan Towers, Venus In Furs had its share of problems due to having too many producers (the film was actually a co-production between 60 and 65 countries!) When he was asked to change the script yet again, following Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella Venus In Furs, Franco refused. He did, however, give in a little by changing the films title and by having Harry Alan Tower's wife Maria Rohm's character wear a fur coat throughout much of the film.

Along with Ms. Rohm (99 Women, Bloody Judge), who is incredibly sexy and convincing as the ghostly Wanda Reed, 50's teen heartthrob James Darren (TV's T.J. Hooker and The Guns Of Navarone) was thrust upon Franco as the lead. Though Franco was dubious at first, after talking with Darren, he learned that the handsome actor was also an accomplished musician (he had several hits in the mid-60's, including "Goodbye Cruel World" ) and had been an acquaintance of Chet Baker. In the film, Darren plays all of his own trumpet solos and was very impressive as the much beguiled Jimmy Logan. African/American singer/actress Barbara McNair (They Call Me Mister Tibbs!) plays the part of Rita, Jimmy's girlfriend. Though being "faithful" wasn't obviously in their relationship agreement, she understandably gets jealous when she finds out that Jimmy is diddling this mysterious and sexy young blonde that keeps showing up out of nowhere. When she sees that he has become obsessed with the girl, Rita tries to help to no avail. There's just no helping some guys. McNair, whose character is a lounge singer, performs a couple of songs in the film and handles the role quite well. The singer/actress was once voted one of the world's most beautiful women. Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu, Crawlspace), one of my all-time favorite actors, has a small yet powerful role as the Turkish millionaire playboy Ahmed Kortobawi, who was the ring-leader of the trio who brutalized Wanda Reed. Kinski is only on the screen a few minutes at the beginning of the film and a few minutes towards the end, and has limited (and unfortunately dubbed) lines, but still serves up a troubling and creepy performance. But what else is new. Kinski was fantastic...even when he didn't say anything. Despite his reputation as being difficult, Franco said of Kinski, after seven films together, "I never had a single problem with him."

As much as I like Venus In Furs, the movie isn't without its faults. I've never been a fan of Franco's trademark shifting in-and-out of focus technique. Nor the surrealistic slow-motion, dreamy sequences. Even Jess himself, during Blue Underground's DVD Extras interview, states that although he signed off on it, he was unhappy with the editing and that it was too surreal for his taste. If you're stricken with ADD, there might be a few scenes that seem to drag on for too long...some of the lounge scenes for instance. Still, I really enjoyed cinematographer Angelo Lotti's (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids ) trippy psychedelic imagery and all the "hip swinging 60's" dialogue. At the beginning of the film, when Jimmy witnesses the violence in the alleyway, he thinks it's all some kind of perverse consensual game and says (in a voice-over), "Man, it was a wild scene. But if they wanted to go that route, it was their bag..." What else can you expect from a film released one day after "Woodstock"? I also liked South African born blues/pop musician Manfred Mann's soundtrack. I thought it worked really well.
Others in the cast include Dennis Price (Vampyros Lesbos), whom Franco said was a good actor "even if he was drunk"; Margaret Lee (Slaughter Hotel) as Olga, the lesbian fashion photographer; Franco regular Paul Muller (Nightmares Come At Night, Nightmare Castle); and Adolfo Lastretti (Spasmo) as Inspector Kaplan. Look for Franco playing the trombone and piano as a member of Jimmy's band.

If you're a fan of Jess Franco, you'll undoubtedly love Venus In Furs. As I've said, it is one of his best. Even the critics liked it. If you're not a fan... Give it a chance anyway. You might be surprised. And if you're new to the films of Franco, this is a great film to start off with. It's a well made, well directed, well acted erotic ghost story that you won't forget the day after you watch it. "Venus In Furs Will Be Smiiii-ling."

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