By James Kenney
Jess Franco wasn’t much of a filmmaker. Sorry, I went there. I’d love to have been Jess Franco for a period, he led a remarkable life, shooting genre films all over Europe, populated with beautiful women, and hobnobbing with the likes of Orson Welles, Christopher Lee and others. I’d happily read a biography of his life and I admire his efforts and his passion.
But I don’t ascribe much “meaning” to his out-of-focus shots, I don’t attempt to understand how he got a horrible performance by the otherwise indelible Robert Forster in the awful Countdown to Esmerelda Bay (currently streaming on Charles Band’s Full Moon streaming service), which indeed also has lots of poor coverage, out-of-focus shots, bewildering digressions, sound problems, all the stuff that Franco’s large cult-fanbase defend and ascribe meaning to, often saying it’s like jazz music. It’s like jazz music, all right, played by an enthusiast with interesting tastes who nevertheless likes to fake it on the spot with an instrument he hasn’t bothered to tune, throwing the professionals around him off balance.
Franco began by making much more “real” films than he ended up making, of course, and they weren’t incompetent, but I never saw one that was very good. His best work, I guess, are the dreamlike genre works he conjured up with his short-term early 1970s muse, Soledad Miranda, Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, but my mind wanders even during those; for nearly plotless horror-mood pieces, I find France’s Jean Rollin much more beguiling.
Of some interest are the films he made in the late 1960s with fairly notable names. James Darin and Barbara McNair in Venus in Furs, his “faithful” (and cheap and not-very-good) Count Dracula adaptation with Christopher Lee, and his very bad Fu Mancho sequels also with Lee. I find this stuff compelling as examples of indie psychotronic cinema from the late 60s and 70s, back when everyone was competing for theatrical space and technology allowed filmmakers to get away from studios and film on location in exotic locations. But I can’t work up much passion for them, as they’re not very good, and I don’t think they evince personality the same way a Rollin picture does. Franco was willing to make a Fu Manchu sequel for whatever cut rate the notorious producer Harry Allen Towers would come up with, going where Don Sharp wouldn’t, and I admire him for it but can’t exactly endorse the messy, basically dreadful results.
A rather notable success of the period for Franco and Towers was the women-in-prison flick that really kicked off the lurid genre, 99 Women, which I do enjoy for its tasteless exuberance and impressive (and impressive-looking) cast. Maria Schell, Mercedes McCambridge, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri and Thunderball‘s own Luciana Paluzzi make up the cast, and that beguiling mix of old Hollywood vets mixing it up with younger, beautiful Euro starlets is an easy sell on me and maybe on you, too.
The press materials of the time really talked up the international aspect of the production, pointing out this “bold, provocative” film (Oh, those randy Europeans!) starred Schell, from Vienna; McCambridge of Joliet, Illinois(!); Paluzzi of Rome; and Lom of Prague. Combating the often milquetoast product coming out of Hollywood at the time, low-budget producers would sell the more daring product Europeans would generate. As the film’s promotional materials screamed:
“99 Women Is Provocative Treatment of Daring Theme!
What happens to women in a world without the companionship and love of men provides the action and thought-provoking comment in 99 Women…Imprisoned on an island and dictated to by yet another woman, a sadistic superintendent, the women of the penal colony lead lives of torment and misery. Their salvation seemingly arrives when a new superintendent is installed. With kindness and understanding she goes about trying to make prisoners’ lives more tolerable. However, it’s not long before her sympathetic actions take on a new meaning….filmed in color.”
In case you’re wondering, I don’t feel Franco really works out any thought-provoking themes in this, but McCambridge performs her sadistic superintendent role with gusto that’s worth the price of admission. McCambridge, who had been termed the “world’s greatest living radio actress” by Orson Welles, won an Academy Award for her first film, All the King’s Men, and later voiced the demon possessing Linda Blair in the Exorcist. During the time of filming 99 Women, she was working on her second book, the story of Sarah Siddons (which never materialized although the unfinished manuscript exists). And, in case you were wondering, McCambridge is not only Irish-American, but was born on St. Patrick’s Day!
Schell also brought a credible history to the project, having started in European theater (or “legitimate stage” as the press material rather stuffily describes it) before gaining notoriety in The Last Bridge in 1954, for which she won the Cannes Film Festival award. She went on to do Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper and Cimarron with Glenn Ford.
Luciana Paluzzi was discovered in Rome and cast as Rossano Brazzi’s little sister in Three Coins in the Fountain before being “the first foreign actress to be imported for an American television series,” NBC’s Five Fingers. Beyond that, roles materialized for her in Chuka, The Ventian Affair, and of course Thunderball, where she plays the evil Fiona Volpe with gusto, and the film suffers from her relatively early demise. Her part in 99 Women is disappointingly truncated, described as a “tragedy-ridden inmate” in the press materials, but it does give her something to play, which may have drawn her to the small part.
Herbert Lom, of course, is best known now for his role as Peter Sellers’ ongoing foil Inspector Dreyfus in Blake Edward’s Pink Panther series, but he does yeoman, hammy service portraying “the brutal governor of the island.”
So the film has plenty of reputable elements, most of which producer Towers and director Franco stripped away in their future work together, no doubt realizing what really drew audiences in was the lurid material and half-clothed girls in peril. For all the efforts of the marketing team to talk-up the legitimacy of the cast in its press materials, the various tag lines for the newspaper ads and posters revealed they full knew what would bring people to the theater to see 99 Women as opposed to Paint Your Wagon or Rio Lobo or the latest Elvis Presley musical:
“One soul hungered to touch another! (Whisper to Your Friends You Saw it!) 99 Women: ….behind bars—without men!”
“One Girls’ Shock-Awakening from Innocence…To the Raw Realism of Prison Life, Among Women Without Men! (Whisper to Your Friends You Saw it!) 99 Women”
“Women Behind Bars Without Men — What Do They Do To Satisfy Their Innermost Female Desires! Due to the Subject Matter of this Film, Only the Very Mature Will Be Admitted! Restrictions Will Be Rigidly Enforced! “X” Rating 99 Women”
The very mature, ehh?
And when there wasn’t enough room in an ad for all that provocation, they’d stick to “Whisper to Your Friends You Saw It,” which infers much but is probably too damn obtuse and indirect for today’s audience. But back then when people showed decorum in public, ostensibly, I guess this is the kind of film you might see and indeed whisper about in a 42nd street diner the next day, or at a key-sharing, wife-swapping party that evening in Levittown.
So is it any good? Well, I wasn’t bored, like I have been at too many other Franco creations. To see this film as a representative of international filmmaking at the cusp of the Eurosleaze golden era, where you still infer most of the sleazy good stuff and hire actual actors to pull it off, it’s quite enjoyable. I’ll trade the coming 1970’s explicit sex (some of which was clumsily edited into re-releases of this hugely successful film) for more leering and clothed-pawing if it means also getting a fevered McCambridge and troopers like Paluzzi and Schell to show up. Good actors are still any movie’s best special effect and they’ll either involve you through skill and technique in absurd drama or keep you fascinated as you see them try to disentagle themselves from a car wreck. 99 Women offers a bit of both.
So yes, Jess Franco actually got a New York Times review for this effort, but they did headline the review “Prison Inmates in Miniskirts” which does pretty much sum up the selling point of the film. The reviewer also pointed out that 99 Women “opened a window at local theaters yesterday through which indiscriminate voyeurs can gape without much satisfaction.” Even the Times reviewer seems put out by the lack of full-throttled lesbianism and sadism teased at in the ads and press materials, and soon Franco and Towers would write less paychecks for the likes of Schell and McCambridge and…well, they’d write less paychecks. But they’d up the sex and violence quotient.
This film, as a peak into late 1960s exploitation filmmaking, still trying to get into legitimate theaters and get reviewed by the New York Times, is fascinating, and it has enough disparate elements up in the air to keep the modern viewer involved. I would have liked to be on the set, no doubt –but I’m one of those scolds who still reaches the conclusion after all these years that Jess Franco is an interesting guy, but isn’t a very good filmmaker.