It is always with a heady mix of glee and trepidation that I wander into the fecund and often putrescent waters of Jess Franco’s imagination. As we summarized when we reviewed his off-kilter espionage film, The Devil Came from Akasava, Franco’s films are often as intriguing as they are awful, and his bizarre mix of genuine talent and an absolute lack of talent make him one of the most difficult European directors to discuss in a way that has any relation at all to some tenuous concept of logic. But then, logic seems to be the least of Franco’s concerns when he’s making a movie, so perhaps we’d do well to worry about it a lot less when discussing those films.
While many fans of B-movie and cult film tend to center their discussion of Franco on his horror and sexploitation (though one could argue that all his films fall into this latter category) output, I tend to be more familiar with his action and espionage films– and keep in mind that, when discussing Jess Franco, the term “action” is used in an extremely loose fashion by which “action” can be defined as people sitting in a nightclub watching a psychedelic performance art striptease, or it can mean two people standing silently and staring at a rug for a spell. But the reason I like looking at Franco’s non-horror films is that, within the realm of horror, and certainly within the more narrowly defined realm of European horror, there is already a lot of incompetence and weirdness and a tendency to abandon logic. So the fact that his horror films are often so weird, and more times than so awful, really isn’t all that impressive. However, working in a genre that doesn’t carry the baggage of horror film prejudices, one is forced to deal more overtly with Franco’s peculiarities. In other words, a weird horror film is just another weird horror film, but a weird spy or caper film seems much weirder because it does not take place in that bizarre world of horror where the bizarre is the point of the genre. Instead, you have to deal with Franco’s weirdness as applied to a more recognizably real world (or as real as the world of spy films ever is). Granted, Eurospy films are packed with weirdness and nonsense, but they are also rare and often obscure even to fans of the genre, where as the weirdness of most horror films is a mainstream given.
This serves to augment Franco’s whacked-out approach to pretty much all his material and make it glaringly obvious. This means the things he does well tend to shine, just as the things he does poorly (or at least with reckless abandon and disregard for quality) stand out even more than usual. It also serves to better illustrate the techniques and obsessions that go into defining the overall, cross-genre approach of this strange Spanish director, meaning that no matter if it’s a spy film or a movie about invisible zombies or something about Frankenstein, there are certain constants that define “the Jess Franco film” at a level above genre categorization, perhaps making “a Jess Franco film” into a genre all itself.
These peculiarities, stylistic flourishes, and lapses in talent and/or judgment that together create the Jess Franco Experience (I think they toured with the Jody Foster Army for a while back in the 80s) have been well-documented in just about every write-up of Jess Franco’s work, including my own. His 1969 “spy” film Two Undercover Angels, which was later given the more sexploitation-y but less accurate title Sadisterotica, is no different. You can expect weirdly framed shots, lengthy jazz club stripteases, haphazard editing, vacant acting, and a plot that, at its best, flirts with making any damn sense at all. What sets Two Undercover Angels apart from most of Franco’s other films is that, like The Devil Came from Akasava, it’s pretty enjoyable even if you haven’t steeled yourself to the films of Jess Franco (though you will still need a hearty acceptance of weird filmmaking to squeeze any enjoyment out of it). It’s not really a spy film per se, but rather like Deadlier than the Male (which seems to be coming up a lot as I plow through this newest crop of spy film reviews), it’s a private detective film with the look and feel of the more jet-set, exotic swingin’ spy films of the 1960s. It also adopts the good humored, tongue-in-cheeky, anything-goes attitude of the genre’s more freewheeling entries, and it’s this quirky sense of winking fun that keeps the film afloat.
The film opens with some sort of a fashion shoot, culminating in a gorgeous lady in a wedding veil and white thigh-high stockings preening in front of a mirror. And then, right as that’s happening, we cut to the psychedelic credit sequence, then back to the chick, only now she’s being attacked by a sort of ape-looking hirsute beast-man thing. It seems like someone asked Franco where the title sequence should go, and he just shoved it somewhere near the top of his film with no regard for whether or not it made any real sense. The beast man, probably moonlighting from his usual gig prowling the night streets alongside the guy from Night of the Bloody Apes and Paul Naschy in werewolf form (I do believe the three of them comprised the core members of the Jess Franco Experience, or as it was known then, “The Jess Franco Experience featuring Gnashin’ Paul Naschy”), is named Morpho, and his job is kidnap beautiful women so they can be menaced to the delight of eccentric artist Klaus Tiller, who paints them in the throes of terror. Then, just to be a dick about it, he covers them in plaster and turns them into sculpture, though I don’t know if it really counts as sculpture if all you’re doing is pouring plaster over a living person. I know lots of madmen do it, so there must be a name for this artistic discipline, but I don’t know it. In New York, I think they call it “performance art.”
The disappearance of this –and many other — women attracts the attention of two sexy international jet-set private eyes known individually as Diana (Janine Reynaud) and Regina (Rosanna Yanni) and collectively as the Red Lips Detective Agency. I think they toured…oh, never mind. But it does sound like the title of a Tinto Brass film or something starring Shannon Tweed. OK, tangent here: Are Shannon Tweed jokes played out? I’m thinking maybe they are. Like, that’s a really out-of-date joke reference, the cult film review equivalent of Martin Short still relying on gags that were tired even before the death of Vaudeville. Do you kids know who Shannon Tweed was? Does Cinemax still play crummy erotic thrillers late at night? Is Cinemax even still around? Why do things change? The world makes me mad. I’m old, and I don’t like stuff!
I’m of the opinion that all you need to know of the plot is contained in the summary above, minus my lame old man bit. If you pare it down to, “beautiful women disappear, and two other women try to solve the mystery,” then Two Undercover Angels makes sense. If you worry about anything else, the film gets increasingly incoherent. Of course, if you ever go into a Jess Franco film expecting it to be the least bit coherent, you’re going to be sorely disappointed and horribly confused. And even if you do pare this film down to a comprehensible high concept, what you have left is still pretty daft. The Red Lips seem to have some sort of connection to Interpol, and I like the idea that, when they could have been chasing terrorists or fighting piracy in the South China Sea or something, Interpol’s main concern is solving the case of the disappearing go-go dancers. Actually, I only have the vaguest of ideas regarding what Interpol actually does. I’m an American, and we’re protected by Walker Texas Ranger, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and Jack Bauer, so we don’t need Interpol. With those three on the case, we barely even need the Army.
So for all I know, Interpol’s mission isn’t to arrest terrorists or combat piracy, and they really do spend the whole day tracking down missing go-go girls and helping out Jackie Chan. It occurs to me, in fact, that everything I think I know about Interpol has come from the Kommisar X films and Jackie Chan’s Police Story III: Supercop. And now Two Undercover Angels. So yes, Interpol’s mission in the world is to find missing models and go-go girls, slap dames on the bottom, drink cocktails, and put Jackie Chan in a giant metal ring and roll him around a warehouse.
Once Diana and Regina are on the case, the movie becomes a long, welcome procession of atrocious fashion and pointless go-go dancing routines — both Franco staples, both essential ingredients for a decent movie, as far as I’m concerned. Diana, in particular, wears what has to be one of the most mind-blowingly amazing outfits I’ve ever seen. Her mega-bell bottomed jumpsuit of many colors is very much the fashion equivalent of taking an LSD trip in an ice cream store staffed entirely by hobo clowns. You could get sucked into that thing and never, ever emerge. We fare better when the girls retire to a beach resort and spend much of the film in cocktail dresses and tiny bikinis. The men, for their part, are a split of the usual Eurospy duds: you have the fat guy in a fedora, you have the mysterious man in a fez and sunglasses, and then some guy in a mustard yellow blazer that looks to have been fashioned from Stein Mart. If it seems like I’m dwelling on the fashion, it’s only because Eurospy films, and especially Eurospy films directed by Jess Franco,a re about the look, and clothing plays an important part in setting the proper finger-snappin’ tone for the movies.
Franco is well-known for inserting striptease and go-go scenes into his films, sometimes seemingly at completely random points and with no connection to anything else going on in the movie. For my money, you never need a real reason for inserting random striptease and go-go dancing scenes into a movie. Any movie. In fact, as I think I’ve said before, if I were king of the world, I would decree that every single movie, regardless of the genre or the tone, must contain: 1) random stripteases and go-go dancing scenes, 2) a chimp in a fez who slaps someone upside the head then does that impish chimp (or “chimpish”) grin while flipping the guy the bird, and 3) Yor using a giant bat to hang glide into a cave to the tune of bombastic prog rock. Also, ninjas.
Two Undercover Angels is pretty solidly packed with go-go stripteases, all of which are set in that magical nightclub that exists in every Jess Franco film. It’s the sort of nightclub I wish I could go to in real life, because not only is the floor show comprised of naked women rolling about and go-go dancing, the clientele is comprised entirely of seedy international playboys, assassins in fezzes and sunglasses, bored members of the idle rich, secret agents in smart suits, and hot women in slinky cocktail dresses. Much of the second half of the film seems to play out in such a setting, when we’re not on the beach watching Diana’s boobs fall out of her bikini while some guy dressed as either a gaucho or a gondolier plays the guitar. Jess Franco may have his shortcomings as a director, but I can’t really find any fault with the universe he creates, which is full of the above-mentioned citizens, along with the occasional hairy werewolf henchman and guys in mustard-yellow blazers. In Jess Franco’s universe, nothing has to make sense, and everything is accompanied by a snappy cocktail jazz score. So while I may not want to watch many Jess Franco films, I certainly wouldn’t mind living in one.
Speaking of sense, the plot of Two Undercover Angels starts to make less and less of it as things progress. We soon learn that the Red Lips themselves, specifically Regina, may be the true target of the mad artist and his hirsute companion. This causes them to go to the resort, where they much engage in much go-go dancing and lounging about on the beach in little bikinis before the whole film explodes into an utterly ridiculous and incomprehensible finale in which everyone dashes around the hotel trying to either capture, avoid getting captured, or double-cross each other. When the final credits role, you may have no idea what just happened, but like a wild night out drinking and carousing with beautiful women, you’ll still know you had a good time.
Two Undercover Angels came out at the height of what I consider to be sort of a golden age for Jess Franco, or as golden as Franco could ever hope to get. Not coincidentally, this is the era in which he was involved primarily in making crackpot spy and caper films. Beginning with Agent Speciale LK in 1967, Franco plowed through a slew of enjoyable films (to me, anyway), including The Blood of Fu Manchu, The Girl From Rio, Justine, The Castle of Fu Manchu, Eugenie, The Bloody Judge, Venus in Furs, and Nightmares Come at Night, culminating with the sexadelic (a word I think must have been coined explicitly to describe Jess Franco films) one-two punch of Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy. Also nestled in there quite nicely is Kiss Me, Monster, which also features Regina and Diana as the Red Lips on another assignment that makes even less sense than this one. Most of these films contained at least some air of the 60s spy craze about them, though few of them could really be considered actual spy films. His work is tangential to the spy film, most of the time, possessing many of the trappings but never being flat-out espionage thrillers. If you wanted to plot them on some sort of graph, then Franco’s movies are more spy than Bulldog Drummond movies, but less spy than a Kommissar X film. In the end, they simply play out like unrestrained comic books.
Franco’s direction on Two Undercover Angels is a microcosm of everything that is good and bad about Franco. Keep in mind that, despite the fact that Franco is generally seen as a totally incompetent boob, there were a lot of filmmaking luminaries who had great respect for him as a cinematographer and second unit director (these luminaries would include Orson Welles, among others). And Franco does have moments of brilliance, which is why he’s such a hard director to write about. I’d liken him in some ways to Lucio Fulci. Both directors, when they were on their game, could create incredible images. If you simply took stills or small passages of film, it’s easy to see how truly inspired some of their visions were. At the same time, a film is more than a procession of images, and it’s in the gestalt that Franco, like Fulci, often goes to pieces. Franco often operated without any sense of self-restraint whatsoever, which is why there’s so much good stuff in his films, but is also why there is so much tedious, mind-numbingly awful stuff. He would often wear multiple hats, serving as director, editor, cinematographer, and writer (as well as making cameos), and this means that some jobs would get done better than others, and no one was there to reign him in when he started packing his movies with boring crap.
It’s in the editing, in particular, that Franco most often fails. His scripts are nonsensical but often fun, especially within the realm of his spy and caper films. His cinematography is often quirky, but it’s also full of interesting angles and framing and bright, vibrant colors. But the editing! Oh, the editing! Franco never saw a mundane process he didn’t like documenting in its entirety. So you get a lot of scenes of people walking and walking…and walking. Or sitting. Or doing other things that just aren’t interesting to watch.
I think his spy films like Two Undercover Angels are much better edited than his horror work, much of which I find unwatchable. In fact, Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead has the honor of being one of only two films I turned off and have never bothered to finish watching (the other is the Japanese film Casshern, and Ultraviolet came pretty damn close). But in films like Two Undercover Angels, everything is so bubbly and jubilant and fun that Franco’s short-comings are pretty easy to roll with, especially if you can just distract yourself with the outlandish fashion and cool music. Two Undercover Angels boasts all of Franco’s negative traits, but hey seem far less noticeable in the film this campy and playful than they do in his drearier horror films. If I had to compare it to anything else, I would say it sports an attitude similar to the later Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin. They ain’t all that good, but ya can’t help but love ‘em. Well, I can’t, anyway.
Franco is helped in delivering a fun movie by the cast, who all perform admirably. Janine Reynaud looks good and performs with charisma and energy. Franco had recently worked with her on the film Succubus, and liked her performance so much that he immediately set about making another film to feature her. I don’t know if she ever played the muse the way Soledad Miranda, and later Lina Romay, did for Franco, but he has a long and steady history of building whole periods of filmmaking around a single leading lady. Reynaud already had several Eurospy films tucked into her dayglo bell bottom jumpsuit, including Mission to Caracas, Special Code: Assignment Lost Formula, Agente Logan – missione Ypotron, and Mission Casablanca. In 1968, she worked with Franco for the first time, on Succubus, and would go on to work with him on both of the Red Lips films. She also appeared in a couple saucy sexploitation films from Max Pecas, as well as the superb Sergio Martino directed giallo The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale. She seems to disappear almost entirely after 1973, though I don’t know the reason. Her work in Two Undercover Angels is exceptionally enjoyable, though, played with a wink and a quick kiss, but never annoyingly so. She’s joking around, but she’s also being friendly and warm about it.
Her co-star, Rosanna Yanni, looks kind of like a transvestite sometimes, but I don’t hold that against her. Franco does have a tendency to swab his female leads in a little too much make-up, and his frequent use of close-ups, bright lighting, and bad touch ups can sometimes wreak havoc on a face. The first time I saw Yanni was in the Paul Naschy film, Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror, which um, is a werewolf movie. Actually, it’s a werewolf movie where the werewolf (there the werewolf!) fights vampires. Frankenstein? Yeah, he’s not in it. You’ll have to watch Santo & Blue Demon vs. Doctor Frankenstein if you want some Frankenstein action. Anyway, from there she went on to appear in a movie I should probably see, White Comanche starring William Shatner. Only if your last movie was White Comanche starring William Shatner could working on a Jess Franco film be considered a major step up. She didn’t work with Franco much beyond the Red Lips films, but she stayed busy in Spanish horror and action films and ended up working with pretty much all of the major directors of those genres during the 70s, including Leon Klimovsky, Amando de Ossorio, and more outings with Naschy (including Dracula’s True Love, which is another movie I came awful close to turning off and never finishing again). She also appeared in one of my favorite curiosities, War Goddess, a boobs ‘n’ barbarian banes exploitation classic directed by a slumming Terence Young, best known for directing most of the Sean Connery Bond films. Unlike her Two Undercover Angels co-star, Yanni would continue working well into the 80s, and still makes the occasional appearance. Although she looks a little mannish here, she’s still an able performer, and more than willing to do at least half a dozen scenes where Morpho sneaks up and grabs her from behind. She has great chemistry with Reynaud, and while only in a Jess Franco film could these two ditzy dames ever successfully solve baffling international crimes, both Yanni and Reynaud are likeable and, within the context of this loopy film, perfectly believable.
Everyone overacts and hams it up, but such histrionics are called for in a movie this loony. There’s even a bit of moustache twirling, just in case you were worried. There are plenty of men in the film, but other than Morpho (Michel Lemoine), there’s no real reason or way to remember any of them beyond the most basic of traits — they guy in the fez, the fat guy, the old guy with the epic moustache, the guy in the yellow blazer, etc. The show really belongs to Yanni and Reynaud, and to Franco’s elaborately staged go-go striptease sequences. Everything else, including most of the plot, is superfluous, at best, and most of the time it just gets in the way.
The Red Lips detectives made their first appearance in 1960, in a black and white Jess Franco film called, simply, Labios Rojos, starring Suzanne Medel and Ana Castor as Christina and Lola respectively. The film was never released in the United States, and indeed it seems as if very few (if any) people have seen hide or hair of it since the original release. It’s the pair of 1969 films starring Yanni and Reynaud that define the concept, for anyone who would happen to have a definition of such concepts, that is. Franco would resurrect the Red Lips during the 70s, in two fairly awful films starring Lina Romay, and although I love Lina, those films possess none of the charm of the 60s films, but do contain all of the really bad attempts at comedy.
Of course, a positive review of any Jess Franco film has to be issued with some serious caveats. Two Undercover Angels is not the film for everyone. If your most outre experience with spy or private eye films is You Only Live Twice, then it’s unlikely you will get much out of Two Undercover Angels. Wading through the copious amounts of nonsense, bad comedy, and offbeat pacing is more than the average film fan will endure. If you watch a lot of Eurospy films, however, you’re a little bit better suited for watching Two Undercover Angels and enjoying it, because you’ll be accustomed to quirky spy films with crazy fashion and convoluted plots. Similarly, if you waded into the sillier waters of spy films from other countries — Black Tight Killers from Japan, for instance, or Dino’s Matt Helm films — you’ll probably be better suited to roll with a film as oddball as Two Undercover Angels. I don’t know how fans of Franco horror films (I know there must be some) will react. The lack of blood, coyness about nudity (there is some, but it’s mostly flashes and teasing), and overall light-as-a-feather mood of the film might put them off. I mean, Morpho has bad facial hair, and may even qualify as a monster, but that’s not much.
I really enjoyed Two Undercover Angels, though. It’s fun and completely weird. It has major flaws, as most Jess Franco films do, but I find them pretty easy to ignore when everything else bops along so breezily. Some day, I’m going to take this, Kiss Me Monster, Blue Rita, The Devil came from Akasava, The Girl from Rio, and Franco’s two Fu Manchu films and edit them all together into one massive orgy of disco lights, go-go dancing, naked women, and insane fashion. It would hardly make any less sense than any one of those films taken on their own.
Release Year: 1967 | Country: Spain/Germany | Starring: Janine Reynaud, Rosanna Yanni, Adrian Hoven, Chris Howland, Alexander Engel, Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui, Manolo Otero, Dorit Dom, Ana Casares, Michel Lemoine, Maria Antonia Redondo, Vicente Roca, Jess Franco, Elsa Zabala | Writer: Jess Franco | Director: Jess Franco | Cinematographer: Jorge Herrero, Franz Hofer | Music: Jerry van Rooyen | Producer: Adrian Hoven, Jose Lopez Moreno