Amazing, isn’t it, the kinds of ridiculous crap they used to play on broadcast television back in the days before cable? I saw Jess Franco’s lurid, sleazy, wholly indescribable The Girl from Rio on afternoon TV under its alternate title, Future Women. It was on WDRB-TV 41 in Louisville, a scrappy independent station that was, for at least part of its lifespan, actually run out of someone’s garage studio. At a time when there were only three broadcast channels plus PBS (which, back then, was actually watchable thanks to their affection for 60s and 70s British spy and science fiction shows), having WDRB pop up was a real treat, especially for a kid like me. WDRB was more than willing to broadcast all sorts of weird stuff the majors wouldn’t touch, and it was thanks to them that I first saw Godzilla, kungfu movies, and a whole pile of Eurosleaze horror cinema.
They had their own horror show called Fright Night, hosted if I recall correctly, by a disembodied head named Fearmonger. The thing that made Fright Night special was that, while other creature features (such as Memories of Monsters, another local favorite with the world’s most boring horror host — a guy in his den, with a trimmed beard and a shadow over his face) stuck primarily to the Universal classics and their increasingly shoddy sequels, Fright Night would air any crazy shit they could get their hands on, and that included a lot of really weird stuff from Europe and lots of less than classic (and thus even more classic) B movies from the 50s and 60s. It being the permissive 1970s, my parents were willing to let me watch. What also made Fright Night special was when it came on — Saturday at 7pm, broadcasting two movies. You didn’t even have to ask to stay up late, man! It was fantastic. Although I was just a kid at the time, and thus not prone to taking close notes or researching what I was watching (a professional shortcoming I continue to possess), it was obvious that I was having a more outre cinema experience than many other kids.
WDRB also ran weird horror and sci-fi movies during the day though, which is when Godzilla and other Japanese monster movies were in heavy rotation. I remember watching Paul Naschy’s Dracula’s Great Love on WDRB one afternoon and being desperate for some other kid to complain to it about. Eventually, I learned about the history of the movie and it’s makers, and while these days I appreciate a Paul Naschy monster movie as much as the next guy, I’ve never forgiven him for that afternoon I spent watching Dracula’s Great Love. I still frequently lookfor people to whom I can complain about that film. Similarly, I had my first experience with Jess Franco at an age when I was too young to know who Jess Franco actually was. But where as Dracula’s Great Love seems to have been custom made to be hated by any kid who saw it (for years, though, I thought John Belushi was the star and I couldn’t understand what the fuck he was on about), The Girl from Rio was designed from the ground up to appeal to pervy little goblins like me. Bright colors, insane costumes, gun fights, weird sets…and oh yeah. Lots and lots of almost naked women (it was many years before I saw it uncut with nudity intact). The “torture” scene, in which our hero is tied down and forced to endure nude women writhing all over him is something I’ve remembered since the day I first had my mind blown by it. I couldn’t remember what the movie was about (I didn’t know at the time, that not knowing what the movie was about was common even for seasoned adult viewers of Jess Franco films), but man alive could I remember that torture scene.
Normally, I would approach something I look back upon with vague and hazy fondness of childhood with a degree of trepidation. After all, children are not the most discerning of viewers and I was even more forgiving than most. Luckily, though, I’m still not a very discerning viewer, and my undying affection for all…well, for most…OK, for many things Franco pretty much guaranteed that reacquainting myself with The Girl from Rio — especially in its uncut version — wasn’t going to result in any disappointment. Decades after first seeing it on TV in the middle of the day and feeling like I’d just dug up some amazing, dirty little treasure, I find that my reactions to and comprehension of the plot of The Girl from Rio hasn’t changed all that much, though my appreciation for the eye-popping costumes — some worn by the titular future women, others simply being the astounding assembly of garish polyester shirts worn by the hero — has become at least as great as my appreciation for the naked flesh.
The Girl from Rio is a sequel of sorts to another Eurospy film, 1967’s The Million Eyes of Sumuru (because Sumuru wanted to show up the thousand eyes possessed by Dr. Mabuse), itself an adaptation of a story by that seemingly endless font of pulp-era Yellow Peril racism, Sax Rohmer. Like The Face of Fu Manchu (Fu Manchu being another Sax Rohmer creation), The Million Eyes of Sumuru was lavished by producer Harry Allen Towers with a fairly substantial budget, and while it is kind of a silly movie, it looks great and manages to achieve a moderately successful air of jet-setting excess as defined by the Bond films. It was directed by Lindsay Shonteff, a director of little regard best known for directing disappointing spy-comedies (The Second Best Secret Agent in the World) and Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder (Devil Doll). Given his lukewarm resume, and the fact that Sumuru stars Frankie Avalon, one can reasonably expect a fairly light-hearted, mild-mannered, probably slightly unsatisfying movie — which is exactly what he delivers, though admittedly I find Sumuru a pretty easy movie to enjoy.
Avalon was trying to shed his teeny bopper beach party image by appearing in a few espionage movies where, well, everything felt like a beach party movie adapted for the James Bond set. The Million Eyes of Sumuru slots in nicely next to another Avalon spy comedy, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. It tells the story of secret agents (Avalon and hunky George Nader, a veteran of the German Jerry Cotten thrillers) fighting an all-woman army led by former Bond girl Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger). It’s harmless enough, with Rohmer’s Yellow Peril panic being softened by the goofiness of the story. The casting of Shirley Eaton as an Asian — without even bothering to slap on fake eyelids the way they did for Christopher Lee in the Fu Manchu movies — almost seems an intentional thumb in the eye of Yellow Peril racism, so utterly ridiculous is the idea. The film, like the Fu Manchu movies Towers produced, was successful enough to warrant a sequel — but not with the same amount of money.
In 1967, Towers handed the Fu manchu franchise over to Jess Franco, who replaced previous director Don Sharp. What he didn’t turn over to Franco, however, was the budget of the first two films. Forced to work on a shoestring budget, Franco slapped together a couple movies that played to his strengths — those strengths being weirdness, psychedelia, and substantially more nudity and kink. The end results were a mixed bag that ultimately are of interest mostly just to Franco fans like me. But Franco must have been doing something right. His ability to finish a movie with almost no money and thus ensure even failures would turn a profit must have made Towers happy. As Fanco was finishing killing off the Fu Manchu franchise, Towers handed him Sumuru — with the same lack of money that hamstrung the Fu Manchu movies. And once again Franco compensated by indulging himself.
I’m guessing part of the way The Girl from Rio snuck its way onto American broadcast television was that someone heard it was a sequel to a Frankie Avalon movie, and that’s all the research they did. Shirley Eaton returns, but the rest of the cast is not in attendance, replaced by the likes of B-grade stalwarts like George Sanders and Richard Wyler. And the first film’s mildly risque flirtation with scantily clad females was replaced by full-on nudity, unabashed salaciousness, and mild sex torture (of men). It also drops the Yellow Peril aspect and doesn’t seem all that determined to convince us that Shirley Eaton is Chinese. Improvements all, obviously. On the other hand, it lacks George Nader — an openly gay tough guy actor with inhumanly perfect hair whose sexual orientation makes all the cracks in the first film about his character’s imperviousness to the wiles of Sumuru’s all-girl army of seducers all the sweeter. It also lacks a cameo by Klaus Kinski as a drunken lech swilling champagne and writhing about in a pile of pillows (a scene that is actually cut from most prints of The Million Eyes of Sumuru). Oh well, you can’t have everything, even though it’s not like Kinski wouldn’t have fit in with The Girl from Rio way more than the otherwise breezy Million Eyes.
Following the climactic destruction of her base of operations in the Mysterious East, Sumuru (Eaton) has relocated her all-woman army to the city of Femina (which seems to be an office park in a suburb of Rio). From there, she continues to hatch plots to take over the world, which apparently hinge on her scoring ten million bucks from a recently arrived flurry of plaid blazers and bad shirts named Jeff Sutton (Richard Wyler — certainly no George Nader). Sutton also attracts the attention of local mobster Sir Masius (George Sanders, hamming it up and sporting ascots). Sutton soon finds he and his collection of dreadful leisurewear in the crosshairs of both groups, though it seems this might have been the plan all along as we discover Sutton is actually a secret agent hot on the trail of the man-hating Sumuru. Frankly, I don’t see what was so bad about Femina. I mean, we’ve been ruled by ugly white men for centuries. I say it’s time we gave the ladies a chance. It’s not like Shirley Eaton and her army of scantily clad European models could screw the place up any worse than the guys already in charge.
Anyway, this leads to a lot of scenes of people walking down hallways and through vaguely futurist architecture, all while women in skimpy black uniforms of leather and… umm… is that cardboard?… stand at attention. There are a lot of scenes of women standing with their arms akembo, legs slightly apart, and this film might set a record for the number of shots from between someone’s legs. Franco, of course, also frequently shoots these women from a low angle using his patented crotch-cam, so that not only are we constantly looking up at them from between their legs, but we also get to see that the cardboard shoulderpad halter-top thingies they wear let their bare breasts be ogled.
The finale of The Million Eyes of Sumuru was actually pretty fun (and surprisingly violent, if you were expecting things to be more Frankie Avalon instead of more Harry Allen Towers), as Frankie Avalon and a bunch of Hong Kong cops storm Sumuru’s island stronghold while George Nader struts around without a shirt on. The Girl from Rio attempts to recreate that finale on a larger scale — only with a lot less money. So little money, in fact, that they couldn’t even afford blanks for the guns, which means the finale is full of colored smoke bombs being tossed around while Sumuru’s army shake their machine guns at the invaders. It’s not of sound technical quality, but I admire the ridiculous energy Franco and his cast throw into it.
The script, of course, barely makes sense and, like most Franco movies, the rest of the production seems to lose interest in its own screenplay very quickly. What we get instead are the things Franco does well, this time done really well. Harry Allen Towers may not have given him much money, but Lord knows it must have seemed a fortune compared to the budgets with which Franco usually had to work with. Franco’s eye and cinematographer Manuel Merino’s camera are in perfect harmony, and the result is a gorgeously shot film full of weird angles and vibrant color. The two work really well together — which is probably because of and why they worked together so frequently. Merino seems to perfectly understand how to photograph the moods and indulgences of Jess Franco, and so Rio has some of Franco’s best looking club scenes even if they aren’t his most outrageous.
They also have a tremendous time with the modernist architecture at their disposal. Not having much money for sets, Franco and crew rely primarily on existing locations, and it looks like Rio provided them with a host of great places, taking advantage of late 60s modernist design in much the same way as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes would some years later. They further spice things up by constantly shooting at strange angles and making sure the repetition of shapes and patterns in the architecture is matched by leather-and-cape clad armed women standing in formation. It works almost all of the time, the only artistic gaffe being the shots with a lone woman standing in what looks to be a parking lot. I guess Femina needs to serve its commuters just like any other metropolis.
And of course there’s the women. Franco and I have similar tastes in muses — Soledad Miranda and later Lina Romay — but a lot of the times I think the women in his movie are way too slathered with gaudy make-up. It makes them look sweaty and plastic at the same time and almost always older than they are. Maybe it’s an intentional sort of Fellini thing. I don’t know. But he takes it easier in The Girl from Rio, and his female stars are all the better for it. Now, to be fair, he also always seems to sweaty up his male stars as well, making them look like they’re just coming home from an all-day bender. I can’t comment on the men in this movie, though, not because I won’t call a hot man a hot man, but because it’s actually impossible to see past the puke green and banana yellow ensembles so many of the men in this movie seem to favor. I will say that Richard Wyler is lit or made up in a way that makes his skin resemble Arby’s roast beef.
Given that this is a movie about a power mad woman bent on worldy conquest, it might be fun to take a peek at the movie’s ideas on gender and feminism — as filtered through the warped, candy colored lens of Jess Franco in particular and the Eurospy film in general. This film more or less jettisons the Yellow Peril overtones of the Sax Rohmer stories, but we still have plenty of gender issues — absurd though the movie may be. Jess Franco makes a particularly interesting case study in this, as he frequently both empowers and exploits women in his films, treating them with obvious adoration but also subjecting them to his leering camera and any number of atrocities. I suspect part of the reason I like and defend Franco and fellow Eurocult drector Jean Rollin is because they often seem to have the same sort of conflicted standard as does Teleport City, that stanrdard being “take it off.”
And while I try to be equal opportunity in my flagrant application of nudity to articles, I know the scale tips considerably in one direction. Partly this is because male nudity is so much more uncommon. Partly it is just how things shook out. But I understand my own thought process and am aware of the fact that, exploitive though it may be, it is never maliciously so. I like nudity. I like sexual openess. Though I would never dress the part, there is an undenyable flower child streak in me — philosophically, though not sartorially (Sandals on men? Unconscionable!). Anarcho dandyist libertine, that’s me. I think Franco is the same way. We simply adhere to a morality that is differently aligned than the norm, and the taboo around sexuality and nudity, or the treatment of it as some sacred and untouchable source of guilt, simply does not register.
While The Girl from Rio kinks up the story, it’s relatively tame in many ways. There’s not anything in the way of rape, which is refreshing, and nothing overly sinister. Even the “torture by writhing naked body” seems more ludicrous than mean, perhaps because it’s being done to the man. So instead of those things, let’s look at the way science fiction and spy films have traditionally handled the idea of women in power and of matriarchal societies. In a nutshell: not very well, even in the more progressive shows and movies. Star Trek is the easiest — but hardly the sole — example of the typical approach. I could be mistaken, but I believe both the original series and The Next Generation had “planet ruled by women” episodes. And both times, the men were subjugated and abused and the women were vicious — at least until they got to run their fingers through that sweet, sweet Commander Riker body hair. The idea was noble — swap the roles and exaggerate to make a point about the oppression of women. “How would you like to be treated like this, men?” But the handling was so ham-handed, the women presented in such a shrewish and incompetent manner, that whatever good intentions were present got buried in the blizzard of awkwardness.
Through much of scifi, and pulp in general, it’s been the same. Societies ruled by women are nasty dictatorships, and the residents are man-hating harpies up until the point that a virile male hero teaches them the true value of being a woman. It’s not nearly as often that male world-conquerors are put under the same scrutiny. They’re crazy because they’re crazy. But the females, they are crazy because they’re dames. Rarely do we encounter a matriarchal society where the women are cool, competent, and benevolent. I expect more from science fiction, and it seems that the wrong-headedness of the “planet ruled by women” trope — even when it was meant to be in support of women — is frequently ridiculed, so we’ve at least come that far. In science fiction literature, there’s substantially more equity. Scifi cinema is making progress, painfully slow though it may be. Scifi fandom, however, has a long way to go — though we seem to be in the middle of a full on culture war about the way artists and male fans treat women (both as characters and as fellow fans or creators), an uprising that is resulting in some truly heinous commentary but never the less marks an important turning point.
The role of women in spy films has been no less problematic. Women are frequently eye candy or femme fatales, and even when one is supposed to be competent and tough, those traits manifest in fits and spurts, if at all. The most competent of women in the spy arena of the 1960s was probably Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel on The Avengers. Granted, she was frequently captured and had to be rescued by her male counterpart, Steed — but Steed was also frequently captured, and either way, most of the time it seemed like getting captured was something they both did either as part of a plan or purely as a lark to make things more interesting. In Like Flint both lampoons and fulfills the cliches regarding female villains, though that series’ more progressive outlook when compared to the Bond movies seems to imply that the women ultimately admitting that men should be in charge is little more than a ruse to give them time to come up with their next scheme. Given what boobs most of the men in that movie are, it’s actually hard not to root for the female bad guys.
The Girl From Rio certainly isn’t going to be the film to change that, but put in a certain context, it is at least slightly more complex and than the usual fare. Franco seems to embrace the innate silliness and do his best to subvert it — but I admit I could just be a Franco apologist. The Girl From Rio features an army of women who are eventually won over by or machine gunned by a group of men, learning a valuable lesson about the natural order of things. The fact that Franco seems to be handling the entire film as a bit of a goof-off means, for me anyway, that the “women learn their place” message is similarly ridiculed by him. The men are generally a scummy lot, and its hard to see how we benefit from being ruled by them instead of the ladies.
But again, this is a Jess Franco film, so pretty much any message or theme you might try to extract from the lunacy is going to be equally as convoluted and likely frequently self-contradictory. Ultimately, my belief in the basic kindness of Jess Franco as a human being, and his long-time relationship with leading lady and kindred spirit Lina Romay (seriously one of the best romance stories of all time) predispose me toward giving him the benefit of the doubt. The thought that we are all better off leaving things up to the men is just as absurd as everything else in the movie. And I’m not sure I want to demand Richard Wyler nudity in the name of equality. George Nader nudity? Now that would have been a different matter.
I have a big weakness for Jess Franco Eurospy outings, and this one is probably my favorite. Everything about them is weird in the most mundane of examples, and while The Girl from Rio may not be to your liking, it certainly isn’t mundane. Like many of Franco’s films, it’s infused with a slightly screwy sensibility, and you feel off-kilter the minute you surrender yourself to his world. It’s something that looks a lot like our world, but everything is just slightly off. The Girl from Rio falls somewhere between comic book caper and strange dream, with maybe a dash of psychotropically induced hallucination, the kind of spy movie someone would make after eating a bunch of magic mushrooms while hanging out in some weird strip club — which is probably what actually happened, knowing Franco. Whatever the case, I think the end result is hilarious and fantastic. Million Eyes was already something of a comedy, but stripped of any budget to speak of, Franco shrugs his hunched shoulders and just takes it off the deep end, somehow simultaneously playing it straight and obviously hamming up everything in his film. The kink and nudity of Rio would be taken even further in 1977’s Blue Rita, a movie that seems a sequel in spirit if not in any other way. Franco spy movies, man — I love ’em.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: Germany, UK | Starring: Shirley Eaton, Richard Wyler, George Sanders, Maria Rohm, Herbert Fleischmann, Marta Reves, Eliza Montes, Walter Rilla, Beni Cardoso, Valentina Godoy | Screenplay: Franz Eichhorn, Bruno Leder | Director: Jess Franco | Cinematography: Manuel Merino | Music: Daniel White | Producer: Harry Allen Towers | Availability: DVD (Amazon)