Monday, April 3, 2017

Buried Treasures: French Quarter (1978)


You’ll no doubt recall that in my Hopalong Cassidy post from last week I mentioned that the quality of the movies I downloaded from Epix’s “Vault on Demand” were a crapshoot at best.  Several of the Hoppy westerns, though watchable, were from prints beaten up for their lunch money (two of them in truncated 54-minute versions), and that goes for some of the other flicks I grabbed as well.  My favorite was a copy of Erich von Stroheim’s Blind Husbands (1919), which was so washed out reading the title cards brought about a severe case of eyestrain. That wasn’t the worst part, however: Husbands had no accompanying music.  I know I’ve joked in the past about how in many instances the music used in the prints of some silents rarely rises above dropping a phonograph needle onto a random record…but watching a silent film without music is essentially watching home movies.

One of the East Side Kids vehicles I grabbed, Let’s Get Tough! (1942), was apparently edited with a chainsaw.  (The other, Clancy Street Boys [1943], wasn’t too bad.)  I knew going in that some of these movies were a gamble because many of them are in the public domain—where little attempt is made to restore them, and the chances of finding a nice print are discouragingly remote.  The Epix version of the Monte Hellman cult favorite Cockfighter (1974) I DVR’d left a lot to be desired…though I don’t think that film is P.D.

There were, however, some acceptable prints to be had among the On Demand goodies: Epix’s version of Park Row (1952) is the same one from the MGM-UA MOD DVD, and it’s in great shape, as well as The Fearmakers (1958; I thought I was going to like this one but I found it disappointing).  Their print of The Boss (1956), a movie I talked about back in November 2008, wasn’t pristine but still good considering it was not a major studio release (another entry in the vast UA inventory).  Thank You All Very Much (1969) was also impressive, as was David and Lisa (1962)—which The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ is tentatively scheduled to show in July (July 9) as part of a Sunday night double feature with the rarity Ladybug Ladybug (1963—both films were directed by Frank Perry) …assuming neither Ben Mankiewicz nor Tiffany Vazquez have died of consumption and Tee Cee Em pre-empts scheduled programming for a tribute, that is.

The nicest surprise was a better-than-expected print of French Quarter (1978), a movie that had been on my radar for several years (Leonard Maltin labeled it a “neglected drive-in treat,” so you know I was on board immediately).  The movie has been released to DVD, but I was a little hesitant to invest because you can never get a guarantee that Fly-By-Night Video, LLC hasn’t just slapped an old VHS recording onto a DVD-R (I’d like to offer into evidence Fast Food [1989], Your Honor).  With the On Demand version (and I lucked out finding Quarter, by the way—I almost skipped the section it was in), I figured if it’s a crappy copy I didn’t pay for it so what the hey.

In French Quarter, young runaway Christine Delaplane (Alisha Fontaine) disembarks from a bus in N’awlins—broke and looking for work.  With little experience in any kind of workplace, she resigns herself to becoming a topless dancer in a joint run by skeevy Burt (Lance LeGault), who’s gracious enough to give her a tryout despite his undisguised lechery.  It doesn’t take long for Christine to become dissatisfied with her new vocation, and she asks for her release; Burt cuts her a check but refuses to cash it, noting he’s not running a bank.  (I don’t know—First Fiduciary Savings and Stripper Pole sounds like a can’t-miss idea, to be honest.)  The bar’s cashier, Ida (Virginia Mayo), tells Christine that a friend of hers—local voodoo woman Madame Beaudine (Anna Filamento)—will be only too happy to conduct any financial transaction, and soon the young girl is sipping tea in Madame’s establishment.

Alisha Fontaine
Beaudine must have slipped Christine a mickey…because after falling into a deep sleep, Christine eventually awakes to find she’s not Christine—she’s Gertrude “Trudy” Dix, a Storyville prostitute living in 1910!  Christine/Trudy is never certain whether she’s dreaming or has simply traveled back in time—she notices, however, that the people from the present are also people in her past:  Ida is now the mistress of the brothel where Trudy works—the Countess Willie Piazza!—and Madame Beaudine is Madame Papaloos (she’s still in the voodoo bidness, however).  Just as Christine was the “new meat” in the strip club, Trudy is the virgin in the cathouse—and she’s being prepared to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Maltin observes that French Quarter “mixes Pretty Baby plot with French Lieutenant Woman’s structure (but predates both!)” and I really can't think of any better way to describe this truly offbeat curiosity.  It’s R-rated drive-in porn, and yet director-producer Dennis Kane (who co-wrote the script with Barney Cohen) displays a flair for getting something interesting out of what might have otherwise been a run-of-a-mill assignment for anyone else (Kane has a handful of Dark Shadows episodes and a CBS Afternoon Playhouse installment on his admittedly skimpy cinematic C.V.).  French Quarter cleverly blends its supernatural and sexploitation elements with a welcome dash of comedy and romance (and even explores issues of drug addiction and race in the pre-Civil Rights Era South), and what impressed me the most is how Kane captured an authentic “champagne” feel for the material (the authentic New Orleans locations help tremendously with the milieu) on what had to be a “six-pack” budget.  (This movie will play a lot better if you’ve seen Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby [1978], by the way.)

Virginia Mayo
The movie “introduces” Alisha Fontaine as dual heroines Christine and Trudy…even though the starlet already had small roles in films such as The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) and The Gambler (1974).  Virginia Mayo gets top billing in Quarter (her performance[s] will amuse classic movie fans—and no getting around it, she gives this flick some class), with Bruce Davison continuing to benefit from his Willard (1971) notoriety (Davison would garner a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for Longtime Companion [1990] and mature into a first-rate character actor in films like X-Men [2000] and X-Men [2003]).  (Davidson plays piannah player “Kid Ross,” who falls in love with Trudy.)  Seeing character great Lance LeGault was good for a grin, and TDOY fave Lindsay Bloom (star of 1975 cult favorite Sixpack Annie and secretary Velda on the Stacy Keach Mike Hammer TV series) is always a welcome presence…particularly when her character in the Storyville past is endearingly nicknamed “Big Butt Annie.”  (I defy anyone not to snicker at that.)

I don’t mean to make this movie sound better than it is (Len gives it three stars…which might only be because Dick Hyman is credited with the music) but it’s always great to watch a film you’d normally dismiss as mindless drive-in fodder surpass expectations.  It’s not perfect: Kane’s extensive use of Vaseline around the lens for the “Storyville” portion of the story might have kept the Chesebrough people happy (they owned the company at the time of French Quarter’s release) but it does get a bit annoying after a while.  (I was also puzzled at how a major talent like Davison’s Ross can only find work playing whorehouse piano…still, he does get to meet the legendary Jelly Roll Morton [Vernel Bagneris] and a young trumpet player [Ronald Bolden] nicknamed “Satchel Mouth.”)  Quarter is worth tracking down, so you can spend the pleasurable part of an evening in the company of fine ladies like the unforgettable Coke-Eyed Laura (Ann Michelle—her sister Vicki was on the Britcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo) and Ice Box Josie (Laura Misch Owens).  "Hang up your speakers and drive home safely!"

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