Monday, June 27, 2016

French Quarter

1978's FRENCH QUARTER is a somewhat ambitious though mightily confused and disorganized film that is constantly reigned in by the fact that despite its efforts to possess some degree of class is still just a sleazy exploitation pic.  The above poster is typical for movies of this ilk in its era, targeting men who wore overcoats no matter what the weather or at least those whose mindsets ran that way.  The movie played the drive-in theater circuit to little notice.  It is a forgotten, obscure curiosity that only the most esoteric of film buffs have even heard of.

I first learned of it from Leonard Maltin's movie almanac.  His description of parallel stories in both the present day and the turn of the century in The Big Easy's famous locale always piqued my interest, though availability for viewing was almost non-existent.  This of course made it even more intriguing to me.  When I recently discovered that Amazon Instant was streaming it for free I had to jump on it.  Maltin called the movie a "neglected treat".  I some extent.

Our story begins as heroine Christine Delaplane (Alisha Fontaine) boards a bus bound for New Orleans after he father passes away, leaving a sizable debt.  A haggard sounding narrator explains the action, dropping lots of tired forbodances, cuing us that bad things will happen.  Christine will find work as a waitress/stripper, though she quits after being shortchanged on her paycheck.  Not long after, she visits the suspiciously kindly Madame Boudine (Anna Filamento) who offers the befuddled young woman some herbal tea.  Christine awakens surrounded by women in nineteenth century garb, the kind prostitutes wore.  Ladies with names like Ice Box Josie, Big Butt Annie, and Coke-Eyed Laura.  Inexplicably, the house madam is played by classic screen actress Virginia Mayo.

Sure enough, Christine, now called Trudy, has traveled back in time.  A virgin, she's about to be auctioned off to any wealthy lech with a wad of cash.  Is she dreaming?  Is that why director Dennis Kane shoots all of these scenes in soft focus, appearing as if someone got carried away and smeared Vaseline asymmetrically on the lens?  A vast majority of FRENCH QUARTER unfolds in this time gone by, and Christine seems to accept this new version of the big city, with its formal dress and (sometimes) speech, though as before, voodoo culture saturates the scene (and will figure heavily into the plot).

The filmmakers include into this stew the presence of Jelly Roll Morton (Vernel Bagneris) who competes with the new ivory tickler in town, Kid Ross (Bruce Davison).  There are some lovely piano solos and duels, but  there are also stripteases in giant champagne glasses.  A bar fight.  Also, a lesbian encounter that feels tacked on.  In an effort to add some depth to the characters, the screenwriters have Coke-Eyed Laura (played with brio by Ann Michelle) suffer from an opiate addiction, though there's an awkward scene in an apothecary that degenerates into cheap jokes.  There is evil behind that sexy Brit accent of hers, and she may be part of a plot against Trudy that involves a voodoo ceremony, with lots of snakes.   But Trudy and Kid Ross also have a sweet courtship that may save the day, in both time periods.   Their scenes feel like warmed over Harlequin Romance, and Davison looks a little embarrassed much of the time.  Also inexplicably, Dick Hyman scored this movie.

So as you can see, FRENCH QUARTER has elements that elevate it above many other drive-in nudity fests (and this one has plenty).  Dennis Kane is best known for the Dark Shadows soap opera so that may explain his method here, though he always keeps things interesting.  But the screenplay is a potpourri of frustration and half baked ideas, a story that can't decide whether to become something worthy or just another softcore.  Many drive-in viewers only paid partial attention to what was onscreen anyway, though in between heavy petting I'm sure many were scratching their heads.
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