Tag Archives: La dama de Beirut

Sara and Julio Look Back

Watching Spanish musicals of the ’50s and sixties, I’ve noticed how often the protagonists look directly at the camera, and thus at the audience. It’s generally a no-no in Classical Hollywood Cinema, though there’s more of a history of it than is common acknowledged, particularly in musicals and comedy: one need only think of how wittily Lubitsch (and Cukor) deploy it in the opening scenes of One Hour With You (1932) (see clip below)and of course it’s woven into the Crosby/Hope/Lamour ‘Road’ films for comic effect, often as an in-joke the audience is also privy to.

The distancing effect, the alienation effect, the estrangement effect; all of these translations and derivatives of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and rooted in the Russion Formalist notion of making strange, of de-familarizing,  in cinema as on stage, is supposed to distance the spectator emotionally by making the familiar strange, making them aware of the constructedness of the drama and in doing so allowing for a more intellectual understanding that would empower the individual to analyze and perhaps even change the world. A characteristic device in theatre and in film is the look back directly to the audience, in theatre the breaking of ‘the fourth wall’, a direct address that is supposed to disrupt ‘stage illusion’ and generate a distancing effect.

Spanish musicals offer further proof, if proof were needed, that no one meaning or effect can be attributed to any formal device; that indeed it can be used in multiple and contradictory ways. Seeing a lot of Sara Montiel films I’ve noticed how this look back at the audience is something that she does regularly in her films (Pecado de amor, La dama de Beirut, Noches de Casablanca ), it’s almost a trope in her vehicles. What interested me about the use of that device of looking directly at the camera in La Reina del Chantecler (Rafael Gil, Spain, 1962) is that it seems to me that it does the opposite of what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do, i.e. it sutures in rather than alienates or distances.

As you can see in the clip below, the pre-title opening sequence of the film is a musical number where Sara Montiel performs, ‘Colón 34’, the refrain goes as follows:

Colón, Colón 34
tiene usted su habitación
y una chica muy decente
sin ninguna pretención
en la calle de Colón, Colón, Colón
siempre a su disposición.

Colón, Colón 34/ You have your own room/ and a very good unpretentious girl/ always at your disposal/ in the street of Colón, Colón, Colón (trans. my own).

As you can see in the clip below, the sequence begins in medium long shot, covering her face and figure, the camera then cranes back into a proper long shot so you can see that quite extensive and impressive set. It then moves in to medium close-up as Montiel starts another verse. As the refrain recommences, the camera gets closer to medium close-up. Then it cuts to a plan américain again, but now intercuts with the audience, demonstrating how Sara is heating up the men in the audience with her risqué song.

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At 2.12, the camera cuts to a close-up of Sara, once more singing the refrain, but this time looking directly at the camera until the last line: ‘always at your disposal’. i.e Sara is at the audience’s disposal in the cinema just as her character is in the theatre. There’s meant to be some link between the men in the theatre listening to her character, and the audience in the cinema. It’s a way for the narrative to present the spectacle of Sara, make some structural homologies whilst allowing for particular variations (Sara had a large female following), but also present the film audience as the ideal audience.

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After Sara’s name appears in the credits, and then the name of the film, accompanied by illustrations that are meant to signify period (the twenties, though they look like Toulouse-Lautrec imitations from the French Belle Epoque), the narrative proper begins; and there will be no more looking at the audience then. But this sequence seems to be saying, ‘you can enjoy the spectacle of Sara Montiel even better than the audience in this theatre is enjoying the spectacle of the character she plays. Now sit back and lose yourself in this dream of song, and sparkling Eastman colour, a pre-war Spain of song and romance’. That’s not what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do.

 

 

I was surprised to see an even more overt example of this in La vida sigue igual (Eugenio Martin, Spain, 1969), a film inspired by Julio Iglesias’ real life, a wannabe Real Madrid goal-keeper has an accident, is prevented from following his dream, and whilst he’s recovering chances upon a world of music, enters a singing contest, wins it, and becomes a pop star. The title of the song is also the title of the film and was a hit before the film began shooting. It’s the song that won Julio the Benidorm song contest in 1968 and launched him as a pop star.

As you can see above. The opening sequence of La vida sigue igual is more familiar to us, with a form very familiar to us from MTV videos: Julio singing directly to the camera, a title card telling us this film will be based on Julio’s real life, then intercut with couples and all the forms of love Julio is singing about, a series of shots some of which literalise the lyrics others which allegorise the theme, with cuts on the beat, that return us to Julio singing directly to us so we can then metaphorically enter his life through the subsequent narrative.

Again, rather than make strange, this sequence is more like one of the ‘attractions’ Tom Gunning writes of in relation to early cinema. He writes that it’s  “a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” This certainly displays its visibility, it’s Julio Iglesias, pop star, winner of the Benidorm song contest, singing his song for you, in a movie. It solicits the attention of the spectator but it doesn’t so much rupture a self-enclosed fictional world. But create a setting and context for it. Just like Sara does.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

La dama de Beirut (Ladislao Vajda, Spain/France/Italy, 1965)

I love musicals and I thought I’d seen every variant. But a musical melodrama about sex trafficking in the Middle East is a new one on me. Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, USA, 1967) was made later, a comedy, and the white slavery is something that happened to Mary Tyler Moore rather than Julie Andrews.

In La dama de Beirut, Sara Montiel is Isabel Llanos, a cabaret singer only recently sprung from jail for a crime she did not commit and on probation. Xandro ‘The Greek’ (Alain Saury) and Gloria (Magaly Noël), see her perform in a cheap dive in Barcelona, like what they see, and offer her a contract. She doesn’t have papers but they arrange to get her a false passport and get her on a boat to Beirut. There she meets and falls in love with Francis (Giancarlo de Luca). But when she arrives in Beirut it’s clear that she’s meant to be performing in a whorehouse and that singing is not the only service she’s expected to render.

Much of the film is about how the women around her are treated (drugged or beaten into performing) and deal, or fail to deal, with the circumstances they find themselves in: one of the younger girls commits suicide. Isabel, however, lets herself be picked up by an elderly gent, Dr. Costello (Fernand Gravey) a distinguished doctor, who will not only help her escape but get her to Paris and arrange a television appearance which will lead to her triumph at the legendary L’Olympia. Even better, he turns out to be the father of Francis, the handsome playboy she fell in love with on the boat.  You couldn’t make this up, except, and of course, someone did.

marcelino pan y vino

Ladislao Vajda the legendary Polish director who worked mainly in Franco’s Spain and directed one of the great hits of the period, Marcelino pan y vino (1955)about a young boy who talks to Christ, directs this briskly, with attention to the film’s main selling points: Montiel, the sound-track, and the production values.

la dama de beirut soundtrack

It’s now clear that all of Montiel’s films of this period, amongst the most successful and international in the history of Spanish cinema, follow a formula: The films are all musical melodramas rather than musical comedies. The story is strung along a series of songs chosen with great care and taste and with a best-selling sound-track in mind (see above): they include some of the great classics of the Spanish-speaking world and beyond; in this film: Perfidia, Frenesï, En Secreto (Cada noche un amor), Perdida (mulher de Ninguem), Les feuilles mortes, etc); that some of those songs will be about Spanishness (La Española, Adios Granada). That each of the songs turns into a very distinct type of number.

As you can see in the example above, where Montiel sings Perdida, most of it is shot in close-up, with Sara in 3/4 shots favouring the left side of her face. Much of the number takes place with Montiel in front of an audience shown through back-projection so that she seems to jump out of the screen, and with so much light on her face she stands out burning bright. During the number there will be cuts to Montiel in full-figure plans Américains, sometimes placed amongst the orchestra, that serve no other purpose than allow the audience to see her dress, usually cut to favour her legs. Once in a while she’ll do a little shimmy, but she really can’t dance. The focus on the close-up, most unusual in musical numbers, creates the affect of a dream-like self-absorption and narcissisim that invites devotion and worship, and as history demonstrates, has succeeded in obtaining it. Sometimes, and most unusually, Sara will also look directly at the camera (see below), as if she’s not only singing to the audience within the narrative, but directly to the viewer, to you. I’ve not seen this used so consistently, almost a trope in her films, in any other type of musicals.

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Sara looks at the audience

The film has a whole host of ‘attractions’ for audiences of the period: the Balenciaga dresses Sara wears in the Spanish portions of the film, on location filming in Barcelona, Tangiers (passing for Beirut) and Paris, then the epitomy of all that was liberal, elegant and sophisticated (see below).

 

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Sara, now free, and after her triumph at L’Olympia, walks through the Arche du Triomphe, with her love ten steps behind her, as is right.

The co-stars- —  Giancarlo Del Duca, Fernand Gravey, Alain Saury — are of course their own ‘attractions’ but I want to here single out Magaly Noël as the vicious Madam/ White Slaver Magaly Noël, who first rose to fame performing the great ‘Fais-moi mal, Johnny’ with Boris Vian (see clip below). Still no one should kid themselves: Sara’s films are all about Sara: singing, with new hairdos, couture clothing or risqué showbiz costumes, looking as glamorous as a whole team of people can make her and surviving what fortune throws her way in what then passed for glamorous and exotic locations in and out of Spain.

Of the film, Sara Montiel writes in her memoirs, ‘I re-encountered my first director, Ladislao Vajda, in La dama de Beirut. Vajda was one of the best directors in the history of Spanish cinema, and his films are the proof. Unfortunately, he died half-way through the filming and his assistant Luis María Delgado, took over the shooting. It’s not bad but is missing greatness.’

 

 

José Arroyo