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.
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.
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.
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).
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.’