Thursday, February 24, 2022

Death Whistles the Blues (1964)

Death Whistles the Blues (La muerte silba un blues) is a very early film (released in 1964) by notorious Spanish director Jess Franco and for those who are only familiar with his later output this one will come as a surprise. It’s a technically well made movie that demonstrates that Franco was perfectly capable of making conventional movies with conventional narratives.

Death Whistles the Blues is a film noirish crime thriller which belongs to one of my personal favourite genres, a genre I call Tropical Noir. Dark moody noiresque crime movies with exotic settings that add extra steaminess to the already overwrought atmosphere of film noir.

In this case there is some question as to where exactly the events of the movie are supposed to occur. There is a kind of prologue somewhere in the vicinity of New Orleans but later scenes may be set in New Orleans or possibly Jamaica, and possibly Spain. There was a slightly recut French version of this film and the French and Spanish versions don’t agree on the setting. 

I think this confusion is actually an asset to the movie. After all film noir doesn’t really take place in our reality, it takes place in a more interesting variant of reality that we can call Film Noir World. In Film Noir World all women are femmes fatales and all men are either villains or patsies. In Film Noir World people pretty much live in night-clubs. And everything is fuelled by jazz and sex.

This is definitely true of Death Whistles the Blues. And given that Jess Franco was a major jazz aficionado (and an accomplished jazz musician and composer) and that he loved shooting scenes in night-clubs, preferably night-club scenes with at least some erotic charge, it’s not surprising that Franco captures exactly the right mood.

Ten years before a couple of petty crooks, a guy named Castro and a jazz musician named Julius Smith were betrayed by a man named Vogel. Castro is presumed to be now dead. Julius Smith is in an American prison. Vogel is still alive. He’s now married to Castro’s widow Lina (his desire to steal Lina from Castro seems to have been the motivation for his betrayal. Vogel has changed his name to Radeck and he’s now quite respectable.

The problem is that Julius Smith is out of prison, and he’s talked and what he’s said is a threat to Vogel/Radeck. Even worse, it seems that Castro may still be alive. And after vengeance.

Lina can be seen as a femme fatale of sorts. She’s certainly a dangerous woman if she’s pushed. There’s another potential femme fatale as well, Moira Santos (Danik Patisson). She’s a singer but she’s taking a keen interest in Radeck’s affairs. Radeck clearly wants to get Moira into bed and Moira does not seem unwilling. Moira is a bit of a schemer and there’s plenty of potential for sexual jealousies and betrayals and suspicions.

Perla Cristal is excellent as Lina, playing her as a mysterious and complex and ambiguous woman whose real agenda can only be guessed at.

Georges Rollin as Vogel/Radeck is quite good in the sense that he makes the guy apparently a genuinely reformed character. He’s done bad things but now he just wants to be left alone. We feel some sympathy for him. He’s now a cornered animal, but perhaps Rollin needed to make it a bit clearer that Vogel/Radeck is as deadly as a cornered animal. Whether Radeck was intended to be vaguely sympathetic is something we can’t be sure of, and if so it can be debated whether it was the right way to play the character, but for me it works reasonably well.

Franco didn’t just love jazz. He made movies in which jazz is an absolutely essential ingredient and a major influence on the narrative. In this case there’s a song, Rooftop Blues (written by Franco), which plays a crucial rôle in the story.

Severin have released this movie and another early Franco film, Rififi in the City, as a Franco Noir double-header (on both DVD and Blu-Ray). The anamorphic transfers are excellent and there’s a lengthy featurette with Stephen Thrower discussing both movies.

These early noirish crime thrillers are interesting because they show the direction in which Franco’s career could have gone. By the mid-60s he was well established in the mainstream of the Spanish film industry and was starting to become known outside of Spain. It’s clear that the fact that he ended up having such an unconventional career was a deliberate choice on his part.

Death Whistles the Blues is a pretty decent film noir. Highly recommended.


  1. Dfordoom, good write-up of DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES(1964), which is a movie that I've never viewed. There is a Spanish language version online of almost 80 minutes, how long is the Blu-ray print?

    I realize that most viewers think of noir movies set on the dark streets of New York City and the rain-swept streets of Los Angeles, but I like noir set in the tropics and rural, or country noir.

    1. The Severin Blu-Ray/DVD version is 81 minutes.

      Tropical noir is of course an absolute obsession of mine. The mythical movie version of the tropics, rather than the real tropics, is just so perfect for telling noir stories.

  2. This makes a great film noir double feature for Franco fans with RIFIFI IN THE CITY on that Franco Noir Severin disc that you recommended. That jazz club scene with Danik Pattison's spellbinding eyes looking right through me as she sings Franco's very cool tune is a showstopper!

    1. Franco always did nightclub scenes so well, and when you add jazz to the mix they're even better.