During the 1960s quite a few European movie-makers tried to capture the spirit of comic books on film, with varying degrees of success. The best of these attempts were Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! and Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga. Roger Vadim’s Barbarella is better known, but less successful. Several of Jess Franco’s late 60s movies also fall into this category. The Girl from Rio is not actually based on a comic, but on a series of delightfully pulpy potboilers by Sax Rohmer, but he’s clearly trying to get that comic book vibe (and in fact admits as much in the accompanying interview).
Jeff Sutton is in Rio, having just stolen $10 million, but he’s having trouble hanging on to his loot. Crime lord Masius (George Sanders) wants to take it off him, and so does Sumuru, the beautiful but evil ruler of the all-female city of Femina. Sumuru finances her private queendom through a large-scale kidnapping racket, with most of her victims being shady businessmen, corrupt officials or out-and-out crooks. It soon turns out that Sutton is not what he seems to be. Franco had a minuscule budget to work with but achieves a futuristic sci-fi look in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard did in Alphaville, by using the stark brutalist buildings of modernist architecture as his settings. While Godard combined these with black-and-and-white cinematography to create an atmosphere of alienation, Franco uses glorious colours, bright sunshine and psychedelic costumes to create a campy 60s Pop Art world. To criticise this movie, as some have done, for its lack of realistic action sequences is to miss the point of the entirely. The fact that Sumuru’s amazonian warriors are simply waving their guns about because the budget didn’t extend even as far as blank ammunition simply adds another level of stylisation to the film and enhances the comic book ambience. Franco is a master of the art of making a virtue of a necessity, and a non-existent budget was for him merely a very minor obstacle. The fact that it’s also a movie that spoofs spy 60s spy films and therefore requires some high-tech gadgetry, but there was no budget for even low-tech gadgetry, is another obstacle that Uncle Jess takes in his stride. The death ray machines in this movie emit invisible death rays, so the fact that the gadgets don’t actually do anything simply doesn’t matter! Despite its lack of high-tech and special effects The Girl from Rio works as a spy spoof in a way that much more expensive Hollywood attempts at the same genre (like the Matt Helm movies) fail, because Franco’s love of trash culture is genuine. He’s not a would-be mainstream film-maker slumming it making movies like this, and he understands the pop aesthetics of this type of movie to perfection. Approached in the right way The Girl from Rio is a great deal of fun. Shirley Eaton makes a splendid glamorous diabolical criminal mastermind, and George Sanders camps it up outrageously as the gangster Masius. I loved this movie. And the Blue Underground DVD release is, as you’d expect from that company, absolutely superb.