Bite Size: French Quarter (1978)

Pretty young runaways and sex work are an evergreen in exploitation film, but 1978’s French Quarter certainly deserves notice for the the winding path it takes to connect those familiar dots. Shot on location in New Orleans, the film takes the scenic route through a grab bag of trash cinema tropes to create a singularly strange film that truly couldn’t have been made in any other era. Mainly, because no sober human being in recent memory would ever green light it.

Christine Delaplane (Alisha Fontaine, Teenage Tramp ) is in heavy debt after the death of her father. With no other surviving family and no real options in her tiny Louisiana town, she hitches her way to New Orleans in the hopes of a fresh start. Rejected by every other job she applied for, Christine ends up dancing in a topless bar. The sleazy owner suitcase pimps a bunch of mysterious “expenses” from her pay, and a week’s worth of work only nets her $25. Considering the incredibly awkward striptease we see, its a minor miracle she kept the job that long.

She gets into an argument with the club’s owner over the obvious grift, and finds herself homeless and out of a job on a Saturday afternoon, unable to even cash her check for bus fare back home. Kindly house mom/club bartender Ida (1940s Hollywood star Virginia Mayo) takes pity on poor country Christine, and sends her to the apothecary owned by a local voodoo practitioner. The woman owes Ida a favor and can cash Christine’s check. Instead of helping out, Florinda Beaudine (Anna Filameno) drugs our naive heroine and makes arrangements to sell her into a white slavery ring.

Christine comes to, but she’s no longer Christine. She wakes up in 19th century New Orleans, as indicated by a costume change and an annoying soft focus effect. Apparently, in those early days of cinema, there was a mandate the camera lens be coated in Vaseline.

Instead, she’s Miss Trudy Dix, the crown jewel of the brothel of Countess Willie Piazza (Virginia Mayo, again). Trudy has been ill with fever, but now that she is well again, her virginity will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to bring even greater prestige and profit to the luxury whore house. Without much questioning of what the hell just happened, Christine/Trudy begins to fall in love with a fresh off the bus piano player, Kid Ross (Bruce Davidson). This angers a local crime boss and his voodoo queen mistress, Madame Papaloos (Anna Filameno, also once more with feeling). They want to profit off of Christine/Trudy themselves, and too heavy a love affair will destroy her principle market value.

Nearly every actor in the film has a dual role, appearing in both the 19th and 20th century timeline. As the bulk of the film’s runtime is spent in the past, the trickiest bit is figuring out where the blink and you’ll miss it cameos are in the modern beginnings of the movie.

The wide scope, double timeline structure is pretty ambitious for the drive in, and French Quarter isn’t content to just fix itself on Christine/Trudy. The sub two hour runtime includes subplots for each of Trudy’s fellow hookers, riffs on several historical figures, voodoo rituals, and the unlikely friendship between the literal new Kid on the block and jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton (Vernel Bagneris) amongst the racial politics of 1910 New Orleans. The setting of a brothel also leaves ample room for all sorts of the incidental salaciousness one would expect, from idle nudity to vintage style stripteases, and an all too brief lesbian affair.

Alisha Fontaine had a pretty short film career, and perhaps isn’t the most dynamic lead for all of this swooning melodrama. That said, everyone else seems to be having a blast raiding the wardrobe closet and playing period piece dress up. What Fontaine lacks in personality is easily smoothed over by the rest of the ensemble being rather unafraid of turning up the camp. Virginia Mayo is well cast as the classic kindly madam, and looks fantastic for a woman pushing 60 at the time of filming. Ann Michelle (Virgin Witch, The Death Wheelers) goes for broke with bug eyed abandon as the aptly named “Coke-Eyed Laura”, a fellow hooker with a habit that could easily launch poppies into extinction. Lindsay Bloom (H.O.T.S.) also adds some wisecracking comic relief as “Big Butt Annie”, who has the expected penchant for Greek delicacies and entry via the back door of the mansion the girls call home.

The movie does go several turns too far in regard to the tower of subplots, and has bitten off a bit more than this price point could ever hope to chew. The shoehorned in white voodoo queen angle, Christine/Trudy’s courtship with Kid, and a random confrontation with a gangster at a juke joint should have probably been trimmed for length and pacing’s sake. French Quarter hits its stride in the slice of life scenes inside the brothel, with a tone that reminds me of 1985’s Angel. While not quite as charming as that particular movie, both films utilize colorful supporting characters and their above average roster of on camera talent to make a lighter, sweeter confection than you would otherwise expect from such a sleaze filled premise.

For those with a bit of patience, French Quarter is as frothy and fun as exploitation films get without crossing over into the well trod territory of goofy sex comedy. Besides, how many other movies can you name that include both survival sex work and white slavery hysteria as major plot points that somehow manage to twist themselves into a happy ending?

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