Dear friends and residents of the greater New York City metropolitan area, has the Siren got a series for you.
It’s Mexico at Midnight, presented by film-preservation hero and friend of the Siren Dave Kehr at the Museum of Modern Art, July 23 through July 29. The organizing principle is a look at Mexican noir, films made from 1946 to 1952, when the country’s film industry was at its zenith. These films are little known in the U.S., but they’re here now, so rejoice.
The Wall Street Journal, J. Hoberman in the New York Times and the fabulous Imogen Sara Smith at The Life Sentence, have write-ups that give the cinematic and historical background. The Siren will sidestep that duty by admitting that she knows only the outline of 20th century Mexican history, and her knowledge of pre-1960 Mexican cinema is limited to the Mexican artists who worked in Hollywood, several of whom — Dolores Del Rio, Arturo de Cordova, Pedro Armendáriz, and Gabriel Figueroa — are in this series.
Instead, the Siren will stick to something she can talk about with confidence, which is how entrancing these films are. True thrillers all, they are gorgeous to look at, acted with incredible verve and graced with intricate, literate scripts. This series is so great, you could choose a film by turning your cat loose on a paper copy of the schedule and going to see whichever title you can still make out once she lies down for a nap.
Given that, the Siren will discuss the five films she was able to preview in the order she watched them.
First up, because the Siren was curious to see what Dolores Del Rio was like in her native language, was La Otra (The Other One, 1946). Answer to the Siren’s query by oh, about the second or third scene: Del Rio was light years better under these circumstances. She’d returned to Mexico in 1942, fed up with the parts she got in Hollywood, always exotic and mysterious, mysterious and exotic, nobody asking much of her except to show up looking swell. “I wanted to go the way of the art. Stop being a star and become an actress, and that I could only do in Mexico,” she said later. The Siren once admitted that she didn’t exactly look forward to Del Rio’s Hollywood appearances, where the perfection of her looks seemed to turn her into a mannequin. The solution was there all along: Watch Del Rio in a Mexican movie, which the Siren will happily do from now on.
Are there any identical twins out there? (The Siren has fraternal twins of her own, but for the purposes of Twin-Movie Plots, they don’t count.) If so, are you the evil one? There’s always an evil one, you know. No no, don’t bother to argue, you can’t fool the Siren, she’s seen everything from A Stolen Life to Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Never mind the genes, one of you is up to no good. So if you are the evil twin, and you are out there merrily doing evil things, beware: Don’t make the good twin jealous. Bad, bad move.
Dolores Del Rio plays identicals, and the evil twin, Magdalena, makes every mistake in the playbook. She steals the man of the good twin, Maria, marrying him and thereby becoming rich. She swans around her boudoir, showing off her ill-gotten furs and jewels to Maria. When Maria brings up the fact that it’s not nice to marry your sister’s one true love, Magdalena silkily suggests she get over it.
Come on, what’s a good twin to do? Marry the kind, noble cop who takes her to a cafe, puts “Always” on the jukebox and talks of a future together? Oh please. A proper good twin murders the evil one and takes her place.
Under the fantastic trappings of this film lies a refreshingly frank look at class, and class envy. Maria is a manicurist who spends her days never knowing if the man whose nails she’s filing is going to make a pass at her. She does know that when they do, her boss expects her to put out. She goes home to a garret, moving through a throng of poor-but-happy children she can’t afford to have. (In this film the peak of Roberto Gavaldón’s direction, and Alex Phillips’ cinematography, comes during the scenes set on Christmas Eve, as the children sing and light sparklers; a pinata has seldom been used to such chilling effect.)
Meanwhile, Magdalena clacks her high-heeled way around her mansion, which has a foyer sized for impromptu roller-derby matches, and condescends to the servants. Where La Otra goes one better than most evil-twin movies (including its Hollywood sibling, Dead Ringer) is in its suggestion — perfectly conveyed in Del Rio’s performance — that adopting the trappings of wealth means adopting the heedless attitudes of the rich as well.
La Noche Avanza (Night Falls, 1952) was next up, and the Siren confesses it’s her favorite, for its zippy pace, its affinities with boxing noir, and the way it illustrates what the Mexican cinema could do that the Code-encumbered Hollywood could not. Pedro Armendáriz, a romantic lead in many Mexican films and a suffering near-saint in The Pearl and 3 Godfathers, here plays an irredeemable louse. He is Marcos, a pelota player, known as jai alai to us Yanks. (The Siren knows so little about this game that she sat down to watch the movie thinking jai alai was, like polo, played with horses.) Armendáriz didn’t have an athletic physique, and the pelota games utilize some pretty obvious doubles in long shots. But it’s an exciting sport, and clearly dangerous as hell. Director Gavaldón does great things with both the enormous echoing stadium necessary for the game, and the net that keeps the audience from getting their skulls cracked open by the ball. And Armendáriz plays his role with such pugnacious power, thrusting his non-sixpack out at anyone who defies him, every action seeming to boil up straight from his groin, that he personifies all the darkest corners of the jock id.
Hateful to his teammates, abusive to his women, Marcos even lands a vicious kick on a stray dog, an action you’d have had a hard time convincing a Hollywood star to replicate, no matter how big a heel he was playing. Marcos then dumps lovestruck nightclub singer Lucrecia (Eva Martino) so he can ride off with the wealthy, middle-aged Sara (Anita Blanch) in her chaffeur-driven car. But before he does so, he warns Lucrecia that infidelity is strictly for him. The movie is scalding about sexual politics, even more so when yet a third girlfriend enters the picture, played by Rebecca Iturbide. She’s an upper-class teenager whom Marcos has carelessly impregnated. He wants her to get an abortion, not because she’s threatening suicide at the thought of her ruined life, but because he doesn’t want anything to affect the fat contract he just signed.
You get impatient for this super-rat to get his comeuppance, and it’s coming, oh boy is it coming. But here’s where the movie is particularly clever; there is a point when Marcos’ suffering becomes so acute, that Gavaldón, and top-notch co-writers Jesús Cárdenas, José Revueltas and Luis Spota, are pushing the audience to ask themselves if this is what they really want. Then, the situation flips again, to remind us of Marcos’ true nature. It’s a revenge tale that refuses to make anything neat or pretty, down to the last grim joke of a shot.
En la Palma de Tu Mano (In the Palm of Your Hand, 1951) is the longest and most ambitious film of the bunch. In the tradition of films like Nightmare Alley, it presents a bogus and cynical psychic, and then demonstrates that inexorable fate is out there, even if we can’t see it. Maybe even because we can’t see it. Arturo de Córdova shows that Frenchman’s Creek — in which the Siren found him somewhat painful — was total miscasting. Córdova was no pirate. He was meant to play suave characters who reject pretty, sane women (here personified by Carmen Montejo as his wife) in order to fling themselves at the first gorgeous sociopath they meet.
One of the pleasures of this series is the extensive use of Mexico City. The Siren spent a wonderful week there once, and she loved this chance to see the city in the middle of the 20th century, both grand and ramshackle, as teeming with life, danger and possibility as her own beloved New York. Córdova’s character, “Professor” Karin, runs his soothsayer racket out of a tall colonial building near the Juarez monument. The massive neon sign that advertises his trade towers over Karin every time he steps outside.
Meanwhile, the film augments Mexico City with jaw-dropping sets. Karin’s office mimics an observatory, the domed ceiling adorned with big magic-sounding words and twinkling stars. Once Karin meets his match, in the form of a scheming widow played by Leticia Palma, he visits her apartment, and finds it tricked out with a dizzying staircase, fur rugs and ebony marble, the lair of a huntress. If you’re going to hell, this is the handbasket you’d pick.
Often mentioned is a mid-film scene involving a helpful cop, a flat tire and a dead body in the trunk. (One day the Siren will organize a noir series based solely on the problem of what you do with a body in the trunk.) It’s fantastic, beat by beat worthy of Hitchcock, but the Siren was even more taken with a prior scene, where Karin, stuck out in a country mansion with that same corpse during a rainstorm, finds himself interrupted by one of the series’ few gringos. The stranger is hilariously American, lost on the road and sure that the locals exist solely to give him directions, braying his questions and thanks like Ralph Bellamy wandering in from His Girl Friday. The Siren couldn’t help imagining the Mexican artists on this film, fed up with Hollywood’s view of Latinos, thinking, “Two can play that game, my friend.”
Córdova is at it again in the 1945 Crepusculo (Twilight, a word that Google reveals has been ruined in English), falling in love with the wrong dame, here played by Gloria Marin. He’s Alejandro, a surgeon and idealistic egghead, who wanders into a life-sculpture class only to find his lost love, Lucia, serving as the nude model. (She’s filmed from the back; even with Mexico’s laxer censors, there were limits.) All over again he falls for Lucia, and thereby sinks into a world of geometric shadows, Dutch angles and lascivious close-ups, a world where he will abandon all his high-falutin’ principles for one touch of Marin’s exquisite lips.
Alejandro leaves for war-torn Europe, and returns to find that his Lucia has married his best friend. When asked about her disappearing act, says Lucia to Alejandro, “I left you because I wanted our love to be perfect.” Say what? Lucia explains her choice of groom by saying she knew it would guarantee she got to see Alejandro again. According to the admittedly unreliable IMDB, there was a psychiatrist consulting on this script, and if so, the Siren would love to know how his patients turned out. (It was written and directed by Julio Bracho and lensed by Alex Phillips, who was clearly a genius.) Even by the high-strung standards of noir, nothing anybody does in this film makes much sense. More than the other films, this one gets by on its rapturous looks, its swoony visual metaphors (hello, massive waterfall of passion, you’re looking good) and its full-throttle commitment to the one plausible plot point on display, that love makes us self-defeating nutcases. Crepusculo gets the Siren’s vote for “Most Sexy.”
Finally, there is Distinto Amanecer (Another Dawn, 1943), directed by Bracho and shot by Gabriel Figueroa, in which labor-union activist Octavio (Armendáriz, a much nicer fellow this time) is on the run from sinister capitalists bent on retrieving essential documents.
Octavio hides out in a cinema, and the Siren admits she’s a sucker for scenes of vintage movie-going. The lady next to him lights up a cigarette under the no-smoking sign. She is, naturally, our heroine Julieta (Andrea Palma), and Octavio recognizes her as the left-wing college sweetheart he’s never gotten over. They leave the theatre, emerging to a rain-slicked passageway, in a shot so beautiful that the Siren gasped.
Julieta has married Ignacio (Alberto Galán), Octavio’s old friend from college. Unable to have children (there’s a subtle suggestion of an abortion gone wrong), Julieta instead is raising her young brother, putting up with her weak, complaining husband and working as a nightclub hostess, a job that pretty clearly includes prostitution. Nightclubs are another motif shared by these films, shown first crowded and joyous, then later deserted, the upturned chair-legs looking like a foretaste of jail. Here the club’s patrons move back and forth from their tables in precise, oblivious waves.
Julieta seizes her chance to help Octavio, and rekindle a feeling that she’s good for something beyond supporting a layabout and a brother who will soon be too old to need her. Armendáriz is the ostensible lead, but in the Siren's view this is Julieta’s story, a domestic noir grafted onto a political thriller. The film pulls no punches about the emotional price she will pay for any choice she makes.
The films in this series starring Maria Felix, the goddess of Mexican cinema, were not yet subtitled for preview. But the two films — The Kneeling Goddess (La Diosa Arrodillada, 1947), and Que Dios Me Perdone (May God Forgive Me, 1948), — are screening at MoMA this week. The Siren wants to see them, and hopes some of you do, too. For those of you who aren't within range of MoMA, join hands with the Siren and Professor Karin, and send hopeful vibes to the universe that these films will get U.S. DVD/Blu releases very, very soon.
And the next time you see him, congratulate Dave Kehr. It isn’t often that a single series opens up a whole new world.