A superb noir, fast-moving, by someone who’s seen and loved all the 30s Warners gangster films; and knows and can deploy every stylistic device:
chase scenes that turn into newspaper headlines:
voice-over montages that focus on the hero and instigate the rationale for a crime:
dream montages that show the sexy lure of what the culture deprives ordinary people of:
We also get flashbacks to childhood, prison escapes, etc. It’s all here but now set in Buenos Aires and the surrounding countryside in Argentina. And much as I love Hollywood, the underside of its imperialism is that it deprived us of many sights and sounds seen here, many films such as this one.
The film is based on two separate real-life events dramatised together: An employee bilking his workplace of half a million pesos and a prison escape. José Moran (Jorge Salcedo) likes the good things in life, nice suits, nightclubs, things and places he can’t afford. He’s in love with a young student who loves him back; they once went around shopping for bedroom sets they’d buy after they got married. But he’s given up now. He’s got a bit of gambling problem, is only receiving 150 of his 250 monthly salary because he’s already paying off advances; money lenders are after him; he can barely afford to support his mother and his younger brother on what he takes home. He’s already seeing his illusions ground down they after day – it’s what killed his father – and once he realises that the maximum sentence for stealing is sixty years and that legally there’s no difference whether you take 1000 pesos are 500, 000, he does the math. It would take him 166 years to earn 500, 000. So what if he has to sacrifice 6 years of prison in order to get it? It’s less than the life the job is robbing him of.
It’s a brilliant logic in the film. But since the film starts with an unsuccessful escape, we also know that our hero’s every attempt to save himself will end in failure. It’s another brilliant element of the film; how the beginning sets up failure in every attempt at escape or survival. Apenas un delincuente is about a non-conformist, a man at odds with the culture around him, who schemes, resists, fails; his life a feverish dreams of a life the culture won’t permit him to have.
The film dynamically sets up its themes. Life in the big city which has everything but not for everybody. Male pride versus family shame. A workplace whose regimentation is filmed not too differently than the prison. The hero sees himself as no better than a slave and is driven by a kind of rage which the film suggests is also a kind of sexual frustration; the good university lawyer who loves him but whom he can’t afford to marry; the provocative dancing girls on display that he doesn’t have money to have. The film gets its title from the last line of the film, José wasn’t a criminal, he was barely a delinquent, an ordinary young man, maybe a bit selfish and impatient, someone who wanted too much too fast. But the implication here is also that the problem is a system that promises much more than it can deliver to so many young men like José. All of this is brilliantly visualised, in angles and shapes that cage and enclose, with tantalising images of the high life, rendered even more alive by being shaped via Jose’s bitter gaze. Though the film does not have a documentary feel — it’s too fast moving for that – it was ostensibly all filmed in real locations; and it does represent and evoke what Buenos Aires was like in that period; and also through the neighbourhoods, rooms, décor; a document of the ways of life available to people then. It’s the intersection of document and exciting noir elements that help make the film great. And great it undeniably is.
Ehsan Khoshbakht writes tellingly in the Ritrovato catalogue: ‘Though American-style gangster films had existed in Argentine cinema as early as 1937, this was not a pastiche but an attack on the idea of economic progress under President Juan Perón….. Apenas un delincuente could only be realised at all because of the interventionist politics of the Perón government. Ironically it was the US that contributed to the end of cinema’s golden age by imposing a politically motivated film-stock embargo, forcing Fregonese back to drift back to the place where he had failed before; this time, in a double irony, to make a film called One Way Street.(pp.262-263)
Part of the cycle of Hugo Fregonese films shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2022
If you speak Spanish, this is a very informative review of the film, linking it to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Nueve reinas (Fabián Bielinsky, 2000)
and two discussions from the Filmoteca in Argentina that may also be of interest:
…this one focussing on how the film was restored:
The film itself can be seen on youtube here in a not too bad copy: