A great noir, currently on MUBI, that brings to mind Crime & Punishment, Jean Valjean, Bresson’s Pickpocket and I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, among others. A petty thief and former pimp, now a banker, s forced back into a life of crime by the very police who are meant to uphold the law. The story is told in flashback, through voice-over; the setting is contemporary; the indictment of the culture in the final shot, brutal. Whilst a society of spectacle is obsessed with a football match our hero’s odds against tomorrow are nil. There’s no exit, he’s got no way out. He’s no good, but the structures of the culture are even worse. A great film.
There were so many rats in the hovel Marucha (Sara Montiel) grew up in that they chewed off half her face. Being ugly means she’s the victim of men’s callousness. This has made her embittered and turned her into a gangster’s moll. She’s got a lovely figure though and can still shake a living from singing in cabaret by wearing a Veronica Lake peekaboo hairstyle that hides her disfigurement.
This works most of the time. But occasionally blokes in the audience clock the chewed-up face, make nasty catcalls, taunt her, laugh at he until she collapses from the stress of it all. This happens one night when a plastic surgeon’s in the club. Dr. Carlos Alonso (Manolo Fábregas) takes her on as a client hoping that a lovely face will help her develop a lovely soul. But once she sees how the Doctor’s transformed her into …well…Sara Montiel, its nertz to that. She becomes ‘Piel Canela/Cinnamon Skin’, a successful cabaret singer and very expensive prostitute who’s out to get her revenge on men.
The Doctor becomes besotted with her but she couldn’t live in his world she tells him, and he wouldn’t know how to live in hers. All the surgery’s signified is that she’s moved from a world of cheap vices to a world of expensive ones. But soon they fall for each other. And just as quickly, her past catches up with her. Julio (Ramon Gáy), the head of the gang Marucha used to run around with and a bit of an old flame, forces the Doctor to operate on him and change aliases. The Doctor has no choice but is disgusted with Marucha for tricking him into a situation he finds dishonourable and illegal. Months later, he turns himself over to the police. To redeem herself for having sunk the Doctor’s career, Marucha goes in search of her gangnster ex. He’s got a new face but she recognises the origami he’s in the habit of making with bits of paper, tricks him into admitting his previous crimes to the police and as a result the Doctor is shown to be innocent and cleared of his. She gets shot in the crossfire. They put her on the operating table again but this time it’s too late and the distraught Doctor can do nothing. Prayer, and the nurse who’s quietly had the hots for him all along will be his only consolation.
This is hackneyed material, much better executed with more means by Gustaf Molander (1938)and George Cukor (1941) in the two versions of A Woman’s Face. And Bergman and Crawford are certainly better in the part than Montiel is here. Everything about this film is strictly B. That said, Montiel is really the main reasons to see this film. It’s one of the 14 she did in four years in Mexico. It was a huge success in Mexico, partly due to Montiel, partly due to the famous and eponymous bolero. Though it’s not Montiel who gets to sing the famous song, she does get to sing three other songs in the film, and her relative success in doing so would pave the way for extraordinary run of hit musical melodramas in Spain from ’57 onwards as well as her extraordinary recording career.
As a side note, this is also one of three films she made in this period shot in Cuba and with Havana as a location. For those of you, like I, who love Havana and might have reveries about what it was like in the early 50s, the film is a special thrill (see below). Even the Cine Yara appears in back projection.