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.
Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón are two of the great directors of Mexican Cinema´s Golden Age. Dolores Tierney is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Film at Sussex University and an internationally renown film scholar who has written an important book on the work of Fernández, Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins, and who has also written extensively on Gaváldon.
As Dolores writes in Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins (Manchester University Press, 2007):
For seven years, from 1943 until 1950, Emilio Fernández (1904-1986) was regarded as one of the foremost puveyors of Mexicanness,’ as one of the most important filmmakers of the Mexican film industry…, and as one of the most famous filmmakers in the Western world. His distinctive, ‘authentically Mexican´ visual style — developed over an extensive collaboration with photographer Gabriel Figueroa of thirteen years and twenty-two films — was praised for bringing international attention and prestige to the Mexican film industry…At the height of his career in the 1940s he was loved by audiences and critics alike, not only for bringing international attention and artistic glory to the Mexican motion-picture industry but also for defining a school of Mexican films. Indeed, he underscored and in some ways initiated this approach to his work by repeated claiming ´!El cine mexicano so yo¡/ I am Mexican cinema´
In his introduction to La fatalidad urbana: El cine de Roberto Gavaldón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2007), Fernando Mino Gracia writes:
What would Mexican cinema be without the the sure look — distant, reflexive — of Roberto Gavaldón. We would have lost no less that the most rounded, audacious and finished oeuvre, one that explains a fundamental period of Twentieth Century Mexican cinema, that which covers the period of the end of the Second World War to the start of the 70s. Because Gavaldón is the the filmmaker who best diagnosed, over the entirety of his work, the pulse of a society in the process of consolidation. Nothing was the same by the end of the 1950s and Gavaldón was a privileged witness and chronicler. A mirror which re-works with complex subtlety the inequality of that society and which today, for better and worse, gives us sustenance (p. 19, trans my own).
The podcast below is a wide-ranging discussion on the films and careers of Fernández and Gavaldón with the hope of drawing attention to these immense works of world cinema and also to Dolores Tierney´s invaluable writing on both of these directors.
In the podcast, Dolores and I discuss the work of each director, their collaborations with leading stars such as Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores Del Rio, María Felix, Arturo de Cordova; Melodrama, Mexican Nationalism and its discourses, how the films, be they noirs or melodramas or even rural sagas, fit into a post-revolution political project whilst also being dialogue transnationally with classical Hollywood cinema.
My hope for the podcast is that Dolores´enthusiasm will lead you to the films and that my own will lead you to Dolores´invaluable work on them.
Those of you wishing to pursue further links might enjoy this video essay by Dolores Tierney and Catherine Grant on the ´cabaretera´films of the period.
I have also written on several Gavaldón films and you can pursue links here:
A great Mexican noir from director Roberto Gavaldón. Pedro Armendáriz, earlier in his career the pretty and poetic peasant of Emilio Fernández’ Flor Silvestre (1943) and María Candelaria (1944), the enraptured revolutionary of Enamorada (1946), so often the embodiment of the best of Mexican masculinity, here represents the worst. His Marcos Arizmendi, jai alai champ and national celebrity, is arrogant, selfish, conceited, eager to raise his fists and happy to give a good kicking to any old stray dog that gets in his way: ‘A man who doesn’t triumph doesn’t deserve to live,’ he says.
He’s got three women on the go: Lucrecia (Eva Martino) is his main squeeze, and as the song she sings in the nightclub tells us (see below), she’s so crazy for him, she accepts his cheating on her with other women because, as he tells her, having a fifth of a first rate man is worth than getting the whole of a fifth rate one. He’s also reconnecting with a former flame, Sara (Anita Blanch). He squeezed her out all her personal fortune years go in Manila. But now her husband’s dead, and as soon as she tells him she’s inherited, his interest in reviving their old affair increases exponentially. He’s also been screwing around with Rebeca (Rebeca Villareal), a timid, underage, girl from a respectable family who he’s gotten pregnant.
It’s how Marcos attempts to run away from his responsibilities towards Rebeca that seals his doom. Marcos is already familiar with betting. Gavaldón depicts that world, not unlike the American boxing films of the period, as one intimately connected with the underworld. But so far, Marcos’ movements through the night have been in nightclubs, hotels, bars, places for drinking, smokin, sex; he’s been around criminality but not connected to it. His trying to trick his pregnant and underage girlfriend out of marriage changes everything. A gangster uses the threat of making this public to blackmail him into throwing the game. Rebeca’s brother double-crosses both by telling him he doesn’t need to, thus setting the gangsters on his trail, plunging him further into a world of fedoras, guns, moonlight reflections on dark canals were bodies get thrown.
Gavaldón and cinematographer Jack Draper film all of this beautifully. We often see people through bars, nets, even the nightclub seems encased in a spider’s web (see below). The film’s locations are archetypally noir, nightclubs, betting in arenas, hotels (see below, second row); and so is the imagery (see third and fourth row).
La noche avanza is all hatred, jealousy, cheating, double crossings, uncontrolled passions. It’s all darkness and pessimism leavened only by black humour. What’s interesting about this film is that Arméndariz is the homme fatale and that he hasn’t committed any actual crime. His failings are all moral ones. Women are crazy about him. But it’s his own love for himself that will seal his doom; and Armendáriz’s depiction of a toxic masculinity unleashed with glee is a delight. When the dog he kicked at the beginning gets his revenge at the end, the comeuppance is rendered even more enjoyable by the cynic’s snook through which it’s represented.
The script is credited to Luis Spota. But José Revueltas, for many years a communist revolutionary and political activist, worked on the adaptation, which might account for the film’s unusual critique of the middle and upper classes in the film and of those who, like Marcos, attempt to move through their ranks.
The film also offers an opportunity to see Mexico City as it was at night in the 1950, an urban view, a rare one, of Mexico’s capital, and the sight of many landmarks will bring pleasure to those who know the city.
Watching films from Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, I’m constantly amazed by the beauty of the people and the landscape, the siding with the poor against the rich, the stark dramatisation of the levels of injustice with all that natural beauty as a background. La Escondida, also known as The Hidden One in English, is no exception.
Here the story revolves around a rural couple, Gabriela (María Félix) and Felipe (Pedro Armendáriz), madly in love, but oppressed by poverty and the injustices of a society in which the local landowner has complete power over them. She makes a living selling water to passing trains and makes full use of her extraordinary beauty in doing so. The local women resent her for this to the point of stoning her. He’s a revolutionary, waiting for the right moment to take up arms. She’s burning with love for him and wants to get married right away because she’s superstitious something will happen to separate them and fears once they’re separated they’ll lose each other. He and his father finally agree to the marriage –she’ll move in with the family and they’ll somehow manage feeding one extra person — when he’s sent on a mission. She steals some money from the company shop to go with him. She’s not seen but the shop manager wants sex with her in exchange for his silence as she’s the only one who could have done it. She refuses and is on her way to jail when he sees them and takes the blame. She pleads to reduce his sentence and he ‘only’ gets sent into the army instead. When he returns, as a Lieutenant, he finds first that she’s gone, and later, that she’s become the Governor’s posh mistress who has to be kept hidden to keep up appearances, thus the film’s title.
The film’s sense of history and its politics are clearly articulated in the opening titles: ‘Opression and tyranny stung the Mexican people. Vassalage was most evident in those large estates, haciendas and villages that still did not figure in the map of reason and human rights. The stoic and submissive peons bit their tongue in silence over the ignominy, accumulating beatings and opprobrium from the privilege caste. Suddenly, the longing for liberty thundered through all parts of the Republic. the clamour for social justice rose as one shout over the hills and valleys until reaching even the most distant sierras where rose legions of the brave, the ignored peasantry whose blood fertilised the plains of the north and watered the exuberant lands of the south. There surged the Caudillos, rough men, obscure and humble, giants of liberty, in whose blood was forged the structure of a new Homeland, of a strong and fertile Mexico, vigorous and progressive. This is a dramatic episode of that turbulent and confused time. The story of a love swept up and battered by the whirlwind of the Revolution.’
There is much to admire: the formal beauty, the framing of landscape, of trains going through it, of the armies and shoot-outs. Figueroa, who worked with Ford in The Fugitive (1947), is here, with Gavaldon, Ford’s equal in making landscape shots expressive of feeling. And the film is a high-budget one with great production values so Gavaldón has the means necessary to achieve the effects he desires to express. I also love the film’s narrative economy, one often characteristic of a genre which is mainly discussed in terms of excess. See in the extracts below how the train goes in one direction to take Felipe to serve his sentence, and the same train tracks simply move in the opposite direction to almost instantaneously return him to his village.
In the same clip, now above, I love the moment where she’s holding his hand, crying. He asks her, ‘what if I don’t return?’ and she says, ‘I’ll kill myself if you want to. I can throw myself right here on the tracks so you no longer have to worry about me’.’Wait for me,’ he responds, as the speed of the train overtakes her, and she falls to the floor sobbing. The beauty of the composition, the landscape, the rhythm of the movement of the train is a setting for feeling; like the background rhythm in a song that is a setting for the high notes and gives them meaning.
In a beautifully written piece on Gavaldón for Senses of Cinema, David Melville-Wingrove writes: ‘ it is natural that most of Gavaldón’s films have absurdly melodramatic plots, extravagant and larger-than-life star performances, feverish and hyperbolic mise-en-scène and thunderous and over-the-top musical scores. We should remember that film melodrama – much like bel canto opera or classical ballet – is a stylised, not a realistic, art form. Watching La escondida/The Hidden One (1956), some will complain that María Félix at 40 looks far too old and too glamorous to play an 18-year-old peasant. That is as absurd as carping that Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake does not look like an actual swan’.
The film contains a pictorial hommage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! I loved the framing of the love story amidst revolution but Gavaldón’s style of filmmaking is the opposite of the Russian director’s. Here the focus is not on structures or the intellectual montages designed to express movements in history but on the effects of these revolutionary events on the things poor people value in life: love, family, food. As you can see above one of the film’s title’s was La Passionaria, after the famed Spanish revolutionary of the Spanish Civil War. But Gabriela is nothing like her. In fact, part of the film’s success is in how it makes us understand why Gabriela wants something better for herself. The women in town are jealous, the men are after her, both brutalise her in different ways; she’s waited a long time to marry and has tried everything to be with him. We understand why she wants the good things in life and what she’s done to get them. But we also understand her love for Felipe.
It’s what melodrama does, it makes us side with the powerless and downtrodden by almost musically constructing a world of feeling in which the injustices of the world are made plain and people’s transgressions made understandable. And not just through music, although Cuco Sánchez’s songs are great — but through the deployment of mise-en-scéne. In this sense the film works though it’s far from Gavaldón’s best — I haven’t seen many but I already like Camelia more.
There are a few reservations things worth noting. Arméndariz an Félix are one of the great partnerships in screen history (as are Arméndariz and Dolores del Río) but they aged at different speeds. Here he’s filled out, looks old and a bit haggard. She looks thinner than her younger self and her face looks different, just as beautiful and not the least bit older. She’s filmed with such care there are moments that are moments in which she exemplifies everything Hollywood divas are accused of. See the picture above, she’s just been brutalised, her dress half torn off, her body wounded….but look at her. Lastly, I bought the video on the ‘Naimara’ edition, the only one available, and it made me regret not simply seeing the film on You Tube. The Eastmancolour has faded in this print, and some scenes are so dark, they’re almost in the blurrovision often characteristic of films on youtube. I wish there were a better print of this available.
La Escondida is not a great film. But it is a good one by one of the great directors of melodrama with some of the greatest stars in film history in fine form; its worth seeing for that, even in blurrovision.