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Eavesdropping at the Movies: 94 – The Rider

A contemporary Western played by non-professional actors and based closely on their real lives, The Rider is heartfelt if perhaps over-reliant on cliché. Brady is one of a group of young men in the American Midwest who ride bucking horses and bulls, risking severe injury and death, in what can be seen at once as both a vital act of keeping tradition alive and a tacit admission that the opportunities offered by America are dwindling and serve to keep people in their place. Mike describes it as “a stupid sport”.

José sees a kinship with American Animals in its portrayal of young American men with no sex lives or apparent interest in sex lives and also part of a long cycle of films that mourn the idea of America, a subject which he was written on extensively  in this blog; Mike believes it’s a film that will flatter those who like to pride themselves on seeing “quality” cinema. There are scenes of beauty, including those with a former rider profoundly injured and restricted to life in an assisted living facility – Brady’s love for his friend, expressed throughout the film, is touching. And the horse wrangling is simply spectacular and worth it for its own sake.

A film with deep flaws, an indulgence in cliché, a great visual debt to the Western and a too easy acceptance of its structures of feeling, particularly in a world with so little place for them. Nonetheless, The Rider also has extraordinary sequences with flashes of beauty.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 93 – Cold War

Cold War is Paweł Pawlikowski’s follow up to the Academy Award winning Ida. We delighted in the Midlands Arts Centre’s fabulous projection system, which Mike says makes these beautifully lit and composed images “sing”, allowing their poetry to resonate. The film is unashamedly a love story, framed in a 4:3 ratio that best frames faces and sharpens the focus on the feelings they express, in glistening black and white.

Cold War begins unusually in that the love each of the protagonists has for the other is never in doubt. The problem, the threat, the barrier, is how the geopolitics of the post-war period interrupt that love – the whole world is against them! We discuss the resonances of the film’s setting, the period 1949-1964, and the significance of the film moving back and forth from Paris and several ‘Iron Curtain’ countries; with settings in the Polish countryside, Warsaw, Berlin Yugoslavia, Zagreb and then back to Poland. Is part of the theme that in the Iron Curtain countries they’re forced to prostitute their art whilst capitalist countries encourage the prostitution of the self?

José swoons over the sadness, sexiness and romance of the film. Mike draws attention to a certain sketchiness and notes that Tomasz Kot looks like he belongs in a Stella Artois ad whilst admiring his performance and that of Joanna Kulig as Zula. José loves it so much he wants to see it again to further explore the patterning of images and sounds. Mike feels he’s seen enough but is willing to go along, particularly since the film is unexpectedly short at only 85 minutes. It’s certainly good, but precisely how good is Cold War is the question that overhangs the podcast.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies – 92 – Crazy Rich Asians

An utterly charming, friendly rom-com set in and amongst the very wealthiest of the Singaporean elite, Crazy Rich Asians is also full of odd tensions and problematic complexities. In one sense a highly specifically Chinese story of a second-generation American immigrant’s return to Asia and the conflict she experiences in negotiating her way into a world that finds her somewhat unwelcome; on the other a genre comedy that would feel no different were the characters all white. It’s a friction that bubbles under everything, but the film is so light and likeable that it never spoils anything.

We find Michelle Yeoh’s performance as the intimidating mother-in-law a delight, her character completely avoiding the one-dimensional dragon mom stereotype. On the other hand, there are stereotypes in which the film does indulge, though we disagree on how critical we should be of that. Thinking back to Searching, Mike feels that that film’s joy of seeing ethnicity have no bearing at all on anything is not replicated here, as the film’s insistence on themes of separation from one’s background and identity come into conflict with its desire to be no different from any generic white rom-com. Jose doesn’t find this an issue, instead sinking into the diasporic aura of the film. We discuss the film’s occasional TV movie feel, its use of music, its depiction of class through accents, and the way the opening sets up a much darker, more subversive film than we get.

And above all, it’s really, really funny.

Recorded on 16th September 2018

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great.jpg

After seeing all episodes of Ekaterina available on Prime, I re-read Robert K. Massey’s marvellous Catherine the Great, which I’d read when it first came out. There were things in it that either didn’t make an impression then but do now or that I’d forgotten. The scandal of Catherine wasn’t that she had so many lovers — she was a very romantic person and it was a kind of serial monogamy with her — but that the ones she took in her later life were so much younger than herself, the men twenty-odd to her 50-odd. That Potemkin bedded his three nieces one after the other when they were in their teens garnered no censure. That Orlov seduced a thirteen year-old relative was used as an excuse to break up with him but no other problemo. And of course, John Paul Jones, the founder of the US navy was tried for having raped a 12-year old and this led to his leaving the Russian navy. I’d also forgotten that though serfs in theory were tied to the land, in practice their lot was one of slavery and they were bought and sold with no regard for kinship ties as African-American slaves were in the US. Serfs were emancipated in 1861. Slaves were freed in the US in 63. It also struck me that Catherine lived then as many gay men do now, with former lovers adding up to an extended family and support network.

Robert K. Massie’s book is a truly great popular biography, history as page turner, all 656 pages of it and i re-read it in what felt like one huge gulp. Her dangerous beginnings, the murder of her husband, Russian expansion into Poland and the Crimea, her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot, her art collection, her palace building, her faiIure to free the serfs even as she vaunted the liberty of men, are all clearly written, based on enormous learning, and streamlined into a drama in which the central protagonist is made knowable and admirable. I highly recommend.


José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 91 – American Animals


An imperfect combination of documentary and dramatisation, American Animals gives us a lot to talk about. Its story of four college students embarking on a heist raises ideas of privilege, ambition and hope (or lack thereof), self-image, and above all, masculinity. In its self-conscious invocation of the kinds of films twenty-something white guys adore, such as Fight Club and Reservoir DogsAmerican Animals builds a portrait of the modern young man with which Mike sympathises but which José cannot tolerate.

Neither of us finds the film without deep flaws, and indeed we could not claim to have really enjoyed it. But it is valuable and leads to a lively debate. We use the phrase “American masculinity” a lot without burdening ourselves with defining it, and Mike observes that all films with American in the title are full of themselves.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.


Ceesepe R.I.P

Carlos Sánchez Pérez, the celebrated painter, illustrator and graphic designer best known by the sounds of the first letter of each of his names, (Ce, ese, pe) — Ceesepe, — died of Leukemia in Madrid on the 7th of September. RIP. Ceesepe was the painter of the scoundrelous (is that a word?: ‘el pintor de lo canalla). He did the great credit sequence for Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, etc, the posters for Labyrinth of Passion, Entre Tinieblas and The Law of Desire.


His images are a vivid conjuring of the Spain of ‘La movida’ covering as they did albums, comics, advertisements for bands, all the night life of the Madrid of the period.

His work was even sought after outside Spain:


This is one of my favourite alternate posters he did for Law of Desire:


José Arroyo

A quick note on Ekaterina (TV Series, Russia, 2014-)


Those of you who are interested in historical drama might be interested in Ekaterina, a dramatisation of the transformation of a young and unimportant German Princess into Catherine the Great,  on Prime. It covers the same story and period as Von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress. It’s got excellent production and a charismatic cast with Empress Elizabeth (Julia Aug) foregrounded here much more than in other narratives. What made it so interesting for me is that it’s Russian; it was ostensibly a big hit there and much talked about. It’s interesting to see the story of Catherine the Great’s seizing of the Russian throne from a Russian point-of-view and difficult to see some of the faults outside that context; the patriotism is tied to a particular rough type of masculinity; the villain of the piece is Fredrick the Great (Hartmut Kurg), made villainous through his sodomy and his love of culture; likewise Peter III (Alexandr Yatsenko) is seen to be too interested in the arts, too unpatriotic and not masculine enough to inherit the throne. So all the homophobia etc of the culture is subtly evident throughout the work, but very glamorous and enjoyable to see in spite of that; and certainly informative.Marina Alexandrova gives a great star performance as Ekaterina: charismatic, beautiful, glamorous but also capable of conveying subtle, wide-ranging and even simultaneous and contradictory registers of emotion. She’s great.

The series is directed by Alexandr Baranov and  Ramil Sabitóv; and written by Arif Eliev and Elena Palmer

José Arroyo




Eavesdropping at the Movies: 89 – Searching


You wait all day for a new type of film and then two turn up at once. Hot on the heels of Unfriended: Dark Web, which we discussed a few weeks ago, is Searching, another desktop film (as we’re calling them). John Cho plays a father whose teenage daughter goes missing and conducts a search for her using her laptop and an old family PC.

It’s formally a little different from Unfriended, and we consider that even more formal difference might have suited the story. But the form does allow the film to cleverly and subtly address themes of generational difference and familial disconnection, and the drama the film builds is deeply involving.

We also remark upon the film’s surprisingly unique and welcome depiction of an Asian-American family, and Mike misremembers the origin of the term “woman in the fridge”.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 88 – Red Sparrow

We catch up on home media with an erotic thriller that, while it fails to titillate, offers a fascinating portrayal of totalitarianism, sexuality, control and ownership of the female body and the way power is expressed through it, revenge, and more. Jennifer Lawrence stars as a ballet dancer forced into working for the state as a honeypot, tasked with seducing Joel Edgerton’s CIA operative for the purpose of smoking out his mole.

We are in agreement on the extravagant thrill of the opening, and the electifying darkness of the sex school’s complex dynamics and brutal methods. Mike is less interested in what occurs when the action moves into the field, and holds out hope for an ambitious (and insane) conclusion; José, more realistic, expounds on why the film’s developments should be interesting enough for Mike as they are. The plot grows convoluted, the visual design less expressive, but ultimately we love what Red Sparrow offers and wish we’d caught it when it was at the cinema.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 87 – The Happytime Murders


Raunchy, vulgar, adult puppet comedy. You’d think it’d be right up our street. But The Happytime Murders is incompetent, embarrassing and infantile, with almost no comic instinct – the couple of moments that drew laughs from us did so primarily through sheer insistence and excess. Mike tries to reckon with what the difference is between the likes of this and something like Team America: World Police, which he likes but is superficially similar. José can’t comprehend how simply bad the filmmaking is. A conversation about Melissa McCarthy ensues, with differing opinions on her talent, but her box office appeal is not in question – at least until now.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 86 – The Equalizer 2


Quiet, meditative, sensitive, gradual. Not the first words that come to mind when considering 2014’s vigilante thriller The Equalizer – though they do apply at times – but certainly descriptors of its sequel, which we loved. Denzel Washington’s ex-spy, Robert McCall, who had managed to extricate himself from a life of state-sanctioned violence and murder, now works as a vigilante for hire, an avenger, conducts himself as a role model, mentor, and cheerleader for those whose lives with which he comes into contact.

We discuss The Equalizer 2‘s ethos of personal responsibility and self-improvement, and its meditative tone. José orates on his love of Denzel and his position as perhaps the most significant figure of black masculinity throughout the history of cinema. Mike adores Antoine Fuqua’s aesthetic of long lenses, shallow focus and moody lighting; a visual sensibility that looks wonderful and intimidating on the big screen, but somehow makes small screens seem big too.

While it’s certainly cut from the same cloth as the first film, The Equalizer 2 is more confident to bask in contemplation and even a kind of plotlessness, and it’s not quite what you’d expect. We think it’s great. Worth seeing while it’s in cinemas.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Pecado de amor (Luis César Amadori, Spain/Italy, 1961)

pecado de amor

Pecado de amor is camp enough at the beginning: Sara Montiel is Sor Bélen, a nun in a woman’s jail. A young female prisoner tries to commit suicide, and by way of comfort, Sor Bélen recounts her own past as Magda Béltran, cabaret singer and baddest woman in Madrid.

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Terence Hill acting under the name of Mario Girotti

Magda’s story is thus told in flashback. We see her trifling with the affections of a young man, Ángel (a very young and handsome Terence Hill acting under the name of Mario Girotti here), so in love with her he forges his father’s name on a check to buy her an expensive bracelet. She has trouble offloading him. The father, Adolfo (Reginald Kernan) gets involved, tries to buy her off, but falls in love with her instead when he discovers she’s really a nice woman from a humble background trying to do her best to raise an illegitimate daughter.

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A woman of the people, but fully coiffed and in fur.

She’s about to achieve happiness with Adolfo when the manager of her nightclub and semi-pimp gets involved and she shoots him in self-defence. She’s taken to jail and at her trial denies knowledge of Adolfo so as not to ruin his career and social position. She expects to be in jail for a long time and gives her daughter up for adoption. Adolfo, however, comes to her defence. But it’s too late. She’s free but has now lost her daughter, her lover and her career and is forced to go outside Spain to seek work, an opportunity to see her garnering applause in the great capitals of Europe.

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Jailbird Sara


In Greece, she reunites with Adolfo, they cement their love but then he disappears suddenly. It turns out his wife, who’s been in a sanatorium in Switzerland for all these years, has recovered; and moreover it’s Adolfo who adopted her daughter and raised her to be a lady.  This is all too much for Magda. The nuns taught her to pray when she was in jail; and now she decides to find comfort in God.



If the beginning was camp, I nearly fell off my chair at the end (see above) where Sor Bélen is in Church, surrounded by a glorious choir, singing at her daughter’s wedding, as she stifles a sob whilst the camera cuts to her former young lover now married and with his wife, then to his father, the man she loved but can’t have, and then to a stained glass window in Church. The official sinner of the Spanish cinema of those years thus comes face to face with all her sins, in church, even as she gets redeemed and sanctified by a holy spirit voiced by the choir and pictured by the icons in the stained glass window. It’s as great an ending as Barbara Stanwyck’s in Stella Dallas, though this one will make you laugh rather than cry (but in a good way).

Like all Montiel vehicles post-El ultimo cuplé, the film is a musical melodrama. This one has great songs such as Gardel’s ‘El dia que me quieras’. Like other of her films such as El ultimo tango, Montiel does a number in drag, here Pichi (see clip above), which allows the film to show Sara to us as sinner, nun AND pimp; and as her stardom became international, she sang in other languages (here Sous les toits de Parisin French and Tinaini in agape in Greek); and as her stardom became international and the budgets of her films increased, there are little travelogue montages of beautiful and exotic places most of her audience couldn’t then actually visit but possibly dreamed of seeing (here mainly the Greek islands).

One of the IMDB comments notes that, ‘Maybe I saw another version, or the soundtrack is wrong, but I would like to make note that, in this movie, Montiel never sings “Madreselva” (she does in an album appropriately titled “El Tango”) neither (does) she sing(s) “Under the roof of Paris” since she did that in “La Violetera” (in Spanish for the Spanish version, french in the french version). This is not important but accurate.’ But for the sake of accuracy, I’d like to say that my version of Pecado de amor definitely contains both numbers, the first as part of her international tour (see the [suggestive] image on the left), and the second whilst in Greece (image below right).

In an hommage to Montiel from the TV series, ‘El Legado de…’ one of the commentators notes that one of the keys to Montiel’s appeal is that women liked her as much as men. Men may have been drawn to her sex appeal but women loved the clothes (some here by Balenciaga), the jewels, the hair-do’s, and the working out of so many sufferings women were earlier, then and later, condemned to. So many of her films are like a continuation of the ‘fallen women’ cycle of American films of the thirties but in gorgeous Eastmancolour and with highlights of music from the ‘Great Hispanic Songbook’. But unlike in America, in the Spain of the late fifties and through the sixties, sin had to be paid for not only by suffering but by, as we can see in one of the campest endings of all time, Christian redemption.

As I’ve noted before in relation to some of her other films, Montiel breaks the unspoken rule that the actor must never look directly at the camera and often does so in some of her numbers. See example below:

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José Arroyo

La dama de Beirut (Ladislao Vajda, Spain/France/Italy, 1965)

I love musicals and I thought I’d seen every variant. But a musical melodrama about sex trafficking in the Middle East is a new one on me. Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, USA, 1967) was made later, a comedy, and the white slavery is something that happened to Mary Tyler Moore rather than Julie Andrews.

In La dama de Beirut, Sara Montiel is Isabel Llanos, a cabaret singer only recently sprung from jail for a crime she did not commit and on probation. Xandro ‘The Greek’ (Alain Saury) and Gloria (Magaly Noël), see her perform in a cheap dive in Barcelona, like what they see, and offer her a contract. She doesn’t have papers but they arrange to get her a false passport and get her on a boat to Beirut. There she meets and falls in love with Francis (Giancarlo de Luca). But when she arrives in Beirut it’s clear that she’s meant to be performing in a whorehouse and that singing is not the only service she’s expected to render.

Much of the film is about how the women around her are treated (drugged or beaten into performing) and deal, or fail to deal, with the circumstances they find themselves in: one of the younger girls commits suicide. Isabel, however, lets herself be picked up by an elderly gent, Dr. Costello (Fernand Gravey) a distinguished doctor, who will not only help her escape but get her to Paris and arrange a television appearance which will lead to her triumph at the legendary L’Olympia. Even better, he turns out to be the father of Francis, the handsome playboy she fell in love with on the boat.  You couldn’t make this up, except, and of course, someone did.

marcelino pan y vino

Ladislao Vajda the legendary Polish director who worked mainly in Franco’s Spain and directed one of the great hits of the period, Marcelino pan y vino (1955)about a young boy who talks to Christ, directs this briskly, with attention to the film’s main selling points: Montiel, the sound-track, and the production values.

la dama de beirut soundtrack

It’s now clear that all of Montiel’s films of this period, amongst the most successful and international in the history of Spanish cinema, follow a formula: The films are all musical melodramas rather than musical comedies. The story is strung along a series of songs chosen with great care and taste and with a best-selling sound-track in mind (see above): they include some of the great classics of the Spanish-speaking world and beyond; in this film: Perfidia, Frenesï, En Secreto (Cada noche un amor), Perdida (mulher de Ninguem), Les feuilles mortes, etc); that some of those songs will be about Spanishness (La Española, Adios Granada). That each of the songs turns into a very distinct type of number.

As you can see in the example above, where Montiel sings Perdida, most of it is shot in close-up, with Sara in 3/4 shots favouring the left side of her face. Much of the number takes place with Montiel in front of an audience shown through back-projection so that she seems to jump out of the screen, and with so much light on her face she stands out burning bright. During the number there will be cuts to Montiel in full-figure plans Américains, sometimes placed amongst the orchestra, that serve no other purpose than allow the audience to see her dress, usually cut to favour her legs. Once in a while she’ll do a little shimmy, but she really can’t dance. The focus on the close-up, most unusual in musical numbers, creates the affect of a dream-like self-absorption and narcissisim that invites devotion and worship, and as history demonstrates, has succeeded in obtaining it. Sometimes, and most unusually, Sara will also look directly at the camera (see below), as if she’s not only singing to the audience within the narrative, but directly to the viewer, to you. I’ve not seen this used so consistently, almost a trope in her films, in any other type of musicals.

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Sara looks at the audience

The film has a whole host of ‘attractions’ for audiences of the period: the Balenciaga dresses Sara wears in the Spanish portions of the film, on location filming in Barcelona, Tangiers (passing for Beirut) and Paris, then the epitomy of all that was liberal, elegant and sophisticated (see below).


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Sara, now free, and after her triumph at L’Olympia, walks through the Arche du Triomphe, with her love ten steps behind her, as is right.

The co-stars- —  Giancarlo Del Duca, Fernand Gravey, Alain Saury — are of course their own ‘attractions’ but I want to here single out Magaly Noël as the vicious Madam/ White Slaver Magaly Noël, who first rose to fame performing the great ‘Fais-moi mal, Johnny’ with Boris Vian (see clip below). Still no one should kid themselves: Sara’s films are all about Sara: singing, with new hairdos, couture clothing or risqué showbiz costumes, looking as glamorous as a whole team of people can make her and surviving what fortune throws her way in what then passed for glamorous and exotic locations in and out of Spain.

Of the film, Sara Montiel writes in her memoirs, ‘I re-encountered my first director, Ladislao Vajda, in La dama de Beirut. Vajda was one of the best directors in the history of Spanish cinema, and his films are the proof. Unfortunately, he died half-way through the filming and his assistant Luis María Delgado, took over the shooting. It’s not bad but is missing greatness.’



José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 85 – Dial M for Murder 3D

It’s Eavesdropping’s first anniversary and we celebrate with a film Mike’s been looking forward to seeing for almost a decade. Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder was released at the tail end of the short-lived Fifties 3D craze, and has rarely been seen in that format (even at the time). But it rolls around every so often and this week came to the Electric, so we jumped at the chance to see it.

A dialogue-heavy chamber piece, Dial M for Murder might not seem the obvious choice for the spectacle of 3D, but it’s for this reason that we find it interesting. José, who has seen it before in 3D, recalls his previous impressions of the importance of items – the keys, the handbag, the scissors – and how the stereoscopy relates to it. Mike, who wrote on 3D film at university and has defended it ever since, places Dial M for Murder in context, comparing it to both 3D of the time and today, suggesting how it was ahead of its time.

Away from the 3D, we find the film slight, a trifle, though enjoyable throughout and respectful of the audience – the film’s methodical nature is lovely. We find some of the performances disappointing, and one in particular delightful. We’re glad we saw it, even though José’s spectacles were broken.

José’s note on Dial M for Murder can be found here:

Recorded on 23rd August 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.


Vértigo (Antonio Momplet, Mexico, 1946)


The lesser, and less well-known Vertigo, a maternal melodrama from Mexico. As the credits unfold Mercedes (María Félix) is shown coming out of a Church in a wedding dress, though she tells her Nana that to her she’ll always be the Niña Mercedes, her little girl; in the first two minutes of the film, she has a baby, buries her husband and takes control over the large land-holding that the off-screen narrator tells us will cause her so much pain and so many tears. A minute after that, Mercedes’ daughter Gabriela (Lilia Michel) is off to school and Felix is shown old, hair humbly braided in the back of her head, with a shawl and wearing glasses. A minute after that, the daughter is back with a fiancée, Arturo (Emilio Tuero) ready to get married. The daughter convinces the mother to get rid of her mourning, and then the real trouble begins.

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Out of her drab mourning clothes Mercedes looks, well like María Felix, and of course Arturo is overpowered by his desire for her. She finds herself responding as well. Meanwhile, the letters to the lawyers never seem to get there, the wedding dress doesn’t arrive, the wedding keeps getting more delayed, until one day by the river, a shot of crashing torrent of water from the nearby waterfall informs us that Arturo and Mercedes have had sex, even whilst Gabriela is wondering why  the arrangements for her wedding are taking so long.


The dialogue is a combination of bad melodrama — -‘I don’t want to live chained to a lie’; ‘let’s love for a moment that must last us a lifetime’ – and folk sayings in Spanish that are taken as wisdom: ‘Speak. Don’t keep the words inside until they bite your soul’; ‘boda retrasada, boda quebrada/ a wedding delayed is a broken wedding’; ‘Happiness if for those that find it’; ‘What fault have I of what life has made of me?’; ‘Sooner or later everything arrives in this life, even that which we don’t want to..’


When Gabriela confronts he mother about the delays to her wedding and tells her that it’s poisoning her life, Gabriela responds with: What do you know of a poisoned life, a life without hope without promise, what know you of bitterness and pain’. And the daughter responds with ,’You don’t’ know what it’s like to love someone as I love Arturo’. But, of course, she does. She goes to church to pray for guidance, ‘Don’t let me arrive at desperation, destroy this fire that consumes me.’ She decides to do the right thing and tells Arturo he must marry her daughter. ‘My daughter is once more my daughter; I can look her in the eye).

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framed by Virgin and child

Arturo, however, doesn’t feel the same way. He pretends he’s ill with fever, and on a rainy night when something needs to be fetched, he lets his intended go via a bridge that he knows is faulty and will collapse, which is what happens. After her daughter’s burial, people start shunning her at church, she begins to lose employees who now don’t want to work for her. She thinks it’s abut gossip regarding her affair with Arturo. When her old Nana tells her there are whisperings all over town, she doesn’t let her speak, saying only ‘You too have come to judge me?’ A priest in Church appears to announce that ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. But then, as she’s meeting with potential buyers for that rich land she herself can no longer get anyone to work, she finds out the truth, and tells them ‘we have the duty to repair that which needs repairing’ referring not to the un-mended bridge that killed her daughter but to Arturo. He returns just as she’s reading his love letters to her. The villagers have found he’s back, know the truth and are out to lynch him. But, in a great ending, framed at the beginning by an icon of virgin and child (see clip below), she asks him to close the door of the hacienda, takes out a gun and kills him herself. The last line in the movie is ‘The justice of God has been done in this house; now let the justice of men be done’. To have sex with your daughter’s fiancée is bad enough but she draws the line at murder.

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Only God can judge her

Vértigo is another of those María Felix films that seems relatively unskilled but remains riveting. And not only for her presence. Whilst watching it,  I was trying to think of why this film, so choppy and clichéd, a trite melodrama in which one sees the plot coming a mile away, nonetheless retains its power. Sometimes it shows  things so outrageous one bursts out in laughter (the waterfall sequence). Then, one imagines what an audience in the mid 40s trying to make sense of the meaning of one’s life and actions through the film might get out of it, and one sees the film slightly differently.

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Offering God’s Justice in her house before giving herself up to the laws of men.

Cheap as the film is, and short as it is (about 1h10mins) it’s a total morality tale about what is right and wrong, about knowing that and still not adhering to social convention because one’s desires don’t always fit into the socially prescribed box, about understanding and forgiving that; about drawing lines between different kinds of transgressions (desire vs. murder); about the difference between law and justice; about what community can and can’t offer and how variable each of those offerings might be over time. In other words these films deal with issues that continue to matter to people and in which the filmmakers find a  form through which to directly communication with their audience. It’s its own form of achievement.

A very young María Felix plays a mother of a full grown daughter much earlier than her Hollywood counterparts; She’s the mistress of transgression not only in her films but extra-diagetically. In fact Emilio G. Riera, according to Paco Ignacio Taibo in Maria Felix: 47 pasos por el cine, ‘expressed a general sentiment with an amusing phrase: Here melodrama finds a new sub-genre; that dedicated to showing how María Félix’s beauty is in fact a calamity foisted onto the human species’ (Taibo, p.80).

José Arroyo



La devoradora (Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico, 1946)

María Felix is Diana de Arellano, a man-eater, an adventuress, a bad woman, voracious for sex, jewels and money; and without feeling. She’s going to marry Don Adolfo Gil (Julio Villarreal) because he’s rich. It’s a plus that he’s old and with a heart condition: he won’t last long. Whilst she’s stringing the old guy along, she can’t quite get rid of the young kid she’s also seeing, Pablo (Felipe de Alba).

When her maid asks her to choose, she tells her she won’t let go of either; she wants the young one, and the old one is convenient. She’s so untroubled by her plan that, on the eve of her wedding she remains blissfully asleep, surrounded by silk and satin. Her maid has trouble waking her up but is so devoted, she takes the grapes and lovingly feeds her as she dreams, an opportunity to photograph Felix looking glamorous and sensuous (see clip below), and a camp moment to rival Mae West’s ‘Eulah, peel me a grape.’


It’s only when the maid informs her all her new wedding purchases have arrived that she gets excited and out of bed.  But just as she’s about to look at her wedding dress, Pablo comes and threatens her with a gun. She dares him to kill her and he ends up shooting himself. If he’d been a man rather than a kid, she’d have killed her instead of himself, she later says. She calls her fiancée and asks him to bring a doctor, Miguel de Uribe (Luis Aldás), who turns out to be his nephew. She’s so bad that even as they wait for help, and with the corpse next to her not yet cold, she can’t help imagining how beautiful she’s going to look once she puts on all her lovely new things.

They’ve got to get the body out of his flat without anyone seeing them but first they go to a nightclub to show themselves in public. The song they hear is Agustin Lara’s great ‘Aventurera,’ sung by Salvador García

‘Vende caro tú amor, 
Da el precio del dolor, 
a tú pasado 
aquel, que de tus labios, 
la miel quiera 
Que pague con diamantes su pecado 
Que pague con diamantes su pecado 

Sell expensively your love,


Give the price of your pain

To your past

He who wants the honey of your lips

Must pay your sin with diamonds

Must pay your sin with diamonds.

Miguel keeps looking at Diana, telling us and her, that he knows the truth about her and that truth is being sung to us now. She sees him looking at her massive diamond engagement ring and knows exactly what he’s thinking of her (see clip above). When they return, Maria and the nephew get rid of the corpse in the outskirts of town but he’s lost his hat. Whilst he goes out to search for it, she drives off, leaving him to walk alone through the city where he might be seen. When he returns, she tells him the reason for leaving him was she couldn’t trust herself with him. They make love and she offers to keep on seeing him on the side whilst she marries his uncle. She needs luxury, comfort, lots of money (see clip below).

The nephew’s aghast at what a bad woman she is and goes to confess to his uncle. In the meantime, she calls her fiancée and tells him that the nephew made a pass, is drunk, and besotted with her. The fiancée confronts the nephew but his heart begins to act up in the middle of the confrontation and the nephew decides to lie in order to save the uncle’s life.  Miguel also tries to give himself up but the police, rightly thinking he’s trying to impede the wedding, tell him they’ll follow up on the investigation in due time. Miguel thus goes to kill Diana, who, beautiful and already in her wedding gown, dares him to. But Miguel is not a kid like Pablo. He shoots and kills just as the police arrive to question Diana. The film ends with a pan across Diana’s luxurious apartment which rests on her face as the notes to ‘Aventurera’, previously heard in the nightclub scene, play over the last shot

A poorly made film, a male fantasy, a representation of female power in which the protagonist uses all the stupid clichés believed of women by a certain type of man to trick them into doing her bidding. Heartless, selfish, using men only to further her true love, the finer and more expensive things in life, María Félix is beautiful and magnetic. The whole film is so excessive it’s camp. Yet, one can also easily understand from this trashy, lurid film why Félix was an object of veneration; why hers is such a powerful star persona; in fact it’s one of the key films that cemented  it. She’s a beautiful woman who dares what others won’t: living out the audience’s fantasies in silk sheets and satin pillows. Why can’t one have sex AND money. Why should she have to pay with her life over a young fool that shot himself for love?  For the rest of her career, the man-eating femme fatale would be the first thing one thought of  when her name was brought up. This was one of the key films that, for better and worse, cemented that view. Very bad and hugely entertaining.

José Arroyo


Incantesimo tragico/Oliva/ Hechizo Tragico/Tragic Spell (Mario Sequi, Italy/France, 1951)

A film sold under many names and not a real success under any of them. A Gothic melodrama from Italy. María Félix is the beautiful Oliva, from a well-to-do family. Her widowed mother has chosen an aristocrat for her to marry, old, ugly and very rich. But on the annual feast day in which women are allowed to choose who they dance with, thus announcing their intended, she goes for Pietro (Rossano Brazzi), the King of the pickaxe, a well to do tenant farmer, who dreams of finding a way to bring to life the dry and rocky hills around his land.  ‘Will you know how to forgive me,’ she asks him on their wedding day. The film will tell us at the end.


When Pietro takes Oliva to his grandmother to get her blessing for their wedding, she judges Oliva, pretty …but too pretty. On the night that Pietro’s father Bastiano (Charles Vanel) returns from the jewellers, where he’s gone to get Oliva her wedding pearls, thunder and lighting waylay him into a deserted castle (see clip above). The thunder opens up the earth and he there finds a disused Roman temple, full of cobwebs, with mice running around, and in a tomb he finds a legendary treasure, ‘Il Tesoro dei Guarcialupi’ . He goes to his mother for advice and she tells him that gold calls to gold, it’s the demon’s opera. One of the jewels has an image of a beautiful woman, it’s a cursed image, and he must go immediately to the Chapel on the Mount and offer all of it to the Virgin so that she may protect him and his family from the curse. But Bastiano is greedy and doesn’t listen.  The rest of the film is precisely about the unfolding of that curse.

Félix once more plays a woman who destroys everything she comes into contact with. Rosanno Brazzi, often so dull, here at least looks soulful and handsome. Charles Vanel is hard, menacing, sober – completely great – as the father who thinks his son is out to assassinate him and kills him first. The film is beautifully shot by Piero Portalupi, immaculately lit, and with some interesting imagery. But it never quite comes to life. The Gothic elements are well imaged (see clips above but also image below) and there’s an interesting dream sequence (see clip immediately above) which also announces the beginning of the curse taking action. But the film creates little tension or suspense. Massimo Serato is Berto, Pietro’s brother and also in love with Olivia, It’s a well-made film but rather lifeless and much less enjoyable than mediocre films from the height of her Mexican period like La Devoradora which are made with less skill but imbued with a pulp, lurid life that makes them great fun to watch.

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José Arroyo



Eavesdropping at the Movies: 84 – BlacKkKlansman

A lively debate on  BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s comic drama based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. With limited time, we dig right in. We discuss the film’s point of view on culture and cinema; John David Washington’s performance, the influences we can see in it, and whether a more charismatic star might have made the film even more powerful; our attitudes to Lee’s pamphleteering and the pros and cons of propagandistic cinema; the film’s direct address of Trump’s America and its tragic, somewhat surprising ending; and more.

We question whether the film’s comic treatment of David Duke, head of the KKK, carefully undercuts our delight in mocking him or dangerously indulges it. Duke is rendered a figure of fun in some notable and hilarious scenes, but the film ensures we recognise that he has never gone away. And Mike is particularly affected by Adam Driver’s character, a Jew in name only who, through being threatened by the KKK and confronted by Ron, is forced to reckon with his identity and the fact that it’s been easy for him to ignore it for most of his life. (The Howard Jacobson article he references is linked here:

As we acknowledge in the podcast, we unfortunately missed the first few minutes of the film, which is only one reason we want to see it again. Mike is bursting with thoughts and can’t get them all out; Jose vacillates on the film’s artistic value, though not its cultural value. There’s much, much more to consider in BlacKkKlansman than we were able to in this podcast and we shall return to it.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 83 – Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

It’s been out for four weeks and finally we decide to grapple with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Mike has just recently caught up with the first film, a jukebox musical that José disliked, and both are disappointed with the sequel’s lack of skill or even instinct as to what makes a musical actually work. Mike points out some elements of story structure he found original, and Jose is impressed with how the film juggles its vast cast of characters, but they disagree on Cher. (Spoiler: José really loves Cher.)

Neither comes away really having enjoyed the film, though neither is really the target audience either. But there’s fun to be had in critiquing it!


The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

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