A is for Amok

Guest Shadowplayer David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, presents the first in a series on Mexican melodramas (his views, especially those on Bunuel, are entirely his own) –

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

A is for Amok

If an English-speaking film buff sees a Mexican film of the 40s or 50s, odds are it was directed by Luis Buñuel. Living out his exile from the Franco regime, the Spanish auteur was based inMexico City from 1945. He worked within the country’s commercial film industry (at the time, the largest inLatin America) and employed many of its leading stars and technicians.

You may argue that the Mexican films do not show us the best of Buñuel. It’s equally true that the Buñuel films are far from the best of Mexico. What drew an audience to Mexican cinema throughout (and beyond) the Spanish-speaking world was its indulgence in everything that Buñuel most notably lacked. Its lush visual beauty; its wallowing sentiment; its breathless worship of impossibly glamorous stars. Rather than excoriate the bourgeoisie from some dour Marxist perspective, the Mexican industry made films whose sheer visual and emotional excess was a challenge to bourgeois taste – and allowed the oppressed masses something they might actually enjoy! In the context of that industry, Buñuel looks like a stern minimalist trying (and failing) to compose a bel canto opera.

Stretching from the early 40s into the 60s, the Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama is widely available on DVD. Most of its key titles have been released in the USAwithout subtitles – aimed at a vast (and nostalgic) Spanish-speaking market. The print quality is good, in some cases, and wretched in others. Produced on a shoestring, the majority of discs are not regionally coded. If you worry that your language skills aren’t up to scratch…well, don’t. Made to be watched rather than listened to, most of these films are easy to follow. Like the icons of the silent screen, stars like María Félix, Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores delRio and Libertad Lamarque are mythic beings who transcend the spoken word.

All of which brings us nicely to the first film. Shot in 1944, Amok is the product of not one but three European exiles. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish author who wrote the original story, committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. (The best-known film of his work is Letter from an Unknown Woman.) Max Aub, who wrote the screenplay, was a Spanish avant-garde writer of French and German parentage, who fetched up inMexico to escape the Civil War. The director, Antonio Momplet, was another runaway Spaniard who would, finally, wander back toEurope to direct low-budget gladiator movies. The clash of three such talents will be anything but dull.

The film opens on a luxurious ocean liner, with an appropriately Gothic storm brewing in the background. A drunken doctor (played by actor and director Julián Soler) staggers about the deck. Romantically gaunt and tormented, like a sort of latino Jeremy Irons. Teetering up to the window of the grand ballroom, he looks through it and spies…Mexico’s most famous diva, María Félix, her raven hair dyed a most fetching shade of blonde. If you have trouble picturing this, just think of Jeanne Moreau in La Baie des Anges. This new look is that incongruous and that effective.

What could explain this dye-job but a flashback to the Casino at Monte Carlo? Here the blonde María, a silky-smooth adventuress and serial collector of rich men, lures the promising young doctor into absconding with the funds from his clinic – which he promptly gambles away at roulette. Striving to pull his name out of the mud, Soler signs on for 10 years as a doctor in “the colonies of the Indian Ocean”. Exactly whose colonies, or where, is never spelled out…but films like Amok treat petty facts like geography with Olympian contempt.

Cut to another flashback (or is that now a flash-forward?) to Soler stranded in a straw hut – deep in a steaming, studio-built jungle – with only an exotic native concubine (Estela Inda) to keep madness at bay. Word is out of the amok, an all-consuming destructive rage that takes hold even of civilised white men when the tropic heat is at its most oppressive. Just in case we’re wondering if that’s a rumour, a dusky extra in a loincloth runs obligingly amok right outside Soler’s window. He’s about to slaughter the good doctor when the native girl shoots him dead.

Seconds later, a fancy open-topped car pulls up bearing a white lady in dark glasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. We glimpse right away that it’s María, only with dark hair this time, cast as an outwardly prim and proper colonial wife. She has come to the depths of the jungle to seek him out because, you see, she’s pregnant by her lover and her husband (who’s been in England for six months) is due to arrive home in three days. Could the doctor help her out of this little problem? Well, yes and no. One look at Félix and her eerie resemblance to his lost love, and Soler is inflamed with lust. “You forget that I am not only a doctor, but also a man!” He demands sex as a fee – and María flees back to the city in horror. Contrite yet obsessed beyond redemption, he follows her by the very next train…

Some unkind gringo critics, notably David Thomson, have made cruel comments about María Félix and her acting. (“The drive and ambition of a Callas but without the talent.”) All I will say here is that she plays two radically different women in Amok, and is equally convincing as both. True, there is one awkward moment – at a lavish diplomatic reception – where María sits down at the piano to play the Appassionata Sonata by Beethoven. Her hands hover ineffectually above the keys, as if she were communing with a Ouija board. Still, she is exquisitely attired in a jacket of Oriental silk, and only the truly mean-spirited would hold her musical skills against her.

As the hero’s obsession with María takes hold, she even crops up in smaller roles. For one moment, as the native girl lolls lasciviously across his bed, her face morphs into that of Félix. We spot her towards the end, masked, as a nurse – as Soler languishes on an operating table, hovering between life and death. The climax of Amok – back on that storm-tossed ship – is a delirious orgy of amour fou as both Marias (the light and the dark) conspire to lure Soler closer and closer to his doom.

It’s alleged that Jean Cocteau begged Maria (Cobra Woman) Montez to play the Princess of Death in Orphée. He might just as well have asked María Félix… and she might even have said yes. One of the grandest of screen femmes fatales, she was never one to let a man get out alive. Or not, at least, with his sanity intact.

David Melville

D Cairns here — just wanted to add that Maria also plays a nurse, seen in just one close-up, as Soler lies on the verge of death, so it’s a triple role rather than double — or maybe quadruple if you count the ghost/vision. It was this touch above all that convinced me that AMOK is truly deranged.

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26 Responses to “A is for Amok”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    ¡Olé, David Wingrove/Melville (which is dark, which blond?)!

    This is fascinatingly backgrounded, cogent, beautifully written, and opens a Pandora’s box of temptations to view, and view, and view.

  2. MARIA FELIX IS A GODDESS!!!!

  3. Bunuel’s melodramas mainly get interesting when they break out of the genre entirely to become openly surreal, often in their endings, although I think El walks a fantastic fine line throughout. The other filmmakers don’t feel any desire to seem above their audience, it seems, and so the madness emerges organically rather than being imposed. It’s less intellectual maybe, but very wholehearted.

    It might also be nice to get David to talk about those Bunuels he does like — I’ve heard him express some enthusiasm for the crazy musical Gran Casino with which LB began his adventures south of the border…

  4. david wingrove Says:

    “MARIA FELIX IS A GODDESS!”

    David E, we agree yet again. How truly terrifying!

    Typing this in high dudgeon, as I’ve just read a piece in the latest Sight & Sound on FRENCH CANCAN – an amusing but uneven musical by the absurdly overrated Jean Renoir.

    The author drools on interminably about Francoise Arnoul (yawn) and Jean Gabin (yuck) but never once mentions Maria Felix. He even prints a photo of Maria and claims that it’s Francoise. Never mind if they look nothing alike!

    Sorry, but the degree of ignorance this betrays is truly staggering. (And in a ‘journal of record’ too.) Felix was only the greatest Spanish-speaking star in film history, and possibly the screen’s most potent femme fatale since Greta Garbo.

    As my idol Camille Paglia has remarked…”What standards are left and who will defend them?!”

    OK, rant over. I should really have sent this to the letters desk at Sight & Sound

  5. Here’s hoping that we get around to the films of Ninon Sevilla, the Cuban-born force of nature whose riveting turns in VICTIMAS DEL PECADO and AVENTURERA are two most outstanding examples of Mexican melodrama, to say the least.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Ninon Sevilla is a bit OTT, even for me, but I do love AVENTURERA in any case.

    For me, that film was stolen by the glorious Andrea Palma as the villainess. I spent the whole time wondering who she was, then found out she was Dolores del Rio’s cousin and (allegedly) a close personal friend of Greta Garbo.

    Ninon, of course, is still alive and working to this day. The last star of Mexico’s Golden Age to do so!

  7. If you haven’t seen VICTIMAS DEL PECADO then you must do so. Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is stunning. Yes, she is over the top, but it pretty much goes with the territory. The musical numbers in VDP are outstanding.

  8. I have WOMAN OF THE PORT, by the way, starring a young Andrea Palma. Uneven, but it has its moments.

  9. david wingrove Says:

    That’s one I’ve long been curious to see. I do have a copy of the 1993 remake by Arturo Ripstein but have not yet got round to watching it. Frankly, I’d rather start with the original and move on from there.

    Yes, I have seen VICTIMAS DEL PECADO – which is nowhere near as full-bloodedly trashy as AVENTURERA. In fact, it’s remarkably tasteful and restrained for a Ninon Sevilla film. Not that those are ever words you’d associate with the Cuban bombshell!

  10. I’ll certainly have to see Ninon Sevilla at work now. Anyone too OTT for David W must be seen to be believed.

    The author of the S&S piece might not be responsible for the mislabeled still, but it does raise the intriguing possibility that the praise for Francoise was all along intended for Felix…

    Guy was kind enough to send me some of the films under discussion, and clearly I must watch them!

  11. Maria Felix is very good in FRENCH CANCAN.

    I’ve always felt Bunuel’s Mexican films were incredibly neglected not just masterworks like NAZARIN, LOS OLVIDADOS, ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ but even supposedly minor films. SUSANA for instance is brilliant, really powerful film on family and class more specifically the class structure within a family. EL BRUTO is flawed but Pedro Armendariz is brilliant as is Katy Jurado. It started out as a loose sequel to Los Olvidados and ended up as kind of a Mexican ON THE WATERFRONT.

  12. Availability is crucial: there was a lot of interest internationally when Los Olvidados came out, it seems, but this wasn’t followed up in a study of his subsequent films, or else they were forgotten in the enthusiasm for his later French work. And yet it’s the very heart of his oeuvre.

    Also, by ignoring other Mexican movies of the period, we miss the context he was working in and risk overrating him in contrast, as David E suggests. The craziness of Bunuel’s Wuthering Heights looks pretty tame compared to Amok, and Momplet’s film is the original for the spectral heroine at the end.

  13. Arturo Ripstein said in his interview on the Criterion DVD of EXTERMINATING ANGEL that unlike other film-makers who shot in Mexico (Eisenstein, Ford, Losey, Huston), Bunuel became part of Mexico.

    Ripstein also spoke of some Mexican film-makers and praised Fernando Fuentes very highly. Never seen anything by him.

  14. Ah, I have his film Prisoner 13 (1933), which I’ve been meaning to watch for ages. Never seen anything from Mexico in that period.

  15. Camille is far from an idol of mine but we’re in agreement about Jean Renoir. The Cahiers gang admired him so much because he let them on the set of his later films (eg. Elena et les Hommes) and they saw how he worked with actors. As far as I’m concerned his best work was in the 30’s — and by that i’m not talking about the adsurdly overrated Rules of the Game. I’m talking Boudu Saved From Drowning, La Nuit du Carrefour and most especially Le Crime de M. Lange which like Les Enfants du Paradis and Lumiere d’Ete was written by the great Jacques Prevert.

    Gran Casino is enormous fun. Especially if you like tango singing.
    Bunuel saw his Mexican films as chiefly opportunities to work and get paid for it. Obviously Los Olvidados is a great deal more than that. But others like El Gran Calavera are simply mediocre movies.

  16. Christopher Says:

    I’ve been a on again off again fan of the mexican telenovelas since the late 70s ,where you can still see actors from Mexicos golden age in juicy roles…Mexico has a knack for utilizing their classic actors,something that we lack in the US.I frequently see the likes of Silvia Pinal,Jaqueline Andere,Bunuel regulars..Ignacio Lopez Tarso,Tina Romero..All looking great and involved in dramas,whether good or bad,that are worthy of their talents.

  17. Older American and British actors, especially women, do have a hard time of it compared to other countries, it seems.

    I like the highland fling sequence in Gran Casino. Quite unexpected. And the bizarre closeup of a stick twisting in oily mud during a love scene, which Bunuel enjoyed very much.

    A lot of the Cahiers stance does seem to be political, or else motivated by factors other than the actual quality of the films. Renoir was OK, but Allegret and Clair and Duvivier were to be discouraged at all costs.

    The only late Renoir I’ve seen, I’m afraid, is Dr Cordelier, which is quite mad and interesting. I do love The River and This Land is Mine!, but I agree the real meat of his French work seems to be pre-war.

  18. David E., I’m rather glad you find Rules of the Game absurdly overrated. I saw it in the big screen a few years back and was underwhelmed. And here I thought I was the only one…

  19. I liked it better on seeing it again recently. It’s pretty strange. A comedy of manners with a sour edge, which makes it sound like Altman, and indeed there are similarities.

    Renoir’s filming of the busiest scenes is really breathtaking, but it resists its own classic status, somehow, which is something I rather like about it. Or maybe it’s just me being dense, but I find the whole purpose of the film elusive, intriguingly so. As a condemnation of the corruption of pre-war France, it’s not exactly direct…

  20. Allow me to add my support to Victimas del Pecado as an excellent melodrama and even more to Ninon Sevilla who is over the top in the best of ways.

    Prisoner 13 is a fine Fuentes film, but El Compadre Mendoza is much better to my mind and a real surprise when compared against Hollywood westerns of the time, which are what Mendoza would be most easily matched against.

    Rules of the Game vastly over-rated?? I guess any film that shows up as being one of the best all time on film lists could be claimed as over-rated, but for my money Rules is as reasonable a choice for the acclaim as any film could be.

  21. More Mexicans, soon! I’ll watch out for El Compadre Mendoza.

    I’m divided about canons generally. As long as you keep revising them and looking outside them, they’re useful. We definitely don’t want to let them ossify, though.

  22. I completely agree with that. I guess the question would be in how a canon is made since the way Rules generally see,s to show up on lists is by polls of critics, and in that circumstance if the people polled respond with their actual preferences then there isn’t much to say as the film then is appropriately rated by that method. More problematic would be to try to construct a ranking in order to make a canon. Trying to find a coherent rationale for putting any film at number one would be foolhardy. If a canon is made, it should be for educational purposes and try to capture something of the history and breadth of the medium through select example.

  23. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, I do love GRAN CASINO, largely because it introduced me to the utterly glorious Libertad Lamarque – Argentina’s Queen of the Tango, who was exiled to Mexico following a catfight with Evita Peron!

    With luck, I’ll be writing about some of Libertad’s movies in due course. Some of them are to die for!!!

  24. That’d be great.

    B is for Baladon?

    When I’ve arranged screenings in historical sequence, I always try to pick slightly odd films, great films but films that are a bit off the beaten track. I figure people are more likely to encounter the canonical items by themselves if they’re interested enough to look.

  25. Well, this is all very tantalizing and maddening, as I can speak about enough Spanish to order at a Taco Bell, if I ever went to one. But seeing as I live in NYC, I suppose I should be able to find some of the movies pretty easily. It’s always a pleasure to be handed the key to a previously locked room of cinema.

    Bunuel and Renoir are two of the canonical old men I’ve largely missed in my film self-education, to my mild embarrassment. RULES OF THE GAME bored me half to death when I saw it a college screening close to 20 years ago, but I mistrust that opinion now, doubly so as it was a dreadful print and I recall being in a very distracted mood for some reason.

    There was a big Renoir retro at Brooklyn Academy of Music last year that I kept meaning to go to but mostly didn’t. I did make it to LA BETE HUMAINE, which I thought was good but not a knockout – and THE GOLDEN COACH, which I thought was an absolute and utter knockout, so beautiful and bursting. I walked out grinning and humming to myself, and I don’t know that I saw a more purely enjoyable movie, old or new, all year. That’s what the flickers are for, if’n you ask me, so I guess that’s a masterpiece.

    Crap, have I ever seen a Bunuel? Rmmm… oh, I’m pretty sure I saw VIRIDIANA in college too, in a course on Latin American film. I remember hardly anything about it, except that we were all scratching our heads and shrugging at it. Ah, youth and education are wasted on the young. I’m quite certain that course included no classic Mexican popular film – which might have as much to do with availability (in the early ’90s pre-DVD/more-or-less-pre-Internet age) as with the usual biases of college film classes.

  26. I get the feeling Viridiana’s not the best place to start. As a teenager, I enjoyed Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or for there sensational content and wildness, and Belle De Jour for the kink. Viridiana starts to get more digestible when seen in context, and then it’s greatness eventually becomes recognizable. Or that’s my feeling, anyway.

    I’ve been very slow to see Renoir, again I didn’t see what was so special about those I saw when I was young, but I’m truly converted now: I still have dozens to see, though. Just grooved to Boudou quite recently.

    As David says in his piece, you can to some extent enjoy the Cine Dorado melos without speaking the language and without subtitles — maybe having a plot synopsis to hand would be useful, though.

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