Archive for A Letter to Three Wives

T is for Las Tres Perfectas Casadas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville writes again, continuing his Alphabet of Mexican Melodrama ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

T is for Las tres perfectas casadas (Three Perfect Couples)

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At first glance, Las tres perfectas casadas looks like a Mexican rip-off of A Letter to Three Wives – adapted, of course, to the exigencies of a macho Latin culture. In the Joseph L Mankiewicz original from 1949, an unseen woman writes a letter to her three ‘dearest friends’ announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands. In this 1952 variant by Roberto Gavaldón, a notorious womaniser dies and leaves behind a confession to his three closest pals. Namely, that he has slept with not one but all of their wives.

The reasoning behind this switch is not far to seek. In most of Latin America at this time, it was considered only normal for a man to have adventures outside marriage. (Indeed, when one of the three husbands says he has never had any woman but his wife, the other two stare as if he’d grown an extra head!) A woman who deceived her husband, meanwhile, was viewed as something lower than a whore. A man might kill his wife for adultery – and be let off on the grounds that it was a ‘crime of passion’.

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But appearances, as we know, are deceiving. The scurrilous Don Juan in question turns out to be very much alive – and played, moreover, by Mexico’s greatest male star, Arturo de Cordóva. The feelings of the various ladies for this reprobate – dormant through years (or even decades) of flawless bourgeois respectability – now spring violently, nay, operatically into life. What started out as a light social comedy with serious subtexts now morphs, shockingly but seamlessly, into Gothic melodrama at its most floridly overripe. Just imagine A Letter to Three Wives turning, midway through, into Laura – only with all the sexes reversed.

Are you still with me? The signs, of course, are there from the start, provided we know how to look. The bourgeois dinner party that opens the film is shot and played like a high comedy by Cukor or Lubitsch. (This is a production so lavish that even the mirrors and the billiard tables get a separate mention in the credits.) Yet raging outside is a thunder-and-lightning storm so grandiose, you would swear the guests had come to reanimate the Frankenstein monster – not to celebrate 18 years of ‘perfect’ marriage. In fact, one of the ancestral portraits on the wall is a dead ringer for Mary Shelley. I would love dearly to imagine this is not an accident.

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As the mood of the film darkens – and Córdova turns up both alive and unrepentant – so, imperceptibly at first, does its visual style. Shadows lengthen, curtains billow and candles glow ominously amid the dark. We enter, before even know it, the world of Mexican noir as created by Gavaldón in earlier films. (See La diosa arrodillada, La otra and En la palma de tu mano for more proof.) Few other directors – or none, perhaps – could make this transition without chopping their film into awkward and disparate chunks. With its blatant disharmony of textures but its overarching unity of tone, Las tres perfectas casadas shows that Gavaldón was one of cinema’s greats.

As its multiples passions and conflicts grow more intense, the film narrows it focus, slowly but inexorably, to one of the three wives. In typically perverse fashion, this central figure is not Miroslava Stern – a huge Mexican star who, nonetheless, gets shunted off to the wings after a nicely poignant, tear-stained confession of her infidelity. The star of this movie (and what a star she is) is the Argentine actress Laura Hidalgo, a lady known throughout the 50s as ‘the Hedy Lamarr of South America’. The resemblance is indeed striking but – in all fairness – Hidalgo strikes me as a vastly more animated actress. Lamarr looked exquisite but often seemed on the verge of dozing off on camera. Hidalgo might pass as her energetic tomboy twin.

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Yet Hidalgo, like Lamarr, was Central European in origin. She was born as Pesea Faerman in Bessarabia, which was then a northern province of Romania. Her Jewish family emigrated to Argentina in 1929 when Pesea was two years old. (Wisely, in the light of future events.) Although she was one of Latin America’s biggest and most glamorous stars, Hidalgo – again, like Lamarr – never took her career that seriously. She quit acting in the late 50s and became a poet of some renown. Her most famous film is the 1953 Armiño negro (Black Ermine) where a boy nurtures an incestuous crush on his mother, only to find out she is a de luxe lady of the night.

But back to our main feature…Hidalgo, whose one-night fling with de Córdova leads her husband to doubt the paternity of their daughter, meets him in secret and demands that he set things to rights. Having convinced their entire circle (mistakenly) that he was dead, he must now face up to his duty and commit suicide for real. Naturally, he must leave behind a note insisting that his first confession was lie. A ridiculous ploy, you might think – but strangely convincing when it is argued with such force! With typically Byronic ennui, de Córdova admits that he is bored with life. He is more than happy comply…provided the lovely Hidalgo will pay him one last call.

Their final meeting á deux is an operatic love-death worthy of Tristan and Isolde – only shorter and vastly more entertaining. Hidalgo’s grand monologue sums up this movie and a multitude of other melodramas like it:

All water has mud at its depths – and all women have, at least

once, a monstrous dream. Waking, we try to root out that bad

dream. Torture ourselves as we reach for its roots. But what, in

the end, do the roots matter? If flowers smelled like their roots,

they would stink of manure. But their longing for beauty is so

much higher than that.

Only the very greatest – or the very worst – of actresses could recite such lines and get away with them. I’ll leave you to decide which.

David Melville

Sound and Fury

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by dcairns

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Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, filmed by Ken Hughes.

Yes! Ken Hughes films Philip Yordan’s Macbeth-as-an-Amurrican-gangster epic, in which lumpen Paul Douglas as the titular JOE MACBETH rises to the position of kingpin in a version of the New York mafia recreated on a small scale in England. The British version of America always seems like a cheap-ass solution, or at least it does when it’s obvious. Here we get reasonable but small sets, and a few obvious stock shots to broaden out the scope. What really gives it away is the cast.

Douglas and Ruth Roman (as Lily Macbeth) are the sort of affordable American stars who could be tempted over for a British film (Douglas had appeared in the minor classic THE MAGGIE a year earlier). The supporting cast is made up of a mixture of Americans abroad (Bonar Colleano, who’s very good here as a cheeky combo of Fleance and Macduff; beetle-browed Robert Arden of MR ARKADIN fame — both these guys appeared in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) and those Brits who could muster a convincing yank accent. I’m inclined to think the following scene will be amusing to British movie fans:

After watching THE ATOMIC MAN, in which Charles Hawtrey intrudes like a music hall apparition, I’m beginning to suspect that Ken Hughes liked having Carry On film stars pop up and wreck his ambiance just for the hell of it.

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Also prominent in this scene is Ruth Roman. She does make a terrific Lady Mac, I take back anything bad I may have said about her. I think this kind of role maybe suits her better than the more tame parts I’ve seen her in. Her biggest problem is creating any kind of heat with the doughy Douglas, who’s good at freaking out, sweating and shaking his jowls as if he’s trying to physically detach them from his face and make them fly off and stick to the walls, but his baggy, Lon Chaney Jnr. appearance is a little unhelpful in more tender moments.

R.R. plays it fierce in the early scenes, and the snappy, snippy relationship reminds me of Douglas’ marriage in LETTER TO THREE WIVES. This is an unusual version of the play in that the Macbeths actually grow closer together. As a femme fatale, seducing her husband into murder, Roman, “the nicotine-stained goddess of the denim pantsuit” (here clad in revealing gowns) is very effective — Mrs. Mac uses sex as a weapon.

As one reared on Jon Finch in the Polanski version, I had trouble imagining how Douglas and Roman could have reached the age they’re at without previously showing the ferocious ambition that overtakes them. A straight rendering of the play would offer us a supernatural catalyst, whereas here, Roman’s fortune-telling friend is an insufficient motivation. Stripping the play of the uncanny does do it quite a bit of damage. Without the prophecies about Birnam Wood and “no man of woman born”, the climax loses it’s plot twists, although Yordan arguably improves on Shakespeare by bringing Macbeth and wife to their doom together.

The femme fatale scenes make me think that a straight noir approach would work better than a gangster one. For one thing, the underworld vibe is utterly generic, with Hughes concentrating his attention on creating a viable N.Y.C. in Pinewood or wherever, so that he has no opportunity to create the specific details that make a film like SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY so memorable. And killing a kingpin lacks the moral outrage of killing a king: murder is a commonplace in Joe Macbeth’s world, so there’s a loss of dramatic force there too.

The best bits:

1) A distant bell tolls each time a kingpin dies. When Douglas has offed his boss (Gregoire Aslan, a surprisingly gallic mafiosa), the bell is accompanied by shrieking birds, and the killer’s moral torment is reminiscent of Sydney Chaplin’s downfall in Hughes’ CONFESSION.

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2) A completely unShakespearean character, Big Dutch, an oyster-munching vulgarian played by Harry Green, who has no reason to be in the film really, but frees everyone from the need to do a paint-by-numbers Shakespeare-goes-gangster movie. His grotesque, slobbering scenes are weirdly pointless but hypnotically repellent, focusing on the act of EATING to the exclusion of all else. “What an attractive man,” remarked Fiona, dryly. Accompanied by his food taster and two weird-looking blond girlfriends, Green’s ebullient schtick is almost Lynchian in its unashamed status as gratuitous cameo grotesque. Slurp!

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3) Bonar Colleano’s reaction to the death of his family. This always seems a near-impossible scene to play. How do you act a thing like that? Hughes holds on the speaker’s face for ages, with Colleano’s suffering hidden except as mirrored in the guy’s reactions. Then he does cut to B.C. and holds on him for ages too. And Colleano pulls it off. This guy got plenty of work as a stock American in the U.K. but either got stuck with some Brit screenwriter’s idea of what a yank should be, or played nationality-neutral roles (as in the fine DANCE HALL) where his American accent raised unanswerable questions. A shame.

4) Angus (Walter Crisham). A problematic role in the play. If memory serves, Polanski and Tynan made him a traitor, just to give him something to do. Ken Campbell speculated that the seemingly pointless role was just an opportunity for Shakespeare to do a walk-on (“Cos he always liked to be in ‘is own stuff, like Hitchcock,”). Here he’s the butler at the mansion house which passes from one kingpin to another, and his willingness to serve whomever’s in charge, coupled with his revealing just how often the place changes hands, is a nice warning of how short Macbeth’s reign will be.

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Mac.

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