Archive for David Melville

Cine Dorado: Woman Devil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by dcairns

After too long an absence, David Melville Wingrove returns with his alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodramas, which has reached the Big W…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

W is for Woman Devil (Doña Diabla)

Perhaps I should point out that the letter ‘w’ does not really exist in Spanish, apart from the spelling of foreign names. Still, I can’t miss an excuse to write about Doña Diabla (1950), a film that won María Félix an Ariel for Best Actress – as a woman so spectacularly wicked that lightning flashes and thunder rolls virtually every time she appears on screen. Not that she’s ever off it for long. Doña Diabla is her vehicle from start to finish and she never once lets us forget it. Yet with all those booms and bangs and blinding flashes of light, we may start to feel that we’re watching some Gothic Expressionist monster movie – which, in a very real sense, we are.

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The opening credits roll over a montage of María in a series of fabulous gowns. Distracting but only fair, perhaps, as her wardrobe (by the legendary Armando Valdéz Peza) does at least as much acting as she does. The director, Tito Davison, clothes her in virginal, all-white ensembles as an innocent young bride, just waiting to be corrupted. When her no-good husband pimps her to his sleazy boss, she wears a white skirt tainted with dark polka-dots and – just in case we miss the point – a slave bracelet clasped tightly round her neck. Once she’s become a deluxe hooker – as well as a gambler, drug trafficker, blackmailer and fashion tycoon – she favours stylish all-black outfits, apart from the clusters of diamonds at her wrists and a very fetching white streak in her jet-black hair.

The film proper starts with a passionate argument between two shadows. Doña Diabla and her daughter (Crox Alvarado) are fighting furiously over a man. “I’ll see you dead before I see you in his arms,” shouts María in the very best movie manner. Her shadow pulls out a pistol and fires it. Her daughter’s shadow (which is nowhere near as elegant) crumples over and falls as if dead. María runs out into the night, clad in a spectacular full-length mink coat, pearl necklace and mile-high Joan Crawford style fuck-me shoes – the better to be inconspicuous and evade detection. Hotly pursued by police sirens, she flees to a church and confesses the story (in flashbacks) to a priest.

It’s all a clear attempt to emulate Crawford’s Oscar-winning triumph in Mildred Pierce (1945) – also a torrid tale of mothers and daughters, firearms and flashbacks. But dare I say that Doña Diabla makes the barnstorming melodramatics of Mildred Pierce look rather pallid and restrained? This whole movie takes place in a fever of near-operatic excess. When María, a young bride, first comes to the big wicked city, her husband takes her to a nightclub where a man in black silk pyjamas and a girl in a spangled bikini do an act that’s midway between a dance and a live sex show. A platoon of lecherous old men line up to dance with her. The husband’s boss remarks, ominously: “A woman who is too beautiful cannot belong to just one man.”

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A few scenes later, she’s at a party in Acapulco, staring out at a moonlit sea – and trying to fend off the advances of said boss. A gypsy singer serenades the guests a flamenco number, and then starts reading their futures in their palms. Once she comes to María, the gypsy can read no more. “I see the face of the Devil himself!” María wastes no time in proving her right. Horrified that her husband expects her to sleep her way to the top on his behalf, she agrees to become the boss’s mistress – provided he will ruin her husband for good. This he does, obligingly, with just one telephone call. She takes a year out to give birth to her daughter, and then comes back and makes good on her bargain.

Years pass and her daughter grows into a simpering, cosseted ingénue – raised in a convent to spare her all knowledge of her mother’s life. When María drops in for her annual visit, the girls are in the garden singing Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ in chorus. (Is that what passed for an education in the old days?) “Oh, mother,” enthuses the adoring child. “My great ambition is to be exactly like you!” María’s face clouds over and looks, momentarily, perturbed. Back in the city that night, we get a telling close-up of her hands at the roulette table, sparkling with diamonds and raking in a king’s ransom in chips. Her husband’s old boss (and her one-time sugar daddy) turns up and looks forlorn. He has ruined himself for Doña Diabla, as countless men have done since. She buys him a cigarette and splashes him with her car as she drives off.

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By the time she meets a man who’s a match for her, the film is half-way over. Victor Junco plays a sexy lounge lizard who runs dope and deals in smuggled objets d’art. It is, of course, the most passionate love-hate at first sight. Doña Diabla opens a ritzy high fashion house as a front for his illicit activities. Judging from their lavish catwalk show, we may add crimes against haute couture to out heroine’s ever-growing list of misdeeds. She is, however, desperate to turn respectable…in time for that fateful day when her daughter comes out of the convent. (Wouldn’t it be easier to just persuade the girl to be a nun?) Alas, the daughter runs away from the convent and flees to Mexico City before mother has quite turned over her new leaf.

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María announces to her lover that they must part. She is taking her daughter away, on an extended trip to Europe. Junco takes this rather badly – and shows up at the villa, the night before they leave, with a full mariachi band and a rogue’s gallery of people involved in Doña Diabla’s past scandals. One of them obligingly commits suicide in the guest bedroom. By the time María has been released from police questioning (have they never noticed her shenanigans before?) Junco has seduced the daughter and the two look set to run away together…I won’t give away the ending, but it involves an ‘action replay’ of the opening scene, with actors this time and not shadows. Let’s just say there is a twist, if not one that is wholly unexpected.

Doña Diabla opens and closes with an impassioned quotation by Sister Juana de la Cruz, the 17th century Mexican author and mystic. “You foolish men, who accuse women without grounds, do you not see that you are the cause of all you condemn?” That is, fortunately, the closest this movie ever comes to art. Doña Diabla triumphs (like a book by Sidney Sheldon) not by scaling any heights of artistic ambition, but through the sheer consummate perfection of its melodramatic excess. It glorifies María Félix in a way that technically better movies may not, because its strident emotionalism is perfectly calibrated to her uniquely florid style of performance. Cynics may claim that trash of this sort was the best that María Félix could do – but nobody else could ever do it with such flair.

David Melville

“I Adore Arabs – I Mean the REAL Ones!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville, taking a break from Cine Dorado, his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama, casts an eye over the final film of Ireland’s greatest auteur, Rex Ingram.

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Rex Ingram and Baroud

Shot on location in Morocco in 1931, Baroud (1933) was the last film (and the only talkie) of legendary silent director Rex Ingram. Perhaps the defining Hollywood maestro of the 20s – with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and Mare Nostrum (1925) – Ingram was as vital and influential a figure as D W Griffith had been a decade before. Yet by the dawn of the 30s, Ingram – much like Griffith – was seen as an unemployed and unemployable has-been. An obsolete (and silent) dinosaur in the brave new world of sound.

It’s easy to blame his downfall on this rapid and sudden shift in the technology of movies. Ingram, after all, was a supremely visual artist in a medium given over – in the early 30s – to wisecracks, musical numbers and chat. Easy but, perhaps, untrue. The careers of both Ingram and Griffith went into free-fall some years before Al Jolson sang in The Jazz Singer (1927). In the case of Griffith, the problem is all too clear. His brand of neo-Victorian melodrama looked quaint and out-of-date in the Jazz Age; his heavy drinking only exacerbated his woes.

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For Ingram, whose style and sensibility were far more modern, the case is more complex. Born in Dublin in 1893, he studied sculpture at the Yale School of Fine Arts and entered movies during World War I. After his run of triumphs in the early 20s, he fell out with MGM over NOT being allowed to direct the 1926 super-production of Ben Hur. Taking off in high dudgeon to the French Riviera, he built his own film studios (Victorine, in Nice) and indulged in what was euphemistically called ‘independent production’. The films he made there – The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927) – were not successful enough to sustain him. A later film made in Britain, The Three Passions (1929), was an ignominious flop.

So it was clear by the 30s that Rex Ingram would never be a ‘company man’. More damaging, perhaps, was the gossip around his personal life. Although he was married to the dazzling blonde Alice Terry – the leading lady in virtually all his films – the couple lived in different homes for most of their marriage. Ingram’s true passion, it was said, was a string of dark, exotic and sculpturally handsome young actors who played his male leads. Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Ivan Petrovich were all ‘discovered’ by Ingram – and the Hollywood casting couch has never been just for young ladies. Tongues wagged that Ingram was “peculiar” with a weakness for “gentlemen of a sepia tint”.

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Pierre Batcheff, the dashing White Russian who stars in Baroud (his career ranged from Siren of the Tropics (1927) with Josephine Baker to Un Chien Andalou (1928) for Dalí and Buñuel) looks like an Ingram leading man in the classic mould. He even plays the Valentino-esque role of a lusty desert tribesman. (‘Baroud’, as the opening titles so helpfully tell us, is a North African word for a tribal war.) In one of the few amusing moments, an English lady traveller who wants to “engage” him crows with joy when she finds out he’s “a real sheikh” – not just some guide who’s been dolled up to lure horny tourists.

If Ingram had only allowed Batcheff to be the centre of the film, Baroud might at least make enjoyable eye candy. The script, alas places him on one side of a triangle involving his sister (Rosita Garcia) and his French comrade-in-arms, who’s played ill-advisedly by Ingram himself. (Was this, perhaps, a bid to save money?) It was often said, in his heyday, that Ingram was handsome enough to play the lead in his own films. What his admirers neglected to say was that he lacked the ability to act. In fact, the acting in Baroud is universally atrocious; only Batcheff gives something you might call a performance. So the love triangle – for all its incestuous and homoerotic overtones – can’t help but fall resoundingly flat.

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The more interesting scenes hint, nonetheless, at an ‘abnormal’ closeness between the two male leads. The first is a sleazy nightclub sequence – an Ingram staple since Valentino’s iconic tango in The Four Horsemen. Here, Ingram catches the eye of a platinum blonde chanteuse but passes her on smoothly to Batcheff. Their wink of lustful complicity suggests the two boys could have just as much fun without her. At a table nearby, a turbaned spahi puffs on a cigar and blows the smoke out through his ears; the singer repels an unwanted suitor by stubbing her cigarette out in his beer. So glamorously fetid is the ambience that one half expects Marlene Dietrich to stride in wearing a tuxedo. (Ingram’s co-writer, incidentally, was Benno Vigny – who also wrote Amy Jolly, the novel on which Morocco (1930) was based.)

A few scenes later, Batcheff has reason to suspect his sister has ‘dishonored’ herself with his infidel friend. A confrontation takes place at the barracks, in a cosy room shared by the two men. Batcheff pulls out an impressively phallic dagger and fondles it, menacingly, at crotch level. Ingram eyes him with some curiosity – until Batcheff flicks the blade out and lets him admire it. Tossing his weapon on the bed, he watches as Ingram picks it up and plays with it in turn. The camera fades on a loving close-up of the curved, gleaming knife. Perhaps the most flamboyantly queer sequence in Ingram’s output, the scene leaves little doubt that one man is ‘sticking’ something to his closest pal.

Too bad if such scene-specific readings make Baroud sound more interesting (or, at any rate, more fun) than it really is. Much of the film is taken up by interminable location footage, in which pro-French spahis and rebel tribesmen march from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. In Ingram’s earlier films, his studio-built recreations of Buenos Aires and Ruritania and Revolutionary France compel us with their dazzling detail. The Satanic orgy in The Magician makes even Hell look like a real place. But the dusty location shots in Baroud turn real-life Morocco into a succession of bad sets. Ingram, like most great film-makers, was an illusionist and not a realist. Did he realise this, perhaps, when it was already too late?

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So Baroud is a catastrophically bad film, but one that only a gifted artist could have made. It shows us Ingram poised – with excruciating awkwardness – between melodrama and realism, exoticism and reportage, homosexual and heterosexual love. A cinematic ‘dead zone’ from which no film-maker (except for Pasolini, perhaps) could ever have escaped. Returning to Hollywood, where he died in 1950, Ingram worked on as a painter, sculptor and novelist – but never again in films. Baroud has scarcely been seen, either in the 30s or since, but is well worth seeking out. As long as you don’t expect to enjoy it.

David Melville

December 2013

The Late Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

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I created this second banner because Fiona said the dead Santa one was “horrible.”

Welcome to the blogathon! I’m going to sellotape this post to the top of Shadowplay using science, so it will be the first thing you see this week. But the new posts will be immediately beneath it, so keep scrolling.

If participating in the blogathon, this is the post to link to. You can add a comment below to let me know about the post, if you don’t have my email.

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SUNDAY

And we have a first entry — David Ehrenstein applies his wits to F FOR FAKE, one of Orson Welles’ last movies as director, and another that is sometimes cited as his greatest film. Here.

My own first piece deals with a truly hard-to-see, unconsidered final film, from the wonderful Frank Borzage. Here.

Christine Leteux was our researcher on NATAN, is Kevin Brownlow’s translator, and in her own right she’s the author of the first book on Albert Capellani and the splendid French-language film blog Ann Harding’s Treasures. She’s traveling at present, researching her next book, but gave me permission to link to a relevant piece from AHT — TUMBLEWEEDS was William S. Hart’s last directorial gig and feature starring role. Ici.

Eddie Selover casts a not-unsympathetic eye over two swan songs from 1930s divas, Marlene Dietrich’s JUST A GIGOLO and Mae West’s jaw-dropping SEXTETTE. Here.

Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films looks at a film I only just realized exists, the 1934 version of THE SCARLET LETTER, which was Colleen Moore’s last feature. Here.

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MONDAY

Every Shadowplay blogathon must contain an intertitle. Here.

Over at Mostly Film, Paul Duane raises the tone with an entry on EMMANUELLE V, tragically Walerian Borowczyk’s last gig, but finds some bizarre merit. Here.

Tim Hayes looks at SPAWN not as a naff superhero flick but as a late Nicol Williamson film and gets fascinating results. Here.

We have a scintillating line-up of guest Shadowplayers this year, and the first among them is Judy Dean, who looks at James Mason’s last screen appearance in THE SHOOTING PARTY. Here.

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TUESDAY

Imogen Smith, a regular star writer at The Chiseler, revisits Anthony Mann’s last western, which is also a late Gary Cooper, and elegiac as hell. Here.

Regular Shadowplayer Simon Kane waxes mysterious about Tom Schiller’s first, last and only theatrical feature, aptly titled NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, also the cinematic swan song of Sam (“Professor Knickerbocker”) Jaffe. Here.

My own Tuesday piece takes a brief look at Peckinpah’s THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, both version. And there’s a song! Here.

Gareth McFeely looks at the final feature of the late Georges Lautner, in a particularly timely tribute. Here.

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WEDNESDAY

Filmmaker Matthew Wilder looks at Billy Wilder’s unloved BUDDY BUDDY and, uniquely, finds something to admire. Here.

From Scout Tafoya, a typically ruminative and emotive valediction to Raul Ruiz. Here.

My post deals with a late Richard Lester, the largely ignored/forgotten FINDERS KEEPERS, which actually has some great slapstick. Here.

Louis Wolheim’s last movie, the 193o railroad melodrama DANGER LIGHTS, is examined by The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Here.

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THURSDAY

Nobody Knows Anybody, the Spanish cine-blog, considers the career of Alfredo Landa in the light of his final work. Yonder.

As part of the ’68 Comeback Special, I consider a late film by Albert Finney, made early in his career. Confused? Now you know how CHARLIE BUBBLES feels. Here.

Critica Retro assesses the charms of Louise Brooks’ oddball last picture. In Portuguese — try auto-translate, or try reading Portuguese! Aquí.

Two from Jeremy Rizzo, on Howard Hawks last, RIO LOBO, and Kubrick’s semi-posthumous puzzle box, EYES WIDE SHUT. Here and here.

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FRIDAY

Michael Pattison on what MAY be Tsai Ming-Liang’s final movie. Here.

A tip of the hat to THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE at No Man’s Land. Here.

Our own David Melville Wingrove illuminates the trailing end of Rex Ingram’s mighty career. Down here.

John Greco tackles the knotty problem of William Wyler’s last work, a film I love unreasonably. Here.

Stacia at She Blogged By Night weighs in on HER TWELVE MEN and Douglas Shearer, brother of the more celebrated Norma. Here.

And Tony Dayoub offers a close reading of three scenes in GIANT, the last film of James Dean. Here!

Daniel Riccuito, editor of The Chiseler, considers Jean Epstein’s last short, LIGHTS THAT NEVER FAIL aka LES FEUX DE LA MER. Here.

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SATURDAY

Dennis Cozzalio of the legendary Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule joins the blogathon for the first time with a joint look at the final films of two old masters: Altman and Penn. Here!

Seijun Suzuki’s wild, pop-art penultimate pic inspires this Shadowplay gallery. Here.

Guest Shadowplayer Ted Haycraft reflects on one of the biggest, boldest and bloodiest final films, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Here.

Grand Old Movies tips the hat to Marie Dressler. Here.

Late Bresson via Philip Tatler IV at Diary of a Country Pickpocket. Here.

The Girl with the White Parasol covers Frank Borzage’s second-last film, CHINA DOLL. Here.

EXTRA TIME

Unable to recognize too much of a good thing, I keep going with John Frankenheimer’s last theatrical release, REINDEER GAMES. Here.

Chandler Swain revisits Losey’s STEAMING. Here.

Scout Tafoya’s second blogathon post details the last film to end them all, PP Pasolini’s positively final SALO. Here.

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