Archive for Tito Junco

Q is for Que Dios me Perdone!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, returns to these pages with letter Q in his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama. Now read on…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

Q is for ¡Que Dios me perdone! (May God Forgive Me!)

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A film even more operatic than its title, the 1948 ¡Que dios me perdone! stars diva María Félix as a Woman With A Dark Past. We know that immediately from her hat. A rich but none-too-canny business tycoon (Fernando Soler) spots her in a seedy but glamorous Mexico City dive. Her exquisite face is masked entirely by a black hat – one that’s roughly as large as the front wheel on a unicycle. This is classic movie shorthand for a lady with something to hide.

Seconds later, María turns her head and looks up. She fixes her admirer with those melting yet ruthless black-opal eyes. Her name, she reveals, is Lena Kovacs – a refugee from war-torn Europe. Her voice, of course, still sounds as Mexican as ever. Helpfully, she explains that she comes from a long-lost community of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews. Now she is adrift in Mexico, eking out a living as a nightclub singer. The old gent is, to put it politely, toast.

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The director, Tito Davison, is clearly pleased with the staging in this early scene. He repeats it, with varying costumes and props, to signal each and every one of his plot’s never-ending twists and turns. Once María has captured the old man’s heart – with her spirited yet tuneless rendering of the film’s title song – she steals back to her dark flat in one of the city’s ritzier slums. Waiting on a side table, illuminated strategically by a moonbeam, is an ineffably sinister black leather glove.

The hand inside that glove belongs to an evil Nazi spymaster. He orders María to seduce and marry Soler. That way she, as his wife, can steal his company’s top secret invention. Some vital yet unnamed device that may help the Third Reich win the war. Think of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) or Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad (1952) and then absolve them of any responsibility to act or dance. That, in essence, is María’s role in this movie. Or so it seems at first…

She pulls off the first half of her mission swiftly enough. Married to Soler, she acquires an even more fabulous and extravagant wardrobe than the one she enjoyed as a penniless refugee. Yet now she must contend with two other men in her husband’s life. His future son-in-law (Tito Junco) is an oily playboy who boasts of how proud he is to be a war profiteer. His best friend (Juliàn Soler) is a doctor who practices the newfangled art of psychotherapy. Both are promptly smitten with the new bride. They watch her every move obsessively – leaving her scarcely any time in which to spy!

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Just as we’ve decided that even María Félix now has enough problems for one movie, she gets a surprise telephone call from an old friend. A mysterious voice insists that María meet her in a café. All we see – as we cut to the next shot – is a column of cigarette smoke, rising ominously over the back of a chair. Seated in that chair is a sinister and rather mannish older lady (an early model for Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love) who seems to know María, well, intimately. It seems that our gal, in her efforts to survive the war, once practised a profession even less reputable than spying.

A shock revelation (or not) but one that’s soon buried under an avalanche of greater traumas. The old pal brings news of María’s long-lost daughter, whom she left in a concentration camp in Europe. It seems the girl is still alive…and this warm-hearted lady can secure her release, for the modest fee of $50,000. Welcome news, as it allows the star to switch roles in mid-movie! Where she was once a scheming and duplicitous femme fatale, she is now a suffering and sacrificial heroine. Not that this makes any great change to María’s actual performance.

Were this not a Mexican film, you might expect María to go home and explain her new dilemma to her husband. He can’t have thought she was a virgin before they married – and the poor fool is clearly a slave to her every whim. But that, of course, would end the movie long before her fans had got their money’s worth…so instead she hatches a complicated plot to secretly sell a priceless diamond bracelet that Soler gave her as a wedding gift.

This plan (unsurprisingly) goes awry, but not before the lecherous Junco finds out and blackmails her into an affair – as the price of his silence. Their erotic encounter is one of those oddly sadomasochistic moments that were the Félix stock-in-trade. When Junco demands sex from her, she slaps him twice across the face, then spreads her arms in a lurid mock-Crucifixion pose. “Now claim your price!” Just try and imagine Meryl Streep or Katharine Hepburn attempting to act this scene, and you may appreciate María’s own particular brand of genius.

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A few scenes later, Junco has embroiled María in a plot to murder her husband and live together off their ill-gotten gains. (Secret weapons? Missing child? All that was ages ago. Do please try and keep up.) There will, of course, be several more twists before ¡Que Dios me perdone! grinds its way to a tragic and tortuous climax…

Nor is this even the most ludicrous film made by Davison, a Chilean who directed most of Latin America’s great stars. That honour goes to The Big Cube (1969), in which wealthy gringa Lana Turner meets a murderous toyboy (George Chakiris) who doses her up on LSD. But if ¡Que Dios me perdone! were a shade less hysterical, it might well pass as one of Lana’s drug-induced flashbacks.

David Melville

Cine Dorado: K is for Konga Roja

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2012 by dcairns

Regular co-Shadowplayer David Melville presents the eleventh installment of his handy-dandy alphabet of Mexican melodrama — he is to be congratulated on finding a Mexican movie beginning with the letter “K,” a letter which does not even exist in the Spanish alphabet… now read on –

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

K is for Konga roja

It’s a steamy tropical night. A boat chugs its way down river into a seedy jungle port. The whole scene is swathed in darkness and mist. The only light is the beam from a lighthouse – which pulses and illuminates the scene in flashes, like a strobe. Directed by Alejandro Galindo in 1942, Konga roja takes place in a world of dazzling light and deepest shadow. Not sure if this look has a name, but you could call it ‘tropical noir

The boat docks in the seedy town of Puerto Largo. Even though it’s midnight, a chorus of peons are waving their sombreros excitedly from the dock. A swarthy fat man, with a ragged moustache and three days’ growth of stubble, trundles up the gangplank and warns the captain to hoist his anchor and be gone by sunrise. “Strange boats aren’t welcome in Puerto Largo!” The captain looks suitably chastised – but Pedro Armendáriz, our hero, swans off the boat and onto the dock with the sort of élan that only a Mexican film star can muster.

Mexico’s great matinee idol of the Golden Age, Armendáriz is an imposing figure of a man. His white linen suit clings, like a second skin, to his muscular bronze body. His Panama hat casts a shadow, sexily, across his dark moustachioed face. (His is, in truth, the most formidable moustache this side of Freddy Mercury.) He checks into the town’s once hotel, and it’s no surprise that half the town seems to drop into his room while he’s taking a shower. I was wondering that the management didn’t hang a sign outside and sell tickets.

He has a typically heroic role as the loner who brings justice to a corrupt town. An agent for a big North American fruit company, he’s come to investigate shady goings on in the local banana trade. (In a witty reversal of the usual Hollywood cliché, this Latino hero even has a fat, clueless gringo sidekick called Mr Powers.) It seems a gang of nefarious crooks is sabotaging the town’s banana shipments – and will stop at nothing to see Pedro doesn’t find out. “We still use machetes to harvest our bananas,” growls one shady character. “And machetes, as you know, have other uses.”

Not being an expert in the marketing of tropical fruit – and missing, doubtless, some of the finer points in the unsubtitled Spanish dialogue – I can’t quite see the financial incentive for anybody in not selling a boatload of ripe bananas. (Indeed, I half expected Groucho Marx to show up and announce that customers must pay extra for buying the fruit and not eating it!) Still, that’s the cod-Hitcockian MacGuffin on which this action thriller seems to hang.

A kingpin in this nefarious scheme turns out to be Pedro’s long-lost bosom pal (the suave but rather oily Tito Junco) who saved his life years ago in Puerto Rico. We know at once that Tito’s a big man in town. He has a flunky to walk behind him and hold a parasol over his head. He’s also running a tandem with two of the ladies who entertain at the local nightspot, The Seven Seas. (What else would you call a bar that’s God-knows-how-many miles up a river?)

Like any other sleazy movie bar in the middle of nowhere, The Seven Seas boasts a roster of top musical talent. (Ludicrous, yes, but no more so than Rick’s Café American in Casablanca, which was shot in Hollywood the same year.) The big attraction is María Antonieta Pons, a Cuban rumba-dancer who became a huge star in Mexican films of the 40s. She doesn’t so much sing and dance as shout and gyrate enthusiastically, and her acting makes María Félix look like Eleonora Duse. Still, all she has to do is provide a visually attractive love interest, and she does it adequately enough.

Tito lusts after María Antonieta but it’s Pedro who wins her heart. We know this right from their first encounter, when she slaps him hard across the face for not paying attention during her big number. She even makes a number of impassioned speeches that call Pedro’s stalwart heroism into question. (“Women don’t love a man because he’s brave, or love him any less because he’s a coward. We just love. That’s all we know how to do!”) Also on the bill is an Afro-Caribbean chanteuse named Toña la Negra. She genuinely loves the slimy Tito – and what’s more, she can genuinely sing.

The big question of who is doing what to whose bananas seems to work out smoothly enough – but only after Pedro and Tito find themselves on opposite sides of the law! Galindo keeps it all going with his spectacular pre-noir lighting (the cameraman is one Victor Herrera) and some moments of sharp visual wit. When a gun battle breaks out in The Seven Seas, the card-players simply duck under the table and keep on playing. When Pedro and the chief bad guy face off at the end, the whole bar freezes with suspense. The barman, who’s in the middle of pouring a shot of tequila, just lets it overflow and dribble onto the bar.

The final shoot-out, in the street outside the bar, has a shadowed splendour that anticipates Carol Reed and The Third Man. Pedro and the villain stalk each other in pitch darkness and deathly silence – illuminated only, at key moments, by that all-important lighthouse. (It also shines, conveniently enough, just outside María Antonieta’s window, adding some much-needed mood and atmosphere to the love scenes.) Justice being duly done, we can go home, knowing our bananas will be on sale at their usual price.

Things did not end quite so smoothly, alas, for Pedro Armendáriz. His career began with a string of heroic roles for Mexico’s most illustrious director, Emilio Fernández (María Candelaria, Enamorada, Río Escondido). Later, he made forays to Hollywood to work for John Ford (Fort Apache, Three Godfathers) and to Europe to star in costume romances with Martine Carol (Lucrezia Borgia) and Lana Turner (Diane).

In 1963, just before playing the Turkish Chief of Police in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, Armendáriz was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Once his work was finished, he asked director Terence Young if any retakes would be needed. When the answer was ‘no’ he flew home to Los Angeles and shot himself in the head.

His death left the Mexican cinema without a hero. No actor in the last 50 years has been up to the job.

David Melville

E is for Estrella Vacia

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2011 by dcairns

CINE DORADO

Another installment of our alphabet of unruly passions down Mexico way, brought to you by regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville.

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

E is for La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) 

You get a lot by giving nothing. I have to give everything to get anything at all.

- Rita Macedo to María Félix

It’s no secret that Mexican cinema stole many of its best ideas from Hollywood or European models. A lavish 1958 production in colour and Mexiscope, La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) is superficially a rip-off of The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952) and The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954), two gloriously lurid exposés of the dark side of Tinseltown. Its writer/director, Emilio Gómez Muriel, plunges us into the same piranha pool of glamorous egomaniac monsters – all ready to devour each other at a moment’s notice, if that’s what it takes to get ahead. He also borrows the complex multi-flashback structure, where a big star is remembered by everyone they used and abused on the way to the top.

Stars, of course, don’t come any bigger than María Félix – who here triumphs over her limited acting skills by essentially playing herself. Cast as a ferociously ambitious actress named Olga Lang, she seduces and discards a series of hapless men, only to wind up as a wretchedly unhappy prisoner in her own luxurious cage. Her dark beauty was never more bewitching than it is here. Her huge basilisk eyes glow, with an almost orgasmic thrill, when an obscenely rich sugar-daddy gifts her with a hideous pink Cadillac (approximately three city blocks long) or a camp fashion stylist wraps her up in a ludicrously opulent chinchilla coat.

As we can guess from María’s flamboyant performance, the term ‘too much’ is not part of this lady’s vocabulary. Just in case we miss the real-life connection, the soundtrack includes snatches of ‘María Bonita’ – a hit song composed by Agustín Lara (one of Maria’s many off-screen husbands) in honour of the star herself. This intense degree of self-revelation is what makes La estrella vacía so wildly compelling. It’s been rumoured that Rita Hayworth refused to play The Barefoot Contessa because it was modelled too closely on her own life, and that Gina Lollobrigida turned down The Lady without Camellias (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953) for similar reasons.* María Félix clearly had no such qualms.

Not that the story is entirely true to life. The first flashback introduces María as a young wannabe from the sticks, newly arrived in Mexico City and hustling after her first job. The girl we see on screen looks a well-preserved 45 (María was born in 1914) and already boasts a fabulous wardrobe by Balenciaga and Jean Patou. Falling in love with a writer (Ignacio López Tarso) she gets pregnant but aborts his baby (two things Hollywood would not have allowed) and soon dumps him for a slick wheeler-dealer played by Tito Junco. Her new man catapults her to fame by a simple but effective trick. When a famous matador is fatally gored in the bullring, Maria pretends she was his fiancée and poses tearfully at his deathbed for a swarm of paparazzi.

There are, of course, whispered intimations of the casting couch. (As Maria’s alcoholic flatmate warns her: “Contracts don’t just get signed in offices!”) Still, the script asks us to believe that María never sleeps with Junco. She just graciously allows him to set her up in a lavish penthouse and star her in a string of prize-winning but money-losing motion pictures. (To be fair, many a Hollywood star’s memoir tells us much the same thing.) There are no such alibis when she hooks up with Mexico’s wealthiest tycoon. (“He owns the building you live in, the studio you work in, perhaps even the water you drink!”) He fires Junco, to whom María pledges her undying love and loyalty. She then promptly picks up the telephone and calls the tycoon.

María soon embezzles enough money to be comfortably set-up when said tycoon drops dead of a heart attack. She blows most of it, alas, on a new husband – a composer who takes a job with her company, and then uses it to screw all the available starlets. When María dares to complain, he beats her up and breaks her nose. It’s her gay stylist who helps her back from the brink, never mind that his loyalty strikes her as some sort of character defect. (“You know you don’t have anyone. That’s why you value friendship, because you have nothing else!”) He gets his due only after she dies in a plane crash. Moping around her mock-Beverly Hills mansion, one of the other men admits: “You are the only one who loved her without interest!”

Our own interest in La estrella vacía will hinge on an appetite for showbiz sleaze and gossip, and also a fascination with María Félix. That lady’s 30-year-reign as Queen of Mexican Cinema embodied a sort of Platonic Ideal of Motion Picture Stardom, one that was wholly divorced from minor technicalities like acting or talent. Unlike the heroines of The Barefoot Contessa or The Lady without Camellias, the tragic diva in La estrella vacía is not the hapless victim of a cruel and male-dominated industry. Whether we call her María Félix or Olga Lang, she is – gloriously and without apology – at once her own creator and her own myth. This woman has no need of a mere man to destroy her. Proudly, she is nobody’s victim but her own. 

David Melville

*Reri, star of Murnau’s TABU, sued the producers of BAREFOOT CONTESSA claiming the film’s plotline was plagiarized from her own life story. 

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