David Melville returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. The title this time may be familiar, but the film perhaps is not…
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
V is for Vértigo
What happens in life is what has to happen. Each must follow his own destiny.
No, in case you were wondering, this is not a Mexican version of the 1958 Hitchcock classic. (Interestingly, a 1956 Argentine film called Más allá del olvido/Beyond Oblivion is said to be a near blueprint.) Vértigo, shot in 1945, is a literary costume drama by the Spanish exile Antonio Momplet – who, on the basis of this film alone, could lay claim to being Latin America’s answer to William Wyler. Like such Wyler films as Jezebel (1938), The Little Foxes (1941) or The Heiress (1949), this is a tale of high-octane suffering in exquisite (if claustrophobic) period settings. Its dazzling use of decor and deep focus reveals, rather than hides, the depths of human depravity on show.
Its star is María Félix in one of her subtlest and most sympathetic roles. Cast for a change as a more-or-less normal woman and not a tempestuous, man-eating virago. Of course, in any film that involves María, ‘normal’ is strictly a relative term. Her character Mercedes is a pious and eminently respectable widow, owner of a small hacienda in the depths of rural Mexico, sometime in the late 19th century. For the first 15 minutes or so, Maria goes to the amazing lengths of looking plain – wearing dull, dowdy gowns, next to no makeup and (ay, caramba!) glasses. Before too many scenes elapse, her whiny daughter (Lilia Michel) comes home from five years at school in the big city. Thoughtfully, she brings her mamá a full Parisian wardrobe in the back of her small wagon.
If only that were all she brought…Vértigo would be a very dull film indeed. The girl also brings her fiancé (Emilio Tuero) a sexy rotter who’s closer in age to her mother. When the lovebirds arrive at the hacienda, Michel steals up behind Félix and puts her hands over her mother’s eyes as a ‘surprise’. The first thing mother sees, as the hands slip away, is Tuero’s face. Moustachioed and rapier-thin, like a sort of latino Basil Rathbone. Felix – who, remember, has spent all of 15 minutes trying to look dowdy and repressed – is fired instantly with a fatal passion. Tuero feels the same and the stage is soon set for a deadly love triangle. One of those where nothing, not even murder, will keep the guilty lovers apart.
As always in a Mexican film of this era, the Hollywood parallels are clear yet confusing. Vértigo looks like a Wyler movie and is based on a ‘classic’ literary source. (The story is by Pierre Benoît, a French author best known for the oft-filmed L’Atlantide.) Yet its plot might have been purloined from Hollywood’s hottest property of the 40s, the pulp novelist James M Cain. The rivalry of mother and daughter for a sexy but disreputable man is straight out of Mildred Pierce (1945), which won Joan Crawford an Oscar that same year. The man’s opportunistic killing of the daughter – the axis on which the plot turns – is in the Cain tradition of criminal lovers, from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). One might best describe Vértigo as a ‘costume noir’.
Death, of course, comes later on in the story. Before that, we have to witness María’s grand entrance at the party she throws to welcome her daughter back home. The festivities are in full swing when, suddenly, the mariachi band stops in mid-note and the guests rise, in a body, to their feet (like the obedient and well-trained extras that they are). Félix enters slowly in a clinging white silk gown, garlanded with swirls of silk roses. That unconvincing grey streak has been washed (mercifully) out of her hair; a choker of pearls gleams and dazzles at her throat. The guests gape in awe (mirroring the audience) and the local priest asks in hushed reverence: “Is that you? Or has a star come down to earth?”
It is not simply that María Félix is one of a very few stars who can live up to dialogue like this. What’s astonishing here is the way Félix – who was nothing if not a clothes-horse – walks in this gown as if she were ill at ease and unaccustomed to such finery. Sniping at María’s limitations as an actress is a favourite game among critics – yet María Félix tells us more with a gown, and the way she wears it, than Meryl Streep can with any of her dozen foreign accents. Once the party is over and she has retired to bed, she gazes out through fluttering white curtains at the silent moonlit courtyard. There she sees her daughter and her fiancé locked in an embrace. Here, her vast dark liquid eyes tell us all we need to know.
For years (so the script tells us) this woman has been “living without life and crying without tears”. A few weeks pass and her soon-to-be son-in-law seduces her as she reads by a stream. (Momplet cuts to a cascading waterfall, as a stand-in for the carnal act.) In the next scene, her gown has altered from the pale virginal lace of her early outfits, to a tightly voluptuous black bodice and a skirt with lurid zebra stripes. She wears it, this time, like a full-on femme fatale. Tuero urges her to forget her daughter and run away with him, but Félix – remembering her duties as a mother – tells him he must marry the girl as planned, go abroad and never see her (Félix) again. She cannot suspect, of course, that the man she loves might stoop to murder.
Not so much murder, perhaps, as ‘deliberate accidental death’. The night before the wedding, it starts to rain heavily – a series of exquisite random shots that evoke the Joris Ivens ‘film poem’ Regen/Rain (1929). Just in case we miss the point, daughter sits down at the piano and strums out Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. The water rises menacingly, under a rickety bridge that we know is about to collapse. (We know because minor characters have been telling us, every five minutes or so, since the film began.) The villainous Tuero feigns illness and does not protest too loudly when his adoring bride-to-be insists on riding in her horse-drawn buggy, across the bridge, to fetch the doctor. Cue a bravura montage of Félix looking worried, Tuero looking anguished and the hapless but frankly irritating young girl hurtling to her doom.
In the next scene, the girl is sprawled Ophelia-like, surrounded with flowers, at her funeral in the family chapel. Félix, who is still unaware of her lover’s role in the death, does not understand why the other mourners avoid her. Tuero flees after a wholly unconvincing attack of guilt but…‘it ain’t over till it’s over’ as the song goes, and nothing in a María Félix movie is ever over until the star says so. These lovers are doomed to meet again and let’s just say it won’t be pretty. Love, as we know, is a fleeting and unreliable emotion. Revenge is a passion that lasts for life.