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) —
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.
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.