Here’s a LAURA limerick I forgot to mention last week. And here’s a treat — the first Cine Dorado of 2013, brought to you as ever by David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, and illuminating the darkest shadows of the golden age of Mexican melodrama ~
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
N is (almost) for En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand)
OK, I’m totally cheating here. Firstly, because I don’t have a Mexican melodrama that begins with ‘N’. Secondly, because this one is just too good to miss out. Perhaps the greatest film of Roberto Gavaldón – Mexico’s master of sophisticated urban noir – En la palma de tu mano is a 1951 tale of murder, seduction and double-dealing that easily stands comparison with Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is, in fact, a blacker and more misanthropic film than either of those. Its moral universe is etched in contrasting shades of evil; its lead couple are charismatic psychopaths who fall in love, partly out of naked self-interest and partly (who knows?) because both of them find normal people simply too dull.
Its anti-hero is a fake clairvoyant, one ‘Doctor’ Karin – played by Arturo de Córdova, the leading Mexican actor of the Golden Age. (His signature role, as Luis Buñuel’s El, was still two years in the future, but his performance here rivals – and perhaps surpasses – his work in the later film.) His clientele is drawn largely from the wealthy, bored ladies of Mexico City; the script hints that his services may be as much fleshly as paranormal. Unbeknownst to these ladies, Karin has a pretty blonde wife (Carmen Montejo) who works as a beautician in the high-class salon they all frequent. There she picks up the titbits of gossip that are the basis for her hubby’s ‘psychic’ gifts.
One day, she hears of an elderly millionaire who has died under mysterious circumstances. Having attended on his glamorous and much younger wife (Leticia Palma) she suspects – and quite rightly – a case of foul play. Karin moves in on the widow, intent on blackmail, but gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. She is, to put it plainly, a woman even more irresistibly depraved than he is. The clash of these two exquisitely groomed monsters erupts in a full-blown amour fou – one that proves fatal to them and most, if not all, of the supporting cast.
Of course, bogus psychics and demon shrinks were standard fare in Hollywood noirs at this time. (Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley, Turhan Bey in The Amazing Mr X and José Ferrer in Whirlpool are the most memorable.) But this film takes the stereotype to new depths of mellifluous evil – then chips away at the surface, revealing the tortured, almost tragic soul underneath. In an opening that anticipates Hitchcock’s Family Plot (yes, this is a thriller Hitch might envy) we see a close-up of a crystal ball filled with swirls of mist. Staring at us out of the fog are de Córdova’s bright, hypnotic eyes. “If something happens in my imagination,” he insists later on, “it’s as if it happened in life.” His is the essential psychosis of movies themselves.
Weakening most of the Hollywood films on the ‘psychic fraud’ theme is the tedious passivity of the female victims. (Whirlpool is a film where Gene Tierney, one of the great stars of the 40s, winds up as a virtual extra in her own movie.) The eerily beautiful Leticia Palma was never one of Mexico’s leading divas, but she matches de Córdova scheme for scheme and threat for threat. She is, perhaps, the most dangerous and alluring black widow in movies – her mourning gowns clinging, voluptuously, to the curves of her flesh. She even smokes a cigarette, elegantly, through the mesh of her black lace veil. Think of Jean Simmons in Angel Face and you may get some idea, although she also bears a resemblance to the young Queen Elizabeth II!
Visually, the film is as lush as you might expect from Gavaldón. While his rural rival, Emilio Fernández, built on a Spartan aesthetic of tree shadows and cacti posing against clouds, Gavaldón revelled in all the delirious décor he could muster up – quite a lot, in a country where refugee Surrealists from Europe were broke and desperate for work in films. Karin’s lair – with its faux-Egyptian pillars, vaulted astronomical ceiling and marble zodiac floor (inlaid with an unending circle of letters that spells ‘ABRACADABRA’) – is a hide-out worthy of a minor James Bond villain. The widow resides in a modest Art Deco palace, a fantasy of Grecian sculpture and swooping white stairs.
And surely no director – no, not even the mighty Douglas Sirk – has ever used a mirror as expressively as Gavaldón does here. When the deadly lovers first meet face to face, Karin pulls out a small Czech revolver (‘very popular with the Nazis’) and invites her to shoot him with it. She points and aims at him, a tortuous game of erotic double bluff, and then – to our momentary shock – pulls the trigger. Shattering, not her seducer, but his image as reflected in a full-length mirror. This one moment equals the entire over-hyped climax of The Lady from Shanghai. The lovers and the twisted passion that unites them seem so vividly alive, even their reflections are more real.
Finally, I hope some readers will agree that no film is complete without at least one billowing white curtain. ‘White curtain movies’ from The Leopard to The Hunger to La Belle et la Bête form an essential part of my personal dream landscape, and any film maker who can’t billow a curtain…well, there’s something seriously wrong. Suffice it to say that En la palma de tu mano boasts the single most gorgeous ‘white curtain moment’ I have seen in any film. I could say what it is. But no, sorry, you’ll just have to watch this one yourself.