Archive for Arturo de Cordova

R is for El Rebozo de Soledad

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville returns with another installment of his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama —

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 CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

R is for El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl)

I’ve never been a fan of movies that set out to uplift us morally. Art succeeds, not in making us better or worse people, but in revealing to us more intensely who we are. So El rebozo de Soledad (1952) is a film to approach with caution…

Dealing with the travails of an idealistic doctor (Arturo de Córdova) in a remote and impoverished village, it marked a change of pace for its director, Roberto Gavaldón. Best known for his dark-tinged portraits of flamboyant urban depravity (The Other One, The Kneeling Goddess, In the Palm of Your Hand) Gavaldón plunges us here into an Edenic rural landscape populated by stoical and virtuous peasants. Churches are floodlit, a la Caravaggio, with shafts of celestial light; ranks of angelic choirboys sing the Hallelujah Chorus on cue. There is, of course, trouble in this paradise. (There would, otherwise, be no film.) The good doctor, in theory at least, is a lot less saintly than the bucolic types that surround him. “I’m a sinner and happy to be one,” he boasts to the local priest (Domingo Soler). Yet his main sin – on the surface, a dramatically unpromising one – is his longing to escape from this hick town and land a job at a big research institute in Mexico City.

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Early on in the film, his wish comes true. The priest drives him, by donkey-trap, to the nearest train station. Stationed conveniently on a bench outside are a poverty-stricken mother and her baby – who faces imminent death from respiratory failure. Some rapid cutting ensues. Firstly, from the doctor, who pulls out his medical kit and performs an emergency tracheotomy out there under the blazing sun. Secondly, from Gavaldón, whose camera darts back and forth from close-ups of the operation, to the mother’s anguished face, to the train chugging slowly away into the distance. The doctor, of course, is not on board. He has realised – through the overwhelming power of montage – that his destiny lies here, in the village.

This potentially maudlin scene is staged and edited with a high-precision intensity worthy of a Hitchcock set piece. Stylistically, Gavaldón lifts his material above schmaltz. Emotionally, he plunges us headlong into chasms of cheap sentimentality and leaves us no visible sign of a way out. Manipulation, of course, of the lowest (or the highest) order. But perhaps that is what melodrama means?

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The doctor’s reward comes in human form. Soledad – a misty-eyed peasant Madonna, her angelic face wrapped in a tattered shawl – who seeks his help when the local witch doctor tries to amputate her brother’s broken arm. Unable to pay for treatment, she moves in with the doctor instead, becoming his housekeeper and (strictly platonic) companion. She is played, not by one of Mexico’s established divas (her role is too small, and her wardrobe is far too limited) but by a lesser-known actress, Stella Inda. Normally cast in small roles as exotic vamps (Amok) or overdressed floozies (Bugambilia) Inda won the Ariel as Best Actress for this part. In fact, she does little but look soulful and gaze admiringly at the doctor – but such restraint (in the context of Mexican movies) was refreshing at the time.

Soledad, of course, is madly in love with the doctor. (The dashing Arturo de Córdova was Mexico’s biggest male star; he even had an abortive Hollywood career, as a love interest for Dorothy Lamour and Joan Fontaine.) He, alas, is fixated solely on his work – not to mention terminally, frustratingly obtuse – so does not realise that he loves her until it is too late. Rejected by her true love, Soledad falls prey instead to a sexy hell-raiser (Pedro Armendáriz) who rides a tap-dancing horse (no, I’m not making that up) and fixes her with his hot and lustful gaze. He pursues her for most of the movie and even offers to buy her a new shawl. Soledad is shocked by the suggestion. “A shawl, a woman and the land,” she says – enumerating the movie’s three main symbols. “All these deserve a man’s respect.”

Realising that more subtle methods are fruitless, Armendáriz rides hell for leather over the brow of a hill and disrupts a village fiesta. He hunts Soledad on horseback across the open fields – ravishing her, at last, underneath a convenient bridge. She becomes pregnant, as wronged virgins in Mexican films invariably must. But in a rare moment of female emancipation, she disdains to reveal the father of her child. “If the soil is good, what does it matter who sows it?” (Yes, most of the dialogue is like this.) Of course, suspicious tongues start to wag…and the good doctor, inevitably, gets the blame. There are several more crises to go, before the inspirational finale.

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Watching El rebozo de Soledad, one is struck by an awkward truth that Mexican films of the Golden Age often gloss over. Even though it boasted one of the world’s largest and most glamorous film industries, most of Mexico was still a Third World country. The urban sophisticates who populate most of Gavaldón’s films, divinely decadent as they may be, were in no way representative of the population at large. (The noble revolutionary peasants of an Emilio Fernández film were, if anything, even less so.) The reality of life for most Mexicans was one of grinding rural poverty with little if any hope of change. This is what the high-flown escapism of the Golden Age melodramas was an escape from.

In its rather treacly way, El rebozo de Soledad was an attempt to address the conditions of the rural poor – much as Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950) did for those in the city. It is comparable, in Hollywood terms, to the ‘male melodramas’ of King Vidor – Cynara (1932) or The Citadel (1938), H M Pulham Esquire (1941) or The Fountainhead (1948). In all of these, a sensitive and idealistic professional man suffers the sort of emotional turmoil that’s normally reserved for Joan Crawford or Bette Davis (not to mention María Félix or Dolores del Río). If it did not pander so resolutely to one’s better instincts, it might almost be some sort of classic.

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David Melville

N is (almost) for En la palma de tu mano

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by dcairns

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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 ~

CINE DORADO

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 noirEn 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

David Melville

D is for La Diosa Arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2011 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns from sunny Spain to bring us another Mexican melodrama from the golden age —

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

D is for La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess) 

Let us close our eyes and live this dream.

– Arturo de Córdova to María Félix

In Hollywood after World War II, a new genre called film noir brought the look of German Expressionism and Gothic horror to a contemporary urban world of morally compromised heroes and ruthless, sexually voracious femmes fatales. It did not take long for film noir to travel to Mexico, and the man who made it happen was Roberto Gavaldón. One of two great auteurs to emerge in Mexico in the 40s, Gavaldón is barely remembered today – unlike his arch-rival Emilio (Bugambilia) Fernandez.

The two directors and their films could not have been more different. Fernandez was the naïf rural poet of Mexican cinema – evoking a world of flyblown pueblos, a landscape of cactuses and clouds, and Dolores del Río looking beautiful and stalwart in a native shawl. Gavaldón, in contrast, was an urban sophisticate with a flair for high-style decadence. His films – which emulated, and often transcended, Hollywood and European models – showed impossibly glamorous people behaving disgracefully in ineffably chic interiors. Made in 1947, La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess) remains the ne plus ultra.

Both hero and heroine in this film are utterly gorgeous and wholly depraved. Indeed, their occasional twinges of conscience invariably make things worse and not better. The dashing matinee idol Arturo de Córdova (back in Mexico after an abortive Hollywood career, whose highlight was Frenchman’s Creek with Joan Fontaine) plays a wealthy industrial chemist with a devoted but ailing wife. The implication is that she’s too ill to have sex, which means the poor guy is perpetually horny. That is the only possible explanation for much of what follows.

As the film opens, we learn that he hides a guilty passion for none other than Mexico’s premiere sex symbol, María Félix – who here sports an eye-popping wardrobe of Surrealist-inspired gowns, in the manner of Elsa Schiaparelli. (One skin-tight black silk sheath, with its skirt billowing around the ankles, makes her look like a beached mermaid.) She’s a part-time whore and also – gasp! – a nude model who inspires a faux Greek mythological statue called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’. No sooner has Arturo split with María, to devote himself to caring for his wife, than he buys this life-size replica of her to decorate their garden at home!

The entire film, as this particular plot twist suggests, is an essay in fetishised and narcissistic passion. Never, outside of a Jean Cocteau movie, have I seen a director so obsessed with mirrors and reflections. When María crashes the couple’s anniversary party – egging her lover on, silently, to poison his sick wife – a vast looking glass reflects the entire scene. Once the poor woman dies, María luxuriates in front of her mirror, reflecting that Arturo has committed murder for her sake, so this must be true love at last! Later, when it all goes sour, a mirror reflects the lavishly set table where María now dines alone.

Signs, also, play a big part in Gavaldón’s visual world. Arturo languishes in his office, lusting helplessly after María. His window looks out on a giant perfume ad – which spells out the word DESEO in huge capital letters. That’s Spanish for ‘desire’ as in The Law of… which this film could just as easily be called. When María runs away, Arturo tracks her down in Panama – singing in what looks suspiciously like a gay nightclub. The male clients are in couples. In each, a well-dressed businessman squires a hunky young sailor out of a Jean-Paul Gaultier ad. María croons (slightly off-key) a torch song composed by her real-life husband at the time, Agustín Lara. Another sign looms over her, in blazing neon: Welcome to Panama’s Paradise.

This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy.

The guilty lovers return to Mexico City, marry and settle down to a life of blackmail and mutual torment. It doesn’t help that Arturo promptly becomes obsessed with his dead wife, whose portrait on the wall dominates the latter half of the film, much as María’s statue did the former. At this point, La diosa arrodillada becomes a sort of weird Rebecca-in-reverse – as if Laurence Olivier had murdered the mousy Joan Fontaine character, so he could marry the glamorously evil Rebecca instead! There are a few twists still to come…but it ends with María Félix in a narcissistic tableau, contemplating her own sublime marble image.

Frankly, if you look like her, why look at anyone else? 

David Melville