Archive for David Melville

And lead us into TEMPTATION…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2015 by dcairns

David Melville fills the gap between his series on Mexican melodrama and his upcoming series on… but that would be telling… with a special piece on a neglected 1946 melodrama sure to be of interest to Shadowplayers everywhere ~

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Was there ever a better year for Bad Girls than 1946? Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman. Each one stronger, smarter, sexier and more subversive than…well, just about any woman since. But one lady, that same year, could hold her own with any of them. An actress who’s been criminally underrated, in a film that’s been tragically forgotten. I’m talking about Merle Oberon in Temptation.

If the title doesn’t ring any bells…well, it’s not an easy film to see. Directed by Irving Pichel and produced (lavishly) by a long-defunct entity called International Film Corporation, Temptation is unavailable on DVD or any other home video format. It survives (just about) in blurred copies recorded from TV in the 90s. Not that it doesn’t still look splendid. The cameraman, Lucien Ballard, was Merle Oberon’s second husband. (He also photographed her in The Lodger (1944), This Love of Ours (1945) and Berlin Express (1948).) She married him, presumably, because he was the one man who could make her look more exquisite than she did already.

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So what is Temptation about? Many things…not all of which are directly apparent on screen. It was based on Bella Donna, a novel by the English author and aesthete Robert Hichens (1864-1950). A member of the camp gay circle that surrounded Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he is best remembered today for The Green Carnation (1894) – a witty if rather scurrilous roman á clef about the, er, home life of his two famous friends. He also wrote the kitsch masterwork The Garden of Allah (filmed in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich) which, like this story, has a North African desert setting.

Temptation opens in Cairo in 1900. Merle plays an outwardly genteel Victorian lady, who gets into a spot of bother over some compromising letters sent to an Egyptian gigolo lover (Charles Korvin). Dare we suspect this story has autobiographical echoes? We do know Wilde and his pals spent almost as much money paying off blackmailers as they earned in royalties. (More, perhaps, in the case of the sexually voracious Lord Alfred.) It’s tempting to see Merle’s character (who boasts the achingly exotic name of Ruby Armine) as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. She could – if only this film were better known – win herself a cult following to rival Bette Davis in All About Eve.

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We see her first in long-shot, drifting through the garden of her sumptuous villa in a plush suburb of Cairo. (I was not aware, until now, that Cairo had plush suburbs.) A vision in a long and trailing white gown, with a white lace parasol to match. Her clothes are by the great Orry-Kelly and Merle herself remarks within the first few minutes: “The things I remember best are the hats and gowns I wore – and the way I felt when I wore them.” At the risk of sounding shallow, I must admit much of the pleasure in Temptation comes from seeing what our heroine will wear next. Let’s just say Merle Oberon is never knowingly underdressed.

As the star wafts her way slowly through the garden, we learn that a sinister Egyptian police inspector has come to call. By the time we see her in close-up, it’s clear she’s wanted for questioning about a murder. Her dreary archaeologist husband (George Brent) does not seem unduly concerned. He’s too busy pondering the opening of a long-lost tomb. But his close bachelor friend, a gimlet-eyed Jewish doctor (Paul Lukas), has distrusted and disliked Ruby from the start. A flashback in London tells us she was once what’s euphemistically called an ‘adventuress’. Her first husband divorced her on “urgent medical advice” from Lukas, who then tried to dissuade Brent from marrying her “as I would stop an infectious disease from spreading”. We wonder, momentarily, if the poor girl has some sort of VD. Or is the doctor one of those movie characters (normally played by Clifton Webb) who seem to regard any woman as ‘unclean’?

With these two dullards as her day-to-day companions, it’s hardly a surprise when Merle (still in a flashback) decides to have a little fun on the side. ‘Fun’ comes in the form of a bogus Egyptian prince called Mahmoud Bahroudi. He’s played by the Hungarian actor Charles Korvin – the one actor with a cleft chin more prodigious than Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant! In any other department, he’s not much of a threat but Merle likes him from the start. They first meet when he tries to blackmail a young acquaintance – and are drawn together by recognition of each other’s mutual depravity. “You’re the first person,” marvels Korvin, “who lies as well as I do.” To put it more simply, the two are a perfect match.

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Korvin, of course, is only out for money. But all of Merle’s is under the control of her husband. “I wish he were dead,” she says with an air of mild annoyance. Her lover promptly hands her an untraceable poison in an exotically carved antique box. Soon enough, she’s found a villainous servant who can stir it discreetly into anything poor Brent eats or drinks. In the tensest moment, some poisoned tea is placed strategically on a tray with six or seven other cups. The servant swivels the tray, with a dexterity that is truly breathtaking, to make sure that hubby gets the right one. Merle’s beautiful dark eyes follow the tray’s every move. They glow anxiously as her husband lifts the drink to his lips – and puts it down twice, untasted.

It’s a truly mesmerising piece of silent-screen acting, made all the more offbeat and effective by the fact that it takes place in a talking film. In forty years as an internationally famous star (stretching from her doomed Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 to her even-more-doomed vanity project Interval in 1973) Merle Oberon never enjoyed much reputation as an actress. The focus was on her exotic Anglo-Indian beauty and her early life as a ‘nightclub dancer’ (among other things) in the back streets of Calcutta. Yet anyone who doubts her ability to carry a film should track down a copy of Temptation. It’s a banquet of a role and she chomps it down and swallows it in one gulp. Only the lynx-eyed Lenore Ulric, as her sinister and possibly lesbian French maid, gets to steal even a tiny corner of the screen.

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Am I spoiling any surprises if I say that Merle/Ruby does reform before Temptation is quite over? Hichens’ friend Wilde deplored “the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice” but that is what Hollywood in the 40s forced most movies to do. It’s reassuring to note that – while she is still satisfyingly wicked – Oberon sports a truly eye-popping dress with a black-lace-and-diamante bodice, festooned with pyramids and sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs. Surely no girl who wears a gown like this could ever be that good?!

David Melville

And Everything Ends in Z

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 23, 2015 by dcairns

All good things… David Melville rounds of his alphabet of the golden age of Mexican melodrama with a Fever Dream Double Feature, and begins a week of guest postings here on Shadowplay. But fear not: his next series will start soon!

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

And Everything Ends in Z

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Eyes speak louder than words – and you know it. ~ Don Macario in Maclovia

It must have been Parker Tyler – or, at least, his fictional alter ego Myra Breckinridge – who wrote that the proper sphere of movies was not Art but Myth. If that is true, then no film-maker was ever more ‘mythic’ than Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. His 1948 film Maclovia is set on a remote island called Janitzio, afloat on an impossibly tranquil lake. Its denizens are native fisher folk, members of “that Indian race that holds all that is good in Mexico.” (It’s the local schoolteacher who says this, but the sentiments are clearly the director’s own.) The world of Maclovia is less idyllic than Edenic, a fantasy realm as arcane and idealised as the valley of Shangri-La.

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The film’s subject is “the ancient and eternal love of a man and a woman.” Or, at any rate, Mexico’s leading macho heart-throb Pedro Armendáriz and Mexico’s reigning glamour icon María Félix. The thought of either star playing an impoverished and illiterate peasant should be ludicrous and logically, of course, it is. Yet the casting is oddly right in the hyperbolic context of this film. Although it was doubtless shot on real locations, the setting of Maclovia feels akin to such studio-built dreamscapes as the Himalayan convent in Black Narcissus (1947) or the South Seas isle in The Saga of Anatahan (1953).

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Perhaps it’s the nets that do it. The white, billowing nets of the fishermen are draped exotically about the island like the veils in a Dietrich/von Sternberg movie. María is, inevitably, photographed through them at every opportunity – her sculpted face framed exquisitely in a striped shawl, her eyes caked with mascara like those of any self-respecting virgin in a small village. Out on the lake, a hundred nets rise in unison from the fishermen’s canoes – with a choreographed precision that Busby Berkley might envy. Armendáriz (cast as the poorest and most downtrodden of the lot) gazes upwards at the cliff where María hovers, posed like the statue of Christ above Rio de Janeiro. Reaching down to the limpid surface of the lake, he plucks a water-lily in her honour. Later, when she rejects him, he casts it despairingly into the mud.

But why does María (here known as Maclovia) reject the man she loves? Her father, Don Macario, is the leading citizen of the village. He will not hear of his daughter marrying a poor man – one so impoverished that he does not even own his own canoe “A man is not a real man unless he has a canoe and a knife,” the father helpfully intones. No man, it seems, is good enough for Maclovia. In the hands of a subversive and de-mythifying director like Luis Buñuel, her widowed father’s wildly possessive adoration of her might form the basis for a very different film indeed. Fernández, of course, would never countenance anything so unseemly. Perversity does not dwell in Janitzio but invades it from outside – in the form of a lecherous gringo officer whose lust for our heroine tilts Maclovia towards its violent climax.

All this is yet to come, of course. Early on in the film, Don Macario forbids his daughter and her sweetheart to speak to or even look at each other. Desperate for a way to make contact, Armendáriz begs the village schoolmaster to teach him to write. A few months of toil among the five-year-olds and soon he’s penning letters to Maclovia that read like this: “The other day, I saw your shadow pass close by. I felt it grow and take root inside my heart. Suddenly I knew why God attached shadows to our bodies. So I could find some way to look at you.” I guess he’s what they call a star pupil.

Sure enough, Maclovia goes to the schoolmaster in turn, so she can learn to read the letters her lover writes. The couple’s forbidden love and the obstacles that come with it push them, inadvertently, towards literacy and progress. In this way – like so much of Mexico’s left-wing nationalist cinema – Maclovia manages at once to exalt traditional peasant values and to champion those modernising forces that will lead, inevitably, to their dissolution. At the historical moment this movie depicts (Maclovia is set in 1914) it is vital for Mexico to be an agrarian Third World nation – a place where traditional values hold sway – but also to emerge as a 20th century economic powerhouse – just like those big bad colonial powers that used to exploit it. What none of these movies ever make clear is how any country can possibly do both.

Rather than grapple with complexities of this sort, the wily teacher sits Maclovia down and reads the letter aloud. We see her react in a montage of close-ups, each one a fresh angle on María’s exquisite face. It’s not long before her suitor borrows money and buys himself an impressively phallic canoe. The officer, in a jealous rage, pulls out his gun and shoots the canoe full of holes. (Clearly, the competition was not in his favour.) With that, Armendáriz pulls out his giant curved knife (the other must-have item for a “real man”) and stabs the officer – who survives and has him condemned to 24 years in prison. He’s willing to free him, of course, if only Maclovia will be his. But the law of the island says that no native woman must ever defile herself with an outsider. If she does, both she and the offending man must die…

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The climax takes place, conveniently enough, on the traditional Night of the Dead – a gruesomely photogenic montage of blazing candles and leering skulls. Once the villagers hear what Maclovia may have got up to with that gringo, the whole place erupts in a fury. Hundreds of crazed peasants carrying torches come storming through the streets, all ready to pelt the sinners with stones. The film, at this point, threatens to turn into some ghastly melange of Suddenly, Last Summer and Triumph of the Will. Not that it ever goes quite that far. The army shows up just in time to quell the riot and guarantee a (wholly unconvincing) happy ending. You may be wondering, also, just how many people live on this island. Previously, we got the impression that Janitzio was a small rural community. Yet the mob that shows up to kill María might easily populate a fair-sized district of Mexico City.

Finally, though, what matters in Maclovia are not the petty minutiae of plot or logic. It’s the sheer mythic splendour of Fernández at his most dizzyingly overripe, a well-nigh operatic whirlpool of the passionate and the absurd. María Félix, strangely enough, gives one of her least flamboyant performances in this film. Far from the rampaging diva mode of Doña Diabla, she has moments here that border dangerously on restraint. Don’t worry, though, it’s not catching. Maclovia is as fervent and florid as any Mexican movie ever made. Typical of its time and its place and its genre…but still a film that cries out to be watched today.

David Melville

Cine Dorado: Woman Devil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by dcairns

After too long an absence, David Melville Wingrove returns with his alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodramas, which has reached the Big W…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

W is for Woman Devil (Doña Diabla)

Perhaps I should point out that the letter ‘w’ does not really exist in Spanish, apart from the spelling of foreign names. Still, I can’t miss an excuse to write about Doña Diabla (1950), a film that won María Félix an Ariel for Best Actress – as a woman so spectacularly wicked that lightning flashes and thunder rolls virtually every time she appears on screen. Not that she’s ever off it for long. Doña Diabla is her vehicle from start to finish and she never once lets us forget it. Yet with all those booms and bangs and blinding flashes of light, we may start to feel that we’re watching some Gothic Expressionist monster movie – which, in a very real sense, we are.

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The opening credits roll over a montage of María in a series of fabulous gowns. Distracting but only fair, perhaps, as her wardrobe (by the legendary Armando Valdéz Peza) does at least as much acting as she does. The director, Tito Davison, clothes her in virginal, all-white ensembles as an innocent young bride, just waiting to be corrupted. When her no-good husband pimps her to his sleazy boss, she wears a white skirt tainted with dark polka-dots and – just in case we miss the point – a slave bracelet clasped tightly round her neck. Once she’s become a deluxe hooker – as well as a gambler, drug trafficker, blackmailer and fashion tycoon – she favours stylish all-black outfits, apart from the clusters of diamonds at her wrists and a very fetching white streak in her jet-black hair.

The film proper starts with a passionate argument between two shadows. Doña Diabla and her daughter (Crox Alvarado) are fighting furiously over a man. “I’ll see you dead before I see you in his arms,” shouts María in the very best movie manner. Her shadow pulls out a pistol and fires it. Her daughter’s shadow (which is nowhere near as elegant) crumples over and falls as if dead. María runs out into the night, clad in a spectacular full-length mink coat, pearl necklace and mile-high Joan Crawford style fuck-me shoes – the better to be inconspicuous and evade detection. Hotly pursued by police sirens, she flees to a church and confesses the story (in flashbacks) to a priest.

It’s all a clear attempt to emulate Crawford’s Oscar-winning triumph in Mildred Pierce (1945) – also a torrid tale of mothers and daughters, firearms and flashbacks. But dare I say that Doña Diabla makes the barnstorming melodramatics of Mildred Pierce look rather pallid and restrained? This whole movie takes place in a fever of near-operatic excess. When María, a young bride, first comes to the big wicked city, her husband takes her to a nightclub where a man in black silk pyjamas and a girl in a spangled bikini do an act that’s midway between a dance and a live sex show. A platoon of lecherous old men line up to dance with her. The husband’s boss remarks, ominously: “A woman who is too beautiful cannot belong to just one man.”

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A few scenes later, she’s at a party in Acapulco, staring out at a moonlit sea – and trying to fend off the advances of said boss. A gypsy singer serenades the guests a flamenco number, and then starts reading their futures in their palms. Once she comes to María, the gypsy can read no more. “I see the face of the Devil himself!” María wastes no time in proving her right. Horrified that her husband expects her to sleep her way to the top on his behalf, she agrees to become the boss’s mistress – provided he will ruin her husband for good. This he does, obligingly, with just one telephone call. She takes a year out to give birth to her daughter, and then comes back and makes good on her bargain.

Years pass and her daughter grows into a simpering, cosseted ingénue – raised in a convent to spare her all knowledge of her mother’s life. When María drops in for her annual visit, the girls are in the garden singing Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ in chorus. (Is that what passed for an education in the old days?) “Oh, mother,” enthuses the adoring child. “My great ambition is to be exactly like you!” María’s face clouds over and looks, momentarily, perturbed. Back in the city that night, we get a telling close-up of her hands at the roulette table, sparkling with diamonds and raking in a king’s ransom in chips. Her husband’s old boss (and her one-time sugar daddy) turns up and looks forlorn. He has ruined himself for Doña Diabla, as countless men have done since. She buys him a cigarette and splashes him with her car as she drives off.

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By the time she meets a man who’s a match for her, the film is half-way over. Victor Junco plays a sexy lounge lizard who runs dope and deals in smuggled objets d’art. It is, of course, the most passionate love-hate at first sight. Doña Diabla opens a ritzy high fashion house as a front for his illicit activities. Judging from their lavish catwalk show, we may add crimes against haute couture to out heroine’s ever-growing list of misdeeds. She is, however, desperate to turn respectable…in time for that fateful day when her daughter comes out of the convent. (Wouldn’t it be easier to just persuade the girl to be a nun?) Alas, the daughter runs away from the convent and flees to Mexico City before mother has quite turned over her new leaf.

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María announces to her lover that they must part. She is taking her daughter away, on an extended trip to Europe. Junco takes this rather badly – and shows up at the villa, the night before they leave, with a full mariachi band and a rogue’s gallery of people involved in Doña Diabla’s past scandals. One of them obligingly commits suicide in the guest bedroom. By the time María has been released from police questioning (have they never noticed her shenanigans before?) Junco has seduced the daughter and the two look set to run away together…I won’t give away the ending, but it involves an ‘action replay’ of the opening scene, with actors this time and not shadows. Let’s just say there is a twist, if not one that is wholly unexpected.

Doña Diabla opens and closes with an impassioned quotation by Sister Juana de la Cruz, the 17th century Mexican author and mystic. “You foolish men, who accuse women without grounds, do you not see that you are the cause of all you condemn?” That is, fortunately, the closest this movie ever comes to art. Doña Diabla triumphs (like a book by Sidney Sheldon) not by scaling any heights of artistic ambition, but through the sheer consummate perfection of its melodramatic excess. It glorifies María Félix in a way that technically better movies may not, because its strident emotionalism is perfectly calibrated to her uniquely florid style of performance. Cynics may claim that trash of this sort was the best that María Félix could do – but nobody else could ever do it with such flair.

David Melville

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