Regular co-Shadowplayer David Melville presents the eleventh installment of his handy-dandy alphabet of Mexican melodrama — he is to be congratulated on finding a Mexican movie beginning with the letter “K,” a letter which does not even exist in the Spanish alphabet… now read on —
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
K is for Konga roja
It’s a steamy tropical night. A boat chugs its way down river into a seedy jungle port. The whole scene is swathed in darkness and mist. The only light is the beam from a lighthouse – which pulses and illuminates the scene in flashes, like a strobe. Directed by Alejandro Galindo in 1942, Konga roja takes place in a world of dazzling light and deepest shadow. Not sure if this look has a name, but you could call it ‘tropical noir’
The boat docks in the seedy town of Puerto Largo. Even though it’s midnight, a chorus of peons are waving their sombreros excitedly from the dock. A swarthy fat man, with a ragged moustache and three days’ growth of stubble, trundles up the gangplank and warns the captain to hoist his anchor and be gone by sunrise. “Strange boats aren’t welcome in Puerto Largo!” The captain looks suitably chastised – but Pedro Armendáriz, our hero, swans off the boat and onto the dock with the sort of élan that only a Mexican film star can muster.
Mexico’s great matinee idol of the Golden Age, Armendáriz is an imposing figure of a man. His white linen suit clings, like a second skin, to his muscular bronze body. His Panama hat casts a shadow, sexily, across his dark moustachioed face. (His is, in truth, the most formidable moustache this side of Freddy Mercury.) He checks into the town’s once hotel, and it’s no surprise that half the town seems to drop into his room while he’s taking a shower. I was wondering that the management didn’t hang a sign outside and sell tickets.
He has a typically heroic role as the loner who brings justice to a corrupt town. An agent for a big North American fruit company, he’s come to investigate shady goings on in the local banana trade. (In a witty reversal of the usual Hollywood cliché, this Latino hero even has a fat, clueless gringo sidekick called Mr Powers.) It seems a gang of nefarious crooks is sabotaging the town’s banana shipments – and will stop at nothing to see Pedro doesn’t find out. “We still use machetes to harvest our bananas,” growls one shady character. “And machetes, as you know, have other uses.”
Not being an expert in the marketing of tropical fruit – and missing, doubtless, some of the finer points in the unsubtitled Spanish dialogue – I can’t quite see the financial incentive for anybody in not selling a boatload of ripe bananas. (Indeed, I half expected Groucho Marx to show up and announce that customers must pay extra for buying the fruit and not eating it!) Still, that’s the cod-Hitcockian MacGuffin on which this action thriller seems to hang.
A kingpin in this nefarious scheme turns out to be Pedro’s long-lost bosom pal (the suave but rather oily Tito Junco) who saved his life years ago in Puerto Rico. We know at once that Tito’s a big man in town. He has a flunky to walk behind him and hold a parasol over his head. He’s also running a tandem with two of the ladies who entertain at the local nightspot, The Seven Seas. (What else would you call a bar that’s God-knows-how-many miles up a river?)
Like any other sleazy movie bar in the middle of nowhere, The Seven Seas boasts a roster of top musical talent. (Ludicrous, yes, but no more so than Rick’s Café American in Casablanca, which was shot in Hollywood the same year.) The big attraction is María Antonieta Pons, a Cuban rumba-dancer who became a huge star in Mexican films of the 40s. She doesn’t so much sing and dance as shout and gyrate enthusiastically, and her acting makes María Félix look like Eleonora Duse. Still, all she has to do is provide a visually attractive love interest, and she does it adequately enough.
Tito lusts after María Antonieta but it’s Pedro who wins her heart. We know this right from their first encounter, when she slaps him hard across the face for not paying attention during her big number. She even makes a number of impassioned speeches that call Pedro’s stalwart heroism into question. (“Women don’t love a man because he’s brave, or love him any less because he’s a coward. We just love. That’s all we know how to do!”) Also on the bill is an Afro-Caribbean chanteuse named Toña la Negra. She genuinely loves the slimy Tito – and what’s more, she can genuinely sing.
The big question of who is doing what to whose bananas seems to work out smoothly enough – but only after Pedro and Tito find themselves on opposite sides of the law! Galindo keeps it all going with his spectacular pre-noir lighting (the cameraman is one Victor Herrera) and some moments of sharp visual wit. When a gun battle breaks out in The Seven Seas, the card-players simply duck under the table and keep on playing. When Pedro and the chief bad guy face off at the end, the whole bar freezes with suspense. The barman, who’s in the middle of pouring a shot of tequila, just lets it overflow and dribble onto the bar.
The final shoot-out, in the street outside the bar, has a shadowed splendour that anticipates Carol Reed and The Third Man. Pedro and the villain stalk each other in pitch darkness and deathly silence – illuminated only, at key moments, by that all-important lighthouse. (It also shines, conveniently enough, just outside María Antonieta’s window, adding some much-needed mood and atmosphere to the love scenes.) Justice being duly done, we can go home, knowing our bananas will be on sale at their usual price.
Things did not end quite so smoothly, alas, for Pedro Armendáriz. His career began with a string of heroic roles for Mexico’s most illustrious director, Emilio Fernández (María Candelaria, Enamorada, Río Escondido). Later, he made forays to Hollywood to work for John Ford (Fort Apache, Three Godfathers) and to Europe to star in costume romances with Martine Carol (Lucrezia Borgia) and Lana Turner (Diane).
In 1963, just before playing the Turkish Chief of Police in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, Armendáriz was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Once his work was finished, he asked director Terence Young if any retakes would be needed. When the answer was ‘no’ he flew home to Los Angeles and shot himself in the head.
His death left the Mexican cinema without a hero. No actor in the last 50 years has been up to the job.