David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, returns to these pages with letter Q in his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama. Now read on…
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
Q is for ¡Que Dios me perdone! (May God Forgive Me!)
A film even more operatic than its title, the 1948 ¡Que dios me perdone! stars diva María Félix as a Woman With A Dark Past. We know that immediately from her hat. A rich but none-too-canny business tycoon (Fernando Soler) spots her in a seedy but glamorous Mexico City dive. Her exquisite face is masked entirely by a black hat – one that’s roughly as large as the front wheel on a unicycle. This is classic movie shorthand for a lady with something to hide.
Seconds later, María turns her head and looks up. She fixes her admirer with those melting yet ruthless black-opal eyes. Her name, she reveals, is Lena Kovacs – a refugee from war-torn Europe. Her voice, of course, still sounds as Mexican as ever. Helpfully, she explains that she comes from a long-lost community of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews. Now she is adrift in Mexico, eking out a living as a nightclub singer. The old gent is, to put it politely, toast.
The director, Tito Davison, is clearly pleased with the staging in this early scene. He repeats it, with varying costumes and props, to signal each and every one of his plot’s never-ending twists and turns. Once María has captured the old man’s heart – with her spirited yet tuneless rendering of the film’s title song – she steals back to her dark flat in one of the city’s ritzier slums. Waiting on a side table, illuminated strategically by a moonbeam, is an ineffably sinister black leather glove.
The hand inside that glove belongs to an evil Nazi spymaster. He orders María to seduce and marry Soler. That way she, as his wife, can steal his company’s top secret invention. Some vital yet unnamed device that may help the Third Reich win the war. Think of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) or Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad (1952) and then absolve them of any responsibility to act or dance. That, in essence, is María’s role in this movie. Or so it seems at first…
She pulls off the first half of her mission swiftly enough. Married to Soler, she acquires an even more fabulous and extravagant wardrobe than the one she enjoyed as a penniless refugee. Yet now she must contend with two other men in her husband’s life. His future son-in-law (Tito Junco) is an oily playboy who boasts of how proud he is to be a war profiteer. His best friend (Juliàn Soler) is a doctor who practices the newfangled art of psychotherapy. Both are promptly smitten with the new bride. They watch her every move obsessively – leaving her scarcely any time in which to spy!
Just as we’ve decided that even María Félix now has enough problems for one movie, she gets a surprise telephone call from an old friend. A mysterious voice insists that María meet her in a café. All we see – as we cut to the next shot – is a column of cigarette smoke, rising ominously over the back of a chair. Seated in that chair is a sinister and rather mannish older lady (an early model for Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love) who seems to know María, well, intimately. It seems that our gal, in her efforts to survive the war, once practised a profession even less reputable than spying.
A shock revelation (or not) but one that’s soon buried under an avalanche of greater traumas. The old pal brings news of María’s long-lost daughter, whom she left in a concentration camp in Europe. It seems the girl is still alive…and this warm-hearted lady can secure her release, for the modest fee of $50,000. Welcome news, as it allows the star to switch roles in mid-movie! Where she was once a scheming and duplicitous femme fatale, she is now a suffering and sacrificial heroine. Not that this makes any great change to María’s actual performance.
Were this not a Mexican film, you might expect María to go home and explain her new dilemma to her husband. He can’t have thought she was a virgin before they married – and the poor fool is clearly a slave to her every whim. But that, of course, would end the movie long before her fans had got their money’s worth…so instead she hatches a complicated plot to secretly sell a priceless diamond bracelet that Soler gave her as a wedding gift.
This plan (unsurprisingly) goes awry, but not before the lecherous Junco finds out and blackmails her into an affair – as the price of his silence. Their erotic encounter is one of those oddly sadomasochistic moments that were the Félix stock-in-trade. When Junco demands sex from her, she slaps him twice across the face, then spreads her arms in a lurid mock-Crucifixion pose. “Now claim your price!” Just try and imagine Meryl Streep or Katharine Hepburn attempting to act this scene, and you may appreciate María’s own particular brand of genius.
A few scenes later, Junco has embroiled María in a plot to murder her husband and live together off their ill-gotten gains. (Secret weapons? Missing child? All that was ages ago. Do please try and keep up.) There will, of course, be several more twists before ¡Que Dios me perdone! grinds its way to a tragic and tortuous climax…
Nor is this even the most ludicrous film made by Davison, a Chilean who directed most of Latin America’s great stars. That honour goes to The Big Cube (1969), in which wealthy gringa Lana Turner meets a murderous toyboy (George Chakiris) who doses her up on LSD. But if ¡Que Dios me perdone! were a shade less hysterical, it might well pass as one of Lana’s drug-induced flashbacks.