Archive for Max Aub

C is for Carcel de Mujeres

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2011 by dcairns

Once more, special guest Shadowplayer David Melville takes us down Mexico way ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

 C is for Carcel de mujeres (Women’s Prison)

 “She has no idea what’s in store for her,” sneers a young and very sexy Sarita Montiel – as two butch uniformed guards lead an angelic blonde beauty (Miroslava Stern) into the riotous main hall of the Mexico City Penitentiary for Women. In fact, we in the audience can hazard a guess. Just a few shots away, the movie’s most ostentatious lesbian (Katy Jurado) is languidly stroking the hair of a cute blonde companion.

Prison melodramas were all the rage in Hollywood in the late 40s. Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947) put Burt Lancaster at the mercy of sadistic closet case Hume Cronyn. Caged (John Cromwell, 1950) had Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead under the guard of terrifying Hope Emerson, and is still cherished as a minor camp classic. Yet for me the ne plus ultra of the genre is Carcel de mujeres (whose title translates bluntly as Women’s Prison) directed by one Miguel Delgado in 1951. This Mexican variant is like the Hollywood movies, only much more so…and that, in the realm of melodrama, can only be a Good Thing.

The first thing we see is a glamorously garbed woman – her face cast in shadow, the moonlight aglow on her slinky white fur. Her arm, clanking with jewels, reaches out and fires a round of bullets into her sleazy, no-good boyfriend (Tito Junco). The police arrest two suspects: Sarita, a brassy nightclub chanteuse, his mistress and partner in his shady deals, and Miroslava, a respectable doctor’s wife, who had a brief fling with him before her marriage. She’s still wearing her immaculate high-fashion gown when the guards lead her into the clink. The other ladies gang up and tear the fancy duds off her back.

This being Mexico in the 1950s, the script (with dialogue by Max Aub) is not exactly on the cutting edge of Political Correctness. When poor Miroslava gets arrested, her stuffy dolt of a husband is less concerned that his wife is going to prison, than worried that she might not have been a virgin on their bridal night. (“My dear, do you have anything to reproach yourself for?”) When he comes to visit her in stir, she gazes at him tearfully and wails: “My love, how you have suffered for my sake!”

When hubby is big-hearted enough to suggest that she might be suffering too, she replies with a line that sums up the whole ethos of melodrama, Mexican or otherwise: “No suffering is too great, if it makes our love grow stronger!” The brilliance of the genre lies in convincing an audience of hardened cynics that yes, people actually do talk this way – and, what’s more, the sadomasochistic wallowing they express is not only natural but admirable. Watch enough movies of this sort, and you may start to talk like this too.

Once Miroslava is behind bars, a spiteful Sarita sets out to make her life a living hell – even throwing a bowl of hot soup into her face! This is the cue for a spectacular cat-fight, which all their fellow inmates join in. An orgy of bitch-slapping and hair-pulling erupts in the dining hall, so the (male) guards have to step in and hose down the ladies with water cannons. Both women must also contend with a slinky, sinister warden (Maria Douglas) who’s a cross between Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Any pretty young thing who doesn’t do her bidding is liable to wind up in solitary confinement. (“One meal a week and six days on bread and water is the best way to keep your figure, don’t you think?”)

At last, the two rivals bury the hatchet when Sarita gives birth, behind bars, to Junco’s baby and Miroslava saves it from an elderly psycho who wants to “teach the little angel how to fly”. There’s still time, of course, for a climactic riot and mass break-out…and we even get to find out who committed the crime! Nobody would ever mistake Carcel de mujeres for a work of art, but it sure packs a lot into 85 minutes.

Off screen, life did not run quite so smoothly. The beauteous Miroslava committed suicide at a young age – but not before appearing in one of Luis Buñuel’s best films, Ensayo de un crimen/The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). Sarita (or Sara, as she is now known) thrives to this day in her native Spain. Returning home from her sojourn in Mexico and Hollywood, she reigned as queen of the kitsch musical melodramas known as españoladas. (The most unmissable are La Violetera (1958), La bella Lola (1962) and Variétés (1971)). An icon to three generations of drag queens, she also inspired the Pedro Almodóvar film Bad Education (2004). 

David Melville

A is for Amok

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2011 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, presents the first in a series on Mexican melodramas (his views, especially those on Bunuel, are entirely his own) –

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

A is for Amok

If an English-speaking film buff sees a Mexican film of the 40s or 50s, odds are it was directed by Luis Buñuel. Living out his exile from the Franco regime, the Spanish auteur was based inMexico City from 1945. He worked within the country’s commercial film industry (at the time, the largest inLatin America) and employed many of its leading stars and technicians.

You may argue that the Mexican films do not show us the best of Buñuel. It’s equally true that the Buñuel films are far from the best of Mexico. What drew an audience to Mexican cinema throughout (and beyond) the Spanish-speaking world was its indulgence in everything that Buñuel most notably lacked. Its lush visual beauty; its wallowing sentiment; its breathless worship of impossibly glamorous stars. Rather than excoriate the bourgeoisie from some dour Marxist perspective, the Mexican industry made films whose sheer visual and emotional excess was a challenge to bourgeois taste – and allowed the oppressed masses something they might actually enjoy! In the context of that industry, Buñuel looks like a stern minimalist trying (and failing) to compose a bel canto opera.

Stretching from the early 40s into the 60s, the Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama is widely available on DVD. Most of its key titles have been released in the USAwithout subtitles – aimed at a vast (and nostalgic) Spanish-speaking market. The print quality is good, in some cases, and wretched in others. Produced on a shoestring, the majority of discs are not regionally coded. If you worry that your language skills aren’t up to scratch…well, don’t. Made to be watched rather than listened to, most of these films are easy to follow. Like the icons of the silent screen, stars like María Félix, Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores delRio and Libertad Lamarque are mythic beings who transcend the spoken word.

All of which brings us nicely to the first film. Shot in 1944, Amok is the product of not one but three European exiles. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish author who wrote the original story, committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. (The best-known film of his work is Letter from an Unknown Woman.) Max Aub, who wrote the screenplay, was a Spanish avant-garde writer of French and German parentage, who fetched up inMexico to escape the Civil War. The director, Antonio Momplet, was another runaway Spaniard who would, finally, wander back toEurope to direct low-budget gladiator movies. The clash of three such talents will be anything but dull.

The film opens on a luxurious ocean liner, with an appropriately Gothic storm brewing in the background. A drunken doctor (played by actor and director Julián Soler) staggers about the deck. Romantically gaunt and tormented, like a sort of latino Jeremy Irons. Teetering up to the window of the grand ballroom, he looks through it and spies…Mexico’s most famous diva, María Félix, her raven hair dyed a most fetching shade of blonde. If you have trouble picturing this, just think of Jeanne Moreau in La Baie des Anges. This new look is that incongruous and that effective.

What could explain this dye-job but a flashback to the Casino at Monte Carlo? Here the blonde María, a silky-smooth adventuress and serial collector of rich men, lures the promising young doctor into absconding with the funds from his clinic – which he promptly gambles away at roulette. Striving to pull his name out of the mud, Soler signs on for 10 years as a doctor in “the colonies of the Indian Ocean”. Exactly whose colonies, or where, is never spelled out…but films like Amok treat petty facts like geography with Olympian contempt.

Cut to another flashback (or is that now a flash-forward?) to Soler stranded in a straw hut – deep in a steaming, studio-built jungle – with only an exotic native concubine (Estela Inda) to keep madness at bay. Word is out of the amok, an all-consuming destructive rage that takes hold even of civilised white men when the tropic heat is at its most oppressive. Just in case we’re wondering if that’s a rumour, a dusky extra in a loincloth runs obligingly amok right outside Soler’s window. He’s about to slaughter the good doctor when the native girl shoots him dead.

Seconds later, a fancy open-topped car pulls up bearing a white lady in dark glasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. We glimpse right away that it’s María, only with dark hair this time, cast as an outwardly prim and proper colonial wife. She has come to the depths of the jungle to seek him out because, you see, she’s pregnant by her lover and her husband (who’s been in England for six months) is due to arrive home in three days. Could the doctor help her out of this little problem? Well, yes and no. One look at Félix and her eerie resemblance to his lost love, and Soler is inflamed with lust. “You forget that I am not only a doctor, but also a man!” He demands sex as a fee – and María flees back to the city in horror. Contrite yet obsessed beyond redemption, he follows her by the very next train…

Some unkind gringo critics, notably David Thomson, have made cruel comments about María Félix and her acting. (“The drive and ambition of a Callas but without the talent.”) All I will say here is that she plays two radically different women in Amok, and is equally convincing as both. True, there is one awkward moment – at a lavish diplomatic reception – where María sits down at the piano to play the Appassionata Sonata by Beethoven. Her hands hover ineffectually above the keys, as if she were communing with a Ouija board. Still, she is exquisitely attired in a jacket of Oriental silk, and only the truly mean-spirited would hold her musical skills against her.

As the hero’s obsession with María takes hold, she even crops up in smaller roles. For one moment, as the native girl lolls lasciviously across his bed, her face morphs into that of Félix. We spot her towards the end, masked, as a nurse – as Soler languishes on an operating table, hovering between life and death. The climax of Amok – back on that storm-tossed ship – is a delirious orgy of amour fou as both Marias (the light and the dark) conspire to lure Soler closer and closer to his doom.

It’s alleged that Jean Cocteau begged Maria (Cobra Woman) Montez to play the Princess of Death in Orphée. He might just as well have asked María Félix… and she might even have said yes. One of the grandest of screen femmes fatales, she was never one to let a man get out alive. Or not, at least, with his sanity intact.

David Melville

D Cairns here — just wanted to add that Maria also plays a nurse, seen in just one close-up, as Soler lies on the verge of death, so it’s a triple role rather than double — or maybe quadruple if you count the ghost/vision. It was this touch above all that convinced me that AMOK is truly deranged.

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