Archive for Pedro Armendariz

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

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

Cine Dorado: K is for Konga Roja

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2012 by dcairns

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 –

CINE DORADO 

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.

David Melville

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