Archive for The Big Cube

Q is for Que Dios me Perdone!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, returns to these pages with letter Q in his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama. Now read on…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

Q is for ¡Que Dios me perdone! (May God Forgive Me!)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

David Melville

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“I’m gonna cube that mother but good!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2009 by dcairns

Realising that Bunuel’s old cinematographer from his Mexico days shot a movie about LSD was enough to make me very grateful to a kind providence. Realising that said movie starred Lana Turner was enough to make me want to kiss God full on the lips.

But the TV-style yellow credits and flat, unimaginative staging of  most of the regular action was a warning that THE BIG CUBE was not going to be a real masterpiece, even of the camp variety. The trip sequences turned out to be enjoyable but not too inspired: plasma lighting, flash cuts and solarisation effects were the extent of it, and while I enjoy all of those things, sometimes you want a little more. And sometimes you think, gee, they really haven’t done their research, have they?

Basically THE BIG CUBE is Patrick Hamilton’s GASLIGHT on LSD, and while that may sound alluring, the combination of hip trendspotting and old-fashioned morality tale is pretty stodgy in reality. Dopey Karin Mossberg is jealous of her new stepmother, Lana T, a glamorous stage star. When dad Daniel O’Herlihy is killed in a yachting accident (NEVER go boating with Dan O’Herlihy, movie-goers: that’s basic), her venomous stepchild is seduced into a fiendish plan by George Chakiris, an acid-peddling med student: drive Lana mad by spiking her tranqs with lysergic whatnots. Cue faux-trippy montages and much screaming.

More compelling than that, and more compelling than Lana’s bizarre performance in the everyday scenes — incompetence + total self-belief = a Maria Montez-like mindblowing poise and preposterousness — and more compelling even than Dan O’Herlihy’s bizarre attempt at a performance (good actor: what was he thinking?) are the two female supports, the stepdaughter and her best pal, Bibi (Pamela Rodgers).

As you can see, Pam gives a bizarre, strained, one-note performance that’s like a third-hand imitation of Marilyn Monroe misremembered in a trance. (Next in her career, THE MALTESE BIPPY beckons.) On the other hand, at least it IS a performance (she can’t really be like that). At least it HAS one note.

Karin Mussberg manages to convey all the different kinds of bad acting you could ever hope to see, entertainingly wrapped up in one package. What can go wrong with a performance?

When normal people try too hard to act, they tend to sound stiff and forced. Sometimes they fall into copying, badly, something they’ve seen that they think of as “acting”. This kind of strain is well-evoked by Julianne Moore in BOOGIE NIGHTS when she adopts a forced high-pitched voice when her character attempts to act.

When you encounter trained actors who are simply untalented, as I’m afraid I have from time to time, you sometimes get a tendency to load “import” and “meaning” onto lines by heavy stress. This isn’t actually import or meaning because it has no actual importance or meaning, it’s just stress. And also, clumsy or inexperienced actors sometimes place the stress on the wrong word. In this way, trained actors can actually be worse than amateurs. Real people, in real life, never ever stress the wrong word in a sentence.

Even good actors can make other kinds of blunders — I’m really only dealing with dialogue here. If an actor is confused they can read a line with the wrong meaning in mind, with the wrong tone or mood. They can be unintentionally funny, as I think Dan O’Herlihy is at the end of that first clip a clip you’ll find in the comments section.

What’s impressive about Mussberg is her ability to blend and fuse all those errors together in a single performance. It’s not like these mistakes are blemishes upon the performance. They ARE the performance. It’s quite fascinating.

The only really comfortable player in the film is Chakiris, as the villain, who’s actually good. Our faith in him as a heartless Machiavellian seducer is hurt by the fact that he embarks upon this plot with a complete idiot for an accomplice, but he’s still got more on the ball than anyone else. Life is so unfair! Nic Cage eats a cockroach in VAMPIRE’S KISS and the world swoons. George Chakiris puts an ant in his breast pocket in THE BIG CUBE and his only reward is weary indifference. It’s exactly this kind of injustice I established this blog to rail against.

The film reaches a new and, I must admit, agreeable height of insanity after Lana is plunged into amnesia by all that acid, so her playwright friend resolves to cure her by writing a play that will force her to reenact the trauma and confront what’s happened. Quite incredibly, they not only rehearse the play with a full cast, but proceed to opening night with a full audience. Lana recovers her memory, is reunited with her repentant step-brat, falls in love with the playwright and scores a theatrical smash-hit. Meanwhile George Chakiris freaks out and overdoses on acid-laced sugar cubes. An ambulance hurtling him to hospital passes Lana’s limo. Cue jaunty music, the end.