Archive for The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz

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

Who Knew?

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2009 by dcairns

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I went into THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Hitch’s comeback film after the “lowest ebb” of WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Hitch also used the ebb-slam to dismiss his earlier CHAMPAGNE, which like WFV is not without its pleasures regardless) thinking I knew it fairly well and wasn’t too keen on it. Certainly THE 39 STEPS is a more ambitious and confident work. But it’s amazing how seeing MAN WHO KNEW in sequence, after experiencing all Hitchcock’s extant previous work, crystallizes the film’s merits, making clear that it was indeed a leap forward in his development as (cliche ahoy!) the Master of Suspense.

Let me simply enumerate a few of the film’s many points of interest.

1) Settings. St Moritz. This was the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination in real life, so they begin the film there, making this the first thriller Hitchcock made with an element of globe-trotting to it. Glamorous and exotic locations became a standby of Hitchcock’s films, and indeed he had exploited foreign shooting in his very first film, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, as well as in EASY VIRTUE and especially RICH AND STRANGE, which is the story of an exotic holiday. THE MAN WHO begins with a pair of hands leafing through holiday brochures — Hitchcock’s first pre-credits sequence! — and continues to an Alpine skiing resort recreated largely in the studio (the film was a fairly low-budget affair).

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London. Hitch told Truffaut that the contrast between the open spaces of Switzerland and the dense streets of London was central to his conception of the film. For the first time since the opening of BLACKMAIL, Hitchcock’s camera invades the mean streets of working class areas, in this case, darkest Wapping.

The Albert Hall. Returning to this landmark last seen at the climax of THE RING, Hitch repeats the trope of BLACKMAIL of staging a climax in a familiar landmark, but improves on the idea by building the setting into the story, rather than having it appear in an arbitrary fashion. He also uses this sequence to weave the soundtrack into the plot, with an assassination attempt timed to coincide with a cymbal clash in the orchestral piece being performed at the hall. The idea of integrating music in this way, touched on in earlier films such as MURDER!, reached its first full flowering in the otherwise atypical WALTZES FROM VIENNA, and here is applied to the thriller genre for the first time. It won’t be the last.

2) Autobiography. Charles Barr, author of the terrific English Hitchcock, likes to think of MAN WHO as a quasi-sequel to RICH AND STRANGE, and I can see what he means. That film saw the suburban couple reaffirming their ailing marriage by determining to produce a child. The couple played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best in MAN have a young daughter, a little older than Patricia Hitchcock was at the time, but the family is once again in danger of tedium or splintering. The crisis of the plot rescues the nuclear family.

Barr perhaps makes too much of the hints of friction or instability in his book, but he’s onto something: every line exchanged between Banks and Best stresses their alienation, albeit in a lighthearted way. There’s much joking about Best’s infatuation with Pierre Fresnay, for instance. And between Best and her daughter, Nova Pilbeam, there’s likewise a lot of playful sniping. The performances make it clear that none of these lines (“Never have children,”) are meant seriously, but they’re so insistent that they’re clearly more than an ironic build-up to the daughter’s kidnapping.

3) Successive drafts. Knowing a bit about the project’s history sheds a fascinating light on what’s onscreen. Reuniting with Charles Bennett, whose play had provided the source for BLACKMAIL and who would be the key collaborator in all of Hitchcock’s British thrillers until THE LADY VANISHES, Hitchcock produced a treatment entitled Bulldog Drummond’s Child, but was unable to get it produced. When Michael Balcon visited Hitch on the set of WALTZES, he asked if Hitch had anything lined up, and the director took the opportunity to resurrect the project, but ditched the familiar character of Drummond. A cross between the stiff-upper-lip stoicism of Biggles, and the globetrotting adventurism of James Bond, Drummond was a pulp favourite who had already been played by Rod la Roq and Ronald Colman. The year of MAN, 1934, saw him embodied by both Colman and Ralph Richardson.

Abandoning the traditional hero leaves a somewhat weakened character for Banks to play. I wondered if Hitchcock and Bennett took the protagonist’s heroic reputation for granted, so that they forgot to give him anything daring or manly to do, but then I suspected that Hitch had deliberately moved the character away from the professional adventurer type he always affected to dislike. Banks’s character becomes a rather ordinary, albeit prosperous, husband and father. We never learn his profession, but we have no reason to assume it’s in any way glamorous. Making the hero an ordinary man is a key step in manufacturing the template for future Hitchcock adventures in the NORTH BY NORTHWEST mould.

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THE MANWHOKNEWRIAN CANDIDATE.

Another pair of plot points that mutated during the script’s development are Edna Best’s status as an outstanding markswoman, and the villains’ use of hypnotism. The first version had the bad guys brainwashing the heroine and using her as their assassin. But Hitchcock balked at what he saw as the implausibility of this, and declined the opportunity to make the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Instead the hypnotism gag was reduced to a side-show to the main event (it could easily have been eliminated altogether) and Frank Vosper is introduced as a rival sharp-shooter. Best’s dead-eye skills are introduced as a means of having our English holidaymakers encounter the foreign assassin, and the secret agent who is spying on him, and they pay off at the climax when Best rescues her daughter with a policeman’s rifle (I like how the cop casually yields his firearm to a bystander!).

Actually, the most economical solution would have been to eliminate hypnotism altogether and use the threat to Best’s kidnapped daughter to motivate her to carry out the terrorists’ plan, but perhaps that would be too simple.

4) Influences. Barr astutely identifies John Buchan as the key inspiring force here. The cryptic message than must be decoded in MAN (“WAPPING G. BARBOR MAKE CONTACT A. HALL MARCH 21ST”) strikingly resembles that in Buchan’s Greenmantle (“Kasredin. cancer. v.I.”), and another of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps, The Three Hostages, features hypnotism, a child-kidnapping, and hero Richard Hannay and his wife making separate excursions into the districts of London to thwart a threat to world peace, all plot elements used in MAN. To this I would add Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, which introduced child star Nova Pilbeam to the world. The story here, of a poor little rich girl whose mummy is being lured away from her stodgy dad by an exotic Lothario, seems to be spoofed in the opening sequences of MAN.

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5) Cast. What an interesting bunch they are.

The scar-faced Leslie Banks would never have been granted a leading man role in Hollywood, where he was unhesitatingly cast as the psychotic Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It seems a harsh treatment of a man who got his facial injury fighting for his country in World War I. He’s a little stiff here, but his ineffectiveness is partially the result of a script so keen to deprive him of Bulldog Drummond superheroics that it allows him to miss out on the climax altogether.

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Edna Best is fine, but one has to prefer the actors in Hitchcock’s own remake. Nova Pilbeam is pretty extraordinary, though, with her savage, wide-spaced, electro-magnetic eyes, porcelain overhang of brow, and sharp little nose lips and chin (she is a living rebuke to anyone who suggests lips can’t be sharp). She’s an incredibly compelling performer, quite apart from her wonderful mad face.

The presence of Pierre Fresnay, moonlighting from a West End stage production, adds a welcome lightness to the opening scenes, and an intriguing foretaste of the actor’s work in two movies by Clouzot, “the French Hitchcock.”

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from WALTZES), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war. 

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6) Politics. “Tell me, in June 1914 had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo?” While taking advantage of global instability to build a scenario based on international intrigue in a contemporary setting (films of Buchan novels had stuck to the build-up to WWI for their settings), Hitchcock uses the assassination scheme as almost a pure MacGuffin — we never learn what countries are involved, or who Lorre is working for. Perhaps the name “Abbott” is intended to defuse the actor’s foreignness somewhat, since Lorre would undoubtedly have been perceived as German by a British audience.

Nevertheless, the alliance of British characters and a French one against a gang led by a teutonic one, is suggestive.

Hitchcock ran afoul of the censors by modeling his climactic shoot-out on the real-life siege of Sidney Street, an east End gun battle he recalled from his youth, which was regarded as a blot on the British police force (and upon then home secretary Winston Churchill, who was criticised for using the mayhem as a photo opportunity) and had been banned by the censor’s office from any screen adaptation. The sticking point turned out to be the idea of policemen turning up with rifles, so Hitch had them requisition firearms from a convenient gunsmith’s, and apparently the force’s honour was saved. It’s fascinating how openly political British censorship was, although no doubt the establishment regarded criticism of the police as outwith the scope of mere politics.

7) Psychology. Barr again — he points out that with the light-hearted but somewhat barbed romantic triangle introduced at the film’s start, there’s something funny about Pierre Fresnay’s death. He’s dancing with Edna Best, who has just teased her unromantic husband, so Banks attaches her knitting to Fresnay, causing it to unravel and entrap the waltzing couples. A shot rings out, and Fresnay slowly collapses (a magnificent effect: “I’m sorry,” whispers Fresnay, dying). 

Barr suggests that this is almost as if Banks planned it, fixing his rival in position for the sniper’s bullet. That’s not literally true, of course, but the idea that the bullet comes as if willed by Banks is a fascinating one, especially as it connects the scene to the opening of Bunuel’s THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ. In that film, once again a bullet SPINGS through a window pane, leaving a neat hole, and kills a character as if at the wish of an onlooker. It’s tempting to suppose that Bunuel may have been inspired by Hitchcock, but if so, he never admitted it, being content to receive Hitch’s praise for TRISTANA: “That leg!” Hitch exclaimed, admiringly.

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Despite all Hitchcock’s efforts, and the public’s enthusiasm, his enemy at Gaumont, distributor C.M. Woolf, released the film on the second half of a double feature, with the result that the film’s colossal box office takings were officially credited to the “A” picture. Made cheaply, and attracting a massive audience, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH went down on the company’s books as a flop.

But Hitch had shown what he could do, and his producer ally Michael Balcon encouraged him to continue down this path with his next project… so it’s off to Scotland next week!

Dreaming Awake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2008 by dcairns

“I was dreaming I was awake, and then all of a sudden I woke up and found myself asleep.” ~ Stan Laurel in OLIVER THE EIGHTH.

Well, I did a foolish thing. To celebrate handing in my Shirley Clarke article (henceforth, “the Clarkicle”) I shelled out fifty clams for the giant 21-disc LAUREL & HARDY COLLECTION. Admittedly, I’ve been coveting them for ages. I have most of the stuff on old VHS off-air recordings, but knowing I have something as complete as necessary is a nice feeling. (Nobody needs to have all the shorts with Stan but not Ollie, or vice versa, and nobody WANTS to have UTOPIA/ATOLL K, that misbegotten final film which I’ve never had the courage to investigate.)

Having lugged the box home (it’s like a little briefcase in size) I immediately rifled through in search of what was to be my first watch. When I got to Disc 6, OLIVER THE EIGHTH leaped out at me.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this L&H. It might be due to the responses instilled in me by my mother, who would always get very excited by anything mixing fear and comedy. Well, I say always, but I’m probably thinking solely of her very audible reaction to the Disney Legend of Sleepy Hollow adaptation that forms half of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD. All that screaming and laughing made a big impression on me, and influenced my love of the chases in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

So, to O8, as it will be known when Roland Emmerich remakes it as a Summer Blockbuster. Fiona had seen it before, but I don’t think she remembered it in detail. What was weird was, seeing it with her, it became suddenly clear to me how brilliantly structured the film was. There’s no way to discuss this without spoilers, so run away now if you’re bothered by such things.

THE PLOT: Stan and Ollie run a “Tonsorial Parlor”. Stan discovers a classified ad of the “rich widow seeks husband” variety, and both he and Ollie resolve to apply. But Ollie hides Stan’s letter (“Oh noooo!” cried Fiona, who can be a little like my Mum in terms of her vocal emotional response to movies) before sitting down smugly to be shaved…

His application successful, Oliver Norville Hardy duly arrives at the designated mansion, where he finds a mad butler, Jitters, played by Jack Barty (born in London during Jack the Ripper’s autumn of terror, died two years after appearing in GASLIGHT, his final role) and Mae Busch (hard-bitten vamp, memorable in TIT FOR TAT and several other L&H films, deserves a statue in her honour in Adelaide, Australia). Then Stan turns up, having found the hidden letter, demanding half of what’s coming to Ollie.

BUT — Mad Mae was once jilted by an Oliver, and has spent her subsequent years revenging herself upon the race of Olivers — they’re all alike, those Olivers! – inviting them to her home and cutting their throats as they sleep (there’s an understated grisliness about this film). Learning this, but locked in the house, Stan and Ollie must try to stay awake and defend themselves.

This is where the film really begins for me. The plot set-up is fine, an engaging tall tale kind of thing, and the business with the screwy butler (playing solitaire with imaginary cards, serving imaginary soup and crackers at dinner) is kooky and provides a great excuse to linger on the details of performance — like the individual ways Stan and Ollie and Mae crumble their phantom crackers, humouring the nut who waits on them. But once the real suspense kicks in, it’s a perfect excuse for Ollie’s slow-burn reaction and the painstaking methodology of the usual Laurel & Hardy destructiveness to play out with a ticking clock of serious suspense underneath. Unusual!

Stan keeps falling asleep, so Ollie fixes up a primitive Rube Goldberg contraption to keep him alert. The circumstances leading from that little ploy, to Ollie’s sitting unconscious in a chair with a sheet over his body, throat exposed, while Stan is trapped in a closet with the shotgun which is their only weapon, as Mae advances upon Ollie with grim determination and mesmeric trances expression, stropping her giant blade — well, I want to say that those circumstances have the logic of a nightmare, but actually it’s better than that. They have the impeccable logic of reality, or the L&H version of it anyhow, combined with the TERROR of a nightmare.

At a scene of high tension, reaching a peak, with a “get out of THAT” plot problem closing on the heroes like a steel trap, I am always reminded of my maternal grandmother’s reaction to suspense climaxes in movies — maintaining a sitting position, but her arms and legs would magically RISE INTO THE AIR and WAVE ABOUT, animated as if by invisible wires. It’s my ultimate mental image of unbearable tension, and my dream as a filmmaker is to make everybody in a 500-seat auditorium do the same.

Anyhow, through what is basically a hackneyed cliche, but suddenly seems to me fresh and brilliantly structured, Ollie awakens at the instant of death and finds himself back in his old barber’s chair. “I just had a terrible dream,” he declares, redundantly, the end credits music already starting to hurry us out of this delightful nightmare.

What’s great about this is that it’s cunningly prepared for, and the dream can easily be seen as motivated by Ollie’s guilt at hiding Stan’s letter (this could be the most Freudian of L&H films), but this doesn’t need to be explained. Nor does the film need to go into what’s going to happen next. Ollie might decide to post Stan’s letter, or he might be so freaked out by the dream that he thinks it best not to, and will refrain from replying to any missives from that rich widow…

Also nice — there’s a loud crash as Ollie awakens, which presumably is Stan, in the closet, with the shotgun, but (a) we never see him fire it and (b) the sound carries on into the next scene, which is a wholly different reality. So it feels like on of those Bunuel moments, where the great Don Luis will play a sound which is perfectly recognisable but has no obvious diegetic source in the scene, and only the most allusive meaning in symbolic terms.

In fact, while Bunuel may have enjoyed Chaplin and Keaton, he feels more similar to L&H in some ways. Use of offscreen noise; extremes of cruelty enacted with ritualisitic politeness, simplicity of framing which is neither stagy like Chaplin nor super-composed like Keaton. The “clutching hand” that terrifies Stan in O8 has a counterpart in the crawling, or rather gliding hand that sweeps across the living room in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, Mae Busch is could almost be a distaff version of ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, and the mimed meal the characters “enjoy” is like a foretaste of the many frustrated or skewed dinners served up in the Spanish surrealists films.

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