After too long an absence, David Melville Wingrove returns with his alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodramas, which has reached the Big W…
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
W is for Woman Devil (Doña Diabla)
Perhaps I should point out that the letter ‘w’ does not really exist in Spanish, apart from the spelling of foreign names. Still, I can’t miss an excuse to write about Doña Diabla (1950), a film that won María Félix an Ariel for Best Actress – as a woman so spectacularly wicked that lightning flashes and thunder rolls virtually every time she appears on screen. Not that she’s ever off it for long. Doña Diabla is her vehicle from start to finish and she never once lets us forget it. Yet with all those booms and bangs and blinding flashes of light, we may start to feel that we’re watching some Gothic Expressionist monster movie – which, in a very real sense, we are.
The opening credits roll over a montage of María in a series of fabulous gowns. Distracting but only fair, perhaps, as her wardrobe (by the legendary Armando Valdéz Peza) does at least as much acting as she does. The director, Tito Davison, clothes her in virginal, all-white ensembles as an innocent young bride, just waiting to be corrupted. When her no-good husband pimps her to his sleazy boss, she wears a white skirt tainted with dark polka-dots and – just in case we miss the point – a slave bracelet clasped tightly round her neck. Once she’s become a deluxe hooker – as well as a gambler, drug trafficker, blackmailer and fashion tycoon – she favours stylish all-black outfits, apart from the clusters of diamonds at her wrists and a very fetching white streak in her jet-black hair.
The film proper starts with a passionate argument between two shadows. Doña Diabla and her daughter (Crox Alvarado) are fighting furiously over a man. “I’ll see you dead before I see you in his arms,” shouts María in the very best movie manner. Her shadow pulls out a pistol and fires it. Her daughter’s shadow (which is nowhere near as elegant) crumples over and falls as if dead. María runs out into the night, clad in a spectacular full-length mink coat, pearl necklace and mile-high Joan Crawford style fuck-me shoes – the better to be inconspicuous and evade detection. Hotly pursued by police sirens, she flees to a church and confesses the story (in flashbacks) to a priest.
It’s all a clear attempt to emulate Crawford’s Oscar-winning triumph in Mildred Pierce (1945) – also a torrid tale of mothers and daughters, firearms and flashbacks. But dare I say that Doña Diabla makes the barnstorming melodramatics of Mildred Pierce look rather pallid and restrained? This whole movie takes place in a fever of near-operatic excess. When María, a young bride, first comes to the big wicked city, her husband takes her to a nightclub where a man in black silk pyjamas and a girl in a spangled bikini do an act that’s midway between a dance and a live sex show. A platoon of lecherous old men line up to dance with her. The husband’s boss remarks, ominously: “A woman who is too beautiful cannot belong to just one man.”
A few scenes later, she’s at a party in Acapulco, staring out at a moonlit sea – and trying to fend off the advances of said boss. A gypsy singer serenades the guests a flamenco number, and then starts reading their futures in their palms. Once she comes to María, the gypsy can read no more. “I see the face of the Devil himself!” María wastes no time in proving her right. Horrified that her husband expects her to sleep her way to the top on his behalf, she agrees to become the boss’s mistress – provided he will ruin her husband for good. This he does, obligingly, with just one telephone call. She takes a year out to give birth to her daughter, and then comes back and makes good on her bargain.
Years pass and her daughter grows into a simpering, cosseted ingénue – raised in a convent to spare her all knowledge of her mother’s life. When María drops in for her annual visit, the girls are in the garden singing Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ in chorus. (Is that what passed for an education in the old days?) “Oh, mother,” enthuses the adoring child. “My great ambition is to be exactly like you!” María’s face clouds over and looks, momentarily, perturbed. Back in the city that night, we get a telling close-up of her hands at the roulette table, sparkling with diamonds and raking in a king’s ransom in chips. Her husband’s old boss (and her one-time sugar daddy) turns up and looks forlorn. He has ruined himself for Doña Diabla, as countless men have done since. She buys him a cigarette and splashes him with her car as she drives off.
By the time she meets a man who’s a match for her, the film is half-way over. Victor Junco plays a sexy lounge lizard who runs dope and deals in smuggled objets d’art. It is, of course, the most passionate love-hate at first sight. Doña Diabla opens a ritzy high fashion house as a front for his illicit activities. Judging from their lavish catwalk show, we may add crimes against haute couture to out heroine’s ever-growing list of misdeeds. She is, however, desperate to turn respectable…in time for that fateful day when her daughter comes out of the convent. (Wouldn’t it be easier to just persuade the girl to be a nun?) Alas, the daughter runs away from the convent and flees to Mexico City before mother has quite turned over her new leaf.
María announces to her lover that they must part. She is taking her daughter away, on an extended trip to Europe. Junco takes this rather badly – and shows up at the villa, the night before they leave, with a full mariachi band and a rogue’s gallery of people involved in Doña Diabla’s past scandals. One of them obligingly commits suicide in the guest bedroom. By the time María has been released from police questioning (have they never noticed her shenanigans before?) Junco has seduced the daughter and the two look set to run away together…I won’t give away the ending, but it involves an ‘action replay’ of the opening scene, with actors this time and not shadows. Let’s just say there is a twist, if not one that is wholly unexpected.
Doña Diabla opens and closes with an impassioned quotation by Sister Juana de la Cruz, the 17th century Mexican author and mystic. “You foolish men, who accuse women without grounds, do you not see that you are the cause of all you condemn?” That is, fortunately, the closest this movie ever comes to art. Doña Diabla triumphs (like a book by Sidney Sheldon) not by scaling any heights of artistic ambition, but through the sheer consummate perfection of its melodramatic excess. It glorifies María Félix in a way that technically better movies may not, because its strident emotionalism is perfectly calibrated to her uniquely florid style of performance. Cynics may claim that trash of this sort was the best that María Félix could do – but nobody else could ever do it with such flair.