I spent Saturday at the Castro, taking in the first full day of the Noir City festival. It was a long day–a triple-bill matinee, a short dinner break, and a double-bill evening show. Mexico was the common theme.
Technically speaking, only the matinee had a Mexican theme. It started with a Hollywood thriller about illegal immigration with a Mexican hero. That was followed by two Mexican movies. All three films were pretty obscure, at least for American audiences.
The evening event screened two classic, well-loved noirs, both recently restored. The first one ended in Mexico; the second was mostly set there, although the main characters were all American.
Amazingly, all three of the American films–made in the late 40s and early 50s–managed to avoid the most obnoxious of Mexican stereotypes. The Mexican characters were as intelligent, hard-working, honest, and decent as the American characters. On the other hand, since this was noir, that’s not saying much.
B Border Incident
Nothing provides perspective like a 65-year-old film about one of the most controversial subjects of our own time. If made today, this 1949 MGM thriller about illegal immigration would anger both sides. The immigrants are treated sympathetically– as exploited victims. Those who smuggle them across the border and put them to work picking crops are evil villains in the great noir tradition. Those in law enforcement–Yankee and Mexican working together–are virtuous and courageous heroes, motivated only by a desire to stop the exploitation of the workers.
Border Incident gives us two detective heroes–one Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) and one American (future senator George Murphy). Of the two, Montalban–a Mexican who was seldom cast as one in his Hollywood career–has the larger and more impressive role. Not that the casting measures up to 21st century enlightenment. Another major Mexican good guy, a farm worker who effectively becomes Montalban’s sidekick, is played by James Mitchell in swarthy makeup.
Leaving aside social and racial issues, Border Incident is a well-made thriller set mostly in rural areas. It provides suspense, entertaining if not realistic characters, a modicum of humor, and the most ridiculously unbelievable quicksand I have ever seen in a movie. (On the other hand, I have never seen quicksand outside of a movie.)
The 35mm print was just fine.
B+ In the Palm of Your Hand
The perfect crime goes horribly wrong in this Mexican tale of wealth and greed. Arturo de Córdova stars as a fortune teller who uses detective skills to convince his clients of his magical powers. When he discovers that a beautiful widow murdered her husband–with the help of her handsome but not-too-bright lover–the clairvoyant sees the chance to augment his income with some blackmail. But the widow (Leticia Palma) has other plans, and a talent for getting what she wants out of men.
In the Palm of Your Hand becomes a story of a good man tempted into evil, with disastrous results. Palma creates the first of two great femme fatales I encountered on Saturday. And the flat tire sequences is a masterpiece of suspense.
This film has never been released in the USA, and the 35mm print lacked English subtitles. Noir City used the Castro’s digital projector to display newly-translated subtitles live over the film image. That worked fine for the most part, but occasionally got out of sync.
B+ Victims of Sin
The best flick in the triple bill was also the weirdest, and could reasonably be described as a noir musical. Actually, it’s a strange hybrid now called a cabaretera film, that combines melodrama with music. Like the earliest Hollywood musicals, they’re generally set in the world of live entertainment, allowing for realistically-motivated song and dance sequences.
Victims of Sin sports a silly plot, ridiculous characters, and entertaining musical numbers. But what sets it above all that is the films’ star, a force of nature named Ninón Sevilla. A blonde firebrand and magnificent dancer with the energy of a firecracker, she lights up the screen every time she steps into the frame. Whether she’s dancing with a drummer in a cabaret or jumping through a window guns ablazing, she holds the screen like few others.
The Festival screened the only English-subtitled print of Victims of Sin. Aside from some difficult-to-read subtitles, I have no complaints.
The Evening Show
A Too Late For Tears
Lizabeth Scott created the other great femme fatal of the day as a housewife willing to do anything to hold onto an illegal fortune. When a stranger tosses a satchel of cash into the family car, her husband wants to do the right thing and report the incident to the police. But that poor man is no match for his scheming wife. Neither is the crook whose car the satchel was supposed to be tossed into.
This is noir at its most entertaining. That paragon of mid-century American virtue, the housewife, proves herself smarter and meaner than everyone else as she sinks into depravity and murder (the professional crook is downright decent by comparison). Filled with tricky plot twists, witty dialog, and almost no production values, it provides a chance to both root for a dangerous killer and cheer at her ultimate downfall.
The Film Noir Foundation recently restored Too Late For Tears. Before the screening, Eddie Muller explained the problems finding decent source materials for the restoration. At one point they almost acquired an original nitrate print, but the trail went cold when the print’s owner suddenly died (which sounds like a noir plot). The 35mm restoration print (the FNF lacked the funds to restore it digitally) proved uneven in image quality. But it was never so bad as to compromise the pleasure of watching this excellent movie.
A The Hitch-Hiker
Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino, the only woman director of the Hollywood studio era, The Hitch-Hiker is a quick, efficient thriller that runs only 71 minutes. The story is simple, suspenseful, and based on a true story. Two men on a fishing vacation pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer wanted by the police. Holding them at gunpoint, he forces his prisoners to drive into Baja California, where he hopes to cover his tracks and be safe forever. They know quite well that he only intends to keep them alive until he no longer needs them.
This three-person tale is taut and suspenseful throughout. William Talman doesn’t bring nuance to the killer, but he brings a menace that could curdle water. I suspect that a generation swore off giving lifts to hitchhikers after seeing this movie.
The Library of Congress recently restored The Hitch-Hiker, and Noir City screened a beautiful new print. (And no, the picture above is not from the restoration.)