Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age
July 23-29 at MoMA
The characters in this drama hold no relation to people in real life. The dramatic conflict that is here presented holds universal characteristics and could therefore take place in any city in the contemporary world.
So reads a title card at the outset of Distino amanecer (Another Dawn), a Films Mundiales S.A. production from 1943. The film’s setting is Mexico City, in which the hunted union leader Octavio (played by Pedro Armendáriz) tries to hide over the course of one night following a comrade’s assassination. He takes refuge in the home of his university sweetheart Julieta (Andrea Palma), whom he still desires despite her being married to a left-wing journalist (Alberto Galán) and performing shameful side work to support herself and her little brother. Her spouse’s calls for social change come to seem hollow amidst the city’s surrounding corruption. Octavio pleads for Julieta to come away with him; as time passes, though, her sad face suggests that life with Octavio might not be better than what she already has.
Director Julio Bracho’s film will screen newly restored on DCP at the Museum of Modern Art during the last two days of “Mexico at Midnight.” The series—which originated with a different lineup at last year’s Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia—presents seven restored films made between 1943 and 1952 in Mexico, during one of the most remarkable eras in the history of studio filmmaking. These films represent a specialty of the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema”: Ciné negro, whose name is a direct translation of “film noir.”
Like its American counterpart, ciné negro emerged during World War II, and combined the period’s focus on urban industrialization with its heightened awareness of death. The films came during a disillusioning time of nationwide economic growth that failed to change the fates of many impoverished people on whose behalf the boom ostensibly occurred. Ciné negro showed characters like Julieta along with wealthier troubled souls, all of whom shared basic human dilemmas. They struggled to swim out of seas filled with other peoples’ weaknesses, and ultimately drowned inside their own.
Bracho was one of ciné negro’s first practitioners, as seen both in Distinto amanecer and in 1945’s Crepúsculo (Twilight), which opens with a famed surgeon (played by Arturo de Cordóva) shrouded in torment for reasons that eventually grow clear. Flashbacks show him desiring a woman (Gloria Marín) who married his best friend (Julio Villarreal) under the belief that she could never be with him and only subsequently realized that she acted too fast. We watch the near-lovers consider whether they should still pursue their feelings while the other man’s awareness of those feelings steadily grows. The drama plays out beneath scattered skylights that give everything they touch the quality of an endless waking dream.
The films in MoMA’s series often feel hallucinatory. Their plots go beyond the scope of reason when following characters through illogical times. The young woman at the heart of Chile-born filmmaker Tito Davison’s 1948 work Que Dios me perdone (May God Forgive Me) is revealed first to be a wartime spy stationed in Mexico City, then a war refugee whose young daughter is being held captive in a concentration camp back in Europe. She marries a wealthy older man (Fernando Soler) and enlists a younger man (Tito Junco) in a plot against him that she believes will help her family; her plans result in a scene sickeningly unexpected to her that she must watch first in person and then again later on, after discovering that someone has caught everything on film.
Ciné negro characters are ripped apart by circumstances. They grow divided from their identities, to the point of sometimes failing to recognize their own reflections, then realizing with horror that they are seeing themselves after all. Such moments occur throughout the oeuvre of the director Roberto Gavaldón, four of whose films are included in MoMA’s lineup. Gavaldón’s preference for carefully composed, premeditated scenes in his films led several critics to label him as a heartless technician. He could also be seen as a humanist, however, whose work shows sympathy for people losing delusions of freedom.
1946’s La otra (The Other One) presents the great Dolores del Rio in a dual role as twin sisters. The wealthy, haughty widow Magdalena holds contempt for the homelier manicurist María, who lives with the feeling of being pursued by her sister’s shadow. María acts out on a wish to escape her tormentor and ends up eventually assuming the other woman’s place, in which she comes to feel even more trapped than she felt in her old one. Her need to rid herself of another person turns into a reality of self-sacrifice.
The lead female in Gavaldón’s 1947 film La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess) is a model and singer named Raquel (María Félix) who sees herself reflected in two other figures. The first is the titular sculpture for which she poses, and which is ultimately bought by her wealthy paramour (Arturo de Córdova) for his terminally ailing wife (Rosario Granados); the second is the man’s fearful wife herself, whose seat exists to be filled by the younger woman following her death. Raquel, who is initially greedy to claim her beloved, comes to chafe at living as his image of her, then recognize that image much too late as a gift that she has given to them both.
Ciné negro used its actors’ charms against them. The stars’ beauty belied their characters’ mortality and became one more trap into which the characters could fall. Pedro Armendáriz was one of Mexican cinema’s chief romantic leading men, a status key to his role in Another Dawn. That status bears even more powerfully upon his role nearly a decade later in Gavaldón’s 1952 La noche avanza (Night Falls), in which he shaved his trademark virile mustache for the role of a famed pelota player. This man’s promiscuity leads him into being blackmailed, and his subsequent orders to throw a match conflict with his overarching sense of pride. He is humiliatingly shown to be very much a star: Someone whose power exists for as long as others enable it, then wanes until getting snuffed out.
Arturo de Córdova, also a frequent romantic lead, looked older than Armendáriz and often gave off a more composed air. His performance is central to Gavaldón’s 1951 En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand), the opening film of MoMA’s series and in many ways its summation. The actor plays Jaime Karin, a fortune-teller who uses and abuses his beloved Clara (Carmen Montejo) to blackmail a rich woman (Leticia Palma) over her husband’s murder. Karin proceeds as though he can control everything, including his mounting lust for his would-be victim and his disregard for the woman already sharing his bed; seasoned ciné negro cinematographer Alex Phillips, meanwhile, shifts from full-on to overhead shots as Karin’s world looms increasingly beyond him. By film’s end, this swindler has become a universal type: Someone who brings about suffering through the mistaken belief that he can master the future.
Thanks go to Raúl Miranda López of the Cineteca Nacional de México for research help.