Soy puro mexicano
The Axis powers move into Mexico to lay the groundwork for future activities. Fernandez evokes precisely the stark staring inanity filmed by Riefenstahl, in the order given by a fat Nazi wearing light khaki with an open collar, jodhpurs and a monocle on a string, “arrest all the mestizos,” i.e., Mexicans of “mixed race”. The title of the film is a riposte to this, and has something of the same connotation as “I’m pure American”.
Pedro Armendariz leads the campesinos against the interlopers. He and his men are bivouacked beside an open fire with a roast on the spit, a man sings with a guitar to a little statue of the Virgin in a niche of the wall behind them, Armendariz lectures a young boy, “If you want to be happy, you’ll have to work hard” and study “to be a good Mexican” (the theme reappears in Rio Escondido, and the lecture in Un Dorado de Pancho Villa).
The study of Hitchcock revealed by a swift kick to a glass in the Nazi’s hand delivered by his lady prisoner, with a brief insert of the action in close-up, is typical of Fernandez (standing at the Nazi’s wet bar in a précis of Casablanca, she offers a toast to democracy, which he scoffs at, proposing Greater Germany instead).
A thin Japanese in a white suit, black tie and glasses, adheres to strict protocol in logistical planning. “Those ships are in the Pacific, and the Pacific belongs to Japan.”
Fernandez dissolves from a shot of the riders, in a landscape of clouds and trees, to a hand clutching a rosary among the women held captive in the hacienda, who are guarded by a bald Italian. The lady is sent to this dungeon, too, but smiles at the order with a last word of contempt, “Canalla”.
A priest’s robes are borrowed for the assault, which begins by knifing a guard outside, after which the assassin wipes the long blade on his costume. He’s caught, but smuggles a pistol into the dungeon, and the prisoners escape.
In one of the sparse camera movements employed by Fernandez (small adjustments or tracking shots), Armendariz slowly descends a staircase, pistol drawn, holding at bay the Nazi and the Japanese. They kill innocent, defenseless people, he tells them, and in reply they offer him money from Hermann Goering. A mêlée erupts, and both are killed.
Jack Draper’s cinematography anticipates Gabriel Figueroa’s. “The cinema isn’t me,” Fernandez says, “it’s Mexico,” all you have to do is film it. Hitchcock par excellence on the train, a miniature. “Ich soy puro mexicano,” says the fat Nazi and screws his monocle in, his cat eats the brigand’s poisoned dinner and dies. Armendariz laughs, “I’m a saint compared to the type of men that you are,” the sight of a dachshund makes him look twice at the bottle he’s liberated from the Nazi’s bar. An old cannon in the plaza liberates him from jail for all this.
J. Lee Thompson’s Caboblanco takes off from it, Frank Tuttle’s Lucky Jordan is exactly contemporaneous.
The vision of art in Mexico, placidly affirming its proper range and purview by conditioning all its responses to a key witness outside its realm, who has all her own panoply of conditions and responses, etc.
Crowther sat clear-minded as only rarely in his career, admired it all, but wondered what precisely that pearl as big as your eye was supposed to mean.
The great edification of his art takes place or is seen here, where a quite mythical revolution swamps comically his Taming of the Shrew (or Much Ado About Nothing), his stern visions focus the camera of Gabriel Figueroa (showing the profit of his apprenticeship to Gregg Toland) and are lost in unimaginable distance, which would merely be a poeticism except that it fuses the editing most miraculously by persistence of vision.
The construction is primarily based on Shakespearean models, and outfitted in the Shavian manner as a story of the Revolution, a fiery general comes to town and puts all the dons to the wall, until the fiery daughter of one of them literally blows him up, whereupon he falls in love and courts her. Fernandez employs a strenuous technique to extrapolate from all this the essential formula reflected in the title. Long takes and close-ups are especially demanding on the leads, who prosper in the attention, and require a certain brave rigor in the players generally, among whom will be recognized one of the banditos in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and one of the Huertistas in The Wild Bunch. It will be seen why directors shooting south of the border went to Fernandez, one whip pan here is uncannily like the later Huston.
A few quick shots in the firework-shop scene became the “1812 Overture” in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. Fernandez, for his part, borrows a cigar gag from Salome Where She Danced. Carol Reed expanded and developed the serenade scene significantly in The Third Man. The resolution is evidently a root and source of The Graduate.
“Let them go, a couple of quiet ones.”
Before the credits, Fernandez establishes the scene in contemporary Mexico City. The President has summoned educators for special assignments, and he has one in particular for Maria Felix. She is seen in swift shots walking to her appointment, climbing the stairs past two panels of Rivera frescoes (one a group portrait, the other in his cinematographic style), and finally ushered in to the President’s office. Their meeting shows the influence of Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, and with a difference in tone toward the somber strongly resembles the meeting of George M. Cohan and President Roosevelt in that film. Corruption is one major force limiting the nation’s capabilities, and illiteracy is another. The President has nothing less on his mind than “to save our people.” He tells the young teacher, “write to me as soon as you have concrete solutions. Mexico and I are with you. Thank you in the name of Mexico.” The situation is desperate, these words would indicate, and that is the substance of the story. She solemnly and a little tearfully accepts her assignment to the little village of Rio Escondido, and goes to the station for the nearest train, which according to a sign goes to Ciudad Juarez.
After the credits (over woodcuts by Leopoldo Méndez) she is seen walking with her luggage on the road to Rio Escondido. This is the first of many skyscapes, with the horizon at or near the bottom of the frame, and the background entirely clouds. Her constitution is weak, and she collapses. The village doctor is riding by on his horse (there are no motorcars in Rio Escondido), he brings her around and tells her not to go on. They argue, and she continues on her way.
As she enters the plaza, the corrupt Presidente Municipal is showing off on his horse before his gang and some of the townspeople. He rides up and down, rears the horse up and falls backward under it (an extraordinary stunt). He is unhurt, but he beats the horse until she intervenes, and he knocks her down. An old man (the ostler in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) bids him not to strike a woman, so the P.M. strikes him instead. “He is a Christian,” the old man insists, as he and the teacher converse. This scene was remembered by John Huston in The Misfits, it would appear.
The teacher comes to present her credentials and is thrust away into the street. A few houses down, she comes upon a dying woman. The doctor is summoned, but to no avail. The body is wrapped in straw matting and placed on the doorstep, when the P.M. and his gang ride up on horseback. “The street is mine,” he proclaims. One of his lackeys lassos the offending body and they drag it away down the unpaved street.
The train to Ciudad Juarez has landed the teacher back in Juarez’s time, so backward is this town. Fernandez swiftly grasps the meaning of Chaplin’s controversial speech at the end of The Great Dictator in a scene addressed to the camera as the teacher gives her first class. There is a portrait of Juarez, an Indian (like Fernandez) who became President and worked to abolish misery and illiteracy in the country. She is teary and impassioned, and concludes by drawing the letter “a” on the blackboard and pronouncing it.
Just before this scene, a group of village men ride their horses right into the church, where one of them looks up at the crucified Christ and doffs his hat. At the same time, the P.M. is taken ill, but the doctor will only treat him if the school is allowed to open and he is permitted to give the townspeople vaccinations. The P.M. agrees, and Fernandez shows the doctor preparing his inoculations in the plaza as one of the P.M.’s henchmen (the hat thief in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) looks on.
The P.M., recovered, is deeply impressed by the teacher’s words, which he hears standing in the doorway. He walks across to the church and kneels before the altar, crossing himself and kissing his thumb. He lifts big, teary eyes to the Savior.
The P.M. offers his help to the teacher, gives her the gift of a pistol, outfits a residence for her with a brass bed and a shower (filled by two men on the roof), and a photograph of himself by the bed. “What a little man you are,” she tells him angrily as she crumples the photograph and walks out.
He comes to see her during class, and she denounces him before the students for “disgracefully ignoring his constituents and giving himself up to his basest instincts like every other corrupt official in Mexico.” He leaves, and she weeps with her face on her arms at her desk, surrounded by her young students.
You see now the malleability of Fernandez’s structures, as this is not very far from Enamorada (and tends toward La Rebelión de los Colgados). Similarly, Maria Felix turns her noble, fiery persona a notch or two and creates something quite different.
A most serious and pressing problem in the town is bad water. The priest holds a meeting (remarkably like the one in On the Waterfront) and is struck across the face by the P.M., who says, “the water is mine!”
In fact, the only good water is at the P.M.’s fountain. A child fills his jug there and the P.M. shoots the boy dead on the spot with a revolver at noon. He is annoyed by the funeral that night, and arrives with torches out of Fritz Lang, perhaps.
Fernandez is at his most extraordinary in all this. The number of camera movements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand (the camera adjusts slightly to the doctor treating the unconscious teacher, it makes a curving pan briefly as the priest observes from the loft while the P.M. says his prayers, after the catastrophe it dollies in quickly to the doctor and the priest standing in a doorway, à la Hitchcock). He pulverizes every artistic difficulty as it appears.
The P.M., drunk, rides with his men by night to the teacher’s house. The men stand outside as he goes in. They hear her suffering cries, and then a shot. The P.M. emerges, totters down the steps, and then she appears in her nightgown holding the pistol. She shoots him again and again until he falls dead at the bottom of the steps.
The townspeople arrive with torches and surround the gang (this is perhaps a memory of William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The strain is too much for the teacher’s fragile health, and she falls unconscious, mortally ill.
She wakes up raving, but manages to dictate a letter. “Who is it addressed to?” asks the doctor with pen in hand. “To the President of the Republic,” she says. The doctor looks at the priest and begins writing.
The teacher lives just long enough to hear the President’s reply, read to her by the doctor in a scene carefully modeled on Walter Huston’s death scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy. “The nation thanks you,” the President writes, promising to continue “the work of rehabilitation in Rio Escondido.” Having finished, the doctor reaches his hand to close the teacher’s eyes. Fernandez dissolves to a carven stone plaque commemorating the teacher who “died for the nation and is buried in the school by the express wish of the people of Rio Escondido.”
Fernandez has gleaned the understanding of Hitchcock’s accomplishment in the great second half of Blackmail, specifically the scene in the little shop where the blackmailer accosts his victims. On the surface, it’s very straightforward, but by the time Hitchcock reaches this pinnacle, so much drama has been brought into play that what you have is, among other things, a projected or invisible scene of Miltonic proportions.
First, Fernandez recognizes the value of this. Second, he finds this a pleasing problem with, conceivably, a variety of possible solutions. Third, he has the strength of patience to extract from his mise-en-scène this hieratic or symbolic drama on a large scale.
The surface is conveyed by the actors, whose every subtle nuance is recorded, and by Gabriel Figueroa’s exteriors, which are so spectacular they are introduced from time to time like musical numbers.
The profundity, freedom and elegance of Fernandez’s technique can be measured by Maclovia’s superficial resemblance to Maria Candelaria, of which it could be said to be a remake with a happy ending of sorts, in comparison to its actual difference. One Nō play is very much like another, from the peanut gallery.
There is a mild irony in the last shot of Esteban’s body filling the lower half of the screen, and above it in the background the Hacienda del Soto, as his widow Raimunda turns home after ordering him carried inside to be rendered in appearance as he was, the master of the house, “el amo del Soto”.
At the opening, the daughter bitterly proclaims the house will always be her father’s and not this interloper’s. Faustino wants to marry her, and Acacia will do anything to leave, but her stepfather forbids her to marry anyone she does not love, and sends Faustino away on pain of death.
Faustino returns at night to carry her away, and is killed by Esteban in a duel on horseback. The dead man’s family swears vengeance. Acacia, who witnessed the event at close hand, denies all to the police.
Esteban confesses his love to her, and prepares to leave. She calls to him, they embrace. Next morning, Acacia is all smiles at the breakfast table. “At last, we’re a real family,” says Raimunda.
The murder is the talk of the town. Raimunda learns the truth about her second husband, who sadly leaves. Mother and daughter forgive each other.
On the news that Acacia is entering a convent, Esteban returns. Raimunda cannot live without him, nevertheless he’s come for Acacia, who falls at her mother’s feet, refusing him. Faustino’s brothers arrive, circle Esteban on their horses and shoot him down. The camera records the scene in a down-angle long shot with a crucifix in the foreground. As they ride away, Raimunda attends the body.
Fernandez certainly has a profound understanding of Hitchcock. After fixing Blackmail at its true valuation, he now adapts Sara Allgood’s performance in Juno and the Paycock to Dolores Del Rio’s here, subsumes the detail work of The Man Who Knew Too Much into a track-and-pan from Pedro Armendariz’s boots and spurs to Del Rio’s bare feet, and deploys a measure of Suspicion toward the end.
Dudley Nichols’s Mourning Becomes Electra might have given rise to the surpassingly strange treatment of the material, which seems closest to Wyler’s The Heiress (released a month later), the “severities” of which shocked young Godard on the Champs-Élysées. The opening scenes could have become the full-fledged opera of Wyler’s The Letter, but Fernandez has a somewhat different resolution. He and his co-screenwriter have evidently re-composed the play for cinema, but something in its nature or its nineteenth-century setting draws his interest toward a sober, sculptural style carried to an access of romanticism, while at the same time regarding the characters as psychological studies underway, all of which simply means constant stylization of a text whose high acidity makes for a powder-dry liquor. Citizen Kane figures in the composition.
Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography emphasizes flat landscapes, delicate horizons, and voluminous skies. His hacienda interiors abet the dramatic constructions, and in church he finds inexplicable splendor of Churrigueresque white and gold. Several actors from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre will be noted. The last scene appears at the end of Un Dorado de Pancho Villa.
Del Odio Nace el Amor
The play, as Hitchcock would no doubt say, has been interpreted for English-speaking audiences (thus “stinking skunk” for “miserable reptil”) and in the light of Rio Escondido, certainly. A more complicated picture unfolds than Enamorada, taking into account many things not needed in the native tongue, the original inspiration. These include Brown’s The Rains Came and Wyler’s Jezebel, and most significantly Kenton’s The Ghost of Frankenstein for Adelita, the little ward of General Reyes. Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces is exacerbated in the conflict with the priest Sierrita.
Beatrice and Benedick they are, still, the rich man’s daughter and the revolutionary general, but the position is more ironic, even, and visibly so.
The marvelous exactitude of filming remains in the heroic generosity of the translation, perhaps more so.
Un Día de vida
Un Día de vida is a story whose origins are set in the days of Porfirio Diaz. A colonel is sentenced to death for refusing to follow the government line on Zapata. The film begins on a drum-and-bugle corps’ flourish at sunup, and ends with his execution by firing squad.
The starkness of this is mitigated somewhat by Hollywood lighting of interiors (derived allusively from Curtiz’s Casablanca, as will be seen), and also by the complex structure of allusions and refractions. Furthermore, there is a somber fiesta held in honor of the colonel’s mother the night before his execution, with a musical number or two and a bit of dancing.
The drums and bugles excite the curiosity of a hotel guest, who is a visiting writer from Cuba. She’s told about the colonel by the hotel waiter, who later is seen in his dusty breeches and wide sombrero, “not an old soldier but a loyal dog,” and another source of the gag in Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain.
The writer sends Cuban cigarettes to the colonel in prison, and he’s reminded of Tampico and “la gloria de la tierra”. He’s an admirer of Jose Marti, and quotes his verse. The jailer is an Army chum who’s now a general.
Columba Dominguez as the writer is subtly made-up to appear slightly plain, yet she wears a fashionable hat like Ingrid Bergman’s in Casablanca, and there’s a scene with her and the two officers at the fiesta which oddly somehow also suggests that film. The general, who is only a man of duty, sings a song in praise of the mother, and then the colonel and his mother dance a solemn foot-dance. Roberto Cañedo’s resemblance to Henry Fonda in Fort Apache here is notable, and Rosaura Revueltas is made to look much older, deliberately recalling John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
John Ford but also Alfred Hitchcock are the main influences, so that when the writer visits the mother at home, an evocation of Rebecca is inevitable but considerably surprising. The mother has a row of photographic portraits on her wall, the sons who died in various battles at the service of Mexico, and she kneels down to retrieve from a box their recompense, a handful of medals like sacrificial hearts. She isn’t bitter but proud, and the colonel is the last of her sons.
Brief exteriors (by Gabriel Figueroa) give the lay of the land, bare soil under the plow, cactus, the sharply beveled pyramids. The old waiter lies prostrate on the altar steps before a sea of candles to Our Lady of Guadalupe. All his inspiration returns to him in a trice while conversing with the writer. “Mexico! The liberty of the people!” The writer is desirous of further knowledge, to her, Mexico is a difficult place to understand.
The dignity of the colonel’s comportment makes the latter scenes a foreglimpse of A Man for All Seasons, and Cañedo’s further resemblance to Pierre Fresnay in La Grande illusion also figures in the ending. As he drives away from the house to his place of execution, the shot anticipates The Searchers.
The pure geometrical severity of the final shots, with a couple of Expressionist angles thrown in, leads to the general with his back to the camera in the lower left of the frame facing the mother in the upper right as she inquires and departs.
A woman checks into a posh Acapulco hotel with the intention of marrying a rich man. She strikes up a bargain with the manager, they become partners. “What capital,” he exclaims, admiring her.
The likely candidates aren’t interested in marriage, though, and she swims or walks back to the hotel after several rendezvous. The game is played that she is rich, one offer comes her way, his wife will grant him a divorce but no money.
All along, a local fisherman befriends her, gradually winning her love. He is the richest man in Acapulco, the manager tells her. Distressed, she boards a plane and is offered a handkerchief by the very man.
A beautifully refined technique carries the joke, as the lovely resort with champagne at every turn is gradually seen through the fishing nets and surf and rocks of Fernandez’s view.
Not the least interesting thing about this great comedy is how he reworked it completely into the drama El Crepusculo de un dios. Sequences along the beach went directly into La Red (and Erotica).
Hitchcock, Stroheim and Huston figure in various ways (the lovers standing in an up-angle against the sky, the elder wife, the ragamuffins selling lottery tickets).
Cuando levanta la niebla
Only one shot gives away the visible Fernandez, a long shot of the beach with a fishing net hanging out to dry. In this homage to Hitchcock, it’s like an allusion.
Fernandez had derived some earlier films (Maria Candelaria, Maclovia) from certain implications in the Hitchcock of Blackmail, but it was time to take stock. Cuando levanta la niebla has as much to do with Spellbound as Murder! has with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the situations in the screenplay allow constructions closely modeled upon the earlier film with an altogether different basis.
A man checks into a Neuropsychiatric Clinic, meets a Chopin-loving patient who is assaulted by a melophobe among the inmates. The musician is murdered, the man returns home in his place and dies while in the midst of murder or seduction of the inheriting sister (he is shot in flagrante delicto by a nurse from the Clinic).
In the opening shot, he is in the middle distance with his back to the camera, facing a wall of backlit fog amid darkness. His voice tells of romantic engagements and marriage, a closer angle reveals a dog looking up at him, it might be the last scene of Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie, only he draws a pistol and shoots the dog. The last shot is of him walking off through the fog.
Admitted to the Clinic, he is led by the nurse through an open ward to his room, which he shares with the musician. There is a crisis in the ward, the wrong medication has been administered, 100% Formula 9 instead of a concentrate. The potentially fatal mix-up announces the later murder.
The musician is in the dayroom playing the E-Major Etude when another patient dashes over agitatedly commanding him to stop. Later, while strolling on the grounds, the musician is whacked over the head with a closed pair of garden shears by the same maniac, and soon lies unconscious with a bandaged head. That night, someone whose hands and feet alone are seen (but evidently a patient by his cuffs) walks over to the dispensary and switches the bottles of Formula 9, pouring one out. Later, our man (Arturo de Cordova) looks up with interest as the nurse (Columba Dominguez) measures his dose with a glinting dropper.
The final confrontation between the man and the musician’s sister (Maria Elena Marques) on a dark staircase in their uncle’s mansion is played with an exacerbation of film-noir lighting in the manner of Sekely, gleaming highlights and her shadowy bosom on a black screen, the struggle, her acquiescence, the gunshot.
The analysis of a psychopath (a year before El) is fascinatingly distributed among scenes more or less directly quoting Spellbound (man, sister and uncle situated briefly like Peck, Bergman and Carroll in the knife scene, etc.), with traces of Notorious or The Magnificent Ambersons, maybe a hint of Van Gogh’s bedroom, Tourneur’s Out of the Past and Brahm’s Guest in the House, not to mention Hollow Triumph, D.O.A., etc.
This is a severe technical challenge for Fernandez and Figueroa, of course. Before the beach scene, the man and the sister dance cheek to cheek in a nightclub, she runs out as the camera dollies out on a close-up of her face, Hitchcock and Edouart would have made this impassively smooth, here it’s somewhat jarring (and nothing lost thereby). Gabriel Figueroa gives the most rigorous account of Hollywood lighting and Rembrandt lighting throughout, with only the long shot of the beach and the sea in moonlight, and a brief, bare street in daylight the man drives away on, to break the close shooting.
Brief and bare is the black bikini on an acrobat filmed from above in another nightclub scene (with young Linda Cristal in her first film). In the scene before this, the man is mixing drinks for a bevy of these posh girls, one of them wants to know something and he says, contemplating the bottles and shaker, “that is the question” (in English). An up angle shows all hands reaching out glasses toward him as he pours, forming the spokes of a wheel like an earlier, curious shot of hallways at the Clinic converging on a central foyer.
After “father’s financial successes” (“los éxitos económicos de Papa”), the sister stands to inherit. The musician has an aria on his present circumstances, two years in the Clinic as a consequence of his “vicios”, in the word of a synopsis (on which I rely to some extent for want of subtitles). The Chopin theme briefly recurs in the score, associated with the sister.
The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Man Who Knew Too Much are two entirely separate films built around a plot device, La Red and Erotica are the same film twice, once in color shot scene-for-scene after being shot once in black-and-white, nearly three decades apart. La Red is Lang and Renoir and The Pearl, ocean waves and sunlight.
La Red is the inner film, colder outside, made of silent informed glances, the curl of a wave breaking across the screen toward the camera, the most elaborate of Fernandez’s compositions, his noblest conceptions of editing. Erotica shows you how very different a thing is composition in color.
La Red is the frankest expression of Fernandez’s understanding with regard to the eyes and face, this accounts for the spareness around such scenes as the main revelation of love, building to the lovers after the fistfight on the beach.
All is showmanship that is not art, particularly the music, which plays with various themes. Filmmaking is a great labor to make something accurate and telling, there is an element of mystification in the jealous lover’s mind bursting as spray against the rocks behind his superimposed face.
La Rebelión de los colgados
A film in which photography is the principal element, showing at times the influence of Paul Strand or Manuel Alvarez Bravo (on a ground of Gauguin), and developing a theory of montage as simple juxtaposition or sequence like, say, Jacob Lawrence’s Toussaint L’Ouverture series.
It depicts the campesinos of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Wild Bunch in distress, and finally overcoming despotic overlords, who in their turn are depicted with amusing ferocity and a little theme from Rain, perhaps.
Franklin J. Schaffner in Planet of the Apes seems to have modeled the scene of the astronauts’ capture directly on the recapture scene after the jailbreak here, and Orson Welles in The Trial looks to have taken a cue from the flurry of camera movement following the rape scene. The photography also resembles much of Sidney J. Furie’s work in The Appaloosa and elsewhere.
Una Cita de Amor
The classical Fernandez with Gabriel Figueroa, skyscapes, severity, Mexico the artist’s palette and canvas at once.
It opens with a gate (The Searchers), Don Mariano’s realm, the Mallarméan adjuration tending agave in the field, the way of a man with a maid. She rebels for her lover’s sake, there is war, he dies victorious (Un Día de vida).
A formal dance has the nuance of Jezebel, the second country dance with fireworks has a touch of To Catch a Thief, a sound out of The Third Man fills the screen from a lone guitar.
Fernandez’s Romeo and Juliet is more of a departure than his Taming of the Shrew (Enamorada), more analytical, more complete.
Pueblito is a comic recomposition of Rio Escondido and an assured masterpiece in Fernandez’s grandest manner, which is to say first that it follows the tendencies of the earlier film toward La Rebelión de los colgados, adds a touch of Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s to fizz the mix, lavishes shot upon beautiful shot on the subject, and is rigorously filmed with the kind of analysis that would have completely eluded the critics even if his later films had not inexplicably fallen into disfavor.
It begins on the grand square in Mexico City, shows modern traffic in the streets, then a goggled motorcyclist roaring away to the outskirts and into the desert. He falls over outside the small rural town of the title, San Martin de Arriba, and is passed by a campesino walking the other way, who airily sweeps his serape over his shoulder as he goes.
After the credits, the motorcyclist roars into town, scaring women who peep out as he circles the plaza, disturbing men at their work, setting a dog to bark and so on. Finally he stops and looks about in a sequence of champ contre champ derived from The Maltese Falcon like the gas station fire in The Birds as he sees the women and men one at a time, looking at him, and finally an ass.
This formidable introduction is still not enough for what follows, so Fernandez borrows a device from Shakespeare’s Henry V, a mere recitation of history as it were, a letter to the president read aloud before the public. The town strongman is Don Cesar, it’s necessary to eat but not to learn, schools are a fantastic notion. The motorcyclist is an engineer come to aid the lone schoolteacher, who lacks a proper building. Her students sit on castoff chairs at boxes for desks, she sleeps on the floor of her unwalled makeshift classroom, there is only a blackboard.
The profundity of Fernandez’s regard for this material is in two shots of the engineer and the teacher, which are among the subtlest, finest and most difficult of all Fernandez’s work. A wide shot of the teacher’s quarters is unequally divided by a doorway left of center in the background. She is on the right at her table facing the camera rapturously discussing her plans, he is on the left restively listening to her, the ungainly shot conveys two psychological states at once like a split screen. There is no money for her dreams, he tells her.
The next morning, he is ready to leave. The shot is again divided, closer to center, now by a vertical post supporting the thatched roof of the outdoor classroom, she is on the left and slightly to the rear, his larger figure to the right faces her as she cheerily pleads for one more chance to convince him. The way out is clear behind him, he’s ready to go, he’s at liberty to indulge her. His command of the situation is expressed in the shot, just as his frustration and her isolated unreality are expressed in the previous one, by purely cinematic means.
The largest house in town is named in large letters, Casa de Don Cesar. “We don’t need schools,” he tells the two, “we’re content to live as we are.” It’s a town of cottage industries, weaving at the loom, grinding grain, only Don Cesar’s house is full of idleness, boredom and gramophone music. The water is bad, a small boy is dying, Don Cesar rebuffs criticism. The engineer whisks the boy through the desert to Mexico City.
A sermon from the pulpit gives Don Cesar food for thought. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” spoken directly at him, “and unto God that which is God’s.” Before it ends the engineer returns with the boy hale and hearty. Don Cesar’s pretty young wife packs her bag to leave. He allows the school to be built. The score at this point takes on the flair of Chavez and Revueltas.
Now begins a long sequence without dialogue. Don Cesar’s wife parades past the construction site, stopping the work as men stare at her. She bathes in a secluded pond outside town, the engineer has caught her eye and follows her after several trips. Don Cesar goes after her with a pistol, the teacher sees this and runs ahead. Wife and engineer kiss beside the pond, Don Cesar finds the teacher and the engineer kissing. “Excuse me,” he says, ending the sequence.
When he returns, his wife has gone for good. The teacher shields the engineer with her body. Don Cesar goes to the church for counsel. “She’s gone,” he laments, and is told, “she is not bad, she will return.”
She is a waitress in a café where Emilio Fernandez strides in, slaps her rump and sits down at a table, the only customer. An emissary from the church asks her to write. She goes to a visored public scribe at his typewriter under the arcade.
Don Cesar hasn’t the nerve to ask the teacher, he gets a boy to read the letter, which explains that his wife can’t write and won’t return until the school is built. He donates a thousand pesos to its construction, which resumes to music as before.
“Learning to read is learning to be free,” says a government official at the dedication. A cock crows as Don Cesar speaks of a future in which everyone in San Martin de Arriba will be able to read a letter and write one, all shall be treated fairly, he himself shall be last among the townspeople. The little town band plays gamely, the engineer drives off, passing the wife on foot returning home. The man with the serape makes a toreador flourish with it as the motorcycle whizzes by. The teacher marches her students into their school.
Whereas Rio Escondido is a brutal tragedy with a murderous villain, Pueblito is a much more open satire with a comic middle-aged self-willed ignoramus closer to the boss in Things to Come. The motorcycle image seems to be recalled by Fellini in Amarcord.
Un Dorado de Pancho Villa
Un Dorado de Pancho Villa is a decidedly complicated and difficult work that initiates the last phase of Fernandez’s direction, when he began filming in color. His studies and preparations are evident in the painters cited or alluded to: Diego Rivera in a meticulous portrait and a glancing effect, Cézanne and Seurat for the groups of women in and around the river, Winslow Homer for the boys lined up to fight in that scene, and Dali for the fantastic whitewashed basilica corridor (with a window at the far end) for the double murder.
He may have found, in the course of his studies, a peculiar solution to a problem addressed in La Malquerida (by way of Dudley Nichols’ Mourning Becomes Electra), which is an approach to a kind of static, hieratic drama. The pictorial, and more specifically the composed image, takes its place here as almost a discovery, and then he really discovers within the single image its dynamism, which is revealed in the fight amongst the women in the river.
So, in a way (like embarking on color cinematography), this adds a humorous note of disdain to the story as filmed. Major Aurelio Perez returns home from service with Villa, resignation is his lot, etc.
The plot itself can scarcely be distinguished from the manner of filming it, and as this entails rapid editing at times, critics have been unable to follow it, for it is a rule as fixed as newspaper deadlines that a film critic has an attention span of one quarter-hour exactly, and that cutting beyond a trotter’s pace is a blank to him.
It begins with rolling presses and a front page describing Villa’s surrender. He is seen on horseback with an aide beside him, giving a farewell address. The scene takes place as a down-angle on a bare tilled field (echoing Un Día de vida, which figures throughout) reaching to hills and mountains on the horizon, the two are in the lower left quadrant among the furrows extending vertically and by perspective like a fan, against which Villa’s dorados, also on horseback, receive his words in a curving line in the middle distance. This field reappears later, now sustaining a bit of greenery, tended by this very same Villa turned farmer.
Sunsets figure more poignantly, as backlighting to silhouetted figures or objects (an earthenware jar, a rooster, a bare tree), than anywhere except Baudelaire’s “Le Coucher du Soleil Romantique”, but Fernandez knows a trick of the cinema, and turns it to account in a formal pirouette that is the basis of the work. Gonzalo, the richest man in town, has told Amalia that her lover Aurelio is dead, she has married Gonzalo and gone to live in his luxurious, palatial, monumental home overlooking the little town of El Nacimiento (its name, according to one source). Aurelio returns, they meet against the sunset as described, and walk into it hand in hand. Poor Aurelio is fed by the little son of the widow Maria Dolores, who, after Aurelio’s arrest, leads the boy by the hand toward the self-same glow over the horizon, though at a slight angle, and a cut reveals it’s not sunset at all but sunup (she goes to seek Villa in the fields, for his help). Later, after she frees Aurelio from military detention, they part in another sunset that continues on bright day. There are at least a half-dozen such shots.
A tilt-and-pan is used twice with formal exactness, tilting down and then panning right on the bend of a river with the sun in it, a wide shallow river with Aurelio on horseback minuscule at the end of the shot as he returns to the village at the beginning of the film, tilting down and then panning left on Maria Dolores bathing at the waterfalls (this echoes her first appearance, standing motionless beside the falls with an earthenware jar held open horizontally at her waist—both shots continue with another view of her seen through the legs of Aurelio’s horse, before he rides off).
Fernandez avails himself of a zoom lens to widen the view or, in the final scene, to catch a reaction from an onlooker as Aurelio is pursued by soldiers (Amalia and Gonzalo kill each other in an argument, Aurelio is convicted by a military tribunal), and also in this scene he briefly uses a wrong lens to slightly distort the mounted soldiers’ leaping approach to the church where Aurelio and Maria Dolores are being married.
The Rivera portrait mentioned above has a background dividing the screen into vertical panels, dark on the right to light on the left, with Amalia against the middle one in a characteristic pose (compare the Portrait of Lupe Marin in Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno). The glancing effect is, perhaps, the tuba in the upper right foreground of the café scene with Gonzalo and the military comandante, an effect of linear composition.
Gonzalo is played by Carlos Lopez Moctezuma, the villainous plantation-owner in La Rebelión de los Colgados. Amalia fires first, echoing his death as the Presidente Municipal in Río Escondido. Persistence of vision outdoes Hitchcock in Fernandez’s discovery of Sonia Amelio (who also appears in The Wild Bunch) as Maria Dolores, with her striking resemblance to Columba Dominguez.
After Maria Dolores assassinates the soldiers transporting Aurelio to Mexico City for prison or execution, wounding the comandante and scarring him, Aurelio joins a few loyal campesinos who arm themselves and take to rocky high ground. Someone is approaching, they sound the alarm on rustic horns, it’s the little son of Maria Dolores. You must face many battles, Aurelio tells him, to be a major, “un mayor de los dorados de Pancho Villa.” All the townspeople admire Aurelio, the café or fonda run by Maria Dolores is called “Las Glorias de Francisco Villa,” and the reverse of this signboard, seen when exiting, reads “¡Viva Villa!”.
The events of the film take place between 1920 and 1923 (Villa is ambushed before he can help Aurelio), but unlike Un Día de vida, this film does not concern itself with period trappings to the extent that the prison van should be authentic. On the other hand, Fernandez cuts away from the tender farewell in the escape scene to show the wounded comandante lying on his side in a down-angle and rolling over onto his face.
It’s hard to account for the diminishing reputation of Fernandez’s works after a certain point, even in Mexico, except for the reasons given in this instance, when here for example is a major work full of new developments, but this sort of thing happens without rhyme or reason to some of the very best (Huston, Peckinpah, Stevens), they do such things as are crowned with the epithet “poco afortunados”, and the work swells out their filmographies unregarded. But critics and audiences are fickle and selfish, liking things a certain way, whereas artists invent.
The presses roll a second time in this film when Villa is killed, the great brass machines are given a more thorough inspection this time, with the intention of reflecting a standard montage but conveying an echo of Modern Times in all those gears and wheels spinning.
The editing plan includes a spacious use of crosscutting and intercutting to form a scene, and also a brisk use of shock cutting (the bathing girl, rider, roaring waterfall) to achieve some particularly acute effects in the precisely measured outlay of resources, which is rather lost in a wretchedly choppy and muddy (and obviously much-exhibited) print, though another in somewhat better condition shows the hard brilliance of an Eastmancolor at least comparable to American Westerns at the time.
The terrible acerbity of Fernandez behind the camera and the impassioned scenes he sometimes films make for a steady contrapposto, on which his dramas spring. If the diminishment of his fame due to misconceptions about his work is leading to an impairment of the work itself, as happened to Keaton and others, a critical appraisal more thoroughgoing than has been attempted in these notes is certainly called for.
Aurelio dies standing on the plaza in a ring of cavalrymen galloping and firing (La Malquerida), despite the comandante’s order to bring him in alive. Maria Dolores weeps on his body, her little son brings on Aurelio’s horse, a long shot adds a crucifix in the right foreground.
There is perhaps a distant relationship with Aldrich’s similarly disregarded masterpiece Apache (though again, why such films have been overlooked is ultimately fathomless). Gonzalo regards Aurelio as a bandit “like these other ‘revolutionaries’”, and pays a call on him shortly after his arrival, accompanied by the comandante, whose name also is Perez. Gonzalo is incensed, but the comandante placidly lays down one rule, there has to be peace in the town. “Peace,” scoffs Gonzalo, “peace and quiet!” Nevertheless, the comandante offers Aurelio his hand, and they shake on it. It’s the café scene, where Maria Dolores exhibits a deeper respect for Aurelio than the comandante can stomach, followed by Gonzalo’s drunken arrival with a brass band, that settles the matter.
“For everybody in this town the revolution is over,” she tells Aurelio. “Your return is a symbol... a miracle.” They nearly meet in a previous scene derived from Zorba the Greek, as she in her widow’s weeds is exiting the makeshift cemetery where he goes to visit his mother’s grave.
Maria Dolores wears white trimmed with blue while bathing at the falls, and is revealed in a red dress as the sniper with a telescopic sight at the escape, finally appearing in a white wedding dress and veil in the last scene. Details of a meticulous composition, released the same year as Bonnie and Clyde and The Comedians (yet another film beyond criticism).
If the title signifies a “golden boy”, his name is certainly a pun. The drum-and-bugle corps in Un Día de vida is here again minus the drums (an effect perhaps from John Ford).
El Crepusculo de un dios
He is “the most famous actor of all in the Spanish tongue”, “the greatest actor in Mexico”, and “one of the greatest actors in the twentieth century”, at present living in Mexico City at a posh hotel and unable to pay his bill. To the manager he cites illustrious names, among them Lope de Vega, Shakespeare, Ibsen, D’Annunzio, John Steinbeck and Calderon, unavailing. Later he mentions producers and suchlike, the taste of the public, never has he been in such a situation. A heart attack fells him, the hotel doctor commands complete rest, in Acapulco, for example.
On the bare stage of a great theater, he is disconcerted to hear applause, remembers himself as Cyrano laughing, and faints.
His companion on this tour of the city (Beethoven Monument, Palace of Fine Arts) is an Italian musician seeking employment at the hotel, and wanted for murder in Texas. She auditions with castanets while the hotel maestro plays Bach’s D-minor prelude on a piano, and later she herself sits down to play the Allegro de Concierto of Granados for the actor.
Charlie Gonzalez of the San Antonio police arrives to extradite her. Sipping drinks on a terrace with a Mexican detective, he asks about a monument nearby, pauses at the reply and repeats it, “Pure gold.”
The Italian, whose name is Angela Baretti (her nom de guerre is Sonia Amelio, the name of the actress playing her), begs Charlie for a day or two with her lover, he accedes.
The Countess de Negrescu also performs at the piano for a small company. She is said to be a refugee from Communism, has her eye on the Count de Molinero of Spain, another guest. She hires a small plane to ferry the Italian and the actor out of the country, and plays a game of strip poker with Charlie in her room, while an exotic dancer entertains the hotel guests on New Year’s Eve.
The actor, Roberto Espinosa de los Monteros, collapses at the plane after knocking out a hotel detective, the Italian is arrested and flown away at night in a jet like the one she landed in by day at the film’s opening.
Among the many details is Paolo the Italian bartender, who instructs a colleague in the perfect martini (“alma d’Italia”) and remembers Mussolini. Roberto speaks of Venice as “twilight, Orient pearl and all the mysteries.”
Hitchcock is the major influence for unity after the heterogeneous studies of Un Dorado de Pancho Villa, the interiors of North by Northwest are particularly noted. Much material is reworked from Acapulco and Un Día de vida.
A familiar guest in a wide hat enters the hotel, the manager is called. “El Indio Fernandez is here with a Chinese girl (una china) and no luggage for the Marco Polo suite.” “Is he drunk?” “He’s just a bit happy.”
Fernandez’s last film is a remake of La Red from the vantage point of color and Vadim’s Et Dieu... créa la femme and Ritchie’s Prime Cut (to say nothing of Woman on the Beach and Miss Sadie Thompson). Rebeca Silva is presented à la Bardot, even to the flower in her hair, the rivalry for her attentions takes place between a sponge fisherman (Jaime Moreno) who lets her neighbors gawk at her in the town, a contemporary town beside the sea with all its honest pobreza gone, leaving behind a tawdry resignation, and the fisherman’s sometime partner in crime (Jorge Rivero), who tries to leave but is carried back on a stretcher after shooting two policemen.
She waits on a rock while the rivals swim about in the shallow water for sponges. The sound of waves, sunlight and the actors are the scene. Later, the sponges are carried to town in two baskets slung from a shoulder yoke. The recuperated partner takes the load, walking beside the woman (his usual stride evokes Rodin’s John the Baptist), until the town is reached. She won’t be seen with a man not her husband, so he gives the yoke back to her, and observes as her striking semi-nudity attracts a drunk, whom he fights and then forces to kiss her feet. She is grateful and invites the hero for a swim. The lout is incensed, there is a fight, he dies shot by police after killing her, the hero carries her body into the sea at sundown.
Fernandez himself plays the comandante who fires the fatal bullet. Sunups and sundowns figure as iris-outs and iris-ins throughout, telescoping the device in Un Dorado de Pancho Villa. A safe is blown open at the beginning of Erotica, the lout makes off but the police shoot the hero, who serves time on a chain gang in the salt mines (harvesting sea salt by evaporation, raking the stuff out of square pools), a joke out of From Russia with Love.
A clean resolution of themes going as far back as Maria Candelaria and La Perla, with a forward-looking view of the cinema “which is Mexico”, and in straightforward terms a play on the double meaning of “passion”, with an echo of Browning’s “Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning”.