Without stretching the point, it may be said the critical reaction to Old Gringo ranged from flat incomprehension (Roger Ebert) to outright dementia (Hal Hinson). You will observe that the major problem is the representation of a greatly beloved and influential writer. Take notice, then, how the problem is addressed in Old Gringo, by a procession of scrims founded on Giù la Testa (dir. Sergio Leone), which is itself significantly modeled on Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean). The loose affiliation with the Leone school allows for erudition as a hallmark of its expressiveness, and so you have the city of Chihuahua in 1913 greatly resembling Gene Kelly’s New York in Hello, Dolly!, as well as the city in Leone’s film. Puenzo’s informative touches are all at one remove at least, such as the sunset effect through the French windows of the captured palace in the great carouse, which is a technical approach to certain scenes in The Sound of Music (dir. Robert Wise), or the romantic dance in the mirrored anteroom, with its suggestion of The Prince and the Showgirl (dir. Laurence Olivier). The overwhelming strangeness of this fictional account of Bierce in Mexico ultimately evokes him as much as anything else.
There is one exterior in Beloved Infidel (dir. Henry King) that has Gregory Peck as F. Scott Fitzgerald walking sunnily through a movie studio, and he really resembles Fitzgerald for a moment, something actors can do somehow, and he does it again in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a brief Hemingway grin, merely. Peck really gets to the business of representing Bierce and tapping the deep vein of his sardonic vision in his last scenes as the author’s corpse. The surprising truth is that the film seems to have been generated for the sole purpose of satisfying the mind about Bierce’s disappearance.
Jane Fonda plays a mirror image to this, the Innocent Abroad. Old Gringo is one of Peck’s masterful creations, not only vast enough to encompass one of Fonda’s remarkable inventions but structurally dependent on it.
In Buenos Aires, Puenzo finds the tone of the novel after two or three shots. He advances it to the time of filming with two or three more, and throughout the film he walks the tightrope thus set up.
There is a certain type of criticaster who always complains that a film is not a book, and another who hates a literary cinema. A novel is constructed otherwise than a film, unless it’s McTeague. Puenzo’s recomposition is based on incidental models (Dante, Piranesi, Borges) and cinematic constellations. A showman or barker equipped with scapulars exhibits a female “rat,” his lady assistant. Added to the fortuitous conjunction of old Joseph Grand (Robert Duvall) and the young choirboy as patients, there is suggested a firm basis on The Andromeda Strain (dir. Robert Wise). The madness of Cottard (Raul Julia) suggests that Camus’ own model might have been William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come with its plague of “wandering sickness” met by bullets. There is a general outlay of associations with Resnais’ Providence and Losey’s M. Klein, formed or revealed by Camus’ stadium full of internees.
Martine the lady journalist (Sandrine Bonnaire) is carrying a gramophone with a silver bell in an ornate elevator when a rat darts up her skirt, retreats and dies a wobbly death. Minus her cameraman, she takes her place among the internees, anticipating Up Close & Personal (dir. Jon Avnet).
Father Paneloux sees divine judgement, and lies down living beside the dead choirboy in a communal grave. Dr. Rieux (William Hurt) defies God and fights the disease, according to Camus’ formula.
Puenzo showed his level of erudition à la Leone in Old Gringo. Nevertheless, the decision not to release this film theatrically in the U.S. was possibly a wise one, in view of the response to it on video. Note that Puenzo’s script was translated into English by Borges’ own colleague Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. The final sentence of the novel appears on the screen at the end, recalling Peckinpah’s citation of Brecht in Cross of Iron.