Sunday, February 2, 2014

Noir City XII #6: The Grisly Death of Innocence

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XII pieces, go here)

Perhaps the biggest score of Noir City XII was 1953's El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire), an Argentinean remake of Fritz Lang's M. Brought to Czar of Noir Eddie Muller's attention by film historian Fernando Martín Peña (who also ran the subtitles on several of the films from Argentina), a newly struck, gorgeous 35mm print of El Vampiro Negro received its first American showing at the Castro Theatre. It deserves more widespread attention, and numerous repeat showings. This may be the most harrowing picture I've seen at any of the 6 Noir City festivals I attended. 

Starring the "Marilyn Monroe of Argentina," Olga Zubarry, El Vampiro Negro adds a maternal angle to M.  Zubarry plays Rita, a performer who endures less than ideal employment circumstances to make enough money to support her daughter. During a dressing room costume change, she sees a man in the shadows dump a child's body into a sewer. This man is a killer on the loose whom the police dub "The Black Vampire." Though Rita's screams are heard by numerous patrons of the nightclub, her colleagues and bosses tell her not to report her eyewitness account to the cops.

The homicide division, led by Dr Bernar (Roberto Escalada), makes it easy to understand Rita's trepidation; Bernar have a tendency to arrest anybody who shows up with information. Bernar's intensity is partially due to his feelings of helplessness at home. His wife suffered a paralysis that left the couple unable to have children. Catching The Black Vampire is a way for him to feel a protective parental instinct. Bernar realizes Rita is hiding something, and his interrogation takes an unsavory turn that imbues his character with a refreshing, sad complexity.

This type of character complexity is woven into El Vampiro Negro by screenwriter-director Román Viñoly Barreto. A scene between Rita and Mrs. Bernar late in the film is a haunting dialogue exchange between Zubarry and Gloria Castilla. Dr. Bernar is trying to take Rita's daughter away because of her nightclub job, and Rita appeals to his wife. Both actresses play on the theme of motherhood and how the loss of a child (and the loss of the ability to conceive) affects women. Barreto makes the interesting choice of leaving us out of the most damning part of the conversation, opting instead to play the aftermath out between the married couple.

A respect for contradictory, human personalities makes El Vampiro Negro so compelling. This respect extends to the child killer, Teodoro, a professor whose lousy luck with women has fueled his murderous tendencies toward little girls. Like Peter Lorre before him, Nathán Pinzón plays the murderer as a man fully conscious of his horrific desires but unable to control them. The sight of blood satiates his passions, and at times he resorts to self-mutilation to keep the demons at bay. But the demons usually win, and when Rita's daughter is taken by Teodoro, the audience is suitably terrified. We've come to know Rita, to like her and even be angry at her withholding her witness testimony earlier, so this development has a sick, karmic energy.

The child-in-peril motif can be a lazy way to generate suspense, but Barreto doesn't go for easy shocks. Teodoro responds to Rita's daughter in an unexpected fashion, which may be even sicker than what the audiences fears.

If you've seen M, you have some idea how El Vampiro Negro ends. A community of the less-fortunate bands together to confront Teodoro, and Pinzón passionate, pitiful declarations are as brilliantly rendered as those of his predecessor, Peter Lorre. 

Shot stunningly in black and white by Aníbal González Paz, El Vampiro Negro is the rare remake that's as good, if not better, than its source. Movies like this are the reason one goes to Noir City.

Spain's Noir City contribution to the cinematic slaughter of the innocents is Muerte de un Ciclista (Death of a Cyclist). It begins with the titular event, where adulterous lovers Lucia Bosé and Alberto Closas run over a cyclist on a deserted road. Bosé convinces Closas to leave the victim to die (it's a sadistic touch that we see this development through the victim's eyes). The lovers are soon blackmailed by Carlos Casaravilla, whose Rafa character is the kind of sexually ambigious, vicious wit Clifton Webb would have assayed if this were a Hollywood studio release. 

What Rafa has seen (or hasn't) is unclear to Bosé, but this being a noir, the guilty are strangled more by the thought of the noose than the actual rope that creates it. It leads to the pitch black jolt of irony lovers of noir expect, a throwback to the opening scene that reminds us that karma is cyclical. Or in this case, bicyclical.

Sir Richard Attenborough directed Gandhi, but before he helmed that hideously boring, Oscar-winning biopic, he threw salt into viewers' eyes as the lead villian in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. I include it in this entry not because innocence dies here, but because this was one instance when I wished it had. Somebody needed to shake some reality sense into the innocent character in this movie.

A few entries ago, I talked about the character I referred to as "the incredibly stupid, young girl in love." Brighton Rock has the quintessential version of this, a teenager named Rose (Carol Marsh) who falls madly in love with Attenborough's Pinkie. Contrasting her is the more experienced, jaded Ida (Hermoine Badderly), whose brassy, baudy nature hides a tenacity to protect Pinkie's paramour and expose him as the murderer he is.

Attenborough is fantastic, as is Badderly. But I could never warm to Rose, a girl who is willing to blow her own brains out as the ultimate act of love for a heel. She made me want to pull out my hair, but Greene and his co-writer, playwright Terrence Rattigan, have more sympathy for her than I do. Greene's Catholic sensibilities give Brighton Rock a far more charitable bent toward Rose. Greene's sensibilities also show up for Pinkie--Greene gives him a phone number that ends in 666. These two elements merge in the final scene, where a phonograph record does what all phonograph records eventually do. It starts skipping just when the song was getting good. This is proof that Noir City's black heart occasionally beats red.

Next up: Saying goodbye with France and Hugo Fregonese (who's driving me crazy).

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