Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Noir City XIV #3: Telltale Plants and Mysterious Romance

by Odienator
(for all dispatches, go here)

Noir City is not just sinister, bitter fun and games. It's also a great example of the power of film restoration. Each year, the denizens of this bitter little world are treated to a flick restored with funding from the Film Noir Foundation. This year, in conjunction with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assocation (yes, these folks), we denizens of Noir City were treated to yet another Argentine film noir as part of International Noir night. And this one was darker than a bottomless pit. When a film's on a double bill with a Swedish movie, and the Swedish movie's the lighter of the two, the best you can do is pick your jaw off the floor and mutter "ay, Dios mio!"

Back at Noir City XII, we were treated to the most harrowing film I ever saw at Noir City, a classic from Argentina called El Vampiro Negro. I wrote about this remake of Fritz Lang's M here, and I mentioned that it was brought to Eddie Muller's attention by film historian Fernando Martín Peña. Señor Peña struck again on Saturday evening, and the result is yet another pristine 35mm print of a harrowing noir classic from the land of tango and malbec. 

Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems) was well regarded in Argentina upon its 1956 release. It featured a fantastic score by the creator of nuevo tango, Astor Piazzolla. The stunning black and white cinematography by Ricardo Younis was eventually recognized by American Cinematographer magazine, which put the film at #49 on its Top 100 Best Photographed Movies list. This achievement came despite the fact that the film had rarely been seen since its release.

Director Fernando Ayala's second feature has all the characteristics of classic film noir, a shady hero, a supposedly foolproof scheme, a dangerous woman, and that often sought after Noir City unicorn, the perfect crime. Los tallos amargos comes close enough to depicting the perfect crime that we can feel that unicorn poking us in the ribs. You may never look at a shallow grave the same way.

Gaspar (Carlos Cores) is a Buenos Aires newspaperman who enters into a journalistic correspondence course scheme with newfound friend, Liudas (Vasilli Lambrinos). Liudas is a Hungarian ex-pat who longs to raise enough money to send for his wife and two kids. Liudas is especially fond of his eldest son, whom he talks about constantly to Gaspar. To help expedite the process, Gaspar offers Liudas 75% of the proceeds from their business. But, as time progresses, Gaspar becomes suspicious that Liudas may be swindling him. Does he even have a son? A misheard conversation and Gaspar's own paranoia lead to murder.

After the dastardly deed is done, Gaspar discovers that not only was Liudas on the level (the son shows up on schedule), but Liudas' own platonic affection for Gaspar was as strong as the neurotic Gaspar had hoped. Even more emotionally devastating for Gaspar is learning how the younger Liudas comes pre-packaged with a similar admiration, thanks to the letters his father wrote him about his "only true friend" Gaspar. In the conversations Gaspar has with the deceased Liudas, which serve as narration and provide plot details, Gaspar sounds more than a little guilty about what he's done. But that guilt takes a backseat to self-preservation.
Los tallos amargos fascinates by presenting us with a character whose evil arises not out of greed but out of his own psychological issues of self-worth. It then surrounds that character with others whose own self-worth issues are powered by emotional longings. The dangerous woman, Elena, at first appears integral only to Gaspar's attempts to hide his crime; it is her misheard conversation with Liudas that sends Gaspar over the edge. As the film progresses, we realize that her story has a devastating life of its own. The collateral damage inflicted by the main character in Los tallos amargos carries a powerful amount of weight because the film makes you feel some affection for these imperfect characters, even at their worst.

That feeling hits us full force in the film's pitch black, title-explaining final sequence. We're torn between wanting Gaspar's comeuppance and his escape. I won't tell you if he gets away or not, but Cores plays his last scene with more relief than resignation. Between the lines, Gaspar's final act reads as one of the darkest character reunions in all of noir, a literal happy ending for Liudas' son juxtaposed with a more subjective ending that depends on the viewer's perspective to decide how happy it is for Gaspar.

Before Ingmar Bergman, Hasse Ekman was the most well-known filmmaker in Sweden. Bergman called Ekman's 1950 film Flicka och Hyacinter “an absolute masterpiece. Twenty-four carats. Perfect.” With an endorsement like that, one expects a supremely bleak and depressing film. But Flicka och Hyacinter plays more like a detective story than a study in grief and misery. Dagmar Brisk (Eva Henning, Ekman's wife) commits suicide and bequeaths what little she has to her married neighbors. The husband tells the investigating police officer that he hardly knew Dagmar. Her actions lead him to investigate who Dagmar was. The film takes on a flashback structure as the details are revealed.

What at first seems like a male-centric piece is slowly inhabited by more and more female characters, each with their own strength and importance. Dagmar is a bit of an enigma at first, but as the film progresses, we learn so much about her emotional state and her own trials and tribulations in life and love. There's also the matter of Alex, Dagmar's true love and the one that appeared to have gotten away.

The husband begins the exploration, but it's his wife who digs more deeply into the mystery, revealing her own maternal moment with Dagmar as a piece in the puzzle.

The wife also gets the film's last line, which is revelatory and powerful for reasons I dare not disclose. Suffice it to say, it reveals who Alex is, and the answer is surprisingly progressive. The wife's decision to keep this detail to herself is a quiet, haunting tribute to dignity.

Deep emotions are usually in short supply in Noir City--baser, more primal and animalistic urges usually rule the day and control the action. These two brilliant, international noirs force the audience to identify not with greed and lust but with more complicated, deeper desires of wanting to be loved and respected. They push us under the fun surface level of ruthlessness, forcing us stare down matters of the broken heart and the fragile psyche. Perhaps that's the coldest thing any movie can do to you here in Noir City.

Next time: Bette vs. Joan, and Bogie Goes Bonkers.

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