Saturday, January 25, 2020

Noir City XVIII #1: Dear Diary, You'll Never Guess Who I Killed Today

 by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Noir City is back with a international vengeance!

The world's greatest film fetival rolls back into the Castro Theatre for another year of murderous intent, vengeful lovers, unknowing victims and delectably sinister black and white cinematography. As usual, we denizens of Noir City are ready to take that plunge into the darkness that pre-emptively promises "no happy endings." And as with Noir City XII, the lineup of films truly lives up to the festival's motto it's a bitter little world; we're gonna see how moviegoers around the world got their gigantic needle injections of noir. 

Once again, our tour guide on the journey into the heart of darkness is the Czar of Noir (and host of TCM's Noir Alley), Eddie Muller. Before he took the stage for the opening night double feature of Argentine noir, we were treated to a sexy and dangerous onstage tango, followed by this year's festival trailer by the always-great Serena Bramble. From there, Eddie was joined in his introduction by this year's Noir City Poster Dame, Victoria Mature. 

Ms. Mature's Pa, Victor, will have his day in the sun--or rather, his shot in the dark--later in the festival. Opening night was all about the country responsible for Buenos Aires and Patti LuPone's first Tony. Providing some context to the fascinating world of Argentine cinema was historian Fernando Martín Peña, the man who brought these films to Eddie's attention and who was seeing these gorgeous restorations for the first time just as we were.

The Besst Must Die (La Bestia Debe Morir) sounds like a horror movie and, until last night's premiere, it was a title I most associated with the 1974 werewolf movie starring Calvin Lockhart and Peter Cushing. Like that cheesy delight, this film is also a mystery, a whodunit whose victim really had it coming. Jorge Rattery (Guillermo Battaglia), patriarch of the Rattery clan, is a horrible excuse for a human being. He's so vile that the title is way too polite in its description--a stronger B-word is most definitely required for him. He openly flaunts his marital affairs, is abusive to the point of intolerable cruelty, is financially loaded and is surrounded by a group of yes-people who eagerly lean into and endorse his toxic masculinity. Sound like any politicians we know? 

Adding to the misery of his long-suffering wife, Violeta (Josefa Goldar) is Jorge's evil mother, listed in the IMDB credits as "Madre de Jorge" as if the utterance of her government name would turn the listener into stone. Milagros de la Vega plays her like a coiled cobra ready to strike at any moment with verbal vitriol. She spends her screen time happily torturing Violeta by pointing out her son's affairs and chiding her for not taking his abuse like a "Rattery woman" should. Jorge's Mama makes Mrs. Danvers look like Mister Rogers.

Since it's revealed early, it's no spoiler to state that someone bumps off Jorge with the old reliable noir standby, poison. Strychnine, to be exact, the first of many allusions to the word "rat" in the screenplay by Narciso Ibáñez Menta and director Román Viñoly Barreto. Strychnine is what's being used to poison the vermin in the garage of Carpax (Nathán Pinzón), one of Jorge's cronies and enablers. Carpax is there when Jorge takes his fatal swig, as are Violeta, her abused son Ronnie, Carpax's wife and Jorge's lover Rhoda (Beba Bidart) and Violeta's sister Linda (Laura Hidalgo). Linda immediately garners our suspicion when, instead of calling 911 during Jorge's death throes, she calls Felix Lane (Narciso Ibáñez Menta).

Who is Felix Lane? And what does his seemingly incriminating diary have to do with the plot? Menta has written a juicy part for himself here--Lane's a writer (real name: Frank Carter) who specializes in murder mysteries. His book titles all begin with "Murder" and are hilariously listed off in a scene where he bonds with young Ronnie. Felix Lane has a tragic secret and an unquenchable thirst for revenge. He also has the patience of a saint, carefully biding his time as he bonds with volatile actress Linda in the flashbacks that take up most of the film. Linda becomes involved with "Felix the Cat" as she calls him in order to provide a buffer between herself and the lecherous Jorge, who can't resist pawing her every single time they're in frame together. Lane goes along because Linda may hold the key to solving the mystery of his young son's brutal murder. Yes, Jorge is involved.

In his opening remarks, Peña told us that director Barreto was known for two things in his films: they start and end with Biblical quotes and they involve the death of a child. There's also much empathy for children. La Bestia Debe Morir's purest relationship is the paternal one between Ronnie and Felix, two lost souls who, for a time find kindred spirits in one another. Of course, this being noir, even that non-toxic relationship can't end happily, which is not to say it doesn't end well. For this, we can thank Nicholas Blake, the author whose book was adapted into this movie. Like Felix Lane, Nicholas Blake was also a pseudonym, this time for Cecil Day-Lewis. You may have heard of his kid, Daniel Day-Lewis, in your cinematic travels.

Speaking of Biblical quotes, La Bestia Debe Morir gets its title from that most quotable of Old Testament books, Ecclesiastes. The preacher's kid whose words you are currently reading shall now dip back into his days of holding the King James Bible to quote chapter 3, verse 19: "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other."  Ecclesiastes also tells us there's nothing new under the Sun, and as far as familiar plot twists and turns go, that's a rare comfort to be found here in Noir City. 

The night's second feature was also directed by Barreto and has a title more suitable for a horror movie. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to describe El Vampiro Negro as such. This is a harrowing remake of Fritz Lang's M, but with a maternal slant that's absolutely fascinating. Back in 2014, when Noir City first went international, I wrote:

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.

The rest of that article can be found here. Jet lag prevented me from staying to view the new restoration in its entirety, but what I saw was drop-dead gorgeous, a deserving outcome for one of the best movies I've seen in all my years of attending this festival. In an especially noirish twist, Nathán Pinzón, the guy who plays the comic role of Carpax in La Bestia Debe Morir plays the Peter Lorre role in this movie. Everybody has a dark side, especially if they're working the streets of Noir City.

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