The Luis Buñuel Project – Los Olvidados

After Luis Buñuel had made Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), his life became a mélange of non-directorial film work and political activism. He stayed in Spain as long as he felt it feasible, supervising and producing other directors’ work at the Spanish studio Filmófono in Madrid, as well as lending propaganda support to the existing Republican government in opposition to Franco. In 1938, Buñuel moved to Los Angeles hoping to assist Hollywood filmmakers in their efforts to produce films that chronicled the turmoil and savagery of the Spanish Civil War. But the War ended very soon after his arrival, and Hollywood quickly lost interest in producing films about it – the War’s conclusion was too late to be current, too soon to be history. But Buñuel had no interest in returning to Franco’s now-fascist Spain, and remained in the U.S.

Buñuel spent a few years in L.A., but was frustrated by the disinterest he encountered from established American producers and studios. He eventually got work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as an archivist and editor in their film department. (His wife and young son persevered through his erratic fortunes as well.) In 1942, Salvador Dali published an autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, and declared to the world that he had split creatively with Buñuel in the thirties because Buñuel was “a communist and an atheist.” The federally-supported museum couldn’t weather the scandal, despite Dali’s apparent capriciousness, and Buñuel returned to L.A. once again.

While doing sound-dubbing work at Warner Bros., an old producing friend of his from the thirties contacted him, and she ran an idea past him; she and Buñuel would do a French adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play, The House of Bernarda Alba, for the Paris stage. Buñuel was game, and started helping to raise funds. One of the shirtsleeves he tugged on was Óscar Dancigers, a Russian producer who had recently been doing a lot of film work in Mexico City; Dancigers wasn’t thrilled with the Paris project, but subsidized part of it anyway in order to persuade Buñuel to do some film work for him in Mexico. Their first film, Gran Casino (1947), was a musical farce starring Libertad Lamarque and Jorge Negrete, household-name entertainers in Central and South America. It bombed. He wrote screenplays and project proposals for a bit after that, but got another opportunity to direct one of Fernando Soler’s starring vehicles, El Gran Calavera (The Great Madcap), in 1949. It was a big box-office hit, and Dancigers gave Buñuel the license to develop one of his personal projects. The film that ensued was Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, billed in the U.S. as The Young And The Damned) (Mexico, 1950).

Even today, Los Olvidados is one of the most brutally unsentimental depictions of urban life lived in poverty. It focuses almost exclusively on Mexico City’s teenagers and children, and admits, early on, in a narrated prologue, that “This film shows real life. It is not optimistic.” The young main characters are fascinating, and guilelessly portrayed. But they’re irretrievable, and those that aren’t – here, the striving but constantly thwarted Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) – soon will be, or will die from the struggle.

The children of this rough section of Mexico City are essentially scavengers, and when a manipulative older acquaintance of theirs, Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), runs away from the reformatory to return to the streets, it’s clear that his incarceration has made him harder, more cynical, and completely conscienceless. Now acting as a street-thug Fagin, he recruits the young boys to rob and beat blind people and cripples. One of his recruits is Pedro, a veritable orphan whose mother (Estela Inda) refuses to have anything to do with him.

Credit: reconce.mx

Jaibo persuades Pedro to assist him in taking revenge on the boy who ratted him out and sent him to the reformatory, the hardworking and forthright Julian (Javier Amézcua). Julian has a regular construction job, and helps his mother keep their low-life father out of the bars all night. Jaibo uses Pedro’s friendship with Julian to lure Julian away from his co-workers, and beats him to death. Pedro must now deal with the conflict of being complicit in the murder (which haunts him) and keeping Jaibo safe from exposure (Jaibo’s really the only person who’s shown any interest or regard in Pedro’s ‘future.’). Buñuel constructs an astonishing, and disturbing, dream sequence for Pedro – in the dream, Pedro is comforted by his beautiful young mother at bedside while the dead Julian laughs underneath. Having denied her son a scrap of food earlier in the film, the dream Mom now makes an offering of food to her son, which is immediately stolen from him by Jaibo. This ghostly, surreal dream is trademark Buñuel, and lays the deeply psychological groundwork for what will transpire between the three of them throughout the rest of the film.

The kids who don’t turn to crime are locked into endless labor on behalf of their own survival or that of their family. Julian is an obvious example – another is Metche (Alma Delia Fuentes), a young girl who tends her family’s farm animals with her ne’er-do-well brother Cacarizo (Efraín Arauz). Cacarizo lets Jaibo hide out in their barn, one of a few hideaways he’s established to escape the police; when Jaibo terrorizes Metche sexually, Cacarizo doesn’t lift a finger to defend her. We also follow a young boy named Small Eyes (Mário Ramírez), who came to Mexico City with his farmer father, and was subsequently abandoned by him there. Small Eyes becomes the servant of the poor blind troubadour, Don Carmelo (Miguel Inclán), whom was attacked earlier in the film by Jaibo and his gang of children (including Pedro).

Don Carmelo pines away for the Porfirio Diaz era, and dedicates his folk songs to him – Diaz was a Republican general who helped to end the French occupation of Mexico in the late 1800s. The economy and culture flourished, but there was widespread inequality and repression as well, which led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Forty years later, when the events of the film take place, the post-revolutionary reforms had rebuilt the Mexican economy for the chosen few, but inequality and poverty were still ubiquitous. Buñuel is essentially illustrating that nothing has changed, despite Don Carmelo’s earnest nostalgia.

In Buñuel’s vision, the adults are as complicit in their children’s misery as anyone else. Don Carmelo seems like an eccentric but wise moral figure, until we discover that he’s just as much of a predator, in his way, as Jaibo. Pedro is sexually propositioned by a well-dressed man on the street; save for the timely appearance of a beat cop, he probably would have resignedly taken the man up on the offer. Julian’s father wanders the streets in mourning for his son, drunker than ever. Pedro’s mother finds newfound concern for her wayward son, but far too late to do him any good (and well after she’s allowed herself to be seduced by the manipulative Jaibo). She admits to a cop that she has no idea who Pedro’s father is – nonetheless, Pedro has two younger siblings by her. No one in the story has the resources to stop the generational cycle of poverty and personal degradation.

Credit: cineclublenguas.blogspot.com

Buñuel and his producer, Óscar Dancigers, felt they had made an important and compelling film (and indeed they had). But initial reaction to the film was virulent – no one wanted Mexico portrayed this way, the truth notwithstanding, and Dancigers pulled the film from general release after only three days. But one fervent admirer, the writer Octavio Paz, championed its entry into the Cannes Film Festival that year, where it received a far more respectful reception – Buñuel was named that year’s Best Director, and the film won the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Award as well. Dancigers re-released the film, and the rest is history – Los Olvidados is now regarded as one of Buñuel’s masterpieces, paving the way for other films like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause, Hector Babenco’s Pixote, and Fernando Meirelles’ City Of God. In 2007, Michael Wilmington said in the Chicago Tribune, “Few movies have ever moved and shaken me more deeply than Luis Bunuel’s 1950 “Los Olvidados,” a savage, beautifully wrought portrayal of Mexican juvenile delinquency and a harsh indictment of the society that fosters it.”

Buñuel’s eventual success with Los Olvidados enabled him to continue making mainstream films in Mexico throughout the fifties, but they were always infused with his own unique surrealist sensibilities. He eventually returned to making films in Europe (the Mexican film industry went through a period of severe contraction in the late fifties and early sixties) with Diary Of A Chambermaid in 1964, and fired off a string of contemporary surrealist masterpieces throughout the sixties and seventies. But we’ll look at some other Mexican films of his before we jump on those; Buñuel’s Mexican films, as you’ll see, were equally fascinating in a surprisingly different way.

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The Giallo Project – Mario Bava – Blood And Black Lace

If The Girl Who Knew Too Much was the progenitor of giallo, then Mario Bava’s Blood And Black Lace (Sei Donne Per L’Assassino) (Italy, 1964) is the landmark prodigal giallo masterpiece that established the atmosphere, look and feel of hundreds of films that came after it. Its stunning sense of imagery, its relentless suspense and its complex interplay of lush beauty with sadistic opportunism sent movie thrillers into a whole new league of artistry and nastiness. Like most trailblazers, it didn’t do particularly well when it first opened, but the years, and the filmmakers who plunder its innovations, have been kind.

The plot: Christian Haute Couture is a thriving fashion house that’s part of the estate of the Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok), who runs the firm with her business manager Max Morlachi (Cameron Mitchell), and a small army of designers, laborers and models on staff. When one of the models, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) is beaten and strangled on the estate grounds by a masked killer, there’s no shortage of suspects. We learn that Cristina’s husband owned and ran the studio until he happened to have a fatal car accident; Marco (Massimo Righi), one of the design assistants, has a pills problem, and an unrequited crush on one of Cristina’s models; Cesare Lazzarini (Luciano Pigozzi) is a furtive and embittered designer who also serves as the studio’s resident moral scold; and the late Isabella had a surly antique-dealer boyfriend, Franco (Dante DiPaolo) who has been seeing, and getting drugs from, another model, Nicole (Ariana Gorini).

Nicole is who volunteers to double up and wear Isabella’s assigned dress as well in the runway show the following night, and when she and the others search for Isabella’s green broach to accessorize it, they find Isabella’s diary, a potentially seething resource of the dirtiest of dirty laundry. Cristina attempts to secure it, but Nicole convinces her that she herself is the best person to take it directly to the police. Nicole bolts the show early, in Peggy’s car, but instead of taking the diary to the police, she detours to Franco’s antiques warehouse so they can both have a look at it first. But the killer, not Franco, meets her there, and Nicole is dispatched with a fearsome-looking medieval clawed glove. The killer scours her purse for the diary, but It’s Not There! When Peggy (Mary Arden) returns home, we learn that she has nimbly nicked it, under everyone’s nose, in order to eradicate evidence that Isabella had lent her money to have an abortion. The police have found the abandoned car that Nicole was driving, and are coming over to ask Peggy for details. But the knock at the door is not the police – it’s the Killer! But this time the murder isn’t so quick – the Killer is after the diary as well, and tortures Peggy to reveal where it went, even though we know, and she insists, that she burned it up in the fireplace moments before the Killer arrived. Or maybe the Killer believes her after all, and has other reasons to torment her…

Franco arrives at the home of another one of the models, Greta (Lea Krugher), who lives with her lover, the Marquis Riccardo Morin (Franco Ressel). Franco has found Nicole’s body, and assumes that the police will suspect him of her grisly death. He’ll blackmail the Marquis with his knowledge that Isabella advanced the Marquis a gigantic loan (the Marquis, it turns out, is broke) unless he provides an alibi for Franco at the time of Nicole’s murder. Sure enough, all of the men are interrogated at the police station together, and Marco, Cesare, Max, Franco and the Marquis are all held overnight. This is reassuring to Tao-Li (Claude Dantes), another of Cristina’s models; with the men in custody, they’re all safe tonight, right?

Credit: mariobava.tripod.com

Well, no, we rightly surmise; how does Peggy’s post-torture body end up in Greta’s car trunk? Why is Tao-Li content to go home by herself that night, and then announce the next day that she’s leaving for Paris? We get further clues that one of the men is involved, but who commits two more murders while they’re in custody? Tao-Li? Cristina? Why would Cristina risk her studio empire? And Tao-Li seems to have no role in the diary, which has been destroyed by now anyway. This mystery isn’t just a parade of red herrings, although there are plenty lying about; the identity of the killer, and the reasons the murders happened at all, are ingeniously logical, coldly practical, and indicative of all the indulgence that’s been on display throughout the entire film.

This was one of the first serial-killer films where all of the victims are female, and many hold it up as the first perpetrator of a new kind of misogyny that countless films afterwards emulated and elaborated upon. I can’t really explain why that’s not necessarily true here without revealing major spoilers, but Bava indicts the culture of wealth, elitist beauty and indulgence far more than he punishes particular women, or particular aspects of womanhood.

Credit: screencaptures.tumblr.com

It was also a showcase for Bava’s visual genius. Until now, most thrillers of this kind were shot in black-and-white. But Bava’s own work as a cinematographer in other genres, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant examples of using color to illustrate and manipulate the psychological aspects and tone in his late-fifties films, and Hammer Studio’s use of color in their horror movies, led him to break the tradition (hell, even Hitchcock had shot Psycho in black-and-white four years earlier, in spite of his landmark color work – that’s just how it was done). The color work in Blood And Black Lace is genuinely jaw-dropping; the costume choices, the vivid surreality of the lighting, even who uses what color telephone at any particular time. The Killer’s pursuit of Nicole through the antiques warehouse is a riot of flashing colors, light and shadow, contrasting textures and camera movement. How he lit the fashion house at particular times of day, or varied key lighting depending on the person or object in the frame at any given moment, were revelatory – no one had done that before, so obviously, so expressionistically, in what most assumed was a mere popcorn genre thriller. His deep-focus interiors, his sense of scale and camera angle – here’s a director who saw The Magnificent Ambersons, and learned a thing or two from it. Even if you find the make-up unconvincing, even if you think the acting is a little stiff, even if you figure things out halfway through (though I doubt you will, really), you’ll love this movie because it’s so luridly, stylishly gorgeous. And you won’t be bored, I promise.

Credit: ugasfilms.com

Bava continued working in other genres – period battle epics (Knives Of The Avenger), horror films (Baron Blood, Lisa And The Devil), science fiction films (Planet Of The Vampires), secret agent thrillers (Danger: Diabolik), sex comedies (Four Times That Night) even some spaghetti westerns. But his gialli – this film, Five Dolls For An August Moon, Hatchet For The Honeymoon, and the often imitated, never duplicated Bay Of Blood (Twitch Of The Death Nerve) to name a few (and his giallo / ghost story hybrid, Kill, Baby…Kill!) are what he’s best known for, and rightfully so. We’ll explore a few other sixties gialli from different directors before we encounter the other giallo giant, Dario Argento, in 1970. Après Argento, le déluge.