Luis Buñuel’s eventual success with Los Olvidados enabled him to make a comfortable living in Mexico directing a series of popular melodramas and star vehicles throughout the fifties. He, in fact, lived there the remainder of his life, travelling to Europe for the films he shot there in the sixties and seventies.
Susana (aka The Devil and the Flesh) (Mexico, 1951) is a seemingly standard moral melodrama – a fetching delinquent woman escapes from a reformatory, ensconces herself on the ranch/estate of Don Guadelupe (fifties matinee idol Fernando Soler) and proceeds to corrupt the males of the household: the scholarly son, Alberto (Luis López Somoza), the ranch foreman, Jesus (Víctor Manuel Mendoza), and finally Don Guadalupe himself.
Obviously a cautionary tale on how susceptible even the noblest of men are to temptation, Buñuel stacks the deck in some slyly subversive ways. We first meet Susana (Rosita Quintana) as she’s being thrown into solitary confinement at the reformatory, a howling incorrigible who has exhausted the patience of her tenders. She prayerfully pleads with God to save her from her squalid fate (“Dear God, you made me the way I am!”), the aging bars of the cell window give way, and Susana escapes into the rain-soaked night, her prayers apparently having been answered. She makes her way to Don Guadalupe’s home and is rescued from the storm, even while the family’s cloyingly devout housekeeper Felisa (María Gentil Arcos) warns that the storm has brought the devil into their house.
Don Guadalupe’s wife, Dona Carmen (Matilde Palou) takes her under wing, giving her household chores and fresh clothes. But Susana understands who’s really in charge here, pulling her blouse down past her shoulders and showing her legs every chance she gets. Buñuel even subtly morphs the house itself to emphasize Susana’s annihilating carnality – the chicken pens in the barn where she fends off Jesus, and the bookshelves in Alberto’s room, are directly against solid walls, yet Buñuel continuously shoots their exchanges from the wall side, through the shelves and pens. The physical walls of the ranch, and the resolve of the addled men, are vaporizing before us. The house’s dining room – the traditional gathering place of the happy family – is shown in some scenes as close and cozy – in other shots it’s cavernous. And Buñuel delights in Freudian visual puns – Don Guadalupe lectures her on her revealing wardrobe while he’s cleaning (fondling, really…) his long rifles, and Jesus’ rough flirting in the barn results in broken eggs streaming down the front of Susana’s skirt.
Most of the testosterone-fueled escalation is predictable, but when Dona Carmen catches Don Guadalupe en flagranté with Susana, she does what any ranch wife (and devout Christian) would do – she gleefully flogs her with a riding crop. Finally, the reformatory people and the police arrive to take Susana away (dragging her out on her back by the hair, of course); the family forgives each other and they all live happily ever after, despite Buñuel’s straightforward illustration that they’ve learned absolutely nothing about themselves.
A closer match to the clear-eyed reportage of Los Olvidados, El Bruto (The Brute) (Mexico, 1952) deftly combines sociopolitics, melodrama and the dark intensity of good film noir. A prominent but flinty landowner, Don Andrés (Andrés Soler) must evict a group of poor tenants from a large courtyard building he wants to sell. They’re good tenants – none of them owe him back rent – but he wants to cash in nonetheless, and rid himself of what he sees as riff-raff. The tenants defy the police and court orders and defiantly stay. Don Andrés’ opportunistic wife, Paloma (the wonderfully malicious Katy Jurado) suggests he hire himself some muscle, and Don Andrés recruits the earnest but slow-witted Bruto (aka Pedro) (played by another superb Mexican actor, Pedro Armendáriz). Don Andrés convinces him to leave his job at the slaughterhouse, and puts him up in a deserted storefront wing of his home. Paloma, of course, arranges his living conditions, and faster than you can say ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ Paloma and Pedro become surreptitious lovers.
Don Andrés points out the ringleader of the tenants’ ‘rebellion,’ a hardworking single father named Carmelo (Roberto Meyer). Pedro roughs him up a little bit, but he’s sickly and overworked, and the beating is inadvertently fatal. Hunted down by the other tenants, Pedro takes temporary refuge with the kindly Meche (Rosa Arenas), and falls in love with her. When Don Andrés follows through with the demolition of the building, Meche moves in with Pedro, who now can afford his own place. Unfortunately, that place is still visited regularly by Paloma, seeing to her needs with Pedro, and when the three of them collide one night, Paloma tells Meche that Pedro, indeed, is the man who killed her father.
In many ways, the film is a formulaic potboiler, but it’s elevated by Buñuel’s gorgeous and straightforward visual compositions (with veteran cameraman Agustín Jiménez), and superbly complex performances from Armendáriz and Jurado. Buñuel doesn’t manipulate the visual narrative here as much as he insists on his trademark tone of bemused irony. Armendáriz’ Pedro is a good-hearted mope who is easily manipulated to others’ own benefit, and he acts as enforcer for Don Andrés far more out of loyalty to his longtime benefactor than out of meanness or personal gain. We genuinely root for him to turn his life around with Meche, but we know too well that his blundering past will catch up with his present good intentions. Paloma’s marriage to Don Andrés is her second, and Don Andrés hints at some presumed squalor concerning her first – he’s coldly philosophical as to why Paloma’s with him now, but he’s still a richly-deserving cuckold. Paloma’s opportunism is relentless and guiltlessly self-serving, but Buñuel isn’t unsympathetic with how she became that way, either. This performance preceded her impressive turn as Helen in High Noon, but, despite her obvious talent, intelligence, and earthy beauty, she never got a leg up on becoming a genuine star – Hollywood just wasn’t ready for her, to their shame.
More superb Mexican films from Buñuel next time as well.