As Luis Buñuel continued his prolific stretch of popular mainstream filmmaking in Mexico in the fifties, he exercised more control of his scripts and the general shape of each film, and became adept at weaving in his own artistic concerns into the fabric of some seemingly standard melodramas and comedies. Most of his Mexican films of this middle-period featured stark contrasts between typical working-class citizens and the privileged gentry: landowners, factory owners and management, old-money families, politicians and, of course, the powerful clergy. But Buñuel was also keen to add extra layers of psychological complexity – dream sequences, fetishes and moral failings, and the more troubling aspects of the poor’s aspirations toward the station of the people they elementally didn’t like anyway.
That last aspect is an important consideration for our first film here, Subida Al Cielo (Ascent To Heaven, more well-known in the U.S. as Mexican Bus Ride) (Mexico, 1952). Oliverio (Esteban Márquez) has married his sweetheart, Albina (Carmelita González), and they’re about to embark on their honeymoon when his older brother orders him back home. His sick mother has taken a turn for the worse, and she wants her sons there for her final hours. His brothers, Felipe and Juan, are already plotting to get the lion’s share of Mom’s modest inheritance, but Mom confides to Oliverio that her priority is Chucho, the small son of her daughter, their sister, who died giving birth to him. Oliverio knows she needs to get that in writing, but Felipe and Juan have already cajoled the local delegate into drafting their own version of the will – the boys feverishly aspire to upward mobility, by hook or by crook. Oliverio must travel to Petatlan to have Counselor Figueroa, an old family friend, draft a document that genuinely represents Mom’s wishes. Albina is understanding, and agrees to tend to Mom while Oliviero takes the bus trip to Petatlan.
The crowd on the bus, of course, is a cross-section of Mexico circa the mid-fifties. There’s the sexy and opportunistic party gal Raquel (Lilia Prado) whose flirtations escalate with her knowing Oliviero has just gotten married; Eladio González (Manuel Dondé), a local politician who constantly barks orders to the unflappably amiable driver, Silvestre (Luis Aceves Castañeda); Feliza (Beatriz Ramos), a pregnant woman going to see her doctor; and Don Nemesio (Roberto Meyer), a once-wealthy, well-connected landowner who hopes to regain the holdings he’s had to relinquish; along with a remaining busfull of working stiffs and commuting farming folk.
It’s a pretty conventional, somewhat formulaic comedy – of course, they deliver Feliza’s baby on the bus, Raquel treats Oliverio to a night of illicit pleasure, Eladio gets taken down a notch or two, and Oliverio accomplishes his mission to preserve Chuchito’s future, all interacting with the salt-of-the-earth citizen-passengers while acknowledging the elemental nobility of the common man. Buñuel’s not uncomfortable with the material; Raquel is a little more lascivious, Eladio a little more shameless, Oliverio’s brothers a little more conniving than Buñuel’s contemporaries might have represented them, but the film is technically adept, especially working for long stretches within the cramped bus interior. It’s a well-done, crowd-pleasing film that still has enough sociopolitical food-for-thought to take it a few notches deeper.
El (This Strange Passion) (Mexico, 1953), on the other hand, is a superb melodrama of bracing black comedy and thrilling psychological complexity. Francisco Galvan de Montemayor (Arturo de Córdova) is a successful businessman, well-known and admired in the community, and is an eligible older bachelor. As the film opens, Francisco is assisting in the celebration of Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) – the priest is ardently washing the feet of a row of young boys. From the boys’ feet, Francisco scans along the first row of the church, and his eyes land on another set of feet in stylish black shoes. These feet belong to Gloria (Delia Garcés), who is just as temptingly lovely above the ankles as below. Francisco is smitten, and begins to court her, but Gloria is reserved and unreceptive – it turns out that she’s engaged to be married to a good friend of his, Raul (Luis Beristáin), a prominent contractor and engineer. He decides to throw a small dinner reception, includes Gloria and Raul among the guests, and uses the gathering to promote himself through his friends’ eyes and make his case directly to her, eventually sweeping Gloria’s reservations aside and winning her heart.
Months later, the jilted Raul returns from abroad – he’s been supervising the construction of a new dam, and avoiding Mexico City to nurse his romantic wounds. But one of the first people he runs into upon his return is Gloria, and Gloria confides to Raul that Francisco is entirely different in private than his outward self-assurance and good reputation might lead most people to believe. On their honeymoon, she learns that Francisco is obsessed with a parcel of real estate that was once held by his family, but has since reverted to the holdings of the city of Guanajuato. The paperwork that Francisco is relying on for his own claim is over a century old, but he still spends serious money on a parade of lawyers who all tell him to give up the case. Francisco thinks they are all betraying him, working for the other side and siphoning his money. But his paranoia is even more profound where she’s concerned; he’s an almost psychotically jealous man, constantly ruminating on his worst fears of her past involvements, and seeing every man who shows the slightest friendly interest in her (or, as is the real case, both of them as a couple) as a carnivorous lothario, subtly encouraged by her silent feminine wiles to destroy their mutual happiness. Her life since the marriage has been hell, but she has no one to confide in or turn to for guidance, since everyone else in his life- including her own mother – thinks he’s a responsible, successful paragon of the community.
Buñuel is superb at balancing a gleefully jaundiced eye towards Francisco’s excesses – his paranoia and jealousy, his fetishism, and his cruelty (Francisco thrusts a long knitting needle through a keyhole he suspects he’s being spied on through, and, later, actually makes preparations to sew Gloria’s vagina shut!) – while keeping Gloria’s self-sacrificing terror credible. Buñuel takes Francisco’s pathologies seriously – the film is often held up by medical scholars and psychologists as a genuine representation of morbid jealousy as a symptom of schizophrenia and/or acute depression. But there’s a blackly comic underlying sympathy towards Francisco as well – Gloria is dutiful throughout, never entertaining the notion of leaving him until a climactic public breakdown where he tries to strangle his priest, his lifelong friend and fellow foot-fetishist Padre Velasco (Carlos Martínez Baena). (Francisco’s worst excesses are constantly enabled by the church – at one point Padre Velasco sternly berates Gloria for her ‘indiscretions,’ which are complete fabrications of Francisco’s fevered mind.) Buñuel recognized in himself, and in his family history, many of the same obsessive tendencies that Francisco exhibits, and the film is an adaptation of a Spanish-language memoir by Mercedes Pinto chronicling her real-life abuse at the hands of her husband.
The film is reliably, beautifully shot (by Gabriel Figueroa, who also shot Los Olvidados and The Exterminating Angel) and composed (by Buñuel) – the camera movements and subtle editorialism of the reaction shots alone are impressive, let alone the other larger sequences in Francisco’s elaborate estate, in Guanajuato during the honeymoon, and the church scenes. If you can keep your jaw from dropping five or six times during the course of this macabre and, yes, hilarious film, you’re a better man than I. This is one of my favorite Buñuel films.
Illusion Travels By Streetcar (La Ilusión Viaja En Tranvía) (Mexico, 1954) brings us back to the populist comedy that Buñuel first tackled with Subida Al Cielo; I think this one is, overall, more successful. ‘Caireles’ (‘Curls’) (Carlos Navarro) and ‘Tarrajas’ (Fernando Soto) are general laborers for the city streetcar service, but they know themselves to be better mechanics, and harder workers, than those who actually hold those positions. They take it upon themselves to repair one of the older streetcars, No. 133, and, sure enough, they have the old streetcar purring like a kitten. The foreman is impressed, but when they go upstairs to discuss the matter, management declares that not only was the car repaired six days too early, throwing off their production schedule, but the car will eventually be replaced by a new one, never should have been repaired in the first place, and should be scrapped. “Don’t any of you forget that too much of anything is detrimental… even efficiency,” instructs the manager.
Our boys are understandably frustrated, and decide to shrug it off at the company party. They each have roles in the company’s Christmas play (an hilarious parody of Lucifer’s fall from grace, and the Garden of Eden), but when they see the yard guard having one cocktail too many, they decide to abscond with a case of beer and take No. 133 out for a spin in the dead of night. (With them not appearing to begin the second act of the play, the organizer laments “That’s what we get for giving God’s role to just anyone!”) After riding for a while, they decide to return it before the party ends, but they’re too late – the building is dark, and the last of the partygoers are trying to figure out the best way home. Naturally, Curls and Tarrajas load them up to give them rides, including Lupe (the fetching Lilia Prado again), Tarrajas’ sister, whom Curls has a big crush on. They pass the Mexico City slaughterhouse, where the night shift is just getting off work, and end up conveying them home, too. (They all have meat that they’re bringing home, and Buñuel, the incorrigible surrealist, can’t resist festooning the streetcar with hanging raw meat– a pig’s swinging snout knocks the hat from a well-to-do gentleman’s head.) Of course, there’s always one putz who, riding for free, still exclaims “It’s about time!” upon arrival. Essentially, the entire movie from here involves their failed attempts to return the streetcar, and the wildly varied cast of commuters they take on in the meantime. At one point it’s a huge class of schoolchildren on a field trip. In an upscale part of town, they inform the passengers that they aren’t charging fares. “Sounds like communism to me!” an American woman says, depositing money in the farebox anyway. A retired streetcar driver, who is now a community busybody, figures out that Curls and Tarrajas aren’t supposed to be driving that car, and reports them to the company. The streetcar bosses, of course, don’t believe him.
The film could be arguably described as ‘Capra-esque,’ with the common sense and generosity of the common man constantly showing up their ‘betters.’ Curls and Tarrajas make a good team; Curls is the Bud Abbott straightman with a short fuse, while Tarrajas is a cross between Lou Costello and Sancho Panza. It’s pretty conventionally shot, but Buñuel never wastes a camera shot, a character quirk, or a chance to score points on behalf of the little guy. It’s very enjoyable, and, I suspect, a few notches more artful than other standard examples of the genre.
Finally, we have The Criminal Life Of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ensayo De Un Crimen) (Mexico, 1955), an intriguing film based on a conceit that Alfred Hitchcock would have warmed to; if I wish someone to be dead, and they soon afterwards die by other means, have I killed them nonetheless? As a young boy during the time of the Mexican Civil War, Archie is rich and spoiled. His mother gives him an elaborate Italian ceramic music box, and instructs Archie’s governess to fabricate a story about it. The governess, on the spur of the moment, invents a King who uses the music box to reveal liars and traitors to him, whereupon they are struck dead. Fascinated with story of the box’s ‘lethal powers,’ the boy wonders if he might use the box in the same way, oh, say, for instance, on the governess… who is then instantly killed by a revolutionary’s stray bullet crashing through the parlor window. Whoa…! From this point on, he becomes fascinated by the idea of causing women’s deaths through the force of his will. (It helps that the dead governess’ shapely stockinged legs eroticize the episode for the young boy – Buñuel, ever the Freudian…)
Thus the film presents a parade of comely women to the now-adult handsome and charming Archibaldo (Ernesto Alonso), intended victims of Archie’s blackly-comic blood lust who, for the most part, are richly deserving prevaricators and betrayers, all meeting their demise just before Archie can make good on his own malicious intentions. Patricia (Rita Macedo) is a flirty good-time gal whom Archibaldo meets in a small gambling club. Carlota (Ariadna Welter) is a gentle and devout old friend whom Archie has always been fond of, and eventually marries. Lavinia (Miroslava) is a lively and attractive artist’s model he happens across in an antique store. All are seemingly irresistible, but they each have a secret that they’re keeping from him, and Archie always creates elaborate, almost ritualistic circumstances within which he’ll take revenge and dispatch them. Is fate thwarting Archie’s serial-killer aspirations, or is he, in fact, manipulating fate – is his merely wishing them to die the engine of their passing?
Like El (This Strange Passion), Buñuel deftly balances Archie’s obsessions between troubling psychosis and blackly humorous schadenfreude. But, unlike Francisco in El…, we find ourselves, at times, rooting for Archie to succeed; Carlota’s demise, especially, is a surprising twist, and we feel genuinely conflicted that Archie didn’t get his opportunity. The film is another adaptation, this time of a novel by Rodolfo Usigli, and I suspect incorporating the various episodes of the book are what give this film a slightly overstuffed feel. But the acting, especially from the charismatic Ernesto Alonso, is excellent throughout. El… is by far the better, tighter film, but this one is immensely enjoyable as well.