Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Black Vampire (El vampiro negro)

Director Román Viñoly Barreto

THE BLACK VAMPIRE (El vampiro negro)     B+                
Argentina  (80 mi)  1953  d:  Román Viñoly Barreto

Virtually unseen outside Argentina, discovered by film historian Fernando Martín Peña, this film is making its American debut at the Film Noir Festival traveling around the country.  Originally screened in Spanish at the San Francisco Noir Fest in January, 2014 with projected American subtitles, this is a brand new, recently subtitled 35mm print funded by the Film Noir Foundation, and while there is clear evidence of print damage throughout, this doesn’t detract from the overall look of the film, which is oftentimes spectacular.  Becoming only the third film to tackle the familiar territory of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the story of the pedophile child murderer, and while there are similarities, such as a blind man recognizing the tune he whistles as Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, Fritz Lang's M - Hall of the Mountain King Whistling (Grieg ... YouTube (10 seconds), or the criminal underground turning on him in an elaborately staged manhunt, this South American version is unique in shifting the emphasis away from the murderer himself, instead focusing on the harrowing life of a beautiful cabaret singer Amalia, Olga Zubarry, who accidentally witnesses him throw the body of a young child into the sewer before fleeing the scene.  While typical noir films feature an alluring femme fatale in contrast to the so-called morally good female role, where the male character is caught up in circumstances where he has to make a choice between these two women, South American films switch the sexual identities and instead feature a strong female lead character, where she’s tempted by the narcissistic behavior of a lowlife gangster and the supposedly morally upright behavior of a prosecutor.  While you’d think this shift in sexual emphasis would alter the chemistry of film noir, losing the grim realism of a male loner, instead it expands the role of the femme fatale from a secondary side character to the lead, seeing the world through her eyes, even integrating her storyline with the murderer by the end, where this is the only version of M (1931) that expresses the psychological view of the mother of an abducted child.  This seismic shift is the real intrigue of the film, which is expressed through a B-movie, melodramatic hysteria, using an exaggerated visual scheme by cinematographer Aníbal González Paz that couldn’t be more dynamically appealing, where the interior mood of the film resembles Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” (Original file).   

Shot in black and white on the streets of Buenos Aires, a city gripped in the terror of a serial child murderer, two parallel stories are told simultaneously with each character exhibiting a double life, a seemingly respectable, mild-mannered professor (“el professor”) Teodoro (Nathán Pinzón) that tutors young female students in his furnished flat without incident while secretly abducting young infant girls as a psychopathic pedophile known as the “Black Vampire,” renowned for his virtual invisibility, leaving no trace of his presence behind, and also Amalia (Zubarry), an attractive showgirl and featured attraction in an underground nightclub run by gangsters, which hides her real identity as Rita, the mother of a young daughter who lives elsewhere, presumably protecting her from the shame of her mother’s profession, which is the means of providing for her support.  Zubarry was a major star in Argentine cinema, making over 80 films while married to the president of the Argentina Sono Film company and was known as Argentina’s “Marilyn Monroe,” the first Argentinean actress to perform a nude scene in EL ÁNGEL DESNUDO (1946), though a flesh-colored mesh stood between the actress and the public.  The director Carlos H. Christensen was responsible for sustaining the lie for years, claiming you have to feed the myth to sell tickets.  While she exudes sensuality with round features and suggestive lips, her face always perfectly lit, she fends off unwanted male attention with relative ease, but is startled during a costume change in her dressing room at what she sees out the window, initially shown only in shadows on the wall, becoming the shape and form of the Vampire, inducing a blood curdling scream.  While Amalia is initially urged to keep quiet from the owner, Gastón (Pascual Pellicota), so as not to attract unwanted police presence, it’s only a matter of time before her secret is revealed.  Enter Dr. Bernar (Roberto Escalada) from homicide, also called “el professor” by his peers, a man dressed for magazine covers with a handsome face and a perfectly groomed pencil moustache, a matinee idol equal in every respect to Zubarry, yet he runs his department with an iron fist, arresting anyone on the scene.  Bernar has a paralyzed wife (Gloria Castilla) in a wheelchair at home that is unable to conceive a child, making him an overprotective husband, where he doesn’t arrest Amalia, developing a soft spot for her plight, but visits her later in her home expecting sexual favors.  When he’s rebuffed, he threatens to take her daughter away, claiming her sleazy profession makes her morally unfit. 

This is not at all a shot-for-shot remake of the Lang film, but one that stakes out its own territory as a South American melodrama, using over-illuminated close-ups, exquisite use of deep focus, wild angles and shot composition, grim street detail, and plenty of THE THIRD MAN (1949) style expressionist shots from the underground sewer system, where the film continues to provide a feeling of panic and hysteria.  The relationship between Bernar and his paralyzed wife predates Buñuel’s surrealist BELLE DE JOUR (1967) where it’s the paralyzed husband that causes the sexually repressed wife, Catherine Deneuve complete with fantasies and daydreams, to spend her afternoons working in an upscale brothel.  In an interesting play on this theme, Amalia actually visits the home of Dr. Bernar, hoping for some help after having received a court summons to take her daughter away, and instead meets his sympathetic wife who can’t believe her husband would do such a thing, where she is rightfully horrified at what she hears, still believing he’s a good man.  There’s an interesting parallel between Bernar’s fatalistic attraction to Amalia, where he seemingly can’t help himself due to the force of her sexual allure, and the Vampire’s psycho-sexual urges that he similarly can’t control, though one comes from the moral authority of the police, while the other represents the basest criminal element that even gives criminals a bad name.  The build-up of suspense eventually leads to the Vampire abducting Amalia’s daughter, where it’s clear he has to fight with all his inner demons not to kill her while taking her on a merry-go-round at a carnival.  When a blind balloon vendor recognizes the song he’s whistling, he alerts an underground street network of the killer on the loose, where the nocturnal landscape is bathed in shadows and police searchlights, capturing the pent-up dread in claustrophobic close-ups, building the anxiety until Amalia herself confronts the killer.  Slithering through yet another manhole cover, the Vampire releases the child but escapes into the municipal sewer system where other beggars, derelicts and thieves converge on him, cornering him in a shadowy underworld of nightmarish darkness where he pleads for his life.  The tense and moody atmosphere is artfully crafted, creating energy and intensity throughout, where the strong performances, especially Zubarry, Pinzón, and Escalada make this a thoroughly enjoyable addition to Fritz Lang’s M (1931) experience.  

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