Sunday, January 10, 2010

south-of-border noir: Salón México (1949)

Salón México (1948). 95 min. Director: Emilio Fernández. With Marga López (Mercedes López), Miguel Inclán (Lupe López), Rodolfo Acosta (Paco), Roberto Cañedo (Roberto), Silvia Derbez (Beatriz), Mimí Derba (directora del instituto). [Remade in 1995].

If there’s such a thing as the definitive Mexican noir, then this may well be it. I’d heard about the film’s classic status but had no idea it was this good. A representative of Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema, Salón Méxicois a virtual catalog of noir visual flourishes. And though the film dates from the peak of the noir cycle [1], the touches still feel fresh: smoky nightclubs; flashing neon lights; craggy staircases; back alleys; mists and fog, all of which contribute to a general sense of foreboding and doom in a claustrophobic, sleazy urban setting.

Marga López plays the heroine with a quiet charisma and dignity. Interesting that she bears a striking resemblance to noir icons Linda Darnell and Jean Brooks. Rodolfo Acosta makes for a deliciously slimy villain, but the film’s real star is Gabriel Figueroa's cinematography, which reel for reel, scene for scene, out-noirs most (and far better-known) American films from the same era.

I couldn’t help noticing the many similarities between Salón and Touch of Evil [2]: an urban, slightly sinister Mexican setting; bustling, crowded streets; jumbled sounds; a somewhat bumpy narrative; Latino music; seedy nightclubs; Spanish-deco architecture; a constantly menaced heroine; cigarette smoke; and of course lots of night and shadows. Anyway, my favorite scenes are the ones at the club, in the street just outside the club, and in the hotel across the street. If the movie has any weaknesses, they’re relatively minor: the heavy-handed music score; too many scenes at the girls’ school.

Question: was the Salón México a real club or made up for this film? Based on a real club with a different name? Whatever. Wow! What a movie!

style ****
substance ***

[1] Salón México and the even more flamboyant Aventurera rank among the supreme examples of the cabaretera genre, which might well be seen as the Mexican equivalent of film noir; so many of the cabaretera films have noir-like overtones both in content and style. Indeed, as has been pointed out, Mexican films with a noirish look and feel appeared as early as 1943 and even before, anticipating the American heyday years by nearly a decade (Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950, Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1996, p142). Conversely, echoes of cabaretera can be found in the immensely popular Latin-American telenovelas, as well as in American movies as diverse as Casablanca and the 1970s American disco movies.

[2] Did Orson Welles know this film? It’s hard to believe that he didn’t. BTW, incredibly, Salón predates Touch of Evil by about a decade. And while we’ve no conclusive evidence that Welles had ever seen Salón, it’s certainly possible that he did and might well have been influenced by the earlier film. Welles had a sympathy for and appreciation of the people and culture of Mexico (all of Latin America, for that matter), dating as far back as 1936 with his Haitian ‘voodoo’ Macbeth, through the early Forties and his travels to Mexico and Brazil, culminating in his doomed South American epic, It's All True. 

One of the most striking parallels between the two films is that each contains a pivotal scene in a dingy hotel room. In fact, the two hotels could probably be interchanged and no one would notice. But what is common to both is the heavy layer of atmosphere provided by the pulsing on-and-off lights. (This type of lighting effect, one should hasten to add, is virtually a noir staple, certainly not unique to these films). In any case, in both films surreptitious activity is happening: in Salón, Mercedes steals some money from her ‘agent’, but in Touch of Evil Welles ups the ante dramatically by using the hotel room as the setting for a drug frame and murder.

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