Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles at the UCLA Film and Television Archive: La otra and El vampiro
January 24, 2018
Welcome to part 2 of my recap from UCLA Film and Television Archive's series Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960. The program, which featured several new restorations and special guests, was organized as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, “a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles,” which was celebrated at over 70 Southern California cultural organizations in 2017.
Last week, in addition to marveling at the fact that downtown Los Angeles was the center of a booming Spanish-language cinema culture from the 1930s-1950s, I explored two daring titles from the series, both from 1934: La mujer del puerto (Mexico) and Nada más que una mujer (US). This week I continue the dark streak with two suspenseful Mexican productions, La otra (1946) and El vampiro (1957).
La otra (The Other One, 1946, Mexico)
La otra stars Dolores del Rio as twins – one good, one bad, naturally – following a story device quite popular in the 1940s (see: The Dark Mirror, A Stolen Life, The Guilty). My knowledge of del Rio's career had previously been confined to her pre-Code US performances, so watching her in a film produced in her native Mexico, the first she made with her own production company, Mercurio, was a treat.
In La otra, del Rio appears as Maria, a manicurist just scraping by, and Magdalena, the rich widow of Maria’s ex-lover. That kind of history would make for a strained relationship, sure. But curiosity about Magdalena’s life gets the best of Maria, so much so that she ends up killing her well-to-do sister and taking her high society place. Appropriating someone else’s identity and then walking into a mansion full of people you don’t know would be daunting, no? Same with being surprised by a clandestine lover you never knew existed, but he's now yours. Yes, both of those events occur in La otra. You’ve got to be a great actor - in and out of character - to cover for those curveballs!
I believe this is Dolores del Rio as Maria taking Magdalena's place. It's obviously hard to tell the difference between the two.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much depth to either of del Rio’s characters, both of whom exhibited substantial dark streaks, so neither succeeded in really making any emotional connection with the audience – or at least, this audience member. Despite that, del Rio handled the dual roles with aplomb, cranking the drama up even though she ultimately couldn’t overcome the constraints both personalities presented.
While I wasn’t exactly wowed by the story, I did thoroughly enjoy the score and musical choices. In particular, the soundtrack incorporated a Theremin, a diverse electronic instrument that emitted eerie vibrating tones in this case, which automatically threw me into supernatural-expectant mode. Admittedly, this device and the overall strength of the orchestral overtures wade perilously close to overwhelming at times, but they were balanced out by moments of supreme silence occurring at the most prominent points in the picture, like a homicide. That stillness, coupled with some arresting cinematography (silhouettes in that particular murder moment), rendered the images onscreen all the more stark and striking.
Oh, and the finale dramatically provided both a comeuppance and a twist; I could sense some sort of punishment was approaching, but the way in which it unfolded was at once satisfying and gut-wrenching. As an aside, I’m 70% sure Gloria Swanson took some pointers from the end of this movie; the similarity between the aggrandized facial expressions at climactic moments in this film and Sunset Boulevard (1950) is remarkable.
Yes, this is a French poster for El vampiro.
El vampiro (The Vampire, 1957, Mexico)
The opening scene of El vampiro is one of the most effective I’ve ever witnessed for a suspense/horror picture. A woman, Eloisa (Carmen Montejo), nervously paces a room, while an ominous-looking man, the Count (Germán Robles in his film debut), eyes her closely outside, below her window. Then BOOM! He transforms into a bat, flies through the window, converts back to 'human' form, and attacks her as the title crashes onto the screen. What a way to set the mood!
From there, we meet Marta (Ariadna Welter), returning home upon the sad news of her aunt’s death. But something’s up. Her surviving aunt Eloisa acts odd, and who is this strange Count that keeps visiting? Marta’s uncle Emilio (Jose Luis Jimenez) calls upon Dr. Enrique (Abel Salazar) to help investigate, but his identity is kept a secret from Marta and Eloisa. And oh, there are all these stories about vampire attacks swirling about. The Count already has his eye on Marta by the time she figures out what’s going on…
I can imagine The Count (Germán Robles) saying, "Does this light make me look creepy? Good."
I’m not a fan of straight-up horror and especially anything that suddenly appears onscreen out of nowhere, because I will rocket out of my seat. While you’ll find a few genuine jump scares in El vampiro, for the most part the frights remain steadily in the classic, creepy vein; for instance, there are secrets galore that render pretty much every character suspicious, and at one point I swore the slow-moving mist was actually alive.
Eloisa (Carmen Montejo) taking a casual evening stroll through the grounds. Don't mind the menacing haze.
Two specific elements in El vampiro stuck out to me the most. First, the production design and set decorations delivered 100%. What we're told was once a bright, airy mansion is now a somewhat dilapidated manor shrouded in a seemingly permanent, ghostly fog, complete with long-abandoned rooms blanketed in cobwebs. Such atmospheric attention to detail, in both the outdoor and indoor scenes, highlights the fear and desolation El vampiro conveys in an exceptionally chilling way. And while the special effects were nominal, they were surprisingly impressive for the mid-1950s, especially the vampires' sudden disappearances and reappearances. (We did see a bat string or two, though.)
Aunt Maria Teresa (Alicia Montoya) - and the room - making a statement.
Second, the performances were top notch, relatable in their terror and desperation. While the story itself was rather simple, the plot twists here and there gave the tale a unique touch, and the main cast members were all convincing in their roles, each demonstrating the appropriate poise, restlessness, anxiety, and/or devilry when called for. Speaking of actors, I was convinced that Salazar and Robles have American doppelgangers: Sheldon Leonard and Christopher Lee, respectively. (If you get the chance to see this movie – first, take it and second, tell me if you think I’m right.)
I don’t generally call for remakes of films from this era, but El vampiro seems like a horror/suspense story that could be revamped today, with the proper restraint, of course.
Check back next week for my thoughts on some of the series' lighter programs, including ¡Asegure a su mujer! (1935), No dejes la puerta abierta (1933), and Castillos en el aire (1938). Fun fact: All of these movies were produced in Hollywood!