Sunday, April 5, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Romance de fieras (dir. Ismael Rodriguez, 1954)

Like many Mexican noir films, Ismael Rodriguez's 1954 Romance de fieras (Savage Romance) is actually a romantic melodrama with noir shadings, akin to a Humoresque. But however one categorizes it, it's a smashing film. It wastes absolutely no time getting started. Our youthful hero Javier Ponce (Joaquin Cordero), recently licensed as an attorney, is scanning newspaper want ads on a Mexico City sidewalk in front of a café, when suddenly, a shot rings out from within! Javier races inside to find industrialist Carlos Narvaez (Carlos Orellana) with a smoking gun in his hand, his best friend and fellow businessman Federico de Alba dead on the floor in front of him. "I need an attorney!" he cries - his own having fled the restaurant as soon as matters looked serious - and Javier is not only right there, but dressed as if to enter court that minute. In the space of a a few screen minutes, he has got himself a case, an acquittal on the grounds that the weapon was discharged accidentally, and a new surrogate father.

The father-son warmth between Narvaez and Ponce is complicated by the existence of Narvaez's actual son Ricardo (Armando Calvo), a playboy ne'er-do-well who takes an immediate dislike to his rival as a mere middle-class arriviste. Javier holds his own in all their encounters, full of little verbal jabs back and forth. One of the several "character plots" of the movie is the ongoing cockfight between these two. Naturally we root for Javier, an orphan whose maiden aunts Milagros and Remedios (non-homicidal versions of the pair in Arsenic and Old Lace) put him through school and also raised his younger brother.

Joaquin Cordero was 33 when Romance de fieras was released, in the early stages of a very successful career as a leading man; he passed away in 2013 at age 89. The best comparison I can think of for his particular blend of good looks and acting talent is William Holden (take that as very high praise).

Armando Calvo, who oozes insincerity and untrustworthiness in this movie, would also have a successful career, splitting his time between Mexico and Spain (where his father Juan Calvo was also a well-known actor).

Carlos Orellana was a triple threat as a character actor, writer (he co-wrote the Romance de fieras screenplay with Ismael Rodriguez, from Asuncion Aiza Banduni's novel), and director.

The movie bounces back and forth between Mexico City and Javier Ponce's home-town of Patzcuaro in Michoacan State on Mexico's west coast. He has bought his dotty aunts a new house, and is keeping a hand in with the rearing of his teen-age brother. His re-appearance on the home-town scene as a tall, handsome, charming, successful, and single young attorney has all the local gals swooning, but none can compete with Patricia (Veronica Loyo), who is exceedingly pretty and knows it, and swoops in for the kill in record time. Although Veronica Loyo faded from the film scene in the Sixties, she nails all of her scenes here, in what has to be one of the most likable portraits of an unabashed husband-hunter in film history. Her style is to announce her strategies up-front and then dare Javier to resist them; she's adorable.

But there is another type of romance besides her practical, let's-get-down-to-business-and-start-planning-the-wedding manner, and naturally the movie must put up a darker, moodier, crazier - "savage" - love as Patricia's competition. Her parents have rented out a palatial country estate that just happens to be in their property portfolio, to a mysterious young woman known - wouldn't you guess? - as "La misteriosa" (Martha Roth). She lives there in semi-seclusion with several servants and a small pack of ferocious dogs, playing Chopin for hours on end as her tears wet the keyboard. The dogs tear an intruder to death early on, all in a week in the countryside apparently, because it isn't mentioned again - but whenever the movie needs an air of threat, there they are snarling and straining at their chains. They will figure in the finale, of course.

It isn't long before a curious Javier starts trespassing his way onto La misteriosa's estate, despite being told by its mistress to desist. On his second visit, she goes to tear his hair out, and he pins her to the ground as blood trickles down his forehead. In an erotically charged series of close-ups he leans in for a forced kiss and perhaps more, but backs off immediately as his face tells us that, passion notwithstanding, he doesn't really fancy himself a rapist. This intense minute is one of many places in the film where Ismael Rodriguez shows himself to be a director of force. Rodriguez abundantly demonstrates an individual visual style, both in that telling use of close-ups and in his very characteristic overhead or elevated camera positions.

Martha Roth, who was born in Italy and moved to Mexico as a young girl, is a striking presence, who has not merely the air of a Bronte heroine but of a Bronte sister; I'd cast her as Emily without a minute's hesitation. She is not as conventionally beautiful as Veronica Loyo, but she is unquestionably "misteriosa," and as with all the contrasts in the film, this one is played to the hilt. She is "maldita," she tells Ponce - cursed, damned. Will she take him down with her? (Roth and Cordero are great together; this would not be their only co-starring movie.)

The alternation between the comic scenes with the aunts and pert, scheming Patricia, and the Gothicky romantic scenes with La misteriosa, is splendidly effective. One of the dramatic strategies of the film is that every time Patricia is getting somewhere with Javier, they are interrupted. After she serenades him in a moonlight scene on the bank of the famously romantic Lake Patzcuaro (shot on location), he leans in for his first kiss, but they are both startled by the sudden appearance of La misteriosa standing in the prow of a boat skimming by, seemingly practicing to be a masthead - it is laugh-out-loud funny. On the evening of their marriage negotiation, he makes a sudden startling discovery, and has to run off. On the evening of their actual wedding, he receives an urgent phone call, and has to run off. If Patricia believed in omens, she would see that the fates themselves are scheming against her...

The movie has lots of plot, which all ties together. Senor Narvaez passes away while Javier is in Patzcuaro, but not before narrating a complex death-bed explanation of what really happened on the day he "killed" his best friend, and a set of instructions. Ricardo is disinherited by his father, and Javier has to find the new, gone-missing heir before Ricardo himself does. It is someone they both know, but Javier doesn't realize this...

One of the joys of the second half of the movie is Javier's teaming up with Senor Narvaez's bespectacled plain-Jane secretary Magda (Emma Rodriguez) to carry out the dead man's difficult instructions. Emma Rodriguez (with Cordero in the still at the top of this post) is an extremely capable comic actress, and her character is a delight, whether she is getting drunk for the first time at a night-club, or trying to handle her own ordinary-guy boyfriend (who is bound to get jealous of all the time she is spending with glamour-boy Javier), or offering Javier some brass-tacks romantic advice when he goes on a despairing bender himself.

The last half-hour of the film juggles so many different tones - comic detective work, surprise appearances of various kinds, family melodrama involving Javier's kid brother, mucho talk of "destiny," and a completely over-the-top concluding sequence that plays like a cross between Hitchcock and Puccini, and that seems about to peak and end several times before those dogs inevitably show up. Do not go to Mexican cinema for mousy, temperate denouements; Ismael Rodriguez insists that you get your money's-worth before leaving the theater. But he pulls it all off triumphantly, and still manages to shift back into comic mode for the concluding scene (as Hitch does in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). I'll say it again: this is a smashing film.

1 comment:

  1. It does sound interesting, to say the least...and if those studio portraits are of Royo, then Roth, then Roth wins for me as the prettier, even given all the glam makeup, etc. Thanks...y bienvenido al A/V de Martes!