For many viewers, the great revelation of “Mexico at Midnight” — MoMA’s survey of mid-century noirs from Mexico’s long-gone studio system — will simply be the pleasures of the movies themselves. These are taut, fraught entertainments, every bit the equal of what Hollywood was crafting. These movies share with their northern counterparts an obsession with obsession. Twice in this series, in Julio Bracho’s Crepúsculo (Twilight) and Roberto Gavaldón’s La Diosa Arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess), horny swells decorate their homes with a life-size nude sculpture of the woman they cannot have, a clever way to work some nipples onscreen in a Catholic country: In Diosa, María Félix stands fully clothed beside her own stone rendition, seemingly amused at how much she outclasses the art department’s chiseling. Those eyebrows, black swoops that suggest distant bird-wings at sunset — those can’t be bought.
Tough-minded but sometimes swooning, urbane but often punishingly moralistic, these films share more obsessions with Hollywood’s: with the pitilessness of fate, the gowns and nightclubs of the rich, with the darkness that, in dense strips of shadow, lays upon the lives that from outside might look the most blessed. The shadows, here, are to the usual noir window blinds what Félix is that statue: Relish the way the light is latticed and crosshatched in the swank private library in Tito Davison’s Que Dios Me Perdone (May God Forgive Me), from 1948, or how the suffocating grandeur of the prison in the final shots of Gavaldón’s 1964 evil-twin masterpiece La Otra (The Other) anticipates the bureaucratic hellscapes of Welles’s The Trial four years later.
It’s impossible not to think of Welles and Hitchcock while savoring these films, and not just because every single staircase onscreen here is an event. But the influence never seems imitative or one-sided. Twice in “Mexico at Midnight” the troubled heroes get out of town to some well-touristed wonder, where man and woman discuss with some urgency the themes of the film. The spell of Vertigo‘s Redwoods hangs over the scenes where Félix and Fernando Soler escape Mexico City’s spy-games to visit Mayan ruins in Perdone, or when Arturo de Córdova’s blackmailing fortuneteller in Gavaldón’s En la Palma de Tu Mano (In the Palm of Your Hand), from ’51, whisks a mark to a waterfall to tell Leticia Palma’s murderous widow, “The cascade doesn’t worry nor feel remorse. It goes on, unafraid of punishment.”
Punishment, of course, is the thing to fear most in this Mexico. Punishment and mirrors, that is — in film after film, men and women with reasons to feel guilt can’t stand to see themselves reflected. Perdone shows us Félix’s black glove shattering a looking glass, and La Otra‘s story of one twin murdering the other to assume her plush lifestyle is effectively communicated in two bookending shots: the first, early on, when the penniless but apparently high-minded sister (both are played by Dolores del Río) sees herself in her wealthy, loose-moral’d twin’s shrine of a makeup mirror and realizes she could pass — a point nailed home when Rich Twin’s butler, reflected, appears in the background and can’t tell who’s who. Later, we see Poor Twin studying her face in her cramped, bleak apartment, urging away the worry foreign to the visage of her sister, dead just a couple feet away.
La Otra is a cruel and perfect film, one that first gets you to sympathize with its working girl — the world tries to push Poor Twin, a manicurist, into prostitution — and then makes her the villain. The murder occurs not quite halfway in, and it’s one for the ages: It’s Christmas, and Gavaldón cuts from a gunshot inside to a piñata being busted by kids out in the courtyard below. Candy rains down, but the head still hangs there — to get what you want in La Otra, you have to destroy. Back upstairs, Poor Twin peels the stockings off Rich Twin’s corpse, then slides them on herself.
That sequence is almost equaled in inventive, disturbing power a reel later, when Poor Twin takes her first stab at living in her sister’s palatial digs. Overwhelmed by a glimpse of herself, she caroms from room to room, fleeing both her image and her sister’s — and certain that Rich Twin’s guard dog knows the truth.
Another dog passes judgment in Gavaldón’s La Noche Avanza (Night Falls), a somewhat pushier tale of villainy from 1951. Matinee idol Pedro Armendáriz stars as an outright bastard of a sports hero, a worldwide great at pelota, or jai alai. Early on his Marcos kicks a puppy, which is crime enough — but his fate is sealed when he knocks up and pledges to marry naive Rebeca (Rebeca Iturbide) just before he jaunts out of the country to play in Cuba and Europe. She attempts to fling herself in front of a streetcar, and also expectorates one of cinema’s most potent of curses: “If you abandon me, if you don’t fulfill your promise to marry me, I’ll do something crazy, you hear? Something so wild no one and nothing will be able to erase it from your conscience, not even after your death!” Much to-do with gamblers, blackmail, and mistresses follows, and the pelota scenes are arresting marvels, but the moment you’ll never forget is that dog’s final revenge: a jet of piss on a poster of Marcos, after fate has had its inevitable way with him. (Unlike in Hitchcock, there are no “wrong man” heroes in these films.)
Gavaldón gets away with urine, and in Diosa his camera often lingers on that benippled sculpture. But, outside some flagrant bralessness, the material here is not much more blue than the post-Code Hollywood standard. Mexico’s noirs might be more skeptical of wealth even than ours were — most fortunes here are corrupt even as they are celebrated, with ostentatious displays of jewels and art and homes of boundless acreage. Those contradictions fascinate: The country was just 25 years or so removed from a co-opted peasant revolution, but only two films — La Otra and Bracho’s Distinto Amanecer (Another Dawn), from 1943, work class consciousness into the plot. Amanecer is another triumph, thrilling not just in its tense storytelling — a union firebrand (Armendáriz) on the run from a corrupt governor falls in love again with a now-married woman (Andrea Palma) from his past — but for Bracho’s attentions to the sound of his world. Early on, the suspense plays out in a theater, the cheery songs of some musical accompanying a life-or-death chase. The diegetic wonders continue, from street musicians and a nightclub pianist, sharpening tension that Bracho, a master, already could have cut you with in a silent. And that insert shot of goons, given a mission, grabbing their hats from a wall rack before gushing into the streets!
Both countries’ film industries promised that the wicked must suffer in the end, and the violence in these films, while staged with ingenuity, avoids sadism — even the brutal rowboat drowning in Perdone, shot with clouded-over vigor by cinematographer Alex Phillips. Over Félix’s shoulder, the sun burns blackly through a scrim of cloud, just as her character’s darkest feelings well up to the surface. Midnight or noon, it’s not the killing that is the enticement in these glorious films: It’s the impulse toward such crimes, blooming in hearts not too different from yours.
One of this retrospective’s many peaks comes when Leticia Palma, in En la Palma de Tu Mano, trains a gun on de Córdova’s fortuneteller, but can’t quite bring herself to shoot him. Instead, she fires at a mirror reflecting them both. She can’t stand to see who they really are — but we’re in the fortunate position to be able to go to MoMA and regard them.
Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir From Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age