South of the Border

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When you think of Mexican movies, you might think of dusty roads, adobe dwellings, mariachi music, and dramatically expressed passions. The Redford Theatre and Detroit Film Theatre recently gave their patrons a look at films based in Mexico, from two different perspectives.

On September 9, 2011, the Redford opened its September-December season with the rousing The Treasure of Sierra Madre. This 1948 drama starred Humphrey Bogart, and showed several United States citizens searching for gold in Mexico, in a movie made by a U.S. director (John Huston) for U.S. audiences.

A week later, on September 17, 2011, the DFT launched a special series of movies made in Mexico by Mexican filmmakers for Mexican audiences. Opening Day of this series featured a double bill of movies by director Emilio (Indio) Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.

The DFT movies—La Perla (The Pearl) (1945) and Las Abandonadas (The Abandoned) (1944)—were both released before Sierra Madre. I wondered how much the style and texture of the Mexican films might have influenced Sierra Madre, if indeed John Huston had the chance to see them at a time when Mexican movies had limited distribution in the United States.

The Fernández films featured actors who later showed up on the U.S. screen. Pedro Armendáriz, who starred in both DFT movies, later appeared in John Ford’s Three Godfathers (1948), with John Wayne. The next time I watch Three Godfathers, the supporting performance of Armendáriz will have more depth, because of the wide range of acting skills he demonstrated in the two DFT movies.

Also, the pivotal character of the lead bandit in Sierra Madre was played by Alfonso Bedoya, whose appearance in both DFT films brought chuckles of recognition from the audience.

Another U.S./Mexican connection was Dolores del Rio, who played the lead role in Las Abandonadas. She had earlier enjoyed a successful U.S. film career, including the musical Flying Down to Rio, which played at the Redford on February 19-20, 2010.

Del Rio’s performance for me was the high point of the afternoon of movies at the DFT. She showed a remarkable range of emotions, acting styles, and personalities as a woman who went through a rollercoaster ride of experiences as a mother and as a companion to different men. She was much more than the exotic beauty of her U.S. career.

Her high cheekbones highlighted a long, stately face that could equally express seduction and sadness. You felt that Fernández and Figueroa were trying to sculpt an image of perfect beauty in their presentation of del Rio, similar to what they did with María Félix in Enamorada, which screened at the DFT on November 20, 2010.

Walter Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre also was blessed by a memorable performance, by longtime star Walter Huston, the father of the director. Walter Huston won a best supporting Oscar for his grizzled, spirited, humorous portrayal of an experienced old gold miner who talks Bogart and Tim Holt into a search in the Mexican hills for that one big treasure that will set them up for life.

Walter Huston injected Sierra Madre with the kind of personable energy that makes everything around him seem like a reaction to his performance. He balanced a keen sense of fun and curiosity with an acceptance of the different possibilities of his adventures. His burst of laughter at the end helped put everyone’s priorities into their proper perspective.

He was also very respectful and understanding of the ways of the Mexicans and Indians that he and the two others encountered in their journey. This part of Sierra Madre helped flesh out the culture clashes of the story, adding to the tensions of its drama. Huston also had a special regard for the mountain from which the gold was extracted, directing his team of miners to repair the hillside before they left it.

It was particularly interesting to see Walter Huston talk with the Mexicans and Indians in their native tongue. The lack of subtitles forced you to pay more attention to the connections that Huston made with the others through tone of voice and facial expression.

In contrast, the Fernández/Figueroa films had no need for an explanation of Mexican/Indian culture. For the primary audiences of these films, these were familiar things and were understood parts of what that audience brought to the cinema. You did see a strong emphasis on conflicts and tensions between levels of society.

The sunlight, hilly terrain, and oceans gave the cinematographers in all three films much material for creativity.

“This is one of the most visually alive and beautiful movies I have ever seen,” wrote James Agee about Sierra Madre in the January 31, 1948 issue of the The Nation. “There is a wonderful flow of fresh air, light, vigor, and liberty through every shot, and a fine athlete’s litheness and absolute control and flexibility in every succession and series of shots.”

In the DFT films, Gabriel Figueroa’s special talents as a cinematographer earned him a special prominence in the opening credits. He made use of stunningly beautiful and dramatic natural settings, like cloud formations, rolling waves, tree branches, and horizons.

You wondered how much the background contributed to the meaning of the scenes. Did it show the isolation of the characters? Did it show how they were part of a much bigger world, driven by fateful, overwhelming forces?

Figueroa and Fernández worked together to create very structured, precise camera setups that made full use of the dimensional illusions of the cinematic language. There were skillful uses of shadows and soft focus. I’ll never forget the dark, haunted looks of the married couple in La Perla, or the radiant glamor of Dolores del Rio.

Their Place in History

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre took its immediate place in film history upon its release, especially since it was John Huston’s first film since World War II, when he made the famous documentaries The Battle of San Pietro and Let There be Light.

“Greed, a despicable passion out of which other base ferments may spawn, is seldom treated in the movies with the frank and ironic contempt that is vividly manifested toward it in ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the January 24, 1948 edition of The New York Times.

But I was surprised to find limited mention of the work of Fernández and Figueroa in some of my favorite film books.

David Shipman’s The Story of Cinema (1982) has no mention of Fernández in its index of more than 1200 pages of text, and only mentions Figueroa for his work for U.S. directors John Ford (The Fugitive) and John Huston (The Night of the Iguana). For many film writers, the story of Mexican cinema is in great part the story of Luis Buñuel, who will be featured at the DFT on October 13, 2011.

However, the fourth edition of The Film Encyclopedia (2001), by Ephraim Katz and others, calls Fernández “the most important single figure in Mexican cinema,” and says that “the dense atmosphere” of his films “owes much to Figueroa’s handling of the camera.”

And Fernández and Figueroa did receive some important recognition when they were at the peak of their powers. “…there is much to explore in the creative photography of Gabriel Figueroa, and in the dynamic directing of Indio Fernández,” read an article by William D. Allen in the July-August 1950 issue of Films in Review titled, “Spanish-Language Films in the U.S.: Their Audience is Wide but Humble.”

These Redford and DFT movies show how those two theaters complement each in their programs, along with their settings and styles.

In the cozy and colorful Redford, Detroit area audiences can re-acquaint themselves with the familiar pleasures of movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While at the DFT, in a stately and elegant setting, those same moviegoers can discover such hidden gems as La Perla and Las Abandonadas.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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