Personally, I had never seen anything like the two Mexican films in the program, and I am itching -- and I mean itching -- to get my hands on more.
Border Incident (1949)
But let's start with the Hollywood message picture about illegal trafficking in farm workers set in the border towns of Calexico and Mexicali. After the odd, public service-like prologue about the "army of farm workers from our neighbor to the south" needed to pick crops to put food on American tables, the film begins in a conference room where federal agents from the United States and Mexico are devising a way to infiltrate an illegal migrant worker smuggling ring.
I should mention that the working title for Border Incident was Wetbacks.
Agent Pablo Rodriguez (the impossibly handsome Ricardo Montalban) is to pose as a bracero fed up with waiting weeks with hundreds of others for legal permission to pick crops all day for crap pay and get himself smuggled in so he can work all day for half the crap pay he'd get legally. Luckily, he finds the right bunch of guys. Of course, these are also the guys who ambush the workers when they cross back into Mexico with their hard-earned money, rob them, kill them, and dump their bodies in a handy patch of quicksand.
The American agent, Jack Bearnes (George Murphy ) is to pose as a wanted U.S. criminal who has acquired real work permits and wants to sell to the highest human trafficker, who turns out to be a quietly menacing rancher called Owen Parkson (Howard DaSilva).
There's a lot of iffy police work in this picture and one significant (and literally harrowing) "after-the-nick-of-time" moment, but all in all, an interesting movie with some very moving scenes shot in shadow and tight spaces. The bad guys are caught (it's an MGM film) at a cost, and as the epilogue implies, everything is super safe now for our migrant farm working friends from sunny Mexico.
Isn't that a relief?
In the Palm of Your Hand (1951)
Night, meet day. Day, night.
In the Palm of Your Hand is set among the wealthy elite of Mexico City, where charlatan astrologer, "Professor" Jaime Karin (the great Arturo de Cordova) charms and swindles wealthy matrons with the help of his wife, Clara Stein (Carmen Montejo: picture a Spanish-speaking Patty Andrews from the shtetl) who works at a swank beauty parlor and passes on the intimate secrets of these idle rich.
Enter beautiful and beguiling Ada Romano (Leticia Palma), the recent widow of millionaire Vittorio, whom Karin decides to bilk of her inherited fortune. Clara gets a funny feeling about all this and begs him not to run the con.
What could go wrong?
Turns out Ada and her lover, Leon (Ramon Gay, who looks a bit like John Waters) have murdered her husband (his uncle) and now Ada would like Karin to take care of Leon. The way things go bad for the otherwise canny Professor is expertly managed and executed; you never know quite how it'll all turn out. Will Ada win? Will Karin pull things off? I won't tell you.
The set design is outstanding and the photography exquisite. I recommend it highly if you ever get the opportunity.
Victims of Sin (1951)
I feel the way about Victims of Sin as I did when I saw my first Bollywood film: exhilarated, amazed, and in love. I am now in hot pursuit of more películas de cabareteras (cabaret dancer films); it's as though my eyes are finally open to an entirely new cinematic possibility.
The plot: Nightclub dancer, Violeta (Cuban dancer and actress, Ninon Sevilla) rescues the unwanted baby of a club prostitute from the garbage and decides to raise him as her own, at great cost to her reputation and safety. In fact, she is kicked out of the swanky Cabaret Chango and is forced to sell herself on the street.
The child's father is a zoot-suited, quasi-clownish pimp called Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta) who menaces Violeta until she is rescued by friendlier pimp/club owner, Don Santiago (Tito Junco), who you can always tell is coming, because he is followed everywhere by a band of mariachis.* Santiago's club, La Maquina Loca, may be (literally) on the wrong side of the tracks, but the whores are friendlier to one another and the johns are kindly beer-swilling stokers; not those stuck up martini-swilling, rumba-dancing, suit-wearing creeps uptown.
Do I really need to say more?
Well, try this on: There are at least three major Afro-Cuban dance numbers featuring the great Perez Prado and his orchestra; a tender ballad by Pedro Vargas, and a poorly translated but clearly hilarious song by Rita Montaner. Plus Violeta does a beautiful, provocative dance number with an African bongo drummer.
And this: The film is shot by the incredible Gabriel Figueroa (student of Gregg Toland and cinematographer to Luis Bunuel and John Ford). There is one shot of thick, filthy smoke rising from train smokestacks that looks like the sky has bit lit on fire -- and it's a black and white film, mind you. Victims of Sin is also directed and written by Emilio Fernandez, acclaimed actor and director, but did you know he was also the model for the Academy Award statue?
Oh and: An alarming number of scenes in which fightin' mad whores descend on men, yelling, kicking, scratching, and punching, then dissolving into the background. Violeta herself comes flying through a window out of nowhere at one point to beat the crap out of a bunch of guys.
The best part of all is the horrendous literal translation in the subtitles. We all know enough Spanish to raise an eyebrow when the word cojones gets the silent treatment, but it makes you wonder what choice curse was written out for us as "knife face." My favorite word-for-word translation of all came when the prostitutes are admiring Violeta's baby and coo, "It is male and it is sleeping."
I'm not telling you everything that happens, because there's So Much More -- and because you just have to see it. And you can if you follow the YouTube link below.
Watch the film now:
* Everywhere: from skid row to church.