Dead Can Dance

Nick Pinkerton on “Death Is My Dance Partner” at the Museum of Modern Art

Carlos Hugo Christensen, No abras nunca esa puerta (Never Open That Door), 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 85 minutes.

IF YOU CALL IT FILM NOIR, they will come. At least this is the conventional wisdom in repertory film programming, where it has been proved time and again that postwar noir is money in the bank. This goes for the American films with the French names and the German Expressionist lighting, as well as various international equivalents in crime melodrama (the British “spiv” film, French movies by Becker and Melville). The Museum of Modern Art was turning them away at the doors for “Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age” in 2015, and now they’ve gone to the other powerhouse industry of Latin American cinema in the years after World War II with “Death is My Dance Partner: Film Noir in Postwar Argentina.”

Organized by Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller and Buenos Aires–based critic and programmer Fernando Martín Peña, “Death is My Dance Partner” is a sampling of six films produced during the Peronist period (1949–56), years marked by booming nationalism under a soft dictatorship. I haven’t seen half the films, including the world premiere of the Library of Congress–overseen restoration of a 1951 adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, starring Wright himself as Bigger Thomas and directed by Pierre Chenal, a Belgian-born Jew and a noir specialist in prewar France who fled to South America in 1942. I was, however, privy to screenings of a few gorgeous black-and-white prints, on the basis of which I can make a few general observations, such as the fact that Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and the fiction of Cornell Woolrich were unusually influential in Argentina in the early 1950s—of which, more anon.

Inveterate New York rep-goers may recognize the name of Hugo Fregonese from a handful of tough, top-notch Hollywood productions that played around town last year: Apache Drums (1951) and Blowing Wild (1953). A brilliant and peripatetic figure—he made films in his native Argentina, the US, Italy, Spain, and Germany—who is ready for a retrospective of his own, Fregonese is represented here by his 1949 Apenas un delincuente (Hardly a Criminal), his last Argentine effort before returning to a second stint in Hollywood.

Hardly a Criminal begins with the death of a fugitive, José Moran (Jorge Salcedo, who bears enough resemblance to Salvador Dalí to keep things amusing), during a high-speed chase, then details the chain of circumstances leading to his seemingly predestined downfall. A sort of prologue introduces Buenos Aires in a succession of bustling, canted images, defined by the narrator as a “nervous city” whose citizens “run over each other in a nervous rush.” One of these citizens is twenty-eight-year-old, 250-peso-a-month bank clerk Moran, who decides to trade a few years of freedom for an embezzled fortune which he hides away in a ship graveyard to be enjoyed when he comes out of the slammer. From the semidocumentary opening to a central prison-break sequence, Fregonese freely mixes and matches styles, all the while building a central visual metaphor of Moran as a cog in a machine, from a working drone at the bank to a figure caught within the gears of the prison printing presses to yesterday’s news, filed in the cabinets of the metropolitan newspaper.

The image of the carousel, another nefarious mechanism, plays a key role in Hardly a Criminal, where we see Moran as a boy in flashback straining to grab the brass ring. And a carousel opens Carlos Hugo Christensen’s 1952 Si Muero antes de despertar (If I Should Die Before I Wake), like Hardly a Criminal begun with an extended prologue, this one announcing that “the forces of evil can only be vanquished by purity.” During a long and prolific career, Christensen more than once adapted works by countryman Jorge Luis Borges, though he is represented in “Death Is My Dance Partner” by two films adapted from Woolrich stories. (In both cases he is credited under the nom de plume William Irish.) Of these I have seen If I Should Die Before I Wake, which finds remarkable visual analogs to the child’s-eye POV that Woolrich frequently employed. (See also Ted Tetzlaff’s 1949 The Window, adapted from Woolrich’s “The Boy Cried Murder.”) The film is largely filtered through the perspective of Lucio (Néstor Zavarce), the adolescent son of a police inspector who, out of a misplaced sense of youthful loyalty, conceals crucial knowledge about a child murderer after the disappearance of a classmate, and years later must go into action before the killer strikes again. Christensen’s production is marked by touches of the uncanny, with indelible sets which include a jagged pathway leading past the carousel and into eternity, an actually disturbing dream sequence that ends with a murdered girl’s hand emerging from a rubbish pile, and a literal deus ex machina in the climax.

Pierre Chenal, Native Son, 1951, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 107 minutes.

With his film’s sinister fairy-tale touches, referring to Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, Christensen anticipates Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) by some years, while in other moments he can be found borrowing loosely from Lang’s M, particularly in the use of a piece of chalk as a key clue to finding the killer. If the influence of M is abstract in If I Should Die Before I Wake, it’s quite overt in Román Viñoly Barreto’s 1953 El Vampiro negro (The Black Vampire), the story of a predator on the loose in Buenos Aires that lifts set pieces intact from Lang and Thea von Harbou’s script, remade in Hollywood by Joseph Losey only a couple of years earlier.

As with many remakes that closely follow the original, it is instructive to look at the departures from the model. The role of the child killer, played unforgettably for Lang by Peter Lorre, is ably filled here by Nathán Pinzón, whose hangdog visage is also visible in the prison section of Hardly a Criminal. Barreto introduces a new identification character in the person of Olga Zubarry, playing a chorus girl at a seedy cabaret who catches a glimpse of the murderer from a dressing-room window, but withholds information from the police at the behest of her boss. The question of whether there are political implications to the recurrence of destructive silence as a plot device, both here and in If I Should Die Before I Wake, is best left to someone with a better grounding in Argentine history, though I will note that, as in Hardly a Criminal, room has been cleared in the action of Barreto’s movie for an impressive nightclub scene. Zubarry’s cabaret is hardly a tourist enticement, its clientele a gallery of faces worthy of Otto Dix or Christian Schad, and Barreto likewise shows a gift for typage in assembling the bit players who comprise his ghoulish subterranean criminal class. Tellingly, most of the real ugliness is reserved for the officials charged with bringing in and punishing Pinzón’s murderer: Roberto Escalada’s sanctimonious scumbag lead investigator, or the jurors who show none of the leering kangaroo court’s ultimate mercy.

Six films may be too small a sample to make any sweeping generalizations about the distinguishing features of Argentine crime thrillers, but they are quite enough to testify to the national film industry’s high level of technical refinement, and to add another chapter to the story of the international postwar crime-film boom that all together comprises, to borrow from Borges, “A Universal History of Iniquity.”

“Death Is My Dance Partner: Film Noir in Postwar Argentina” runs Wednesday, February 10 through Tuesday, February 16 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.