In the Palm of His Hand

Nick Pinkerton on “Roberto Gavaldón: Night Falls in Mexico” at MoMA

Roberto Gavaldón, La otra (The Other One), 1946, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 98 minutes. Courtesy Filmoteca de la UNAM.

IF ONE IS PRESSED TO EXPLAIN the sensual and often masochistic beauties particular to postwar Mexican cinema, there are perhaps a half-dozen passages in Roberto Gavaldón’s La otra (The Other One, 1946) that could do the job in a trice. Tempting as it might be to go with the sequence of a footsore manicurist María (Dolores del Río) numbly negotiating the streets of a rain-plashed Mexico City while dreaming of a wealth beyond her reach, or the rooftop idyll between María and her cop boyfriend (José Baviera) that owes something to the yearning working-class romanticism of Frank Borzage, or the Christmas eve killing in the tenements that incorporates a courtyard full of celebratory children waving sparklers, gaily oblivious to the murder in their midst, it’s hard to top the movie’s coda. Following a story of crime and imposture—the poor María bumps off her well-to-do twin to assume her place, only to stand trial for her late sister’s poisoning of her wealthy husband—we are given a vision of a woman cast aside, condemned, and finally faced with the possibility of redemption through her condemnation. Seated alone, shunned, in a vast courtroom arranged as no courtroom has ever been arranged, del Río hears her conviction. Her subsequent march toward prison is a rhapsody of steel bars filmed with stately majesty, envisaging incarceration as a processional advancing toward purgatory. The camera dollies in to catch a close-up of del Río’s face between the bars, and as it does, she lets a single tear drop down her cheek—a tear as perfect as a pearl.

The legend of del Río has been written and rewritten, but who is Gavaldón? A figure still little-known and seldom discussed outside the Spanish-speaking world, he was the standout of a revelatory 2015 series at the Museum of Modern Art, “Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age,” which showcased the particular national varietal of ciné negro, an approximate equivalent to the American film noir. Now, thanks to the archives at the Cineteca Nacional de Mexico and the Filmoteca de la UNAM, Gavaldón has come in for a solo show on Fifty-Third Street that runs until May 5 and comprises thirteen films—an appropriately unlucky number for a filmmaker who made a specialty of characters at the mercy of unkind fate.

Roberto Gavaldón, La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess), 1947, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 107 minutes. Courtesy Filmoteca de la UNAM.

In La otra, del Río learns too late that she could have had both a significant inheritance and the love of a good man if she’d only played the hand dealt her without trying to stack the deck. In the trickily structured La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess, 1948), Arturo de Córdova is enticed to murder in order to resolve his extramarital passion for sexpot María “La Doña” Félix, and then from his jail cell learns too late of his exoneration, a guilty conscience and a fatal cyanide pill having already completed their task. De Córdova, a specialist in portraying ensnared men, finds himself in a real doozy in En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand, 1951), a shyster clairvoyant turned fall guy who finally puts the noose around his own neck, jabbering out incriminating testimony when brought in to identify a body in a police morgue the size of the Tenochtitlan pyramid. As evinced by this and the courtroom in La otra, Gavaldón had a fondness for dwarfing his characters in vast sets that could comfortably accommodate sweeping, emphatic camera gestures—a contrast to the claustrophobic settings one often associates with stateside noir. In En la palma de tu mano, de Córdova practices his trade in a medium’s den that’s the height of zodiacal kitsch, replete with the word ABRACADABRA inlaid in the floor. La noche avanza (Night Falls, 1952) introduces primed-for-a-fall cocksure protagonist Pedro Armendáriz strutting his stuff on the jai alai courts where he reigns supreme, and includes one of the more capacious of the nightclub sets that Gavaldón was so fond of—the Von Sternbergian Panama pleasure pit in La diosa arrodillada is perhaps the most memorable instance. So, too, did Gavaldón find expressive uses for manorial homes and their pompous entryways; La otra and La diosa arrodillada both boast mansions that seem to share the same art department caryatids, luxurious scenes for gracious living that in time come to resemble nothing less than tombs.

The oldest film in MoMA’s Gavaldón series, the Seville-set La barraca, dates from 1945; the last film Gavaldón released, by a significant number of years, is 1973’s Don Quijote cabalga de nuevo. The majority of the films showing, however, belong to the decade after the war, the heart of Mexican cinema’s época de oro, during which the country’s film industry emerged as the top dog of the Spanish-speaking markets, sporting its own star system, craftsmanship to rival that of Hollywood, and a distinctly Mexican iconography and ethos. In recent years, the época de oro has been the subject of renewed attention in New York and elsewhere—note the traveling exhibition dedicated to cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa that touched down at El Museo del Barrio in 2015, or MoMA’s retrospective of the films of Emilio “El Indio” Fernández last year.

Roberto Gavaldón, _Rosauro Castro, 1950, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 90 minutes. Courtesy Filmoteca de la UNAM.

While Fernández’s best-loved movies tend to set their scenes in rural Mexico, Gavaldón was a much more citified filmmaker—although MoMA’s series somewhat complicates this by including Rosauro Castro (1950), an agrestic melodrama featuring Armendáriz giving another heel turn as a dictatorial cacique political boss and landowner, and El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl, 1952), Gavaldón’s first film shot by Figueroa, which brings the exiled urbanite doctor de Córdova to the countryside to butt heads with Armendáriz. Gavaldón was himself born in Chihuahua in 1909, the son of a middle-class family with rural roots. The facts of his early life remain hazy, but it is known that he eked out a living in Hollywood in the early 1930s as a hand on Spanish-language remakes of Hollywood properties and as a nightclub bouncer, before returning home to try his luck in the suddenly booming Mexico City film industry.

Early on, Gavaldón encountered collaborators who would be essential contributors to his body of work. The composer Raúl Lavista, whose score for La otra is distinguished by early theremin usage, was a relied-upon ally. His masterpiece, perhaps, is the score of En la palma de tu mano. Several of Gavaldón’s finest ciné negro outings—La otra, La diosa arrodillada, En la palma de tu mano—and Rosauro Castro, and the highly eccentric Ricardo Montalbán vehicle Sombra verde (Untouched, 1954) bear the imprint of José Revueltas. A dissident novelist, Revueltas is remembered primarily for such literary efforts as El apando (The Hole, 1969), written during his time in the Palacio de Lecumberri prison, where he was sentenced for his role in the student movement that was violently suppressed in the Tlatelolco massacre of October 1968. Revueltas was also a prolific screenwriter, with credits on twenty-seven films total, including twelve for Gavaldón, who generally shared cowriting credits with Revueltas—and, presumably, a belief in the degrading influence of money.

Roberto Gavaldón, En La Palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand), 1951, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 113 minutes. Courtesy Cineteca Nacional.

Perhaps no single collaborator was so vital to Gavaldón’s art, however, as Alex Phillips. Born Alexander Pelepiock in Renfrew, Ontario, Phillips traveled to Hollywood, where he found work under the sponsorship of fellow Canuck Mary Pickford, who had been a godmother to Canadian soldiers during his time on the Western front with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I. After working as a technician at Samuel Goldwyn Productions, where he would have had the opportunity to study at the elbow of the redoubtable George Barnes and a young Gregg Toland, he was summoned south of the Rio Grande to work on what was to be the local industry’s first talkie, Antonio Moreno’s 1931 Santa. On arriving, he met Fernández, who enthused, “Do not hesitate! Go and you will know what Mexico is.” Phillips complied. He was on only a five-week contract, but he would stay on for a lifetime, becoming not only a massively in-demand DP and a mentor to the young Figueroa, but also, per director Julio Bracho, for whom he shot the sublime Crepúsculo (Twilight, 1945), among other films, “the one who came to teach cinema to Mexico.”

Mexico, of course, had plenty to teach Phillips as well, as Gavaldón’s época de oro output has much to show uninitiated audiences. Far from a carbon copy of American noir or the French policier, ciné negro was its own animal, distinguished by the fact that it permitted itself heights of dramatic expression largely unfamiliar in other crime thriller traditions; certainly, del Río’s tears at the end of La otra would be alien to genres that made a virtue of hardboiled stoicism and cold-hearted callousness. Visually, the Gavaldón of the 1940s may seem to be a peer to the German American practitioners of noir style, but there is a raw and extravagant emotionalism at the core of his ciné negro—listen closely and you can hear the beating heart of the later master melodramatician of El rebozo de Soledad and Sombra verde. Poison is the favorite weapon of his killers, but broken hearts are scarcely less deadly—and the road to hell has rarely been paved with such seductive darkling shimmer.

“Roberto Gavaldón: Night Falls in Mexico” runs from April 24 to May 5 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.