There is one question that puzzles film scholars and cinephiles: is noir a genre or a movement? For today, this debate doesn’t matter, because both can cross borders. Think about the western genre that was adapted and became the spaghetti western in Italy. Think about the German Expressionism, a movement that influenced films made outside Germany, like “Dracula” (1931) and “Cat People” (1942). Noir can also cross borders – and it did it more than once.
Today we analyze two Argentinian noirs – one being actually neo-noir:
The Bitter Stems – journalism can be deadly
On the first scene of The Bitter Stems (Los Tallos Amargos), we see our two leads taking a train and celebrating because they finally could go on vacation and rest. A while ago, they couldn’t. So, a flashback starts to tell us what happened “a while ago”.
Alfredo Gaspar (Carlos Cores) is a journalist who has a lot of work to do – and not enough money to receive. He is ambitious and dreams of more – riches, adventure, adrenaline. By his reaction while watching a war movie, we can assume he has PTSD and was probably a soldier during WWII.
One night, he walks into a bar and meets one of his bosses. The barman, the Greek Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos), hears the conversation and when he gets alone with Gaspar he says he was also a journalist in Europe, and has a business idea that will make anyone rich.
Alfredo starts translating the material Liudas has: a journalism course by correspondence! Their idea for the advertising is offering plagiarized articles for newspapers that agree to run their ads. As weird as it sounds, the strategy works. Soon they have dozens of students enrolled – and Alfredo works day and night, motivated by Liudas’s need to rescue his family from a Greece destroyed by the war.
We’re now back at the train. Liudas and Alfredo get down and go to the later’s house. Alfredo has now a doubt: does Liudas’s son Jarvis really exist? Or is Liudas lying to make Alfredo work for him for free? Alfredo grows more suspicious as he sees Liudas buying new clothes and filling papers to apply for citizenship. Now sure that he is being made a fool of, Alfredo kills Liudas. Some time later, the son Jarvis appears, looking for his father.
This is an uncommon noir. It has no femme fatale, but it has a poor devil as a lead – just like Edward G. Robinson in “Scarlet Street” (1945). There is no voiceover narration, but we can hear what Alfredo thinks. There is not only one flashback, there are flashbacks and flash forwards. Instead of nightclubs with a sexy singer, there are cabarets where people dance tango and a dancer who may help Alfredo.
There is a great dream sequence, probably inspired by the one designed by Salvador Dalí for “Spellbound” (1945), featuring Alfredo’s war trauma and his dreams of money and success. This is one of the many highlights of the film.
There are some moments with good lightning: lights and shadows contrast when Alfredo is chatting with his girlfriend, Susana (Julia Sandoval), when he meets Liudas and when he follows Liudas to a nightclub. Lightening is basically a third character – and the only eyewitness – In Liudas’s death scene.
“The Bitter Stems” was recently restored and presented in many film festivals, until it appeared on DVD. The film was voted #49 on the list “Best Photographed Films of All Times” by the American Cinematographer’s – a well-deserved recognition.
The Sign – a hard-boiled detective with a twist
The 1940s had Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. The 1950s had Corvalán, an Argentinian detective who is used to unexciting missions, like finding a cat that goes missing, discovering if a woman is cheating on her husband and following people who have actually been dead for years.
Everything changes when a woman he meets in a bar hires him to follow a man. It could be just another common job, if it didn’t get Corvalán involved with the mob. Soon the man he is following is killed, and Gloria (Julieta Díaz), the woman who hired him asks for protection, because she could be the next target.
One crucial scene is set at a movie theater showing the noir classic “Laura” (1944). In it, Gloria tells it all to Corvalán, about her mobster husband, a massacre from the past and a man seeking revenge. All this story has, as background, Evita Perón’s disease and death.
The sign mentioned in the title, that sign that changes our lead, is the discovery that Corvalán’s girl, Perla (Andrea Pietra), has another man. He falls for Gloria and lets this passion speak louder than his common sense, until tragedy happens.
Ricardo Darín, the great face of the modern Argentinian cinema, is both the lead and the director – he had to take over direction when screenwriter Eduardo Mignona, set to direct the film, passed away suddenly. Darín and cinematographer Marcelo Camorino made the choice to give the film an authentic noir mood by having all clothes and sets with predominantly dark colors. In some shots, although the film is in color, we could swear it was shot in black and white. It’s almost as if you are watching a photo album become alive.
Corvalán is a detective that could have been originated in a pulp novel. He is bored by his simple work, and faces a new challenge with nonchalant attitude. He has a faithful partner, a dog and a father in an elderly home. When Gloria asks if he was ever married, he doesn’t answer. He was hurt by Perla more than he wants to admit – women are his Achilles’s heel.
Gloria is not a femme fatale in the Hollywood fashion. She was an orphan who got married to a much older man, a mobster, when she was just 15, because her father thought it would solve the family’s financial problems. She lives an unhappy marriage, and can’t wait to get out of it. She looks more like a victim than like a villain. But don’t be fooled: she is much smarter than you can imagine. And for her men, she is fatale.
Not as good as “The Bitter Stems, but interesting nonetheless, “The Sign” has as its best quality the photography – and the historical background.
Both Argentinian noirs are clever and have surprising plots. The cinematography is pure noir in them, which means that the cinematography choices were much probably intentional – these are films made to look like noir. And those choices worked wonderfully.
The Latin American cinema is very rich. It does not copy Hollywood tropes, but adapts Hollywood genres and movements adding an unique Latino spice. We’re fortunate to have had “The Bitter Stems” restored to be rediscovered by younger generations all over the world. “The Sign” also deserves to be discovered as both the only attempt Darín made in direction and a fascinating neo-noir “en español”.