Sunday, November 22, 2020

Noir City 2020.01: The Black Vampire & Panic

Hey, this technically makes it a Boston-area festival, right?
Okay, that's a reach, as is "this probably would have been the lineup for Noir City Boston at the Brattle", but so what? If there's any series festival shrugging off borders is worthwhile, it's this one.

I've got to admit, watching the first couple night's worth has been fun, but I'm kind of glad that Eventive is letting one rewatch within 48 hours after pressing Play, because I started Panic way too late and dozed off a lot during it, and watching it a second time in the morning just wasn't the same. I suspect that the best thing to do if you go in and out during a movie is write it off and come back later, but with a limited rental like this, I had to do it right away but wasn't really in the mood to either give that second all my attention or half-watch it.

Still, they're both nifty little movies, and if you read this while the series is still going on (link through the 29th), you can see them with the introductions from Eddie Muller and some interesting post-film material, from talk about the Argentine film industry of the 1950s to discussion on the history of subtitling

El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2020 in Jay's Living Room (AFI Silver/Noir City International, Eventive via Roku)

There are some who will say that El Vampiro Negro is the best version of its tale, and while that's a stretch - Fritz Lang's M is a legit classic - this Argentine take on the story from 1953 nevertheless makes a much stronger case for its own existence than many remakes do. It's a smart update of the story which doesn't lose its way for having a lot to say.

It can't escape the inevitable comparisons to its predecessor, of course, in part because star Nathán Pinzón - described in the post-film discussion as an avid cinephile - is seemingly determined to not just play the same part that Peter Lorre played, but to be Peter Lorre in M. It's not quite mimicry, but there's nevertheless a sense that he is pointedly making the same choices and using that performance as a guide wherever he can, and why not? Not a lot of people in Argentina can easily see a 20-year-old German film, and this is his chance to bring something he loves to them. It's not Lorre - it evokes him well enough but doesn't quite have the same "born-for-this" feel that Lorre brigns to it, especially if you've seen the original.

But it doesn't quite matter, because the serial killer in this movie is almost secondary; the film's true villain, arguably, is Prosecutor Bernard (Roberto Escalada), he may not be corrupt but he is always ready to bring the full force of his office to bear if it will help him resolve his case, and that's doubly so if he sees someone as his societal inferior. As such, he sets his sights on Amalia (Olga Zubarry) early on; a single mother who works as a nightclub singer in a club owned by a former drug trafficker (Pascual Pellicota), and who as such has no reason to believe that her precarious position will be helped by doing the right thing. And while director Román Viñoly Barreto and co-writer Alberto Etchebehere were likely pushed to make some changes by mid-century censorship requirements, they're able to be subversive and clever in how they do it: The mob as in organized crime isn't going to be the ones that do the work the police can't in this movie, but the overlooked people - folks with disreputable jobs, the homeless, the disabled - will.

That occasionally makes for a movie that gets a little wobbly when it gets to the child murders that supposedly drive the plot; there's a good argument for the filmmakers not engaging in lurid exploitation, especially since the theme of pitting the privileged against the displaced means that Ulber will be lashing out in a lot of the same ways the underdogs are. It doesn't reduce the horror of the serial killing to a plot device, but it does kind of show that there's enough going on that some things get pushed back a bit.

Panique (Panic)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13-14 November 2020 in Jay's Living Room (AFI Silver/Noir City International, Eventive via Roku)

Notably based on a George Simenon novel from outside his Inspector Maigret series, and it's one of those odd postwar French movies where there's this broad amorality and paranoia that sometimes seems peculiar from 75 years later, oddly dry even for noir.

Part of the thing that makes it so is that while all three leads are good in their parts, only Viviane Romance's Alice seems well-rounded throughout; she's aloof at some points but even as she's working a cynical seduction, she's got genuine affection for the boyfriend who was part of the gang that had her spending a year in jail and a believable as she starts to develop a soft spot for their patsy. Michel Simon is a guy whose charisma comes through as Monsieur Hire - it's not hard to see how he was a big star despite being kind of an odd nebbish in this film. He plays the sort of protagonist who is midway between hero and antihero, right below abrasive but just not-friendly enough that one can see why he's still an outcast. Paul Benard, meanwhile, is a guy you buy as Alice's no-account (and then some) boyfriend Freddy, but he's still someone you're told is charming rather than one where you believe it.

Director Julien Duvivier and co-writer Charles Spaak can't help but see the war over their shoulders as they make the film, and it's maybe a little bit more believably frustrating now than it has been at many times since. Freddy's blunt, seemingly transparent riling up of the townspeople who are already on edge seems kind of ham-fisted, as is the way it rapidly becomes a game of telephone, but it's not like what's going on in the real world is that much more sophisticated. What is a real delight is the town itself, apparently close enough to Paris or some other city to be on the Metro but still isolated; it may be filled with easily duped people but hits a real sweet spot between feeling like something created for the film and real, cozy enough to seem like a set but big enough for a finale. It's a nifty environment to lose yourself in even when you know what's under the surface, and the big finale is one where you can see a lot of the tricks but it's still stitched together into something that's more than a bit impressive in its scale.

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