Even if you haven’t caught any film noir classics, you’ve probably seen a thousand parodies of the fedora-donning hardboiled detective, the seductive femme fatale, the smokey exteriors, and the high contrast black-and-white cinematography that define the genre. It’s one of those enduring American film traditions that has come to be part of our collective consciousness, with modern masters like the Coen Brothers and David Fincher still drawing from the genre’s unmistakable visual and narrative cues.
At its peak, film noir was the dark underbelly of Leave it to Beaver post-war America, where corruption, pessimism, and moral ambiguity were the order of the day. But if you ask most film historians, or even take a quick glance at Wikipedia, you’ll learn that film noir also found fertile ground outside the United States in countries like France, England, Italy, and even Japan. Yet for some reason, everyone forgets about Mexico.
Until now, that is. While the Golden Age of Mexican cinema may forever be associated with rumberas, Cantinflas, and Pancho Villa, directors like Roberto Gavaldón and Julio Bracho were using Mexico’s world-class star system during the 40s and 50s to make dark noirs full of crime, passion, and betrayal. And this month New York’s Museum of Modern Art has finally given these films their comeuppance with Mexico at Midnight, a comprehensive program that will undoubtedly put Mexican film noir on the map once and for all.
Thanks to support from the Fundación Televisa and the Filmoteca of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the program will feature seven films that exemplify the country’s racy and bold take on one of the world’s most beloved film genres. You would be well advised not to miss it.
Here are a few titles you should be sure to check out.
Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age runs July 23 – 29, 2015.
A classic example of the evil twin plot, La Otra happened to come out the same year as the Bette Davis drama A Stolen Life, but parallels between the films have been dismissed as mere coincidence. Played by Dolores del Río, María Méndez learns that her twin sister, Magdalena Montes de Oca, lives a fabulously wealthy lifestyle and decides to murder her in order to make off with the fortune. When her plan is successful, María soon finds that Magdalena’s money also comes with some dangerous complications.
La noche avanza
Set in the high-stakes and high-speed world of Mexican Jai Alai, Pedro Armendáriz plays Marcos: an arrogant and extremely successful pelotero who just can’t keep his hands off of women. When he leaves a young girl pregnant, her sister extorts him into throwing a match with the promise that the girl and his child will be out of his hair forever. Convinced he will soon be making off with a wealthy matron, Marcos happily complies, but a web of lies and deceit quickly devastates his plans for a smooth exit.
Que Dios me perdone
María Felix plays a classic femme fatale with a twist – her character is a concentration camp survivor who uses her sexuality to elicit information from unwitting men at the height of Mexico City’s World War II spy games. Meanwhile, a series of inexplicable murders can only be solved by a psychologist, played by Julián Soler.
Considered one of the greatest Mexican films of all time, Distinto amanecer brought together Julio Bracho’s precision directing and Gabriel Figueroa’s evocative black-and-white cinematography to tell the story of a union leader killed by a corrupt governor. When the murdered organizer’s best friend enlists the help of an old college flame to uncover secret documents and bring down the governor, she finds herself torn between her duty to her family and the love that is rekindled during their high-stakes search.
Alejandro Mangino is a renowned surgeon and author who gives up his profession after a failed operation leaves a patient dead – a patient who also happens to be his close friend, Ricardo Molina. After starting off with a proverbial bang, Crepúsculo then takes us back in time, where we see Alejandro and Ricardo’s friendship tainted by jealousy, obsession, betrayal, and a woman named Lucía. Crepúsculo closes out with a harrowing finale that would make Hollywood’s rigid moral universe more than a little red in the cheeks.