Film Noir During the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema

Enter the dark universe of crime, gangsters, detectives, and femme fatales...

By Fundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Mujeres sin alma" (1905-04) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Film noir during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema
Nighttime is the perfect setting for a thriller and for the film noir. There, we meet the antihero who is eaten up by jealousy, distrust, uncertainty, and is blinded by their own arrogance, recklessness, and pretentiousness. Film noir movies are relentless and they place at their core a cruel destiny where audiences are forced to run around labyrinths of memories that merge nihilism and social decay.

Scene from "¿Quién mató a Eva?" (1934) by Raúl Martínez SolaresFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Luponini de Chicago" (1935) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

It is evident that Mexico at night, one of the legends of the “Alemanista” imaginary, works as a metaphor for these films that respond to the stimuli and formulas of the suspense story and melodrama. The mixture of blood, sweat and tears, as well as adrenaline and sexual fluids, intersect with police cinema, cabaret cinema, poverty and slum stories, or the criminal drama—intrigue or espionage—, with violent results.

Scene from "La obligación de asesinar" (1937) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "El rápido de las 9:15" (1941) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Film Noir is a sort of sub genre or aesthetic movement, which stylizes its arguments and its staging to the fullest, taking the concepts of morality to their limits. It is a style and a premise, where the nocturnal and the hormonal are catapulted into a maelstrom of sex, evil, heroism, death and fatal predestination. These sparks of drama glow in the shadows of a threatening city or a mysterious, lonely village.

Scene from "Los misterios del hampa" (1944) by Othón Argumedo AlbuquerqueFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Ventarrón" (1949) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

At the end of the 1930s and especially in the 1940s, radio, comic strips, and cinema quickly turned into intriguing social mirrors. The first steps recognized filmmakers and creatives took were in low budget crime films that were the underbelly of the official and prestigious art cinema. Outstanding tragic antiheroes of a cinema noir à la Mexicana were announced in the triple programs on the marquees of cinemas such as Florida or Acapulco: “Today, 3 great films, 3: Ventarrón, El desalmado and Manos de seda; $ 1 and $ 1.50 ”.

Scene from "Una mujer de Oriente" (1946) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Han matado a Tongolele" (1948) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Opio" (1949) by Luis Márquez RomayFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Camino del infierno" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

David Silva, Arturo de Córdova, Pedro Armendáriz, followed by Víctor Parra, Víctor Junco, Tito Junco and others, were the actors who were at the helm of this moevement. They epitomized the "tough guy" imagery that was reinforced by Hollywood and its take on film noir movies, with icons like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, John Garfield, Robert Mitchum or Dana Andrews as the role models.

Scene from "Camino del infierno" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "El reino de los gangsters" (1947) by Leonardo Jiménez EspinosaFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "El reino de los gangsters" (1947) by Leonardo Jiménez EspinosaFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

El automóvil gris is a film noir that starts almost at the dawn of Mexico's cinematography in 1919, and this universe is further expanded with the works of the Chilean filmmaker, José Bohr and the Cuban Juan Orol, whose careers were based in Mexico, and with titles like ¿Quién mató a Eva?, Luponini de Chicago, Mujeres sin alma, Los misterios del hampa or El reino de los gangsters.

Scene from "El reino de los gangsters" (1947) by Leonardo Jiménez EspinosaFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Mientras México duerme" (1938) by Raúl Argumedo SandovalFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

The first serious attempt to describe moral corruption, urban sordidness, and social disenchantment was in Mientras México duerme (1938), starring Arturo de Córdova as the leader of a gang of thugs. This film was the portrait of a Mexico at nighttime, filled with alcohol, sex, crime, and cabaret music. It tells the story of the muder of an apothecary at a drugstore in downtown Bucarali. It later on inspired Alejandro Galindo to create an original feature titled, Ruleteo, which was his first important feature film that would later be connected with the iconic Cuatro contra el mundo (1949).

Scene from "Distinto amanecer" (1943) by Samuel TinocoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Distinto amanecer was filmed with impeccable elegance by Julio Bracho, and it subtly touches base on several emotional queues of film noir. For example, the atmospheric photography, which was created by Gabriel Figueroa, paints vaporous and claustrophobic scenarios with light beams that shine a light on the protagonists and their obsession with the past and the romantic narratives. What makes this film a classic film noir of Mexican cinema is the mixture of cabaret and politics, betrayal of ideals and love, and the recovery of lost passion, all under the backdrop of the famous Guardiola building, the Casa de los Azulejos, the old train station “El Mexicano”, and the ghostly avenue Pino Suarez in the early hours of the morning. The presence of the Cuban singer Kiko Mendive, the lively boogie woogie, and the voice of Ana María González interpreting “Every night a love”, by Agustín Lara make Distinto amanecer an unforgettable classic

Poster for "Usted tiene ojos de mujer fatal" (1947) by Juanino RenauFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Hipócrita" (1949) by Leonardo Jiménez EspinosaFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Hipócrita" (1949) by Leonardo Jiménez EspinosaFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "La diosa arrodillada" (1947) by Manuel Álvarez BravoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "La diosa arrodillada" (1947) by Manuel Álvarez BravoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Poster for "El desalmado" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

1946 is a momentous year for the national film noir movement and for the career of the filmmaker Roberto Gavaldón and the writer José Revueltas. In A la sombra del puente, inspired by a work by Maxwell Anderson, David Silva embodies a rebel who is traumatized by a terrible past and who must face head on the horrors of social violence. The actor who gave life to this uncouth antihero and his narcissistic, misogynist and defeatist traits would later on apply this persona in a series of films: Ventarrón, El desalmado, Manos de seda or Eterna agonía.

Scene from "La otra" (1946) by Ricardo RazettiFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Poster for "La otra" (1946) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

That same year, Gavaldón and Revueltas adapted a police story by Rian James to create La otra, a criminal plot starring Dolores del Río in a double role. The ability of Revueltas, with extensive experience as a police reporter, plus the ability of Gavaldón to reach into the deep crevaces of the human mind, resulted in an intriguing work, and the first of a long list of mutual collaborations between the two creatives. La otra, tells the story of two twin sisters, a poor manicurist and a millionaire widow, the former murders her sister and takes her place without knowing that along with the money, she will also inherit her sister's dark past.

Scene from "La otra" (1946) by Ricardo RazettiFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Que Dios me perdone" (1947) by Eduardo GuerreroFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

A film noir movie is a melting pot of betrayal, clandestine meetings, tragic pasts, and intense criminal climax. All of these traits come alive in the famous mexican lake of Pátzcuaro in the film, Que Dios me perdone by Tito Davison (1947). The beautiful Maria Felix plays a spy who suffers from war psychosis and brings misfortune to men who cross her path. The complicated plot was written by José Revueltas and was adapted by him and Tito Davison, with additional dialogues by Xavier Villaurrutia. The musical theme was composed by Manuel Esperón and Ricardo López Méndez, which gives the film its title, and was performed by Blanca Estela Pavón.

Scene from "Medianoche" (1949) by Eduardo GuerreroFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Medianoche" (1949) by Eduardo GuerreroFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Camino del infierno" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

As an expert of the inner workings of the genre and detective plots, Luis Spota wrote the argument with which Revueltas and Gavaldón would create En la palma de tu mano (1950). This film wa inspired by the best of Hollywood noir and the theme of the bloodthirsty couple, which is best featured in The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946) and Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). Leticia Palma plays the black widow who deploys her sexual power with great skill, with murder seen as a form of art.

Scene from "En la palma de tu mano" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

The astrologer and occultist professor Jaime Karín (Arturo de Córdova), relies on his lover and informant Clara Stein (Carmen Montejo) to trick women who are impressed by his personality, voice and, crystal ball. Alongside the typical Spota themes, social oppression, disenchantment, ambition, crime, sexual drives, and the horror of murder, there is also a suspenseful narrative in the film. All of these elements are brought together by Alex Philip's black and white photography that highlights through the chiaroscuro, the ambiguity of the characters, such as the final sequence in the morgue.

Scene from "El suavecito" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "El hombre sin rostro" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Scene from "Pecado" (1950) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

At the end of the “Alemanista” administration, the heightened and disturbing film noir movement is also over. In 1952, Mexico City’s mayor, Ernesto P. Uruchurtu, would impose a climate of moral terror that would stifle the cabaret and police cinema of the time. The stimulating nightlife with its “ficheras” (prostitutes), pimps, cabarets and criminals, the elements of sensuality, blood, dread and paranoia, even the convulsed city itself and its architecture, would fade into the background and be replaced by hypocrisy and false modesty.

Scene from "Paco el elegante" (1951) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Poster for "Manos de seda" (1951) by Autor no identificadoFundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Credits: Story

This exhibition is based on the photographic exhibition Film noir during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, presented at the 12th edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) in October 2014.
Text: Rafael Avignon.
Curatorship and research: Claudia Monterde.
Archive and research: Gustavo Fuentes and Ramón Chaverry.
Digital processes: Iván Gómez.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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