El Cine Negro: When film noir went Latino

Today, September 15th kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month (although this Latina celebrates her ethnicity every day 🙂 ) and my heart is full by seeing so much content spread across the internet in honor of Latinos. A topic I’ve been trying to write about but haven’t had the time to discuss is the contributions of Hispanics and Latin American countries and filmmakers present in film noir.

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Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949)

During this TCM’s ‘Into the Darkness‘ film noir course, a recurring theme I noticed was Latin American settings. As you may be aware, films noir take place in urban settings. Alleys, bars, tiny apartments, and New York City are just some of the signature elements present as the background of a film noir. During the film noir movement in the 1940’s, American cinema went away from New York City to more exotic locales such as Argentina in Gilda (1946) and Mexico in films such as Border Incident (1949). Later, the landmark noir Touch of Evil (1958) would take place in Mexico also dealing with corruption surrounding the Mexico/California border. I must point out that these travels were in the figurative sense; in reality the studios just changed the backdrops of their sound stages. Movie magic, folks!

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Rita Hayworth as Gilda

Rita Hayworth’s performance as Gilda in the film of the same name ushered in a new kind of film noir heroine but also skyrocketed her appeal as “The Love Goddess.” Unfortunately Hollywood “white-washed” Rita changing her Latina name of Margarita Carmen Cansino to Rita Hayworth and dying her dark hair a red hue. The makeover also extended to painful electrolysis treatment to get rid of her low hairline and lightening her skin by bleaching. Apparently, she was too Spanish. It’s interesting to me that her most famous film takes place in South America.

The backdrop for Gilda is Argentina. It’s a cynical tale in a seedy underworld of gambling with the love/hate relationship of Gilda and her former lover Johnny (Glenn Ford) at the forefront of most of the action. One of my favorite sequences of this film is the depiction of the Carnival at the casino. Carnival is a season that lasts from January until March in Latin America leading up to Lent. It has deep roots in Hispanic culture. The revelry, masks, and fashions give a nod to that but not many Spanish people are seen in these scenes. Oh, Hollywood…

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Carnival as depicted in Gilda

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Ricardo Montalban in a still promoting Border Incident

But Hollywood did go deeper in its storytelling featuring Latinos. The 1949 film, Border Incident, tackles the social and political issues surrounding border security and illegal immigration. The film is notable for its opening sequence that has a more documentary feel to it than most film noirs at the time. The authenticity of this narrative element sets the tone for the rest of the film. It’s a shame that these issues are still being discussed in the same controversial tones when you realize this film was made in 1949. This film was produced by MGM under Dore Schary’s helm. It is a very violent noir about federal agents trying to take down a gang exploiting illegal farmworkers on the border. If your only exposure to Ricardo Montalban is lavish Esther Williams musicals or Fantasy Island, this performance will change your view. He is excellent in this film as one of the undercover agents. Border Incident is on the low budget end of films noir but it only benefits from that. Stunning evening shots and an imaginative albeit harrowing death scene move the story along and add to its symbolism. I saw this film for the first time this past summer and it’s one that I continue to analyze. Where Border Incident succeeds is where Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil falls short. The authenticity of Border Incident is due to the fact that actual Hispanic actors were cast whereas Touch of Evil finds Charlton Heston donning a mustache because mustaches equal Mexican in Hollywood. Touch of Evil is another great film noir in its own right but it suffers because of the miscasting of Charlton Heston. If you’re wondering why audiences are craving diversity, look at that film.

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Roberto Galvadon is considered a pioneer of Mexican film noir

America wasn’t the only country embracing film noir. Again, across the border Mexican filmmakers were telling their own film noir tales. Julio Bracho, Emilio Fernandez, and the man considered to be the innovator of Mexican film noir, Roberto Galvadon, were some of the more prominent directors during this era. Galvadon’s La Noche Avanza (1952) is about the corrupt world of jai-lai. In some respects it reminds me of Gilda and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) The main character, Marcos, is an arrogant, playboy athlete  who becomes the target of revenge. The film is beautifully shot. Nightclubs and the locker room add to the tension that’s seeded throughout. In La Otra (1946), Dolores del Rio (who went back to Mexico after getting fed up with Hollywood) plays twins: a seemingly good one and a seemingly bad one. The “bad” one kills the other and if this plot sounds similar that’s because it was remade as a vehicle for Bette Davis in 1963 called Dead Ringer.

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Dolores del Rio plays twins in La Otra

Film noir is hard to define. Some people will call it a genre, others a movement. But whatever you want to call it, it created a new kind of storytelling that transcended boundaries and traveled beyond Hollywood.

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9 thoughts on “El Cine Negro: When film noir went Latino

    • Diana B says:

      It was such a wonderful experience. I hope they do other types like the studio system or Hollywood and WWII, the possibilities are endless!

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