Fernando Ayala: The Bitter Stems (1956)
Carlos Cores in The Bitter Stems (1956) | courtesy of Flicker Alley

Two 1950s Argentine Noirs Raise Goose Bumps and Fevered Style

Film noirs ‘The Beast Must Die’ and ‘The Bitter Stems’ exemplify why forgotten films must be restored and rediscoveries trumpeted to the amazement of new generations.

The Beast Must Die
Román Viñoly Barreto
Flicker Alley
2 November 2021
The Bitter Stems
Fernando Ayala
Flicker Alley
2 November 2021

Sometimes we should be careful what we ask for, and sometimes we should ask for more. When reviewing Flicker Alley’s recent Blu-ray In the Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights from Poverty Row, we wished that North American viewers had more access to Argentina’s classic films. Presto: Flicker Alley, in association with the Film Noir Foundation, graces us with Blu-ray/DVD combos of two 1950s Argentine noirs long out of circulation and unknown to most cinephiles.

The Beast Must Die
(La bestia debe morir)
Román Viñoly Barreto (1952)

For the opening credits, the camera travels ahead of a huge car that seems to be barreling toward the viewer. This is already a significant detail for the story. Finally, the car stops in front of a huge English-style mansion not far from the seashore.

Inside the house, the bilious, obnoxious, violent, irascible and perpetually angry Jorge Rattery (Guillermo Battaglia) gulps his daily dyspepsia medicine, which evidently never helps, and settles to family lunch where he bullies the table with habitual acrimony until the medicine’s special one-time ingredient makes itself known. He leaps up and keels over with strychnine poisoning. Hysteria ensues.

Thus begins a brilliant re-imagining of the 1938 mystery The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake, the pseudonym used by poet Cecil Day-Lewis for his thrillers. That novel follows a structure in which the first half is the diary of a man who calmly announces his intention to track down, identify and murder whoever was responsible for the hit-and-run that killed his young son. The second half is the investigation conducted by detective Nigel Strangeways, Blake’s series hero.

The purpose of the book’s story, or so it seems, is the first-person narrator’s cold-blooded determination and his collision with an ugly, nasty, domineering capitalist, the latter a greedy and violent psychopath who becomes an embodiment of the fascism that the author saw taking over the world. Although not a “political novel”, it’s got that political and social subtext, which the film underlines and maximizes. In short, it’s a ripe text for the kind of noir that depicts the modern world as a deceitful, dangerous place populated by scoundrels and victims.

While the murder occurs halfway through the novel, the screenplay opens with this event, then briefly introduces Strangeways (Ernesto Bianco) for some poking around. It then sidelines detective and mystery for the flashback that takes most of the narrative, which is the illustration of the diary by Felix Lane (Narciso Ibáñez Menta). This backstory is the heart of the film, as with the novel.

In a nice in-joke, it’s explained that Felix Lane’s real name is Frank Carter, and he only uses Lane as the pseudonym for his trashy murder novels. As Lane, he’s now writing a diary of murder, and how much of it will be fictional? Perhaps none, although the story’s resolution is so ambiguous and tantalizing that I hardly know what to make of it.

After being traumatized by the horrific death of his son, which is one of the film’s stunningly atmospheric setpieces and leads to a delirious avant-garde montage of multiple mirrored faces and eyes to indicate Lane’s fevered state, he resolves to track down and kill the unknown driver. Coincidence or synchronicity or fate lead him to strike up an affair with highly strung, voluptuous actress Linda Lawson (Laura Hidalgo, who was also Ibáñez Menta’s wife), who knows that her brother-in-law Rattery is the killer.

As a powerful man who doesn’t believe or care that he could be brought to justice, not to mention being a physically and mentally abusive husband and all-around bully, Rattery represents a toxic type in Argentina that this film comments upon despite its supposed English setting. The events occurs in 1950, according to the diary, and postwar Argentina under President Juan Perón was a curious amalgam of democracy and crypto-dictatorship that gave shelter to several German Nazis escaping European justice. Perón’s legacy can’t be simplified easily but intellectual artists had plenty to say, if not always openly.

Ibáñez Menta and Hidalgo produced the film with their own company, and Ibáñez Menta co-scripted with Román Viñoly Barreto, a sophisticated Uruguyan theatre director. The famous and beloved Ibáñez Menta had a long career with crime and horror roles, both in Argentina and his native Spain, where he later worked with his son, the prominent horror specialist Narciso Ibáñez Serrador.

In other words, this was a personal project for Ibáñez Menta, Hidalgo, and Viñoly Barreto, and it created something of a sensation. The story’s focus on anti-hero Felix Lane is morally complex and hard-hitting. Contributing enormously is cinematographer Alberto Etchebehere, who performs expressive wonders with light, fog, ocean, and daylight clarity.

As Film Noir Foundation honcho Eddie Muller explains in an introduction, melodrama isn’t a dirty word in Spanish-language cinema, and over-the-top is often the default setting. While it’s true that several performers are turned up to “11” (and I enjoy this, like most of the original audience), it’s also true that this balances the central restraint of Ibáñez Menta’s Felix Lane, who is often accused of having no feelings.

The actor pulls off the melodrama performer’s trick of exposing how the character’s feelings are carefully masked so that we see the mask and what’s under it. The most deliciously ironic scene is when Linda Lawson observes bitterly that nobody ever approaches her honestly but always with hidden motives and that’s why she so appreciates Felix’s kindness, while he can barely restrain his excitement at pulling information out of her while pretending sympathy. This is the only moment when she truly arouses his emotions, and he suppresses them, and they’re not the emotions she wants.

A more famous version of the novel is Claude Chabrol‘s French film This Man Must Die (Que la bête meure, 1969), a straightforward, subdued revenge tale that drops Strangeways entirely. At least he’s around the edges of the Argentine version, and audiences will be spellbound by its dark, bitter melodrama and its high style. Its restoration should vault Ibáñez Menta and Viñoly Barreto to the top of subjects requiring more exposure on Blu-ray, but then several equally brilliant artists should share the same priorities, such as Hugo del Carril and the director of our next entry, Fernando Ayala.

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