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

The Bitter Stems
(Los tallos amargos)
Fernando Ayala (1956)

Here’s another 1950s noir, another hit with audiences and critics of its day, another masterpiece of chiaroscuro photography, another disturbing psychological profile of a murderous anti-hero, another meditation on Argentina as an ambiguous shelter to dubious Europeans fleeing their countries. And here’s another restoration saved from near oblivion thanks to Film Noir Foundation, UCLA Film & TV Archive, and tireless historian-archivist Fernando Martin Peña.

This time, the first half of the film consists of a series of flashbacks explaining why Alfredo Gasper (Carlos Cores), a far from mild-mannered journalist, plans to kill his gregarious business partner Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos). Leaving the plot aside for a minute, these flashbacks are gorgeously staged using camera pans, reflections, and theatrical lighting effects for smooth, surreal, eye-catching transitions that reflect the chain of Gasper’s thoughts.

Right away, we want to give a medal to cinematographer Ricardo Younis, and we’ll hand out another to the diverse dramatic score by maestro Astor Piazzolla, whose second soundtrack this is, within his amazing career as a pioneer or “destroyer” of the tango. There’s one tango segment with bandoneon, but this is mostly a brassy orchestral score with piano and percussion, very sinuous and tasty. Yes, here’s why forgotten films must be restored and rediscoveries trumpeted to the amazement of new generations. There were giants on the earth!

Where were we? Oh yes, thoughts of murder. Whether he’s flashing back or living in the dire present, Gasper’s point of view controls the film almost entirely, and he’s a curious specimen of existential malaise and chronic dissatisfaction. He’s not very good as a journalist, and his life with a fabulous and successful girlfriend seems in a comfortable rut. An insightful colleague diagnoses him as wanting to be dominated by a powerful personality, a Caesar whose agenda he can serve.

Gasper’s crabby ennui and self-hatred have something to do with unfulfilled desires to be a war hero like his late, one-armed, German father from WWI, as we learn in an extravagant dream straight out of the German Expressionist playbook. Yet his heroism must be at the service of a stronger personality than his own, and that’s pretty much an explanation for all the horrors sustained by nationalists in the 20th Century: the will to be cannon fodder for glory.

The stronger personality is Liudas, an amazing conception in Sergio Leonardo’s script from a novel by journalist Adolfo Jasca. Both friendly and demonic, Liudas is introduced as a bartender working illegally without papers, like many undocumented displaced persons. A Hungarian immigrant or refugee whose shady schemes don’t seem to work out, this man combines naïve irrepressible charisma and brazen honesty about his own hucksterism.

While tending bar – in other words, while plying suckers with drink to dull their judgment – he sizes up Gasper and pitches him a scheme for running a correspondence school for aspiring journalists, because everyone envies godlike journalists. “There are fools everywhere,” he says cheerfully.

Gasper’s motives for murder are endlessly layered. The surface excuse is that he conceives a hatred for Liudas for, well, seducing and betraying him. He eavesdrops on Liudas’ assignation with a high-class prostitute/taxi-dancer and comes to believe this partner is playing him for a sucker. Gasper thinks Liudas is making him do all the work and keeping most of the money because of a cock-and-bull story about his family in Hungary, a country under political strife and Soviet crackdown.

In her excellent commentary, historian Imogen Sara Smith says she doesn’t want to call the intense relationship between Gasper and Liudas homo-erotic, but I have no hesitation. As Smith observes, Liudas functions as the femme fatale, despite the presence of three attractive women in the story.

I see the girlfriends – despite sexual dimensions more explicit than Hollywood at this time would permit – as narrative alibis to cover the men’s intensely emotional friendship, in which Liudas is much more the family man than Gasper will ever be. In the drawn-out “now” of the film’s first half, they’re running away together on a vacation to share Gasper’s house while his mom and sister are away, and where Gasper says Liudas will sleep in the host’s bed. Their intensity reflects the canny, subversive perspective of director Ayala, whom Smith identifies as homosexual.

I can’t help thinking of a classic Chilean novel by Jenaro Prieto, The Partner (Il Socio, 1928), whose multiple filmings include one in Mussolini’s Italy (Roberto Roberti’s Il Socio Invisible, 1939), one by French refugees in England (Claude Autant-Lara’s The Mysterious Mr. Davis, 1939), and one in Golden Age Mexico, Il Socio (Roberto Gavaldón, 1946). All these films need to be on Blu-ray, preferably in one shiny package. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the story finds a man achieving success in business by inventing a foreign partner who makes all the decisions, and everyone’s belief in this fictive double ruins his life. The political and capitalist dimensions resonate with Gasper’s story at certain points.

I don’t want to give away what happens, but developments are grim and surprising. As an analysis of the modern postwar Argentine macho male – adrift in a world of increasingly strong women and seeking to validate his existence in grand schemes and causes while feeling inferior to and put upon by the outside European world – The Bitter Stems is hellaciously dark.

The disc’s extras include an interview with archivist Peña, who obtained the film elements, and a profile of Piazzolla with comments from his widow and grandson. On the disc of The Beast Must Die, Peña profiles Ibáñez Menta and conducts an interview with the director’s son. Both packages present superb rediscoveries that should enthuse not only fans of noir but fans of beautiful cinema everywhere.