El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire) sounds like a horror movie about the undead, but no. Román Viñoly Barreto’s Argentine film of 1953, now restored to a voluptuously vivid black and white and presented as a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack from Flicker Alley, is a noir film of astonishing qualities.
The first cause for astonishment is that El Vampiro Negro, unknown to most film buffs outside Argentina (or inside), is the third version of Fritz Lang’s milestone M (1931). Lang’s extremely disturbing film made Peter Lorre, who played Hans Beckert, a serial child killer in Weimar Germany, a star. The killer is tried in a kangaroo court by the criminal underworld, which doesn’t like the fact that increased police attention is cramping their style. In this way, Lang presents a highly ironic statement about parallels between society, justice, and crime.
Lang’s original producer, Seymour Nebenzal, decided to remake the film in Hollywood, and that led to the second M (1951), made in an atmosphere of hysteria generated by the Cold War, the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Hollywood’s blacklist. Joseph Losey’s M sank like a stone amid critical indifference, though recently, it’s been re-evaluated for its dazzling cast and location photography around Los Angeles, especially in the famous Bradbury Building. It deserves a Blu-ray release it hasn’t gotten.
El Vampiro Negro, then, is version number three of M, and it offers its own reinventions. The most notable re-think of the scenario is that now the story features prominent roles for women, who are shown to be the conscience of society even as that society constrains, paralyzes, and punishes them. Its heroine will even succeed in doing what the police cannot.
El Vampiro Negro opens with a jaw-dropping montage of smoke, eyes, inkblots, and flashbacks to events we haven’t seen yet. These opening minutes, shot by Anibal Gonzales Paz and edited by Jorge Garato, demonstrate a visual mastery of Expressionist nightmare, the bravura style that makes film buffs swoon and that we so often seek in noir or horror films of the high studio era.
Then we arrive in a high-angled courtroom, where the camera looks down upon little Professor Ulber (Nathán Pinzón), notably shorter than everyone else. In the imposing court, his case is being debated by a defense lawyer and the tall upright prosecutor in the center of the image, Dr. Bernard (Roberto Escalada).
As the jury goes off to deliberate the defendant’s fate, which will be either an insane asylum or the death penalty, events flash back to the beginning: a nightclub where blonde bombshell Amalia Keitel sings a torch song under the stage name Rita (Olga Zubarry). As she sings, the camera lazily crawls across a roomful of vivid character types of Fellini-esque physiognomies.
When Rita finishes her song, the club’s bouncer puts the moves on her, and she throws a drink in his face, signaling the independence that will define her character. She’ll go through the whole story without a boyfriend or man to protect her, and that’s a source of vulnerability as she struggles to raise her secret daughter in a Catholic school. But that’s in the future. For now, she descends to her dressing room and witnesses a horrific act outside a basement window: a mysterious man seems to be dumping a child’s body in the sewer.
She starts screaming to alarm the whole club, but only the shady manager Gaston (Pascual Pelliciota) and her more hardboiled colleague Cora (Nelly Panizza) rush to her aid. One of the women dancing in the club remarks, “I like it rough too, but I don’t scream.” That’s one of the screenplay’s signals that the club is little better than a den of prostitution, although it can’t quite blurt that out. It can and does call Gaston a drug dealer.
As the script flips between Rita’s life, the perverse actions of the self-hating Professor, and the investigations by Dr. Bernard, we receive increasingly negative vibes about Bernard’s callous and sadistic behavior, as hidden under his smooth, self-righteous demeanor. He’s forever throwing people in jail for a while, even though he knows they’re innocent, and otherwise using the law as a bludgeon to threaten them, for example, his treatment of a frightened adulteress in the most morally ambivalent scene.
Bernard’s behavior stems from sexual frustration (which the dialogue calls “loneliness”) because his angelic wife (Gloria Castilla) is in a wheelchair. A pivotal scene is a meeting between Rita and Mrs. Bernard, who negotiate justice between them with an understanding that surpasses the masculine authorities they must undermine. Mrs. Bernard recognizes Rita as a good woman. By contrast, Cora isn’t admirable and makes selfish and dangerous mistakes but goes unpunished, which is another unusual choice in the era’s moralistic melodramas.
Sexual frustration is key to the parallels between the Professor and the Doctor, even their titles. As historian Fernando Martín Peña points out in his spare but pertinent commentary, the parallels extend to being misspelled versions of German directors in Hollywood: Curtis Bernhardt (for Bernard) and Edgar Ulmer (for Ulber). To complete the trifecta, there’s even a character called Lange (Mariano Vidal Molina).
Peña also points out the canny ways that El Vampiro Negro avoids angering police or civil authorities by implying that the story takes place in Europe, by giving everyone non-Spanish surnames, by signs in German or French, and by the fact that Argentina at this time didn’t have the death penalty or jury trials. Therefore, the behavior of Bernard, whom Rita calls a hypocrite and liar to his face, obviously can’t reflect on Argentina. Do you see how that works? A lesson in having your social critique and eating it too.
One further cause for astonishment in El Vampiro Negro is the climax in a ravishing and labyrinthine chiaroscuro world of the sewers. The Professor is captured not by society’s criminals but by its homeless outcasts who seek shelter there. These scenes were shot in the sewers of Buenos Aires. In a bonus interview, the director’s son recalls his father coming home from those shoots and rushing to the shower. That’s commitment. It’s reasonable to wonder if the director was inspired by the sewer scenes in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
Peña’s commentary also points out footage recycled from the same Argentine studio’s 1951 production of Richard Wright’s Native Son directed by Pierre Chenel and Starring Wright as a killer who feels hounded by society. (That film has been released by Kino Lorber.) While this may be a budgetary convenience, it seems less of a coincidence when Peña identifies a poem by Langston Hughes quoted by Mrs. Bernard. That’s two references in one film to two of the era’s most famous African-American writers, ones who specifically address social injustice.
This near-miraculous restoration of the neglected El Vampiro Negro, which had been in sad shape, is another accomplishment of the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive. An informative extra on the disc is a comparison of the three different versions of Lang’s story and how each one reflects its culture. Similarly, an especially informative passage in Peña’s commentary is his thumbnail history of Argentina’s tango-oriented crime films of the 1930s and their evolution in the next two decades. There seems no end to the riches still to be uncovered.