Victims of Sin, Emilio Fernández
Still courtesy of Criterion

Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinematic Melodrama: ‘Victims of Sin’

In Emilio Fernández’s Victims of Sin, a galaxy of important Mexican film and music artists collaborate on a tale of mambo music, martyred mothers, and melodrama.

Victims of Sin
Emilio Fernández
18 June 2024

The Criterion Collection begins dipping into Mexican cinema’s 1950s Golden Age with Victims of Sin (Victimas del Pecado), a 1951 hit that embraces several genres. Many viewers today might call it a noir film, though, at the time, it belonged to the established genres of the prostitute melodrama and the cabaret era or dance hall film. In other words, in between the pregnancies, deaths, and tears, it’s also a musical with plenty of song and dance. Let’s examine it first as a musical.

Victims of Sin places its first half in a nightclub called Changoo. The moniker nods toward either the Indigenous Chango tribe of Chile and Peru or the African Yoruba spirit of a similar name, as evoked in Santería. Adding an extra “o” and flanking the name with neon palm trees shows a reference in keeping with the era’s mania for “exotica”. The cabareteras were showcases for the burgeoning trend in Afro-Caribbean rhythms as danced by rumberas, women of usually Cuban origin.

Changoo is packed with Cuban musicians, some of whom play themselves. Rita Montaner is an expansive earth-mother type who speaks rapidly, sings powerfully, plays piano suggestively, and generally leads a good time. We might describe her as a Cuban Sophie Tucker.

The racially mixed band behind Montaner belongs to Pérez Prado not long before he was dubbed King of the Mambo. He struts around like a dancing bantam, shouting his “hey’s” and grunts while his players, depending on their instruments, either wear sober suits or sport frilly sleeves while pounding congas and tom-toms. It’s a gas.

Pedro Vargas, “Nightingale of the Americas”, drops by to interrupt one dramatically fraught scene by sitting at a table and effortlessly lifting his tenor into a sad ballad about the corazón, as most sad ballads are. Vargas, left arm in a sling, is flanked by two elegant women who gaze demurely downward while the rest of the crowd stands like hushed acolytes. The song reflects upon one woman’s heartbroken sobs at her lonely table. End of cameo.

The undisputed star of the Changoo is Violeta, played by Ninón Sevilla, another Cuban import. She dances. She dances rhythmically, energetically, frenetically, precisely. She sports what seems like lacquered blonde hair over a tough, squarish face with curling lips. In her first dance, she wears a dress slit geometrically to the bloomers. In later dances, she wears even less.

When Violeta (or is she merely Sevilla?) dances, everyone is spellbound—everyone within the cabaret and viewers of Victims of Sin, too. In one amazing dance whose frantic edits might imply the hands of a censor, she cavorts with one of the Afro-Cuban percussionists and ends up lying on the floor, her legs folded back as the man drops to his knees. It’s impossible to imagine a similar moment in 1951 Hollywood.

Life at the Changoo wraps up halfway through Victims of Sin as an outraged Montaner encourages the patrons to riot and trash the place. That’s one of a couple of scenes where women lead riots and mini-revolutions against angry men. Another takes place when Violeta straddles the villain, who lies prostrate across her bed and begins whaling on him with both hands. Her screams arouse the whole street of prostitutes to run in and give him a thumping. This event eventually lands him in prison. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The latter half of Victims of Sin introduces a rival club, La Machina Loca (the crazy machine). It takes its name from the railway in front of it, and patrons are mostly railroad types. The owner is Santiago (Tito Junco), who sashays around town accompanied by his own train: a platoon of mariachis who strum guitars and harmoniously sing his arrival. If he pauses to go inside one of the prostitute’s flats, they wait outside calmly.

Victims of Sin is shot in glorious chiaroscuro by the celebrated Gabriel Figueroa, here far from the open, sunstruck, cloud-ridden skies of his more famous rural dramas. While his urban and studio-bound interior camerawork is just as gorgeous, Figueroa overleaps himself in the magnificent shots of La Machina Loca’s railyard. As Violeta approaches on a bridge crossed by cars, a jaw-dropping dark sky with planetary flashes is covered by smoke billowing from a locomotive. It’s a vision of dark splendor and industrial hell worthy of Charles Dickens.

Figueroa’s frequent collaborator, director Emilio Fernández, is arguably the most celebrated filmmaker of Mexico’s Golden Age. His nickname, El Indio, derives from his identification with noble, downtrodden Indigenous farmers and other workers of the land whom he and Figueroa dramatized in famous films before moving into urban cabareteras like Victims of Sin. Perhaps this sounds like an odd sideways move, but their allegiance remains with the downtrodden, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed. In urban melodramas, such are the prostitutes.

Rodolfo, the pachuco-pimp played by Rodolfo Acosta, single-handedly embodies this oppression in Victims of Sin. After the opening credits are presented over a still image of the chiaroscuro nightclub exterior and its foggy street, Rodolfo is introduced in a lengthy shot.

At first, the camera is stable, observing with curiosity the strange, dialogue-free behavior of a barber and his client in a kind of zoot suit: oversized checked jacket with wide lapels, very wide tie, high trousers, two-tone shoes, long cigarette holder, thin mustache. This dandy lacks only a big watch chain. After carefully peeling off a certain amount of cash from a fat roll and handing it to the disappointed barber, Rodolfo exits left as the camera pans to follow him to the club, eventually revealed in its interior as a smoky realm of mambo, rumba, alcohol, and assignation.

When the dumpy and self-abasing Rosa (Margarita Ceballos) shows up with a fresh infant in her arms, Rodolfo denies having anything to do with it. He says she’s trying to ruin his reputation. At his order, she leaves the bundled baby in a trash can in front of a famous memorial commemorating the Mexican Revolution. (Modern cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto points out this detail in a bonus interview.) Then Rodolfo robs a cinema by shooting the female ticket seller–a cinema very much like the one the 1951 audience attended.

The plot of Victims of Sin involves Violeta taking trouble upon herself by informally adopting the baby and being temporarily “rescued” from Rodolfo’s interference by Santiago, who possibly marries Violeta (or something) as she changes venue. Together, they function as the growing boy’s parents for the next six years; he’s duly baptized. Then, because this is a melodrama, there must be more tragedy involving murder and prison and martyred motherhood and stuff like that.

A crucial visual difference between Rodolfo and Santiago is that while Rodolfo adopts his bizarre trappings of hip modernity, Santiago dresses like a cowboy or gaucho, thus signaling his manly integrity. His form of modernity is the belching machine of enterprise, the railroad. “At La Machina Loca, everyone’s equal,” he declares with a political subtext, although it’s still a dive of congas, maracas, and bargirls. Late in the day, a prison official will say, “Sometimes justice is the most unjust thing in the world.”

Victims of Sin portrays a world in which positive moral impulses bring trouble and punishment, but the Catholic church is watching. If Violeta’s patience is finally rewarded—ambiguously, as the narrator hopes she’ll find understanding in the world at large—this may partly be due to Sevilla’s headstrong power as a force behind the scenes.

According to an extra interview with archivist Viviana Garcia Besné, who spoke to Sevilla often, Sevilla was responsible for recruiting the illustrious Fernández-Figueroa team and rewrote some of the story by Fernández and his frequent co-writer Mauricio Magdaleno. The producers were brothers Guillermo and Pedro Calderòn, and Sevilla had a long relationship with Pedro. According to Besné, Sevilla had been forced to have an abortion not long before Victim of Sin‘s shooting, and the adoptive mother storyline was important to her. Therefore, Victims of Sin can be analyzed regarding the “actor as auteur” and the other creators’ filmographies.

Besné produced the 4K scan of Victims of Sin in a digital restoration from the original camera and optical negatives. Criterion’s presentation looks and sounds impeccable, doing justice to the music and Figueroa’s visual mastery. Musicologist Jacqueline Avila‘s excellent booklet essay limns the Afro-Caribbean elements and the film’s place in Mexican genre cinema.