Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
FIlmmaker Luis Buñuel had a shaky start in filmmaking. After his first three 'scandalous' surrealist films in France and Spain he spent over a decade in exile from the Franco regime. He seemed to be settled as a film expert in residence in New York, until his old 'friend' Salvador Dalí denounced him as a Communist. Buñuel eventually wound up in Mexico, there to restart his filmmaking career in Mexico's thriving, if conservative, film industry.
Lionsgate and Studio Canal package two of Luis Buñuel's more peripheral productions in its Luis Buñuel Boxset. Gran Casino, the director's first Mexican production, is rarely discussed. The Young One marks Buñuel transition back to Europe again. It's his second and last movie filmed in English.
Gran Casino (1947) is a musical vehicle for the popular singing stars Jorge Negrete and Libertad Lamarque. The suave Gerardo Ramírez (Negrete) breaks jail in the lawless Tampico district, and with his best buddy Demetrio (Julio Villarreal) comes to the aid of Jos&eacut;e (Francisco Jambrina), an Argentinian who can't work his Nacional oil wells due to strong-arm tactics of the local casino owner, Fabio (José Baviera). José disappears just before his sister Mercedes (Libertad Lamarque) arrives. She suspects Gerardo, and takes a job singing in Fabio's club to find out if her brother was murdered.
On the surface Gran Casino seems entirely innocuous, a tepid murder mystery framing three performances each from Negrete and Lamarque. Negrete sings one song in jail, another to remind his boss of the Pampas back in Argentina, and a third (La Norteña) to show that he's a man of the people. Larmarque sings tango ballads, including El Choclo, which has some fancy fast lyrics. The story is predictable stuff, with lovable sidekick characters and a general air of unconcern as crooked gangsters kill good oilmen left and right.
Reviewers usually notice only one Buñuel moment: when Gerardo kills a bad guy behind a curtain by smashing his head, we see a subliminal glimpse of shattering glass. Although most of his touches are uncharacteristically subtle, one can find plenty of Buñuel in Gran Casino. The major industry in Tampico is owned and manipulated by a capitalist criminal, in this case a European named Van Eckerman. The police never appear, while Tampico is controlled by private goons in the employ of the nefarious Fabio. Buñuel chooses the earthy comedian Alfonso Bedoya (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to play Rayado, the murderous leader of these thugs. The disposal of assassinated business competitors is such a routine that Fabio keeps a pair of workmen on call to dispose of the bodies!
Buñuel makes fun of the musical format by having Gerardo's three mustachioed backup singers appear from nowhere (even in jail) whenever he needs a harmonious accompaniment. Buñuel undercuts the notion of popular taste by having the casino patrons drive both an opera singer and some Scottish bagpipe dancers (???) from the stage with derisive hoots. He also sabotages Mercedes's big stage number by having the singer and her chorus line hold silly flashlights, just because there's a reference to 'the light of love' in the song. These touches are undoubtedly Buñuel's doing, as is the comic character Nanette (Fernanda Albany), an elderly casino patron pictured as an unrepentant kleptomaniac with a 'psychological' excuse.
The film will appeal most to fans of Latin American musicals and the legendary Libertad Lamarque, then 39. The story requires her to be cross most of the time, robbing her of her beautiful smile. Jorge Negrete struts like a peacock and puts his tunes across, but he's a terrible actor. Buñuel mocks the romance subplot by having Gerardo and Mercedes' big love scene take place next to a noxious oil well -- "Do I smell kerosene?" she asks. While thinking romantic thoughts, Gerardo plays with a stick, pulling a vile-looking rag from a puddle of Tampico crude.
The Young One is one of Buñuel's most interesting accomplishments, a Mexican production set off the coast of North Carolina. Buñuel ignores the then-prevailing trend of race issue movies to present prejudice as an ever-present human condition. Bernie Hamilton (The Devil at 4 O'Clock, One Potato Two Potato) plays Travers, a black musician on the run from a false charge of rape. Rather than be lynched, he steals a boat and lands on a private hunting island. Zachary Scott (Ruthless, Mildred Pierce) is Miller, the game warden. On the day Travers arrives, Miller has just buried his old assistant Pee Wee, and is seducing Pee Wee's orphaned 13 year-old daughter Evalyn (Key Meersman), an innocent raised in amoral isolation. She knows nothing of the concepts of sex and race. Evalyn is attracted to Travers, while Miller conspires to either shoot the interloper or have him taken back to the mainland, likely as not to be lynched before he can stand trial. Jackson, an even more racist boatman (Crahan Denton) shows up, along with the Reverend Fleetwood (familiar Buñuel actor Claudio Brook). Fleetwood is against the injustice awaiting Travers, although he too considers him unclean. The Reverend is more seriously disturbed by Miller's rape of a minor.
Everything that would be 'sensational' in a Hollywood film (or a Tennessee Williams play, for that matter) is handled by Buñuel as a brutal fact of life. Travers doesn't consider himself a saint and makes no declarations of moral superiority. Miller and his boatman friend claim to have nothing 'personal' against Travers, but they don't credit him as a human being with rights, preferring to use the words 'boy' and 'nigger.' In their first encounter, Travers wields a shotgun and asserts that he needs it as an equalizer just to stay alive, a sentiment that a Black Panther might cheer. A couple of scenes later, Travers has surrendered the gun for an uneasy truce. Miller wants him gone so he can concentrate on Evalyn, the new object of his affections.
Evalyn is the real center of the movie. Key Meersman looks like a morph between Liv Tyler and Brooke Shields, and gives a marvelous performance as the child seduced by a predatory older man. Buñuel presents this without comment, but Miller knows he's doing wrong. Child brides were not uncommon in the South American past, and in the 'civilized' American south the practice survived until just a few decades ago.
Fleetwood baptizes Evalyn, who doesn't appreciate the glory of the 'golden key' of Christianity -- she'd rather have the .22 chrome pistol promised by both her father and Miller. Buñuel slips in references to sin in the Garden of Eden, and shows Miller 'corrupting' Evalyn with gifts than include a pair of high-heeled shoes. Evalyn totters about learning to walk in them, while Buñuel's foot fetish gets a healthy workout! For that matter, when we first meet Evalyn, she's playing on a swing, much like the little girl in Viridiana.
The Young One must have been a tough sell in 1960, both for conservatives and liberals. Socially conscious filmmaking usually admits extreme subject matter only when presented within a moral framework, with all ambiguities resolved. In Peyton Place, for example, the female victim of incest rape comes forward to express her rage, and the offending father perishes horribly. The Young One takes an amoral stance on race and sex (which seem to be closely related) and leaves us with a much more troubling puzzle. (spoiler) The uncomprehending Evalyn sails to the mainland still unaware of the nature of sin - which, like racism, is a learned concept. We last see her playing hopscotch on the dock wearing her 'adult' footwear. The Miller perhaps softens in his outlook, having been caught by the Reverend doing to Evalyn exactly what Travers is accused of. But Miller still plans to get Evalyn to marry him, and 'clear up' the sin.
The Young One is smoothly directed and photographed in sparkling B&W by the famous Gabriel Figueroa. The acting is remarkable; Zachary Scott is relaxed and natural and his dialogues with Bernie Hamilton convince us that Buñuel would have had no difficulties directing more English-language movies. Claudio Brook is stiff but so is his straight-laced character; he may be dubbed. Key Meersman is nothing less than miraculous. Buñuel isn't noted for directing children, but we don't recall seeing a character like Evalyn until the 1970s.
After this relatively compassionate and naturalistic film Buñuel returned to Europe to make stylized satires and black comedies. Fifteen years before he had given up on ever again making a feature, but instead went on to direct almost thirty films.
Lionsgate's Two-Disc Special Edition Luis Buñuel Boxset presents both features in beautiful B&W transfers. Gran Casino from 1947 is in the flat format with excellent audio. The Young One is anamorphic enhanced at 1:78 and in equally good shape. The track is in the original English language and both features carry optional English subtitles.
Philip Kemp's commentary on Gran Casino is a little sparse (he breaks for most of the songs) but generous in content. Kemp explains the background of the film and gives a concise and entertaining history of Luis Buñuel's career. The credits of both films list refugees from political oppression, either from Franco's Spain or the blacklist in the United States. Kemp explains that Libertad Lamarque relocated to Mexico from her native Argentina after her film career was terminated by a professional rival -- Eva Perón. Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolalla provide the slow commentary on The Young One, an academic analysis that we can mostly figure out for ourselves. Oedipus and Freud are along for the ride, along with other pertinent interpretations like the Garden of Eden theme. Although the commentators have a lot to say about the film's source in a short story by Peter Matthiesen, we don't get enough of the history of this unique picture, beyond the fact that it was written and produced by Hugo Butler and George Pepper, exiles from the Hollywood blacklist.
The review copy had the two titles mixed up, so that Gran Casino appears on the disc marked The Young One and vice-versa.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Luis Buñuel Boxset rates:
Movie: Gran: Good, Young: Excellent
Video: Both Excellent
Sound: Both Excellent
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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