Mexican comedian Mario Moreno Reyes - Cantinflas - stars in El gendarme desconocido (1942), apparently considered one of his best and most significant offerings, the first of innumerable comedies in which Cantinflas plays a lazy, irresponsible policeman or other public servant, and it was the first Cantinflas film directed by longtime collaborator Miguel M. Delgado (he'd been 1st assistant director on Ni sangre, ni arena, "Neither Blood nor Sand," released the year before); Delgado would go on to helm nearly all of Cantinflas's movies.
Compared to other Cantinflas movies this reviewer has had the chance to see, El gendarme desconocido ("The Unknown Policeman," though officially "The Undercover Policeman" on the packaging) more prominently exhibits signs of having been influenced by contemporaneous Hollywood comedies. The basic plot borrows from W.C. Fields' The Bank Dick and there are elements from Buck Privates (1941) and other recent American films.
As with the handful of other Cantinflas comedies made available with English subtitles, non-Spanish speakers can appreciate much of the film's humor and its star's undeniable roguish charm, but his main appeal as a comedian, his verbal humor and wordplay, doesn't translate all that well, and like most of his films El gendarme desconocido, at 110 minutes, runs on far too long for American tastes. This Columbia Classics release offers an excellent print of the film that, unfortunately, is accompanied by extremely ugly subtitles.
Lazy bum Chato (Cantinflas) wiles away his afternoons gambling with friends at an unpopular café owned by hatchet-faced proprietress Joaquinta (Consuelo Guerrero de Luna, very Minerva Urecal-esque), the widow of an alcoholic police sergeant, and her beautiful daughter, Amparo (Mapy Cortés?), who in classic Cantinflas tradition is attracted to him in spite of his not-insignificant character flaws.
As in The Bank Dick, Chato/Cantinflas is hailed a hero, credited with the capture of three bank robbers though really he was simply swept up in the melee that resulted in Joaquinta's café. In any case he's appointed Officer 777 by the local constabulary, and put through the rigors of the police academy while diamond thieves prepare their big heist.
The episodic film affords Cantinflas the opportunity to work through many long set pieces, most resembling standard comedy genre stock situations. The fight with the gangsters at the café is atypically visual slapstick, not the usual kind of thing in a Cantinflas comedy, including some egg- and pie-throwing. Cantinflas later attends a class in forensics, allowing for much Edgar Kennedy-like slow-burning from the frustrated professor as Cantinflas asks one stupid question after another (and, in one brief bit, does some comic subtraction on the blackboard much like Abbott & Costello's "13 x 7 = 28" routine).
Later, at the police academy, another Abbott & Costello routine seems to have been a direct inspiration, as lazy, inept Chato proves hopeless during a drilling exercise. This kind of material is derivative but funny, while more typical Cantinflas comedy, like his extremely lazy attempts to dispose of a time-bomb, is more original but also more difficult for non-Spanish speakers to fully appreciate.
Video & Audio
The packaging lists El gendarme desconocido as a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation but this is incorrect. Instead, the film is presented in its 1.37:1 original aspect ratio, but in 16:9 enhanced pillarboxed format. The film elements sourced look great, especially considering the film's age. (I've seen Mexican movies from the 1980s look far more battered and beaten up than this.)
On the down side are the extremely ugly yellow subtitles that resemble blocky closed-captioning, and which here also sometimes bleed off the left- and right-side of the frame. On widescreen TVs this is not an issue, but I wonder how this would look on 4:3 televisions? At least Spanish speakers have the option of turning these off. The Dolby Digital mono audio is fine; there are no alternate language or additional subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
As with El señor fotógrafo, what might very well be a classic comedy to Spanish speakers loses something in translation, but even without being able to catch all its subtleties I found El gendarme desconocido interesting even when I wasn't laughing. Recommended.
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