It’s hard to express the sharp sense of joy I felt when I first opened the program for the 12th Morelia International Film Festival. The late and much-lamented Peter von Bagh named a section of the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna “the cinephile’s paradise,” and though there’s nothing anywhere in the world like Il Cinema Ritrovato, I am still excited by the cinephilic banquet that Daniela Michel and her programmers assemble in Morelia.
It’s not just a survey of the films, both narrative and documentary, that are currently making the festival circuit, which would be appealing on its own. And it’s not just the strong section of current Mexican movies, few of which travel outside of the Spanish-speaking world. There’s also the festival’s link with the Semaine de la Critique, or Critics’ Week, in Cannes, which traditionally brings a number of its films to Morelia. But what seduces me and makes Morelia an essential stop on the festival circuit is its retrospective component. This year, FICM programmed a glorious seven-film survey of Mexican film noir; two very odd American films from the 1930s restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive; three ’50s films by Spanish auteur Jose Antonio Nieves-Conde; a three-film series of Hollywood films set in Mexico called “Imaginary Mexico,” curated by the Pacific Film Archive’s Steve Seid; two films presented by the Criterion Collection, Alfonso Cuaron‘s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and Olivier Assayas‘ “Summer Hours“; and retrospectives of the prolific Israeli director Amos Gitai and Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski. The Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia honors film in all its aspects.
First up, I caught “La otra” (“The Other One”), by Roberto Gavaldon, 1946, starring Dolores del Rio in the role of twin sisters, one rich and recently widowed, the other impoverished and working as a manicurist. Dolores del Rio is not exactly a supple actress. I imagine meal Meryl Streep would have made of the part, because the script mentions that the twins have two different-sounding voices, a distinction that escapes me in del Rio’s performance. The main differences between the twins here are side-parted flowing hair for the rich girl and a center-parted severe hairstyle for the poor one (plus an important pair of wire-rimmed spectacles).
But del Rio is a clotheshorse par excellence, herself a black-and-white Art Deco artifact, perfectly at home in the lavish interiors of the rich twin’s mansion, gleaming like a misplaced gem in the shabby rooms of the manicurist’s tiny flat. There’s a wonderful scene where she throws gorgeous designer outfits that she can’t wear, condemned to a year of widows’ weeds, at the feet of her poor sister: ball gowns, furs, chic suits. She snatches back one tricky striped dress; “No, I promised this one to my chambermaid.”
Afterwards I see another oddity, a true film maudit, “Double Door,” 1934, by Charles Vidor, enthusiastically introduced by Shannon Kelley of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which restored it. It’s based on a very successful play, itself based on a famous scandal of the time wherein a large family was kept imprisoned in a mysterious Fifth Avenue mansion. The Paramount adaptation brought two of the play’s stars, Mary Morris (as the elderly aunt, although she was only 39), and Anne Revere (later to be blacklisted) in her first film role as Morris’ cowed and bullied sister, as well as the glowing young Evelyn Venable, Kent Taylor, and Sir Guy Standing.
“Double Door,” behind which lurks a hidden locked and soundproof room, is fetchingly titled “La hiena de la Quinta Avenue” (“The Hyena of Fifth Avenue”) in Spanish. It was a crowd-pleaser then, and it thrills the 2014 audience now. A key element of the plot concerns a matchless string of pearls, valued at $500,000 in 1930s dollars: I tell some friends that Cartier famously exchanged a string of pearls for the Fifth Avenue mansion it’s still housed in, and later the Internet backs me up (it was a two-string necklace, and Pierre Cartier did the deal in 1917). And I also mention this current harbinger of a new Gilded Age: the International Center of Photography sold its Upper East Side branch, housed in a five-story mansion built in 1915, for $17.5 million to a Wall Streeter who turned it back into a private house.
The next movie is “La noche avanza,” Roberto Gavaldon, 1952, in which Pedro Armendariz plays an extraordinarily successful but fatally arrogant jai alai player, who falls afoul of blackmailing gangsters and a trio of glamorous women who he mistreats. Several songs are worked into the plot, since one of his three mistresses is a nightclub singer.
I stick around for “Los pesces rojo,” Jose Antonio Nieves-Conde, 1955, even though I’d already seen it last year in Morelia’s amazing retrospective devoted to Arturo de Cordova. Ever since I’d been haunted by the memory of its classic film noir opening : a sequence of wild storm-tossed waves, and then a shot of a car pulling up in the rain in front of a hotel whose neon sign — HOTEL SAVOY — is blinking, on and off. I also adored its convoluted plot, which owes something to both Hitchcock and Bunuel, and one of its main locales, a seedy burlesque house in Madrid, whose chorus girls wear appropriately scuffed-and-shabby white satin heels.
I don’t know when or where I’ll ever get a chance to see “Red Fish” again, though Criterion has been toying with the idea of a Mexican noir box for some time, inspired by their many-year collaboration with FICM. Film critic Miriam Bale says “It’s what ‘Gone Girl’ should have been.”