Dec 15, 2021

Argentine Noir on DVD/Blu-ray: The Bitter Stems (1956) and The Beast Must Die (1952)

I’ve long been aware that if I want to find a new treasure trove of classic films, I must find a way to explore a wider range of foreign classic cinema. Fortunately Flicker Alley has made that task much easier with the release of a pair of intriguing Argentine films noir on DVD/Blu-ray. The Bitter Stems/Lost Tallos Amargos (1956) and The Best Must Die/La Bestia Debe Morir (1952) have a lot going for them, from appealing and talented stars and gorgeous production value to a satisfying mixture of familiar noir themes and specific cultural characteristics. 

Re-discovered by the Film Noir Foundation and restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive these films offer solid storytelling and a window into another world. 

The Bitter Stems/Los Tallos Amargos (1956) is the more stylized of the two and with the strongest noir elements. It is the tale of a cash-strapped Buenos Aires-based newsman Alfredo who is talked into starting a shady correspondence journalism school with cheerful Hungarian refugee Paar. While he is uneasy about what is essentially a scam operation, he throws himself into the enterprise, partly because he knows his partner is desperate for money to save his family from their war-struck nation. 

There’s an extra wrinkle to Alfredo’s willingness to loosen his moral code: he also feels guilty that he declined military service himself with the excuse that he had to take care of his mother and sister. He feels deep down that he was actually finding a reason to indulge in his cowardice. By helping Paar, he hopes to redeem himself. This is why when he thinks his partner is deceiving him, he takes it badly and loses his sense of reason, a very noir situation. 

Alfredo’s neurosis and guilt come to life in a series of moody moments in which he narrates his frustrations and in a stunning, surrealist dream sequence that makes the production feel lusher than your typical crime flick. The film is adept at putting you into the thoughts of this essentially good, but deeply disturbed character. 

Murder and the complications that come from it are a hallmark of noir, but that is rarely explored with the kind of heartrending regret expressed here. It is firmly noir in tone, but suffused with love and yearning. Based on a novel of the same title by journalist Adolfo Jasca which plays with the themes of Crime and Punishment, its screen adaptation was a hit when first released in Argentina and it is richly deserving of this rediscovery. 

Bonus materials on the disc include an introduction by Eddie Mueller, a conversation with Argentine film archivist and historian Fernando Martín Peña, audio commentary track by Imogen Sara Smith, a profile of composer Astor Piazzolla by Steven C. Smith 

In The Beast Must Die/La Bestia Debe Morir (1952), a family tragedy takes on the flavor of noir in a story of revenge set in the upper class. Mystery writer and widower Felix Lane (Narciso Ibáñez Menta) loses his son to a hit and run accident and focuses all his energy on seeking revenge. When Felix learns the identity of the killer, a wealthy, abusive brute (Guillermo Battaglia) who rules his world with terrifying cruelty, he takes on a new identity and infiltrates the man’s family life. 

Based on a novel by British author Cecil Day-Lewis (father to actor Daniel Day-Lewis), the adaptation is distinctly and delightfully Latin in execution. It explodes into action right away, full of big emotions and chaotic twists. This vigor is balanced by Menta’s calm. Both pretty and handsome, his is a remarkable presence, and he grounds the more frantic milieu generated by his nemesis. 

Much like The Bitter Stems, longing and love for family play a strong role in the film. It also has a spiritual feel, particularly in the end, which is unusual for a production which plays with the tropes of noir. 

Bonus materials on the disc include an introduction by Eddie Mueller, a conversation with Argentine film and historian Fernando Martín Peña and Daniel Viñoly (son of director Barreto), and an audio commentary by Guido Segal. 

Both films also come with booklets which offer useful context on the films and the time and place in which they were made. 

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing copies of the films for review.

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