It’s been a delight to see the steady trickle of Argentinian noir flicks coming out from Flicker Alley, thanks to the preservation efforts of UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation. Every film has been worthy of classic status and I’ve appreciated the additional insight in the DVD/Blu-ray special features for each set. Now joining the label’s The Bitter Stems (1956) and The Beast Must Die (1952) releases is the stylistically exciting El Vampiro Negro (1953).
The film is an interpretation of M (1931), the Fritz Lang film about a child murderer that launched the career of Peter Lorre. Carryovers include the killer’s penchant for whistling Grieg and the basic plot of the tortured criminal who eludes the police, but faces street justice. Otherwise it is dramatically different as far as style and notable for the inclusion of a strong female point of view.
Director Román Viñoly Barreto sets a surreal, nightmarish scene from the beginning, showing the tortured imaginings of professor, and killer Professor Ulber (Nathán Pinzón) as he takes a Rorschach test. Unexpectedly, that strange, dreamlike menace isn’t just a stylistic choice for the opening scene. The mood and style of these first moments carry over to a nightclub, the shadowy and unsettling world where Amalia (Olga Zubarry) sings so that she may pay for her daughter’s private school tuition.
Barreto arranges the nightclub in tight tableaus, set in suffocating closeness. You feel the oppression of this night world; a place for escape that can also be a prison. It is adjacent to this setting that Amalia witnesses a man throwing a dead girl into a sewer.
Traumatized, and wishing to keep her child away from scandal, Amalia attempts to stay out of the investigation, but is eventually drawn in with the same uncomfortable closeness of her professional world. This is due in part to the meddlesome concerns of inspector Dr. Bernard (Roberto Escalada), who scolds her for her profession without showing any empathy for the difficulty of her position. His attitude is in part because he is unable to have children with his wife (Gloria Castilla) who is dealing with her own limitations which are revealed gradually. While Bernard is not the killer, he is in many ways less sympathetic than Ulber, because of his selfishness and power to change his behavior.
As the killer, Pinzón is less creepy than Lorre, and more a fearful, awkward man. The viewer is put in the position of feeling empathy for someone who has destroyed lives and thrust a community into terror. In the end, Amalia understands him better than Bernard, because the latter is not capable of understanding the Professor’s helplessness.
It’s a fascinating film, gorgeous to look at, uncomfortable if intriguing to experience, and an even mix of straight suspense and the doom-laden feel of film noir.
There’s a special feature in which film experts discuss the differences between the original M, the version filmed in Hollywood in 1951, and El Vampiro Negro. I agree with the consensus that each of these films are remarkable. While M stands above the other two in several ways, the Argentinian take on the story is outstanding and deeply satisfying if disturbing.
Other special features on the disc include an introduction by Eddie Muller, audio commentary by archivist/historian Fernando Martin Pena, a booklet with photographs and an essay by Imogen Sara Smith, and a charming interview with Daniel Viñoly, son of the director.
Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.