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Gallery: Mex Noir, Mexican Film Noir in the Golden Age

By: Rafael Aviña
This is a fragment of the text Mex Noir: Mexican Film Noir in the Golden Age by Rafael Aviña, originally published in the catalogue of the twelfth edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM). Check the full text here.


Mexico at night, one of the legends of the Alemán administration (Miguel Alemán Valdés was president of Mexico from 1946 to 1952), is clearly a metaphor in these movies, films that follow the reactions and formulas of the suspense genre and melodramas—an equation of blood, sweat, tears, not to mention adrenaline and sexual fluids—and that crisscross to create crime thrillers, cabaret films, tales of poverty and slums, of intrigues and espionage that end in violence.

There’s a kind of subgenre or esthetic that stylizes plots and performances to the limit, exploring the very edge of morality. It’s a style and a premise where the night and hormones are swept up in a whirwind of sex, evil, heroism, death, and fatality—glints flashing in the shadows of a convulsed city or in the mystery and solitude of a provincial town.

From the end of the 30s—and especially into the 40s—radio, comics, and movies suddenly unravelled providing an intriguing mirror of society. Respected filmmakers and able
artisans learned their craft working with low-budget storylines in the shadow of the more prestigious, official cinema.

Arturo de Córdova, Pedro Armendáriz (followed by Víctor ParraVíctor Junco, Tito Junco, and others) to be the rightful heirs to the hard-nosed tough guys who Hollywood had already imposed, like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart,George Raft, John Garfield, Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrew, characters walking streets rife with crime and corruption, though here xwas a criminal context that was clearly Mexican.

The start of a national film noir and detective films nearly coincides with the very beginnings of Mexican cinema, with El automóvil gris (dir. Enrique Rosas), which came out in 1919. The genre continued with the delirious worlds of Chilean José Bohr and Cuban Juan Orol, whose careers found a home in Mexico with titles such as ¿Quién mató a Eva? (1934, dir. José Bohr); Luponini de Chicago (1935, dir. José Bohr); Marihuana, el monstruo verde (1936, dir. José Bohr); Mujeres sin alma (1934, dir. Juan Orol); Los misterios del hampa (1945, dir. Juan Orol); and El reino de los gángsters (1948, dir. Juan Orol).

The first serious attempt to depict a world permeated by moral corruption, urban squalor, and social disenchantment was Mientras México duerme (1938, dir. Alejandro Galindo). The film starred Arturo de Córdova as the leader of a gang of crooks, and it portrayed Mexico at night as as a place of liquor, crime, dancing, and cabaret show tunes. The murder of a pharmacist in a drugstore on Bucareli Street inspired Alejandro Galindo to develop a story originally entitled Ruleto, his first important film, one which would later find resonance in Cuatro contra el mundo (1950).

Cinema, cabarets, politics, betrayed ideals, love and passion recovered define Mexican cinema’s first, classic film noir with, moreover, the presence of Cuban Kiki Mendive, the famous Guardiola Building, the Casa de los Azulejos, the old train station of El Mexicano, a ghost-like Pino Suárez Avenue in the early morning hours, the incredibly dramatic use of a catchy boogie-woogie, and the voice of Ana María González singing Agustín Lara’s “Cada noche un amor”; they frame the first classic noir of our cinema: Distinto amanecer (1943, dir. Julio Bracho).

The end of the Alemán mandate saw this disturbing, hormonal genre come to a close. In 1952, under the government of Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, the head of the city, Ernesto P. Uruchurtu would impose a climate of austerity and moral terror which put an end to the era’s cabaret cinema and detective films. The racy nightlife—with its prostitutes, pimps, cabarets, and criminals—began to wane, along with the sensuality, blood, fear, paranoia, and the portrait of a convulsed city with its disturbing architecture; it all gave way to a new era, one of moralism and hypocrisy


May God Forgive Me (1947, dir. Tito Davison)

Los dineros del diablo (1945, dir. Alejandro Galindo)

The Other One (1946, dir. Roberto Gavaldón)

Night Falls (1953, dir. Roberto Gavaldón)

La diosa arrodillada (1947, dir. Roberto Gavaldón)

Distinto amanecer (1943, dir. Julio Bracho)

In the Palm of Your Hand (1950, dir. Roberto Gavaldón)

Crepúsculo (1945, dir. Julio Bracho)