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EL HOMBRE SIN ROSTRO, a Preview of a Serial Killer


Rafael Aviña

Translator, Emilio Cervantes

In 1940 the Atlántida publishing house released its weekly newsletter El mundo del crimen with translations of international stories, and in 1950 Editorial Novaro published Policiaca y de misterio with stories written by Mexican authors, pioneers of the genre, such as the brilliant Antonio Helú. In those years, as today, there was no great difference between crime and justice, order and chaos, criminality and police stunts in the real Mexico. The law's ambiguity was a daily affair, not so in comics, radio and movies where the good and justice prevailed with courage and chivalry over ferocious and repulsive crimes. For example, the 1940 Magazine de Policía, whose slogan was: "To point out the scum of society is to help it," was a popular yellow graphic strip, which proposed violent news brought to fiction as photo comics.

El hombre sin rostro (1950, dir. Juan Bustillo Oro)
El hombre sin rostro (1950, dir. Juan Bustillo Oro)

In this context, the talented and cultured duo of filmmakers and writers, Juan Bustillo Oro and the Lebanese Antonio Chato Helú, had a long working partnership that began in the mid-thirties with several dramas and comedies such as: Malditas serán las mujeres, Nostradamus, and La obligación de asesinar, among others. However, in the 1950s, they would work together again in a successful cinematographic partnership that would lead to a series of dramas in an atypical crime and suspense noir style, some of them with social and dramatic nuances. At the same time, Bustillo Oro himself would produce solo other works with that psychological approach of a crime series, exploiting criminal pathologies and homicidal impulses.

Written and directed by Bustillo Oro in 1950, with the psychiatric advice of Dr. Gregorio Oneto Berenque, El hombre sin rostro turns out to be a noir variant of that homicidal terror we all carry within us, along with sexual and psychological traumas, more successfully exploited by horror films than by the noir films of the time. Indeed, films such as Cat People (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1942), Creature from the Black Lagoon (dir. Jack Arnold, 1954) and The Alligator People (dir. Roy del Ruth, 1959), among others, explore the "monster" as an allegory of inner demons and childhood scars that lead to strange illnesses and psychological aberrations. And who better to portray him than Arturo de Córdova, who manages to immerse himself in another pattern similar to that of Jekyll and Hyde hiding his homicidal desires.

Dr. Juan Carlos Lozano, forensic doctor for the police, a sort of Hannibal Lecter without anthropophagous impulses, is in charge of investigating a series of women’s murders, however, he has nightmares about a mysterious "faceless man." For this reason he goes to a psychiatrist friend, Dr. Eugenio Britel (Miguel Ángel Férriz) who has a psychoanalysis session with him and tells him about the memory of his overbearing mother (Matilde Palou), who forced him to end his marriage engagement. The psychiatrist begins to suspect that there is a connection between the strange behavior of Juan Carlos, Ana Maria's fiancé (Carmen Molina), his horrendous dreams and the murdered women, several prostitutes among them, as happened in fact a few years before, with the crimes of Gregorio Goyo Cardenas and, at the same time, as a sort of preview of the serial killer cinema, the modern version of which starts with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), to which it resembles to a certain degree.

El hombre sin rostro (1950, dir. Juan Bustillo Oro)
El hombre sin rostro (1950, dir. Juan Bustillo Oro)

El hombre sin rostro is a noir drama halfway between the subgenre of the serial killer, crime noir cinema: the impulses of the past, the criminal affair, the actions of the police, detectives, thugs and sex workers, including Kika Meyer; and psychological horror films clearly inspired by the novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

Besides the participation of singer Chela Campos, also known as La dama del bastón de cristal, and Wolf Ruvinskis, as the Monster, the film stands out due to the exceptional score composed by Raúl Lavista and, overall, due to the great cinematography by Jorge Stahl Jr., who together with set designer Javier Torres Torija achieved to recreate a world of traumatic memories and scenarios closely related to the German expressionism that inspired, as we know, the aesthetics of noir cinema.