In the Palm of Your Hand, the milestone in Roberto Gavaldón’s filmographyBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
Among the great meetings of the minds in Mexican cinema, In the Palm of Your Hand (1951, dir. Roberto Gavaldón) is highly important. With a story by Luis Sopta, a script by José Revueltas and Roberto Gavaldón, cinematography by Alex Philips and the stellar performance of Arturo de Córdova, the film isn’t just a collaborative effort made up of some of the most celebrated Mexican literary and cinematic figures, but it’s also a relevant example of what critic Carlos Bonfil calls Gavaldón’s noir melodramas. Mexican workings of the American film noir style, these films capture the decadence of industrialized society in shadows that swallow everything.
The plot begins with a voiceover that makes a contrast between the advancements of humanity and our inability to let loose of the fears which drive us to superstition. The idea of faith facilitating fraud runs through the film and suggests a critical attitude to the religious mentality. Revueltas would explore that theme in his novel Los errores (1964). After a series of images that show technological feats —particularly in aviation—, Arturo de Córdova’s face appears behind a crystal ball. The voice we heard was his. As Jaime Karin, De Córdova is a fortune teller who, after the first scene, in which he delivers his dialogue with conviction and glib, he turns out to be just a conman who finds out about secrets tahnks to his lover, Clara Stein (Carmen Montejo) a hairdresser who tells him everything she hears from he customers and also recommends them to visit him. The main conflict comes when they hear about the death of a millionaire and Karin assumes that the widow, Ada Cisneros de Romano (Leticia Palma), probably murdered him. Attacking the greed of Mexican aristocrats —which hints at Spota’s 1956 novel, Almost Paradise— and using deception as a symbol, the script achieves a series of unexpected yet logical turns which also help to build the main character’s tragic demeanor.
De Córdova plays Karin with the usual elegance in his characters. His posture is right, his tongue loose and his voice modulated, as if wanting to sell his eccentric monologues with subtlety. As disaster comes forth, Karin’s face goes from a fraudulent control to the anguish and melancholy of someone who has lost everything. Montejo, more natural in her performance, underscores Karin’s lies and exaggerations while Palma plays a sort of reflection. Another con artist, Ada is also an artificial, intense, character. It seems appropriate, then, that mirrors appear in the film when both characters face each other. In one of the finest images, Ada shoots at Karin’s reflection in a mirror. It’s a symbol of identity as well as one of destruction. Fate, much recurred to in Karin’s profession, is sealed.
Philips’ work comes through in other images, like the high angles that suggest the perspective of the gods mentioned by Karin several times. They silently watch him fall. A nocturnal confrontation in a cabin points to disaster with its very low lighting, while images of chimneys and female calves solve the moral limitations of the time to suggest the characters’ sexuality.
Behind it all, of course, is the work of Gavaldón, who achieved a significant film in Mexican cinematic history, as well as one of the highest points of his career. From its themes to its form, In the Palm of Your Hand is a classic that tries to rescue the nightly, fateful, experience of Mexico City as it also attempts to save its society from collapsing.