J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Argentine Noir: Never Open that Door

It is a two-part triptych. Obviously, it was intended to be a trio of Cornell Woolrich (a.k.a. William Irish) short story adaptations, but in early 1950s Argentina, there was even greater pressure on filmmakers to conform to manageable running times. At least Carlos Hugo Christensen’s original vision was more or less preserved. One segment became its own film and the other two were released as a strange matching pair. Yet, the parallels between the constituent stories work rather well together in Never Open that Door, which screens as part of MoMA’s current retrospective, Death is My Dance Partner: Film Noir in Postwar Argentina.

Once the seventy-three minute If I Die Before I Wake was split off, Door became a lean and most definitely mean eighty-five minutes of hard-bitten noir goodness. The first segment is very much in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the various incarnations of Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number, but it also has a number of night club scenes for extra swinging fun.

In “Someone’s on the Phone,” grown siblings Raul and Luisa have a wildly dysfunctional, vaguely incestuous relationship. They both live in their absentee parents’ spectacularly cinematic town house (that sort of looks like a Trader Vic’s as designed by le Corbusier), but lead separate wastrel lives. However, their privileged existence is shattered when Luisa’s mounting gambling debts culminate in her suicide. Bitterly regretting his own ineffectualness, Raul sets out to kill her tormenting mystery caller. Irony will be involved.

Many consider “Phone” the weakest of the two-film anthology, but it might be the most stylish of the lot. The big band Latin jazz is hot and Pablo Tabernero’s slick noir cinematography is super-cool. Production designer Gori Muñoz and his team also crafted an ominously decadent environment perfect for the genre.

Family relations remain problematic in “The Hummingbird Comes Home.” Blind Rosa is a virtuous widow, who lives with her devoted niece and memories of her beloved son Daniel. After eight years without contact, Daniel suddenly returns, along with two gangster associates (one of whom is unlikely to see the sun rise) and a bullet-riddled car. Despite her love for her son, Rosa is not blind to the circumstances. To save her niece, she will turn the tables on the criminals during the dark of night—when the advantage shifts to her, assuming everything goes as planned.

Once Mother Rosa kills the power, Christensen stages some wonderfully tense and skillful cat-and-mouse skulking sequences. He and Tabernero evoke a sense of her unsighted POV, while clearly conveying the action to viewers. These are scenes that are worth close study. Of course, Ilde Pirovano is the crucial X-factor as the sainted but resourceful mother.

Structurally, it is a little weird to have the considerably shorter “Phone” stuck together with the longer “Hummingbird,” but they are both crackerjack noirs, so they never clash in terms of tone or aesthetics. It is still tough to beat Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid, but Never Open that Door definitely ranks close behind amongst the many film and television adaptations of Woolrich/Irish stories and novels. Happily it has been preserved and partially restored for future fans by the Film Noir Foundation. Highly recommended, Never Open that Door screens again this Tuesday afternoon (2/16), at MoMA.

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