Gringos take their criminal activities south of the border in Mystery in Mexico.
When a vintage movie is set in Mexico, it's a bonus when it's actually filmed there. Most movies with a Mexican backdrop—even good ones—didn't bother, but Mystery in Mexico goes the extra mile. And not for just a scene or two. There are numerous exteriors in city and countryside. Among the sights sharp-eyed viewers will see are the Monumento a la Revolución, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the nightclub Ciro's, which had a Mexico City branch famous for a Diego Rivera mural in its Champagne Room. The Mexican authenticity extends to the cast, which features local superstar Ricardo Cortez and numerous bit players. Even some of the dialogue is in Spanish, including bits spoken by lead actor William Lundigan—quite a departure for a star in an old-time thriller.
So we've established that Mystery in Mexico aims for authenticity. But is it any good? Well, what you have here is a story about insurance investigator Lundigan following Jacqueline White around Mexico City hoping she'll lead him to a stash of stolen jewelry. White doesn't know where the loot is, but her brother might. Except he's missing. Also looking for the jewels is a gang of local thieves. For the most part the film plays as a romantic adventure, with love-hate turning into love-love thanks to Lundigan's dubious charm. The mystery aspect is pretty slight by comparison, but with Robert Wise in the director's chair everything looks good and runs smoothly. Mystery in Mexico won't make anyone's top 100 list, but for its novelty factor alone it's worth a look. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1948.
Spanish art for Casa número 322 may have traveled far from home.
We already showed you a beautiful yellow French promo poster for 1954's Pushover, starring Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak. Above is a cool blue Spanish language promo. This piece is signed MCP, which is the imprimatur used by the Spanish artists Ramon Marti, Josep Clave, and Hernan Pico. So is this a Spanish poster? Well, most online sites say so. But the distributor for Mexico is listed as Columbia Films S.A., and you can see that graphic right on top of the poster. The S.A., by the way, stands for “sociedad anónima,” and is a corporate designation, kind of like Inc., or LLC. The movie's distribution company for Spain is on record as plain old Columbia Films, with no S.A., so we think this poster was used in Mexico, where the movie played as La casa número 322, “house number 322.” There's no exact Mexican release date known for it, but late 1955 is a safe bet. All that said, there's no way we can claim to be correct with 100% surety that this is a Mexican poster. We're extrapolating.
Columbia had distribution branches in various Latin American countries. Its Mexican hub was the most important because Mexico had the most developed Spanish film market in the world. Yes, more than Spain, which was still recovering from civil war. Though dubbed or subtitled versions of foreign movies were routinely shown in Mexico, locally produced flicks were about 20% more popular at the box office on average, according to a 1947 report circulated by the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey. In fact, Mexican films were the most popular in all Latin America, particularly Cuba. Even in Mexico City, where U.S. and European films were more popular than anywhere else in the country, Mexican films took up more than 40% of exhibition time—again as reported by the U.S. Consulate. Why was the consulate studying this? Just wait.
The Mexican movie market isn't as competitive today. The decline was due to three main factors: political pressure that forced Mexico to submit to so-called free trade in mass media, suspicious difficulties obtaining raw film stock from the U.S. for movie productions, and, of course, dirty business tactics by Stateside studios. So that's where the consulate came in—gathering intelligence for both the U.S. government and U.S. business interests. Armed with alarming data about local preferences for local product, U.S. studios forced Mexican exhibitors into “block booking” agreements, which meant that if cinemas wanted to exhibit the best Hollywood films they were also contractually obligated to take on the worst. This was repeated all over Latin America, and those bad films, which were more numerous than the good ones, ate up exhibition hours and kept Mexican films off screens. Pushover, at least, was one of Hollywood's better films.
In the Aztec version of the show being sacrificed on a cross is actually first prize.
This poster for The Living Idol gives a bit of a false impression. The movie isn't the lost world epic implied by the art. Most of it is set in and around the University of Mexico, and deals with an archaeologist who believes he can unlock the secrets of ancient Aztec rituals by using a colleague's daughter as a sort of medium. James Robertson Justice is the obsessed archaeologist, and French actress Liliane Montevecchi stars as Juanita, who may have some mystical connection to the ancient world.
The movie is better than you'd expect. It's serious and intelligent, with a bit of cuteness mixed in, and what's particularly striking is the respect it shows—for a U.S. made movie—toward Mexico and Mexican culture. The default attitude for Mexico in north-of-the-border movies from the period is one of mild patronization, but not here. Give some credit to screenwriter Albert Lewin, but more credit to director René Cardona, who's Cuban, not Mexican, but was certainly versed in the culture and history of the country.
Though no Mexicans appear in major roles, Cardona manages to leave viewers with a sense of wonder about Mexico, and not just its mythic past, but its contemporary aspects too. He treats viewers to a nice tour of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, built in Mexico City in 1910, and one of the most majestic and beautiful centers of learning in the Americas today. Its central campus, built from 1949 to 1952, is even UNESCO protected, which thousands of older universities can't say.
This comes in addition to amazing panoramas of the Aztec ruins at Uxmal, probably the best represented they've ever been in a motion picture. Is the movie good? Not quite. It has many rough patches, and Montevecchi has only two expressions in her acting arsenal—innocent eyed, and bug-eyed. But it all works a bit better than it should, somehow. We cautiously recommend it for Mexicophiles, but keep your expectations in check. The Living Idol opened in the U.S. today in 1957.
I think we should consider a separation. And I have just the body part in mind.
A gringo detective with an agency in Mexico City is hired to locate his crooked ex-partner, who has bailed with the agency's money, and now is causing trouble for the client. The PI takes the job, glad to be paid to track down his betrayer, and starts in the Mexican town of Rio Bravo where the partner immediately turns up dead. From there the hero delves into local corruption, crosses the border to Texas, uncovers a human trafficking ring, meets a cantina dancer named Arden Kennett, deals with a dangerous wife, watches murders pile up and the police begin to suspect him, and learns that knives can be thrown just as effectively as they can be brandished.
The book was published in the U.S. as an Ace Double in 1959 with Paul Rader art and bound with Charles Fritch's Negative of a Nude, but the rare edition above is from Aussie imprint Phantom Books and appeared in 1960. We can't identify the artist, which is an affliction we've been dealing with quite a bit of late. But don't blame us—as we've mentioned once or twice before, including just a few days ago, Phantom didn't credit art, possibly because much of it was copied from U.S. editions. Many of the covers do, however, look like the same hand, so hopefully someone will be able to ID the owner of that hand at some point in the future.
What are the odds of a Mayan comet showing up at exactly the worst moment? Pretty good in cheeseball sci-fi.
Caltiki—The Immortal Monster was an Italian production originally titled Caltiki il mostro immortale, but made in English starring Canadian actor John Merivale in a tale revolving around Guatemala's Tikal ruins. We used to live in Guatemala and visited the Mayan ruins at Tikal, so we simply had to watch this movie. But the actual ruins shown are an amalgam of pyramids and what look like buttes and rock spires from the southwest U.S. There's a volcano thrown in there too, though Tikal is flat rain forest and low lying swamps. Creative license, we suppose. It all looks kind of otherworldly, which we guess was the goal, so nice work by the efx department.
The basics of this story are that there's a legendary Mayan monster or goddess in a lake, and when a group of scientists is attacked, one of them returns to Mexico City with a piece attached to his arm. Doctors manage to carve off a sample and learn that radiation makes it grow. They of course keep the piece safely stowed away, but unfortunately a highly radioactive comet spoken of in Mayan lore choses that week to pass close to Earth. It only comes once every 1,352 years, so this is really unfortunate timing on the comet's part, but that's just Maya luck. Celestial bodies are nothing if not implacable and aloof. The lake specimen is irradiated, grows to monstrous size, and oozes terrifyingly across the city.
But the solution to this problem isn't so difficult. Fire kills Caltiki, so it's really just a matter of directing some flames onto the beast. Cue flamethrowers, army guys, and soundtrack tympani. Caltiki turns into a Caltiki torch then goes down like an undercooked soufflé. This is b-sci-fi at its goofiest, but we'll admit the blob effects are actually pretty cool, aided as they are by the fact that all of them take place at night. Mario Bava, who is uncredited but actually did most of directing here, does a decent job and the acting is passable. Recommended? We wouldn't go that far. Caltiki—The Immortal Monster premiered in Italy in 1959 and reached the U.S. today in 1960.
Seeing him so peaceful almost makes me forget how much I'm going to enjoy humiliating and torturing him.
Above, a July 1966 cover of the Mexico City-based true crime magazine Mundo Policiaco, with a random male about to have his blissful slumber interrupted by a gun toting femme fatale. The text says, “He called for help for seven hours.” The art is by the as yet unidentified A.Z., whose signature you can see cleverly placed on the carpet border. We find this failure to credit the painter annoying, especially since others got their names on the masthead, from director Alberto Ramirez de Aguilar on down. Oh well. Moving on, the insides of these have no illustrations, just unattributed black and white photos and a lot of text, though the rear covers are sometimes painted. Magazines of this type were generally called nota roja. Want one of your own? We've seen them online for about $300.
Ericsson robot bridges the communication gap.
This interesting photo of a giant robot holding a telephone was shot in Mexico City and documents an advertising effort from the Swedish communications company Allmänna Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson, known in Mexico as simply Teléfonos Ericsson. The robot was one of many temporarily suspended above the streets of Mexico City's historic center around 1930. Want to see another 1930s promotional robot? Check out Elektro.
Lina shows off her elegant lean.
Evangelina Elizondo was born in Mexico City and worked during the golden age of Mexican cinema, which was between 1936 and 1959, according to most sources. In addition to appearing in dozens of films, she recorded a couple of albums, wrote a couple of books, and remains active today, at least online. The above photo, with its striking noir style and leaning pose that has to be more difficult than it looks, dates from around 1955.
Aren’t you a little old for this sort of thing?
Bernard Wolfe is known for several reasons, not least of them for being Leon Trotsky’s personal secretary in Mexico City, but he was also a novelist of wide-ranging interests. Come On Out, Daddy was his Hollywood book, about a New York author who moves out west to cash in on an easy screenwriting job. While making a couple thousand dollars a week for doing very little he runs into the usual assortment of jaded Tinseltown characters—from big stars to little wannabes—and trysts with an assortment of disposable beauties before of course meeting the woman of his dreams. It’s episodic due to it being partly cobbled together from short stories published in Playboy and Cavalier, but reasonably well regarded as a cultural satire. Life described it as “garrulously and surrealistically told by a huge cast of people in varying stages of corruption.” 1963 on the hardback, and 1964 on the above, with cool cover art by James Meese.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1968—Andy Warhol Is Shot
Valerie Solanas, feminist author of an anti-male tract she called the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men), attempts to assassinate artist Andy Warhol by shooting him with a handgun. Warhol survives but suffers health problems for the rest of his life. Solanas serves three years in prison and eventually dies of emphysema at San Francisco's Bristol Hotel in 1988.
1941—Lou Gehrig Dies
New York Yankees baseball player Henry Louis Gehrig, aka The Iron Horse, who set a record for playing in 2,130 consecutive games over the course of fourteen seasons, dies of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, two years after the onset of the illness ended his consecutive games streak.
1946—Antonescu Is Executed
Ion Antonescu, who was ruler of Romania during World War II, and whose policies were independently responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 Bessarabian, Ukrainian and Romanian Jews, as well as countless Romani Romanians, is executed by means of firing squad at Fort Jilava prison just outside Bucharest.
1959—Sax Rohmer Dies
Prolific British pulp writer Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, aka Sax Rohmer, who created the popular character Fu Manchu and became one of the most highly paid authors of his time writing fundamentally racist fiction about the "yellow peril" and what he blithely called "rampant criminality among the Chinese", dies of avian flu in White Plains, New York.
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