A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, December 22, 2016

We Were Strangers (John Huston, 1949)

Fidel Castro, who died this year, came to power in 1959, ten years after We Were Strangers, which deals with an earlier Cuban revolution, was made. Castro's own revolution is probably why this film, despite its major director and stars, is so little known. It was never revived after its initial showing, and didn't become available on video until 2005 despite the reputation of its director, John Huston. It's a fairly scathing look at the failure of the United States to support the overthrow of the Machado dictatorship in 1933. John Garfield plays Tony Fenner, a Cuban-born American who works with the underground revolutionaries to overthrow Machado. He comes up with a rather complicated plot to tunnel into the Colón Cemetery and plant a bomb that will kill the regime's leaders. He enlists a group who have no previous ties with one another, including China Valdés (Jennifer Jones), a bank clerk whose brother was killed by the Havana police chief, Armando Aréte (Pedro Armendáriz), and who lives in a house across the street from the cemetery. The plan is to assassinate a high-ranking member of the regime and detonate the bomb when the dignitaries gather for his funeral. But Fenner's plan is just a little too complicated, and things go awry. It's a curious film to be made just as the red scare was heating up in Washington and Hollywood, for the script by Peter Viertel and director John Huston has no scruples about portraying the violent revolutionaries as heroic. The revolutionaries even countenance the collateral damage of killing innocent people at the funeral, although one of their company has serious reservations about it and, worn down by the hard work of tunneling, goes mad. Garfield, who would soon be threatened with blacklisting as a leftist, gives a typically intense performance, and Jones, though miscast, does a passable imitation of a determined Cuban revolutionary. Armendáriz, whom Hollywood often relegated to Latino sidekick roles, is a fine, sinister villain. Gilbert Roland, as a singing, wisecracking member of the revolutionary team, provides what levity the film possesses, and Ramon Novarro has a cameo as the chief who authorizes Fenner's plan. There's some obvious use of rear projection in which the actors are superimposed against scenes actually filmed in Havana, but Russell Metty's cinematography is mostly quite effective.