Friday, April 15, 2016

Tonight's Movie: The Bitter Stems (1956) at the Noir City Film Festival

The 18th Annual Noir City Film Festival opened tonight!

The festival opened with a double bill consisting of THE BITTER STEMS (1956), known in its native Argentina as LOS TALLOS AMARGOS, and the RKO film noir RIFFRAFF (1947).

I reviewed RIFFRAFF last year when it was released on DVD by the Warner Archive. It's a stylish, humorous film starring Pat O'Brien, Anne Jeffreys, Percy Kilbride, and Walter Slezak. I enjoyed it so much last year that I named it one of my Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015, and it was fantastic having the chance to see it on a big screen in 35mm!

THE BITTER STEMS was screened in a 35mm print restored by UCLA. It's a dreamlike crime film; indeed, while the story itself is at times rather surreal, the movie even contains an extended dream sequence, sort of a dream within a dream. As the Film Noir Foundation's Alan Rode said after the screening, at times THE BITTER STEMS calls to mind an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS or even THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

I'm not sure I'd precisely say I liked THE BITTER STEMS, but it was memorable and I was glad I saw it. I also suspect that it's the kind of film for which my appreciation would continue to develop on further acquaintance.

My uncertainty over how much I liked it relates mainly to the fact there's no one in the film to root for, even as an antihero, save for an innocent young pair of supporting players.

Alfredo Gaspar (Carlos Cores) is an unhappy reporter who teams with an immigrant bartender, Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos), in a get rich quick scheme; they advertise a correspondence course in journalism, and the money pours in.

Other than being a crook (!), Liudas is a nice guy hoping to bring his wife and two children from Europe to Argentina. Gaspar is so moved by the family's plight that he offers Liudas a bigger share of the ill-gotten gains to help them.

Eventually, though, Gaspar comes to suspect that Liudas hasn't told him the truth; perhaps someone who's, after all, a crook would also lie to him. Gaspar decides to exact revenge on his "business" partner and commits "the perfect crime"...or so he thinks. But nothing goes quite as planned...

I'm necessarily being a bit vague about the plot so as not to spoil it for others; the movie will also be shown on opening night of the TCM Classic Film Festival, so I'm sure some of my readers will be seeing it quite soon!

Carlos Cores reminded me just a bit of Zachary Scott, who would have been good casting in an American version. The troubled Gaspar character is fairly unlikeable throughout, despite a dream which fills in some of his back story. Vassili Lambrinos's Liudas is a sunnier character, but he's still a crook who thinks nothing of bilking others to his own ends.

Gaspar lives with his widowed mother (Virginia Romay) and younger sister Esther (Gilda Lousek), but aside from caring for them and his initial kindness to Liudas, he's an unhappy man who progressively becomes ever more angry and disturbed. He initially attempts to make peace with his crime, but nothing that horrible can stay hidden forever...or can it? The film builds to a beautifully ironic and satisfying ending.

The movie was photographed in black and white by Ricardo Younis, with some great shadowy shots. The film's look is one of its best attributes. The score was by Astor Piazzolla; I'm not familiar with him but have read he was considered one of Argentina's greatest musicians.

THE BITTER STEMS was directed by Fernando Ayala. It runs 90 minutes.

Along with Hugo Fregonese's HARDLY A CRIMINAL (1949), also known as APENAS UN DELINCUENTE, THE BITTER STEMS has continued to widen my interest in Argentinian noir. Except for the subtitles and unfamiliar actors, these films very much have the sensibility of American film noir and have been terrific additions to the Noir City schedule.

2021 Update: Great news, THE BITTER STEMS will be released by Flicker Alley in a Blu-ray/DVD combination set in the fall of 2021.

My review of the Blu-ray is here.


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