Saturday, January 15, 2022

Tonight's Movie: The Bitter Stems (1956) - A Flicker Alley Blu-ray Review

THE BITTER STEMS (1956), known in its native Argentina as LOS TALLOS AMARGOS, was recently released by Flicker Alley in a terrific Blu-ray/DVD combo set.

Flicker Alley released the film simultaneously with another Argentinian noir, THE BEAST MUST DIE (1952), which I reviewed last night.

I first saw THE BITTER STEMS almost half a dozen years ago, at the 2016 Noir City Hollywood Film Festival, and enjoyed returning to it with a fresh eye.

It's a surreal tale, even more so than the melodramatic THE BEAST MUST DIE; when I first saw it I described it as "dreamlike." Some have described it as THE TWILIGHT ZONE meets film noir, and that's not wrong.

Briefly, the story concerns reporter Alfredo Gaspar (Carlos Cores) and bartender Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos), who join forces to create a fake mail order journalism school. They rake in the dough but provide nothing in return.

Gaspar gives Liudas a larger share of the money to help him bring his family from Hungary to Argentina, but as time passes Gaspar begins to suspect his partner is cheating him. The disturbed Gaspar slips further and further away from reality as he begins to plot his revenge...which boomerangs as Gaspar then finds himself haunted by what he's done.

As with THE BEAST MUST DIE, I'm not sharing a great deal about the plot; it's an unusual story which viewers should discover for themselves. Also like THE BEAST MUST DIE, it builds to an extremely memorable conclusion.

THE BITTER STEMS is admittedly my least favorite Argentian noir seen to date; in fact, in 2016 I said I wasn't quite sure whether I liked it, though I acknowledged it was memorable and worthwhile. I think the movie's exceptionally dark tone, especially toward the end, contributed to my hesitation, along with the lack of someone to be "rooting for" in the movie.

I also wrote in 2016 that I suspected my appreciation for the movie would grow with closer acquaintance, which is one reason I wanted to revisit the film via the new Blu-ray, and my guess was correct. I often find that knowing what to expect going in helps me to enjoy a film more -- for the most part I'll never be someone who avoids "spoilers" -- and that was the case here.

There's just something about being mentally prepared for what a film is or isn't which helps me to relax and spend more time noticing things like the craftsmanship and performances, and indeed, this 90-minute film is well made and acted.

Incidentally, while Laura Hidalgo of THE BEAST MUST DIE made me think of Yvonne De Carlo, BITTER STEMS lead actor Cores rather reminds me of an American film noir star, Zachary Scott.

It was directed by Fernando Ayala and filmed in black and white by Ricardo Younis. The screenplay by Sergio Leonardo was based on a novel by Adolfo Jasca.

I watched the Blu-ray from the combination set, which has a beautiful print and excellent sound. It's a real thrill that this long-unseen film, a joint restoration project of the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is now available for home viewing.

Like Flicker's Alley's release of THE BEAST MUST DIE, the physical set itself is appealing, with attractive contrasting colors on the Blu-ray and DVD discs; there is also reversible case cover art featuring a Spanish-language poster. The glossy booklet in the case features photographs and an essay by Maria Elena de las Carreras.

Extras consist of an introduction by the Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Muller; a commentary track by the always-excellent Imogen Sara Smith; an 18-minute profile of composer Astor Piazzolla narrated by Max Steiner biographer Steven C. Smith; and a 12-minute conversation between Eddie Muller and Argentine film archivist/historian Fernando Martin Pena. 

I still need to hear the commentary, which I will definitely be doing soon, but the rest of the extras helped further develop my appreciation of an unusual movie and its history.

Thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray/DVD set.

THE BITTER STEMS may be purchased through the Flicker Alley website as well as through retailers such as Amazon.


Blogger mel said...

Laura, I concur with your philosophy that 'I often find that knowing what to expect going in helps me to enjoy a film more -- for the most part I'll never be someone who avoids "spoilers" ' which I'm sure enables me to enjoy a favourite film countless times.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

You’ve got me intrigued, Laura, about this film and The Beast Must Die. I’ve seen very few foreign films and must try and see more. These two films sound very interesting. I always remember seeing The Seven Samurai and was so surprised that it affected me more than The Magnificent Seven which I always loved.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Mel, I love that you feel the same way about knowing what to expect. I think I just get wrapped up in the tension and "what will happen next" the first time around, and sometimes that's accompanied by some disappointment if the movie wasn't quite what I "wanted." The second time I know what it will be going in!

Vienna, I'd love to know what you think of these films. I admittedly haven't seen huge numbers of foreign films myself, but discovering Japanese films and a handful of Argentinian noir have both been very rewarding in recent years. I've also seen a couple of memorable French crime films, including JENNY LAMOUR (1947), which will be shown on TCM's Noir Alley soon.

Best wishes,

3:10 PM  

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