Anybody who follows me on social media knows that I’ve been fighting off the Whooping Death Flu for the past few weeks. I was hoping to get over it in time to provide you with my much anticipated (by me, anyway) annual Noir City Film Festival coverage. Alas, your not-so-plucky ringside reporter was forced to tap out on RIFF RAFF, the second feature of last night’s opening double bill. Captain Trips is a harsh mistress.
That being said, it was great to have a second chance to watch the superb Argentine noir THE BITTER STEMS (Los Tallos Amargos.) But as much as I love this film, I feel a little torn on how to write about it.
This is a dilemma I face a lot during Noir City. One of the many reasons why I love this festival is because they don’t just play the hits. You can see DOUBLE INDEMNITY or SUNSET BOULEVARD anytime, on cable, DVD or even in revival theaters. But Czar of Noir Eddie Muller has always been a champion of the underdog. Rare, exotic and previously lost films that aren’t now and may never be available in any other format. And therein lies the dilemma.
Are spoilers even an issue when the chances of most readers ever being able to see the film in question are slim to fucking none?
What do you think? Do you want to read about plot twists and other spoilerish elements? Or would you rather have the mystery remain intact on the off chance that you may get lucky enough to see one of these rarities some time in the future? Let me know what you think in the comments or on social media.
Meanwhile, for now, I’m gonna go ahead and make with the spoilers like I usually do. In fact, I’m pretty much laying out the whole damn story on this one because I loved it so much. Especially the ending. Those who prefer to avoid that kind of thing can go get a sandwich right about now. Or, if you speak Spanish, you can watch it with no subtitles on YouTube and come back when you’re done.
SPOILERS (Seriously. You’ve been warned.)
Still with me? Ok, let’s tackle this sweaty, sexy, masterful and pitch fucking black flick.
We then flashback and get to know one of the riders, our (anti) hero Alfredo Gaspar. He’s a struggling journalist with financial problems who’s deeply unsatisfied in every aspect of his life. He has a decent job, a supportive family and a gorgeous, devoted girlfriend (with some truly amazing Bitch Eyebrows) but he longs for something more. Excitement, adventure, some kind of deeper meaning. And, of course, more money.
When he meets the second man on the train, a friendly and seemingly naive Hungarian barman named Liudas, the two become fast friends and decide to partner up in a clever mail order scam.
When Gaspar finds out that Liudas needs money to help his wife and children to escape the ravages of war in Europe, he’s found that deeper meaning he’d been missing all this time. Having lost his own father in WWI, he selflessly offers his new pal 75% of the take from the scam. Liudas is effusively grateful and can’t stop gushing about his beloved eldest son Jarvis, who he can’t wait to see again.
But, since this is Noir City, you know it’s not going to end well.
When his girlfriend questions Gaspar’s decision to give the majority of their profits to Liudas, she plants the seeds of doubt in his mind. How does he know this man, who he only just met, isn’t scamming him just like they’re scamming their so-called students? How does he know this Jarvis really exists?
Now that the doubt has taken root, there’s no going back for Gaspar. Everything Liudas does seems suspicious, from buying a fancy suit to closing his office door while talking on the phone to a mysterious woman. He decides to follow Liudas to a nightclub, where his supposedly happily married friend secretly meets with a sexy bar girl. Gaspar strains to eavesdrop on their conversation, but is thwarted by the loud, brassy music. He does hear fragments, including Liudas laughing and saying “Of course he believes in Jarvis, why wouldn’t he?”
This is all Gaspar needed to prove that he’d been had.
Which brings us back to that doomed train ride. Gaspar leads his trusting friend to his empty family home and a cold and noirish death by way of an electrical blackout and a hammer.
Struggling to bury the body in the pouring rain, he finds a dropped letter on the wet ground. The ink has run, making it illegible, so he tosses it and the handful of seeds inside the envelope on top of the fresh grave before covering them with the last of the dirt.
He seems to have gotten away with murder, but when he returns to Buenos Aires, he finds a telegram for Liudas. It’s from Jarvis, who will be arriving the following day.
But you saw that coming, didn’t you?
Here’s where things start to get really interesting. In classic Film Noir fashion, our beleaguered protagonist is forced to dig himself deeper and deeper into trouble while scrambling to cover up his first crime. He buys time by telling the kid his dad’s gone to Chile on business, but knows the flimsy cover story won’t last forever. When Jarvis meets his father’s nightclub mistress, Gaspar realizes he’s going to have to find a way to silence her. But when Jarvis meets and falls in love with Gaspar’s own kid sister Esther, there’s no way out.
Gaspar’s paranoia reaches a crescendo when Jarvis notices a special native Hungarian plant growing out of the spot in the garden where Liudas was buried. He wasn’t surprised to see the plant, since he’s the one who sent his father the seeds, but he is shocked that an experienced gardener like Liudas would choose a shady spot for the sun-loving plant and plant them all crowded together. He asks Gaspar for a shovel so he can dig up the sprouts and move them to a sunnier spot.
Near delirious from guilt and shame and sure that his terrible crime will finally be revealed, Gasper runs away and flings himself in front of a train.
Meanwhile, unaware of Gaspar’s torment, Jarvis and Esther finish moving the plants to their new spot. He explains to her how smart his father was to make sure the seeds weren’t buried too deep, or else they would have died. He fills in the shallow hole, never knowing his father’s corpse lay just a few inches deeper.
And that, Faustketeers, is how you end a motherfucking noir flick.
So many times in an American movie, when the murderer jumps in front of a train or out a window, it feels like a forced afterthought, something required by the Hays Code to prove that crime doesn’t pay. This was not only totally organic and believable within the framework of the story, it was also made a hundred times darker by the final reveal that he could have gotten away with it if he’d just kept it together for a few seconds longer.
There are tons of other reasons to love this movie. Stunning cinematography, earning this flick a place on the A.F.I. list of top 100 films of all time. Fantastic score by tango legend Ástor Piazzolla. Outstanding cast, despite the fact that the kid who played Jarvis kinda reminded me of a Hungarian Arch Hall Jr. A great surreal, over-the-top dream sequence. Did I mention the Bitch Eyebrows? I mean, damn.
So yeah, love this one. If you can find a way to see it, you won’t be sorry. If not, at least you got this long-winded, feverish and spoiler-filled write up. I’m gonna pretend that’s a good thing.
And tonight, I’m going back for round two: ALL MY SONS and TAKE ONE FALSE STEP. I’m still sick as fuck and not sure if I’ll be able to go the distance, but I’m game. Wish me luck…