Espaldas Mojadas (1955)
Written and directed by Alejandro Galindo
Produced by José Elvira
Cinematography by Rosalío Solano
Edited by Carlos Savage
Music by Jorge Pérez
ATA Films, Atlas Films
Distribuidora Mexicana de Películas S.A.
(1:56) VCI Entertainment Blu-ray
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you run across a film no one else is talking about and feel compelled to champion it. In this case, the picture is a Mexican film noir titled Espaldas Mojadas (1955), which has just been restored and released on Blu-ray and DVD (separately) from VCI Entertainment as part of their Classics of Mexican Cinema collection, which I’ll talk more about in a moment.
Espaldas Mojadas, or Wet Backs (not to be confused with the 1956 Lloyd Bridges film Wetbacks, about a man who transports illegal migrants from Mexico into California) is written and directed by Alejandro Galindo, one of Mexico’s most lauded and prolific directors. Galindo came to America as a young man, worked briefly at MGM doing mostly technical work, then returned to Mexico where he directed films from the 1930s to the 1980s. Galindo wrote and directed comedy, drama, horror, and film noir. This film, along with the boxing picture Champion without a Crown (1946) and the drama A Family Like Many Others (1949), is considered one of his finest works.
Espaldas Mojadas begins with a public service announcement urging viewers not to attempt illegal crossings into the United States, impressing on its audience that this is a fictional movie. The “Don’t try this at home” warning seems humorous now, but at the time, the American movie market was crucial to the Mexican film industry, and the producers didn’t want to offend U.S. audiences.
In a Ciudad Juárez cantina, we find a man named Rafael (David Silva) desperately trying to get to America. It’s not only that he wants a better life, he’s in serious trouble with the law and needs to evade the Mexican authorities quickly. Since Rafael’s a fugitive, obtaining the proper papers is out of the question, so he’s forced to deal with a couple of unscrupulous men who’ll help him cross the border, but with no guarantees.
All of this sounds terribly routine, even for 1955, but Galindo makes the opening scenes compelling by slowing things down long enough to dwell on character and atmosphere. If you’re unfamiliar with David Silva (whom American audiences may know from the Alejandro Jodorowsky films El Topo  and The Holy Mountain ), you may notice a resemblance to the American actor Frank Lovejoy. Like Lovejoy, Silva has the amazing ability to convey quiet desperation that comes across as a slow burn having no outlet for his fury.
Galindo seems to understand that much of the time required to cross over consists of waiting for the right moment, which could take hours, even days. The cantina almost seems Casablanca-like in its function as a way station for people longing to flee and those reluctantly forced to return. In one of the film’s several extraordinary musical numbers, ranchera singer Lola Beltrán sings of Mexico’s rich national heritage just as Rafael is set to leave, seemingly warning him that the greener pastures north may not be as rewarding as he imagines. The song further isolates him from the others in the cantina, many of whom are in a far more celebratory mode than Rafael.
While this cinematic journey across the border may not seem entirely plausible, Rafael’s arrival delivers some wonderful noirish moments as he finds himself hiding among abandoned train cars, scrounging for food, wondering whether each person he encounters will help him or turn him in. To no one’s surprise, Rafael finds that America isn’t a land flowing with milk and honey, at least not for an illegal immigrant without documentation, a man who can’t even speak enough English to order hot dogs from a street vendor.
Yet when Rafael does find work at a railroad work camp, it’s arduous backbreaking labor. The bosses know they hold all the cards, cheating workers by taking various deductions from their pay, all because illegals have no rights. Yet even in those rare relaxing moments of leisure, Rafael can’t escape loneliness and desperation, despite the presence of other men attempting to befriend him. Music once again becomes a cornerstone of the film as two fellow Mexican workers play their guitars, singing “Canción Mixteca,” a song chronicling the loneliness felt by those far from their homeland, lyrics that force Rafael to dwell on his choices and regrets. (The song was also used to great effect in the 1984 film Paris, Texas.) These are pure noir moments, perhaps without rain-soaked city streets at night and smoke-filled rooms, but dejection and despair have no borders. They can haunt you anywhere.
Things begin to look up when Rafael, seeking to hide from the suspicious American authorities, discovers a Mexican American cafe waitress named Mary Consuelo (Martha Valdés) who may be able to help him. Rafael makes what seems an impulsive decision at this point, one I won’t discuss here, which could either bring deliverance or death. It seems a foolish venture, but how many of us can really judge him, having (probably) never been in his shoes?
Espaldas Mojadas gives audiences a sense of Rafael’s helplessness and desperation, and although the details may be different, his plight will be familiar to anyone who’s watched even a handful of film noir titles. The film is also unbound from any Production Code restrictions, allowing for a situation that could never have taken place in an American film from this era: a scene in which a carload of prostitutes are delivered to the railroad work camp, a moment that underscores the built-up promise and the disappointing, hollow reality. It is a scene that’s jarring, tremendously sad, and totally noir.
Director Galindo has a terrific eye for visual storytelling, knowing exactly how the camera and his actors work together for maximum impact. Staging is an important aspect of the film, and Galindo understands the relationship between how a scene is populated and what that arrangement conveys, not only with respect to the major and supporting characters, but also the bigger scope of everyone present. This is played out in the large cantina scenes as well as the workers’ camp, and while the focus is always on Rafael, Galindo never lets us forget that Rafael’s is just one story in a much larger narrative.
VCI has released several films in its Classics of Mexican Cinema line including El Bruto (1953), The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960), Even the Wind is Afraid (1968), and others. Although the restoration quality varies with some of these releases, the Espaldas Mojadas restoration is mostly impressive with only a few cases of focus issues (which could be due to the original elements) and one area of blurriness near the end of the film. Although the extras are almost non-existent - two non-subtitled trailers and no booklet insert where one was promised on the VCI website - Espaldas Mojadas is a must-see, must-own film noir. If you check it out, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And please consider checking out some of the other films in VCI's Classics of Mexican Cinema collection.