Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Note: With the start of Noir City International yesterday, I plan to include as many of those films as possible in my Noirvember 2020 posts. If you haven’t signed up for the festival (purchasing individual tickets or a passport, allowing you to view all 19 films), please consider doing so. Today I’m reporting on the first film I saw from the virtual festival, a must-see noir from Argentina. Let’s take a look:
El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire, 1953)
Directed by Román Viñoly Barreto
Written by Alberto Etchebehere, Román Viñoly Barreto
Based on the film M (1931) by Theo von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Cinematography by Aníbal González Paz
Edited by Jorge Gárate, Higinio Vecchione
Music by Juan Ehlert
(1:30) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
With a title like The Black Vampire, you may think you’re venturing into horror territory, but rest assured, this movie is total film noir. Although patterned after the Fritz Lang masterwork M (1931), El Vampiro Negro isn’t content with rehashing a familiar story in a South American setting. The makers of this film have far more in mind.
One of the differences between this film and the 1931 original (as well as the 1951 remake, also titled M) is its focus. In this Argentine version, written by Alberto Etchebehere and director Román Viñoly Barreto, more attention is given to the female characters, which gives this iteration of the story a fresh and unique take on the tale of a child killer.
While the opening credits roll, we see a man laboriously climbing an enormous set of stairs leading up to what looks like an official government building, perhaps a courthouse or other judicial structure. It’s nighttime, and the knife-like beams of light cutting through the shadows prepare us for a showcase of brilliant cinematography by Aníbal González Paz. Nightmare images follow, including extreme close-ups of faces demanding, “What did you see?” as well as a frenzy of street activity, finally leading us inside a nightclub where a singer named Amalia, also known as Rita (Olga Zubarry), has just finished a set and goes backstage to change.
Through an upper street-level window, Amalia watches in horror as a man strangles a child and carries the body away, tossing it into a Buenos Ares sewer. Amalia’s screams stop everyone in their tracks (except the killer, who flees), but it also lets us know what kind of place this nightclub really is, as one dancer responds, “I like it rough, but I don’t scream.” El Vampiro Negro is filled with moments like this that show us that, regardless of how places (and in some cases, people) are presented, there’s something dark going on underneath.
Singing, dancing, and drinking aren't the only activities available at this particular nightclub, and everyone here and in the city itself has something to hide.
Investigating the recent string of child murders is the local prosecutor (whom we would call the district attorney), Dr. Bernar (Roberto Escalada), who interrogates Amalia about the incident. The singer is clearly frightened, hiding something from him, but Bernar feels a sense of urgency, fearing the killer will strike again. He’s reluctant to let Amalia - his only eyewitness - off the hook so easily. Yet Bernar also has something to hide.
Finally we meet Teodoro Ulber (Nathán Pinzón), also known as “the professor,” a nervous, timid man who teaches English to female students from his apartment. (We know early on that Ulber is the killer, so this isn’t really a spoiler.) A woman named Cora (Nelly Panizza) both befriends and belittles Ulber in equal measure, yet seems to act as something of a protector of the odd little man (who bears a more than slight resemblance to Peter Lorre). We aren’t initially sure whether Cora knows about Ulber and is protecting him, or is oblivious to his deeds.
But we are aware that Cora knows the secret of her friend Amalia, whose daughter attends a local private school. If Amalia tells the police what she knows about the killer, the newspapers (and the administration at her daughter’s school) will know Amalia works at a nightclub (and for all practical purposes, a brothel), information she doesn’t want disclosed.
If all of this sounds convoluted, it’s not. Credit the writers and director for weaving this story together like a fine tapestry, connecting the characters’ lives and secrets in a way that is not only interesting, but visually engrossing. Yet what makes the film fascinating is the interplay between characters with something to hide and the killer himself. In one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Amalia visits the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Bernar (Gloria Castilla), just after her husband has made a pass at Amalia. “No one comes to me with pure intentions,” says Amalia, and we wonder just how much she’s going to disclose to the prosecutor’s wife. We can also examine how Ulber certainly does not come to children with pure intentions, but rather evil. Yet we see painful cries of regret after each murder he commits, uncertain if any of the other characters ever express such sorrow over their own (albeit lesser) demons.
El Vampiro Negro borrows liberally from Lang’s M in several ways, one of which is the use of a blind character who remembers a whistled tune (Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”) from the passerby Ulber. This is handled well, but the wonderful score by Juan Ehlert helps heighten scenes of unsettling anxiety. As a little girl grows frustrated with the slowness of an apartment building elevator, Ehlert brilliantly creates an interplay between the girl’s simple whistling of the tune as she ascends the stairs with variations of intensity and menace as she gets closer and closer to the killer above. This is expert movie scoring and provides one of the most nail-biting moments of the film.
Unlike the other versions of M, El Vampiro Negro is not content to keep its female characters in the background. Instead, we see these criminal acts from their point of view, something rarely seen in crime films. All of the actresses in this film are excellent, especially Olga Zubarry, a stunning actress whom you will want to see in more features. I’ve only seen her in one other film, El ángel desnudo (The Naked Angel, 1946) and can highly recommend it.
Even if you were to watch El Vampiro Negro without subtitles, you’d be astounded by the film’s visual construction and presentation. (But you do have the subtitles with the Noir City International presentation, so take full advantage of the total package!) El Vampiro Negro is a tremendous picture that will not disappoint noir fans, and I urge you to see it. If you purchase a virtual ticket to watch it at Noir City International, you’ll also enjoy an introduction by Eddie Muller, and a special treat after the film: a fascinating conversation with Muller and Fernando Martín Peña, who originally brought the film to Muller’s attention. Do not miss this film!
Photos: Film Noir Foundation, MoMA, INCAA TV