“Tonight you are the luckiest audience in the world,” enthused Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller. “Because you get to see this film.” The film, 1953’s El Vampiro Negro, is an Argentinian remake of Fritz Lang’s M. And after that screening, a featured presentation in San Francisco’s venerable Noir City festival, I have to say that Muller was right. I feel very lucky indeed.
However, having seen El Vampiro Negro, it strikes me that simply calling it “a remake of Fritz Lang’s M” is a tad reductive. The premise of both films is the same: a city -- Berlin in the case of M, Buenos Aires in the case of El Vampiro Negro -- is held in a grip of terror by a serial child murderer who is elusive to the point of virtual invisibility, with tensions rising among the denizens of the city’s increasingly squeezed demimonde as a result. Yet Vampiro, directed by Roman Viñoly Barreto, shifts the perspective on this tale to the point that it could be considered a companion to the original as much as an update of it.
Where Lang’s film takes a panoptic view of the Berlin underworld as a body politic, its members teeming together to expel a monster from within their midst like so many scruffy antibodies, El Vampiro Negro takes a far more intimate and character driven approach. This approach provides us with a much more rounded view of the child murderer, who, thanks to the nuanced work of actor Nathán Pinsón and a screenplay that provides us with a little more context for his actions, ends up being portrayed with startling compassion, especially given that nothing is done to underplay the horror of his crimes. Granted, Pinsón takes his cues from the note of pathos struck by Peter Lorre in the original film’s climactic monologue, but the extent to which he expands upon that can’t be written off to pure emulation.
Barreto also diverges from Lang in providing his film with a lead female character, and a substantial one at that, contrasting sharply with the male dominated world of M, where the primary females are the Greek chorus of hookers and floozies who provide color along the edges. That character is Amalia, a down on her luck cabaret singer and single mother who turns out to be the only person to have caught a glimpse of the killer. Amalia is played by Olga Zubarry, a major star of Argentinian cinema whom Muller referred to as “Argentina’s Marilyn Monroe”; though to me she seemed like more of a ringer for Lana Turner. In any case, as a struggling parent shamed by her reduced standing -- and whose fragile state is exacerbated by the unwanted attentions of the authorities -- she circumvents her undeniable glamor to give a strong, heart rending performance that made me want to seek out more of her films at the soonest opportunity.
Its emphasis on drama and characterization makes El Vampiro Negro a much more conventional genre film than M. But as a genre film, it is not only outstanding, but also a thrilling exemplar of the noir style at its most expertly distilled. Cinematographer Anibal Gonzalez Paz gives the film’s nocturnal urban landscape a foreboding allure, the lonely streets bathed in heavy shadows against which the slashings of police searchlights stand out all the more startlingly. The faces of bit and featured players alike are captured in tense, claustrophobic close-ups, making palpable the sense of dread and pent up anxiety that the unseen killer’s mounting atrocities have inspired. Finally, when Zubbary’s Amaya confronts the killer, a lone spotlight suspends her face in the darkness with an almost unbearable intensity, as if she is an aggrieved angel emerging forcefully from the bleak night. It’s enough that, even without the fine performances of Pinsón and Zubbary, El Vampiro Negro could get by on mood alone.
Of course, as I sat there in the Castro Theater, I was excited, not only to be seeing El Vampiro Negro, but also to finally be seeing a product of Argentinian commercial cinema’s golden age, about which I had heard yet whose products I had yet to track down. That there are always “new” sources of exciting international pop cinema to be found, even at this late point in my career as a film obsessive, is a source of joy and amazement -- even if the passionate interest of a few cinephiles isn’t enough to open the floodgates. El Vampiro Negro is as technically accomplished as anything produced by Hollywood in it time, and, within its genre, boasts a rare artistry. If released on these shores, I’ve no doubt it could have found an audience. Yet it remains the product of a thriving industry that few outside its country’s borders knew existed. Except for us lucky few.