Tuesday, December 6, 2016

El Asesino Enmascarado (Mexico, 1962)

Miguel Aceves Mejia began his career as a singer of renowned versatility and grace, earning from his fans the moniker “King of the Falsetto”. In the late 50s, he moved into film, making over 60 films in the ensuing years, many of them westerns. Among these was a series of three films he made for Sotomayor, in which he played the singing lawman Sheriff Miguel. El Asesino Enmascarado was the second of these films, following closely after El Rey de la Pistola and immediately preceding Camino de la Horca, both of which were made during the same year.

El Asesino Enmascarado begins on a jaunty note, with Miguel belting out a robust Ranchero number as he rides his way homeward across the range. This introduction, combined with the fact that Mejia is joined in the cast by a pair of popular songbirds of the day, might lead you to the think that the movie will be a musical, although, aside from a scattering of diegetic songs during the first act, that is not the case.

One of those aforementioned songbirds is Lilia Prado, a beloved singer, dancer, and actor who appeared in over 100 films over the course of her career, including Luis Bunuel’s Wuthering Heights and Illusion Travels by Streetcar. Here she plays Lola, a saloon singer who appears to be intended as Miguel’s love interest. As such, she is none too pleased when a mysterious female card sharp named Luz arrives in town and strikes up a flirtatious rapport with Miguel. Luz is played by Ana Bertha Lepe, another beloved Mexican entertainer who also played one of the man crazy Venusian ladies in La Nave de los Monstruous. Lepe sings a lot in her movies (the lucha also-ran El Asesino Invisible, in which she played herself, was little more than a showcase for her talents), so it’s a little surprising that she doesn’t sing here. She does, however, prove herself handy with a whip in one of the film’s early fight scenes.

Luz spends her days emptying the townsfolks’ pockets at the poker table and attracting unwholesome stares from her fellow bar patrons. When she is not doing this, she shares an upstairs room in the saloon with a mysterious, black garbed man whose face we never see (though, if we did, we’d know that he was played by Joaquin Cordero.) Could he be the masked killer who has suddenly started picking off townspeople left and right? Probably, but we must first wait for Sheriff Miguel and his partner Ramon (Luis Aragon) to do a lot of nocturnal snooping and fist fighting before we can find out for sure.

El Asesino Enmascarado is exactly the kind of cheap and efficient B film that the Mexican film industry reliably churned out in great numbers during the 50s and 60s. In a lot of ways, it feels like a TV western, with most of the action confined to either the saloon set or a limited number of outdoor locations. Director Manuel Munoz and cinematographer Fernando Colin compensate for this by setting a lot of the film’s action at night and utilizing a noirish play of light and shadow in their compositions. Munoz also keeps things commendably fast paced, cramming a lot of plot and—often surprisingly violent--action into a brisk 90 minutes.

To be honest, El Asesino Enmascarado is not a film I would have sought out if not for the fact that it was the second film on a double feature disc that also contains El Charro de las Calaveras, a supernatural western in which a woman carries around what appears to be the head of “Black and White” era Michael Jackson in a box. That’s some pretty formidable company for a film as straightforward and inoffensive as El Asesino Enmascarado. Though I would recommend it to any Spanish speaking fan of B grade westerns, who I think would find it pretty satisfying—especially if enjoyed con muchas cervezas.