Killing Them Softly: The Executioner (1963)

January 17, 2017


Over the last few months I have been exploring the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga, an acerbic Spaniard who turned Franco-era fascist bureaucracy into grim comedy. In Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (1953) a poor town dresses up as a romantic Andalusian village to impress impending American visitors, while in Placido (1961) a group of moralizing middle-class businessmen use the homeless as props for a publicity blitz. The grimmest of Berlanga’s works I’ve watched so far, however, is The Executioner (1963) a squirm-inducing death penalty comedy in which murder is just another way to get ahead. Displaying the full range of Berlanga’s gift for caricature, deep-focus joke-building and disgust with the Franco regime, it’s a comedy in which the laughs die in your throat. All three of these works are now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

In short The Executioner is about an undertaker who marries an executioner’s daughter. The undertaker is José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi), who works that dead end job while living in a cramped apartment with his brother’s family. Every woman he meets scampers away when they learn about his job. When towing away the corpse of a killer he meets the executioner Amadeo (José Isbert), who, blessed by the state, kills his victims with a garrote. Nearing retirement, Amadeo lives with his daughter Carmen (Emma Penella), who cannot secure a man because they blanch when they hear about her father’s vocation. With no other options on the horizon, José and Carmen get married. But then comes the news that Amadeo’s fancy new state housing will be revoked after his retirement. It can only be secured if José takes on the job of executioner, only José is repulsed and terrified by the proposition. But with a baby on the way and intense familial pressure, José accepts the position anyway, in the hopes that he’ll never have to perform his assigned task. He even takes to breaking up arguments in the street in the hopes of lowering the city’s murder rate. But alas, he is finally called to perform his duty, and despite all his promises to resign, can no longer avoid his fate. It is just easier to get along in this life if you do what the government asks, even if they are asking you to take another’s life. 

Franco’s government recognized the incendiary nature of the film, which was made soon after he had executed three of his political opponents, Communist Party member Julián Grimau and anarchists Francisco Granados Mata and Joaquín Delgado Martínez.. The Spanish ambassador to Italy Alfredo Sanchez Bella, after  seeing it at the Venice Film Festival, wrote a letter to Franco disparaging it as, “one of the greatest libels ever made against Spain, an incredible political pamphlet, not only against the regime but against all society too.” It is rather remarkable that only fifteen minutes were cut by censors, and that it was still released into theaters at all in Spain. Perhaps it was allowed through due to that last phrase, “but against all society too.” Perhaps the censors missed the pointed attack on Franco due to the film’s overall nihilism, in which everyone has their reasons to tacitly endorse murder. Or maybe they just admired its craft.


Despite the brutality of the film’s subject, it can be a very funny movie. This is due to Berlanga’s ability to give every bit part a humorous detail or color, getting jokes out of everyone. There is a an old couple sitting in the background in the park listening to the radio. José and Carmen walk by, and start dancing to the tunes in the foreground. Incensed that José and Carmen are dancing to his music for “free”, he shuts the radio off and stalks away, snapping at them to get their own music. This is a remarkable act of stinginess, to be protective of the sound vibrations emanating inside a public park. How bitter and cantankerous this old duo must be! But they are just another passing character in Berlanga’s parade of short-tempered Spaniards. Another brilliant set piece occurs during José and Carmen’s wedding, a budget affair that uses the scraps from the bourgeois wedding that happened immediately before theirs. So the happy couple walks up a red carpet as it is being rolled up, kneel at an altar as the candles are being snuffed out by an altar boy, and shuffle towards the sole source of light until that, too, is eliminated, and their nuptials are sealed in the dark. It is a brilliant scene of visual gags that cruelly depicts the income inequality that will later force José into his act of violence. The ever-inventive cinematography was shot by the legendary Tonino Delli Colli, a previous collaborator of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [1966] and Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron, 1971).

José Isbert was a beloved character actor, his persona that of a befuddled rustic. To put him in the role of an executioner was already a provocation, and Isbert ported over his usual charms to the role, making Amadeo a charming figure despite the details of his job. Amadeo is relentlessly upbeat, vigorously nostalgic grandpa, even though what he is nostalgic for are the days when those on death row had more respect for his job. He keeps a framed photo of one of his victims on the wall, and unpacks his garotte equipment on the kitchen table, as if he were a handyman rather than a government sanctioned killer. He is, he claims, only doing a job that needs to get done. If it wasn’t him doing the garroting, it would be someone else. So he might as well take the paycheck. This is the attitude of everyone in the film, passing the buck of morality until there is no one left to pick it up. The final holdout is José, not out of bravery but cowardice. He insists that he will resign before executing the condemned man. But, the warden explains to him, with the way the bureaucracy worked it would take at least a week to find a different executioner, putting the condemned through even more mental torture. The shortest, easiest path through that bureaucratic red tape is to kill the man. Sure it would undermine José’s whole moral compass, but the warden has a prison to run, and Franco had his country to govern. Don’t ask questions, but do your job. What does it matter if you lose your soul along the way.

Potemkin Village Blues: Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (1952)

January 2, 2017

WELCOME MR. MARSHALL, ( aka BIENVENIDO MISTER MARSHALL), Lolita Sevilla, US poster art, 1953.

Last week I listed Luis Garcia Berlanga’s Placido (1961) as one of my film discoveries of 2016. A devilishly funny account of Christmastime sanctimony, it was the first film I had seen by Berlanga. Luckily, The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck is streaming four more of his films so I can get further acquainted with this acidic Spaniard. The earliest work on display is Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (aka Welcome Mr. Marshall!, 1952), Berlanga’s breakout feature, which lovingly satirizes a small Spanish town trying to lure Marshall Plan funds from the U.S. It won the second place International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but was famously denounced by jury member Edward G. Robinson as “anti-American.” The film is more anti-Catholic Church and Generalissimo Franco than anything else, however, as the Americans are phantoms wielded as symbols by the local government and clergy – described as both wealthy benefactors and agents of moral decay. What the film lampoons most spectacularly and thoroughly is Franco’s attempt to promote Spain in a single image: an Andalusian Spain that was all flamenco and bullfights. Before the Americans’ arrival, the town hides the drunks, throws up fake facades and wears Andalusian costumes to pretend they are a tourist paradise rather than a poor farming town. As in Placido, Berlanga uses thumbnail caricatures to populate his village, hilarious creations like the half-deaf mayor, a broke colonialist aristocrat and a rotund hustler/producer who turns their town into a Walt Disney-fied version of Spanishness.

Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! was the first film that Berlanga directed on his own. He had previously co-directed That Happy Couple with his writing partner Juan Antonio Bardem (Javier Bardem’s uncle), a bittersweet comedy about a newly married couple trying to make ends meet in Madrid. Bardem was a close friend from film school – they had both graduated from the Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experience (IIEC) in Madrid. Mr. Marshall was originally intended to be another collaboration, a musical folk comedy set to promote young flamenco singer Lolita Sevilla. But the plot kept shifting during development, the main inspirations being the rural dramas of Emilio Fernandez and Jacques Feyder’s Carnival in Flanders (similarly about a small town changing its colors to accept a rich foreign visitor). Then absurdist playwright Miguel Mihura was brought in to tweak the script, lending it its self-reflexive narration (it opens with an omniscient voice who introduces the villagers by telling the film to stop, zoom in, and move through the town – as if the screenwriter was on the mic). Bardem dropped out due to money disputes with the production company, and Berlanga was set to direct himself.

The film is set in Villar del Río, a poor farming town that is turned upside down when government officials arrive and tell them that U.S. representatives will be visiting on a tour to determine funding for the Marshall Plan. Instead of giving their children some American flags and their women some flowers to lay at the Americans’ feet, theatrical impresario Manolo (Manolo Morán) has a grander plan – turn their city into the Andalusian paradise that exists only in tourism board photos. So the town builds new facades to cover their dingy stone houses, orders bull-fighting costumes on credit, and changes their sleepy cul-de-sac into a romantic music-filled postcard of Franco’s Spain. The idea is enthusiastically embraced by the town’s creaky old mayor Don Pablo (José Isbert), who is desperate to give his town some shine. Isbert has a gravelly Tom Waits voice and uses a prop hearing device like a conductor’s baton. He’s forever crouching in closer to hear another insane suggestion from one of his constituents, making Don Pablo a sympathetic fool. He is the richest of a poor lot, but also sweet and gullible, trying his best and constantly failing to improve Villar del Río’s lot.

WELCOME MR. MARSHALL, (aka BIENVENIDO MISTER MARSHALL), Lolita Sevilla (center, flower in hair), 195

So when Manolo rolls into Villa del Rio with this flamenco chanteuse Carmen (Lolita Sevilla, her character cut down significantly from the original concept), it seems like a gift from the heavens. Here is a man who knows how to deal with Americans, or at least other rich people. So the whole town is drafted into a performance they’d prefer not to be involved in. But there are promises of massive donations from the Americans, so they don the insulting outfits with reluctant enthusiasm, and stand in line to tell Don Pablo the one object they’d like to receive from the USA’s largesse. They work day and night for their grand illusion, and the only moment in the film in which everything works as it should is during the rehearsal of the Americans’ arrival. It is a grand pageant of flamenco, Spanish folk music and wide-brimmed hats, a raucous celebration that the whole town rises up for, knowing that they were performing for an audience only of themselves.

That group high lasts into their dreams. For the night before the big U.S.A. day, there are three delirious dream sequences where the villagers live out their violent fantasies of American life. The priest Don Cosme (Luis Pérez de León) has been fearful of the arrival, preaching to his choir that Americans are spiritually delinquent heretics who will despoil their simple hard working town. His dream is a nightmare montage of U.S. culture: he is arrested by hooded KKK members, interrogated in a film noir police station under one bright swinging light and sentenced before a judge of the “Un-American Activities Committee” on an expressionist B&W set. He wakes up as he is about to be hung from a rope (it is probably this sequence that Edward G. Robinson objected to). Don Luis (Alberto Romea), the last of  a long line of aristocratic colonizers, is always complaining how Indians ate his ancestors, and clearly considers all Americans to be equally savage. His dream has him plant his flag on U.S. soil only to be put into a pot to be boiled. Before he is plated for dinner his cats wake him up. Don Pablo had just come out of a Western at the one-screen cinema, so his dream has him engaged in a chaotic shootout at an Old West saloon, dying in a showgirl’s arms.

Villar del Río wakes up the next morning and tries to meet their fantasies of the United States with what they believe the Americans’ fantasy of Spain is – that is, wide-brimmed hats, flamenco in the streets, wild displays of emotion. It is a collision of misunderstandings, if only the U.S. representatives would show up. The film ends in an anticlimax that brutally returns Villar del Río to reality. No longer a political plaything, the town sloughs off Franco’s projected image of Spain, its own visions of America, and gets back to the hard work of being itself.


December 27, 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

The below list is in alphabetical order


Any Which Way You Can (1980), directed by Buddy Van Horn

Raucously entertaining Clint Eastwood-orangutan buddy comedy in which a bare knuckle brawl tears down Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The sequel to Every Which Way But Loose (1978), this one shunts tough guy Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) into a mob-backed big money fight against infamous fighter Jack Wilson (William Smith). Most of the run time is spent on the road, as Eastwood pals around with his yokel brother Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) on a trip to Wyoming. Ruth Gordon is on hand as their combative battle ax mother, tougher than both her kids combined. The real star, of course, is Clyde the orangutan, an expressive primate who loves Philo and despises the cops who try to break up their fun. The chaos builds into a full-on brawling blowout that tears up the Jackson Hole countryside. All that plus a killer title song sung by Ray Charles and Clint himself.


Emperor of the North (1973), directed by Robert Aldrich

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.


Her Man (1930), directed by Tay Garnett

Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies,” while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees,” which you can read here.  The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation (I viewed the restoration at MoMA earlier this year). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett winds his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.


The Heroic Trio (1993), directed by Johnnie To

A deliriously entertaining Hong Kong superhero movie starring the unbeatable trio of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung. I went to see a battered but beautiful print at the Metrograph in NYC, and was whisked away by the elegant wirework fight scenes and breathless plot mechanics that mashes up kung fu/comic book/horror tropes. Anita Mui is Wonder Woman (no relation), intent on breaking the nefarious baby stealing underworld demon king known only as Evil Master. She is reluctantly joined by fast talking mercenary Chat (aka Thief Catcher – Maggie Cheung) and Ching (Michelle Yeoh), who has access to an invisibility robe (it’s a long story). The three actresses slice through the film with grace and aplomb, but Cheung is the acid-tongued standout – introduced flying over the police’s heads on a motorcycle, and then riding a dynamited barrel into a hostage situation. It’s a well-carpentered, ever surprising entertainment that I’d take over any of the Marvel movies thus far.


In Vanda’s Room (2001)

The second film in Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy, three remarkable features that depict the everyday life of a slum in Lisbon. Vanda Duarte, who portrayed one of the maids in Ossos, becomes the central character here, playing herself as she and her friends smoke heroin, play cards and gossip. The destruction and relocation of Fontainhas’ residents had already begun, so half the neighborhood is rubble. With the shift to digital Costa experiments in recording in very low light and extremely long takes. He is able to shape hieratic, exalted images with these limited means, turning Vanda and her friends into saints. Whether Vanda is snorting H, hacking up a cough or napping, the waver and hum of the blacks as they buffet her angelic face lend the images a religious intensity. Available to view on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.


Men Don’t Leave (1990)

Paul Brickman took seven years to make his follow-up to Risky Business, and Men Don’t Leave is a finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief. But it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.


My Little Loves (1974), directed by Jean Eustache

Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahierdu Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast.

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [1944]). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.


A Summer’s Tale (1996), directed by Eric Rohmer

Like all of Eric Rohmer’s summer vacation films, it is about hesitation and uncertainty, the holidays a transient borderland before the return to adulthood, when decisions have to be made. A Summer’s Tale involves a moody engineering student and hopeful musician named Gaspard who is romantically entangled with three women on the beach. He is entranced by the idea of love but is rather afraid of the physical reality, and masters the art of the indeterminate reply, a master of escape. One of Rohmer’s few male protagonists (the film often feels like a throwback to the masculine bull sessions of the Moral Tales), Gaspard is reported to be a highly autobiographical character who runs through a composite of events from the director’s life. Rohmer doesn’t look back with nostalgia, but with a lucid gimlet eye, his Gaspard one of high ideals and evasive, indecisive actions. A Summer’s Tale is streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Big World Pictures.


Too Late For Tears (1949), directed by Byron Haskin

After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s origin, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.


December 20, 2016

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

It is all set in motion by an elaborate publicity stunt engineered by Spanish kitchenware manufacturer Cocinex, who encourage their customers to “Sit a Poor Person at Your Dinner Table.” All the best houses must have a homeless guest of their own if they want to maintain their status. So all the winos in the area are gathered together for a parade in which they have to stand in the freezing cold. They share the parade cars with so-called “movie stars” from Madrid (to be auctioned off as dinner guests for charity) — but they are really bit players and showgirls.

Stuck in the middle of all this madness is Placido (Casto Sendra, aka “Cassen”), a member of the working poor whose family lives in a public lavatory. He makes what little wages he does with his motorized cart, which he is paying down in installments. The first payment is due Christmas Eve night, but he is working the parade – his cart turned into a makeshift float, a shooting star bursting out of its roof. Placido is trying to get paid, chase down the bill collector, and stave off repossession for a month. Cassen was a popular comedian of stage and small screen, and Berlanga plucked him for his first film role in Placido. He is the film’s stubborn interlocutor, a witness to the madness developing around him who just wants to pay his bill and go home. Cassen plays him with a thin patience, on the verge of snapping but holding himself together all the same. His face is still, but his short angry strides are expressive. He knows he will not receive charity, because he is not aesthetically poor, only materially so. He doesn’t have the alcoholic’s red nose, the torn cap, missing teeth. All he has are a family to feed and a dwindling means of support.

His employer is Gabino Quintanilla (José Luis López Vázquez), a neurasthenic parade organizer who is tasked with solving endless operational problems, from a missing beauty queen to dinner guest heart attacks. He is a curiously opaque character, for while his role is functionary, oiling the rails for Cocinex’s exploitative sideshow, Gabino does his best to get Placido his money. Though it is admittedly not #1 on his list of priorities. Those would be pleasing his own bosses, getting rid of his sinusitis and corralling his fiancée, who has developed a crush on one of the movie stars. Vázquez is a marvel, his performance orchestrating Gabino’s nervous tics into anxious art.

These two are surrounded by legions of caricatured types who pass through quickly but leave evocative traces: a blustery old actor with delusions of fame, a pompadoured radio host who lies with panache and a cadaverous notary who is at a loss of what to do with his drunken dinner guest wino who just wants to sing folk songs. As class lines are crossed the movie ratchets up the chaos – soon Placido’s bill collector chase becomes wrapped up in a deathbed wedding of questionable legality, leading to his festive parade cart being used as a hearse. In the end everyone is back where they started, with Placido having to scheme a day-to-day living, Gabino alone and likely to remain that way and the rest of the proper homes in town cleansed of the poor’s presence so the self-congratulation can begin. The film is a tour-de-force of inertia.

Placido was censored by Franco’s government, but the version that exists still stings, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. Berlanga was hard to place politically – he fought against Franco towards the end of the civil war, but in order to curry favor to save his father’s life, he volunteered for Franco’s División Azul, which went to fight in Russia on the side of the Germans. These experiences made him suspicious about everyone – he is something of a cynical realist. After Franco tried to suppress screenings of The Executioner (1963) he was reported to have said, “Berlanga is not a Communist, he is worse than a Communist, he is a bad Spaniard.” Placido shows the bad Spaniard at his most incorrigible, depicting his country as an amoral carnival where presentation trumps reality. As Berlanga described his work: “My films are about failure. They’re about individuals who see a chance to get out of the mess they’re in and set out to grab that chance, but they always fail, because it was an illusion anyway.”