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Victims of Sin – Víctimas del pecado

by Glenn Erickson Jun 25, 2024

Mexican showbiz from the wrong side of the tracks: it’s big, it’s vulgar, it’s overcooked: but it’s highly effective cinema with sensational authentic music, terrific images and a vivacious star to promote. Cuban fireball Ninón Sevilla dances up a storm for her star vehicle, reportedly insisting on Mexico’s best behind the camera: director Emilio Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. But get ready for some wrenching melodramatic absurdities, from a different cultural tradition.


Victims of Sin
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1222
1951 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 84 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date June 18, 2024 / 39.95
Starring: Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Rodolfo Acosta, Rita Montaner, Ismael Pérez, Margarita Ceballos, Arturo Soto Rangel, Francisco Reiguera.
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Production Designer: Manuel Fontanals
Film Editor: Gloria Schoemann
Score and Music Direction by: Antonio Díaz Conde
Musical Performances by: Ninón Sevilla, Rita Montaner, Pedro Vargas, Pérez Prado y su conjunto
Choreography: Ninón Sevilla, Jorge Harrison
Script by Emilio Fernández, Mauricio Magdaleno
Produced by Guillermo Calderón, Pedro Calderón
Directed by
Emilio Fernández

Getting one’s head around Mexican cinema can be like having cold water thrown in your face — everything can seem too overdone, too ‘big.’ The dramatics come with an overwhelming wave of kitsch, either sentimental or trashy. Emilio Fernández’s Victims of Sin (Víctimas del pecado) certainly makes that kind of an impact, much of it positive.

The Mexican industry has its high-toned prestige ‘national’ classics, and most of them are ultra-sentimental. Impossibly virtuous women suffer through civil wars and/or abusive spouses, ending up as gray-haired ladies teaching their impossibly pure sons what a great guy daddy was (the rat). When extolling the virtues of indigenous people, Mexican art films had no shame. Dolores Del Río and Pedro Armendáriz graced primitive landscapes with their soulful, reverent faces, as if posing for portraits of saints.

Popular Mexican cinema always had to play to the cheap seats. When the pendulum swung low, things could get plenty vulgar. Studios cloned from the Hollywood system (RKO and Universal, especially) pushed genres to delirious, sometimes trashy extremes. Horror-art films had not clicked in the early sound era, but the 1950s they rebounded with increasingly graphic variations on American models.

This nightclub crime / romance / tough girl epic can’t be accused of anything subtle. The story revolves around shady nightclubs, as in the American noir model, but with fewer restraints. Both Japanese and Mexican thrillers were open about prostitution. The love / hate / jealousy / retribution cycle in Victims of Sin is as simple to follow as a Popeye cartoon, with a villain that makes Bluto look reasonable. Everything is pushed to the limit in this Estudios Calderón production — female exploitation, mother love, dastardly villainy. We’re told that, even with a top director calling the shots, star Ninón Sevilla had a lot of power. A Calderón family historian confirms that Ms. Sevilla powered her way to stardom, and fought tooth and nail to make a quality product.

 

This is not the Mexico City of international tourism.

The Club Changoo is a center for crime and vice, all instigated by its macho-bull proprietor Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta), who has his way with most of the taxi dancers / call girls. Rodolfo pulls off armed robberies on the side, like an assault on a movie theater that leaves a cashier shot dead. The forlorn Rosa (Margarita Ceballos) is one of his innumerable conquests. When she shows up with a baby, Rodolfo goes ballistic, making such a fuss that the traumatized new mother throws her baby away in a trash can.

The other girls protest, but star dancer Violeta (Ninón Sevilla) is the one to rescue the baby and unofficially adopt it. Violta takes the infant to a government Family Planning Clinic to learn how to care for it. Rodolfo objects to this as well, and after a beating Violeta leaves him. She takes up an offer of hospitality from Santiago (Tito Junco), the more humane boss of a nightclub out by the railroad tracks, La Máquina Loca. Santiago’s working-class clientele has a sense of earthy decency lacking at the Changoo; the fantasy is that Violeta can be a bargirl-companion but retain her self-respect. Violent events send Rudolfo to prison for six years. When Santiago’s dancer quits, Violeta brings her style of dancing to his club, and is a big hit.

 

Violeta and Santiago raise the baby, Juanito (Ismael Pérez) and seem happy — until Rodolfo emerges from prison in search of the woman Who Done Him Wrong. His cold-hearted revenge leads to a duel of macho he-bulls down by the railroad tracks — and an even darker ordeal for Violeta.

Víctimas del pecado ushers us into a strange world of Mexican filmmaking. The nightclubs are smoky and loud, and the music appears to be imported from the Caribbean, just like the star dancer Ms. Sevilla. The backstage action is all yelling from Rodolfo’s put-upon club manager (Francisco Reiguera) and squawking females. Obvious streetwalkers congregate just outside Club Changoo’s doors; Rodolfo even mimes a ‘come hither’ walk for one who looks tired and unmotivated.

 

The two club owners are Big men. Rodolfo wears something akin to a Zoot Suit, filling out broad shoulders that make him look like a walking refrigerator, or a proto- David Byrne. Rodolfo bullies and abuses the tearful Rosa right in front of the customers. He demands that she get rid of the baby Juanito because ‘it insults his image.’ When Rosa puts the kid in a trash receptacle, Víctimas becomes a back-alley version of  Way Down East. Rodolfo is an unredeemable SOB.

An unintended weird detail?:  Violeta rescues baby Juanito just before the trash men arrive. The two city workers don’t have any particular reaction, which is kind of chilling — “Oh well, just two babies in the landfill tonight, not three.”

Star Tito Junco’s Santiago is just as big and almost as stand-offish, but he’s also a man to be admired. When he strolls through the neighborhood, he’s followed by his own Mariachis playing music. The contrast between ugly events and folk fantasy can be very jarring. As reasonable as Santiago might seem, he’s equally a slave to the BS macho system — when called out to fight, he dutifully walks into a deadly situation. Oh yes, we forgot — all real men carry guns.

(It’s worth noting that all of this macho he-man baggage applied to director Emilio Fernández as well — known as ‘El Indio.’ His personal history had its share of violence, much of it enlarged to legendary proportions.)

 

The final third of the story goes all in with overblown melodramatic sentiment. Violeta is sent to prison, but the two wardens male and female get together to win her a parole, just on the basis of rumors floating around the cell block. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Juanito becomes a caricature of selflessness. The little gem of a son lives in the gutters and works two menial jobs to bring Violeta flowers on visitors’ day.

None of this qualifies as sophisticated cinema, but Víctimas del pecado held its target audience in sway. It wasn’t created to elevate the artistic status of Mexican filmmaking, but to entertain a local populace in need of emotionally stimulating entertainmen. In extremes of Mexican melodrama characters are thinly sketched, broadly acted types that carry the weight of lifetimes of suffering.

The ‘dramatization’ is skewed to extremes. Showing a woman throwing her baby away is shocking, especially in a movie with a partly glamorous, unrealistic framework. These Mexican makers of violent soap operas simply knew their audience, much of which in 1950 was near-illiterate. They wanted music, dancing, and glamorous romance, not an accurate depiction of urban squalor — Buñuel’s Los olvidados would not spawn a sub-genre of Zola-like horror stories.  Thus we get the Family Planning Clinic, where Violeta learns more about the baby doll she’s adopted. The presence of a real baby has an effect — an infant that never seems to cry is used in scenes of people screaming at each other. Ninón Sevilla is shown shaking it so hard, we’d think mothers in the audience would shout for her to stop.

 

And then there’s the music and dancing.

Víctimas del pecado also delivers what Ninón Sevilla fans are after — that hot rumba dancing from Havana. The music and dancing are authentic, as opposed to the Hollywoodized interpretations of Latin trends adapted for U.S. consumption. One of the bands backing up Sevilla is the conjunto of the famous Pérez Prado, not quite yet into his eccentric international hit phase. In fact, neither he nor featured singer Pedro Vargas are given too much special attention — this may have been before Prado’s breakout success.

A more ‘mature’ female performer is the name singer Rita Montaner, who receives billing just below the leads. An all-around singer, Montaner’s main solo offering here is a near-lewd novelty song, with lyrics guiding her lover’s actions in bed. The randy delivery reminds us of Fats Waller, who in his  Hollywood movies could make any lyric sound dirty by the way he waggled his eyebrows.

Ninón Sevilla is not a raving beauty but definitely a wild personality, a blonde with a huge smile. Her rumbas are highly energetic; her vocals emphatic. It’s more exciting than graceful, with lots of gyrating and few if any motions that seem suggestive. Editrix Gloria Schoemann  (Macario) cuts smoothly between three cameras, and the dance action stays energetic. One of the disc extras implies that the dances were filmed long because the Mexican censors would shorten them, but we see no obvious pruning or jump cuts. Joining Ms. Sevilla for one hot number is a black dancer — identified by essayist Jacqueline Avila as Chimi Monterrey.

Essayist Jacqueline Avila identifies ‘Changoo’ with ‘Changó’ a god of West African Santeria Orisha. The first dance and song number with Sevilla and Montener immediately strikes us as being very Voodoo-like. Seeing and hearing the Cuban-influenced music without the Hollywood influence is very interesting.

We’ve already described Rodolfo Acosta’s standard suit as resembling a Zoot Suit, a comparison that’s confirmed when he takes to the dance floor, to perform what are clearly black-influenced swing dance steps. We have to remember that all this Cuban music is heavily African-influenced, and that the original Zoot Suiters were Mexican. Whatever the original source, it’s more than a little bizarre to see the very big macho man Acosta suddenly let it rip on the club floor like an exhibition dancer from  Cabin in the Sky.

And then Rodolfo turns around and orders a woman to murder an infant, his own son. Sure enough, six years later the creep is trying to force his son to help him pull off armed robberies. That’s Rodolfo for you. The guy really needs a neon sign on his chest, flashing ‘evil bastard ripe for killing.’

Victims of Sin left us with our heads spinning. For music and dancing it scores 100%. Whether or not the rest of its lunacy appeals depends on personal factors. Horror fans accustomed to  The Brainiac and Aztec mummy movies may experience positive & agreeable culture shock thrills.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Victims of Sin is a new 4K digital restoration. The film looks pristine, perfectly-preserved, hiding whatever digital effort was made at restoration. Gabriel Figueroa’s lighting adjusts well to the smoky cabaret interiors and finds arresting compositions on real streets and on the film’s sets. The exterior of the Club Changoo is a studio creation, while La Máquina Loca is a practical location not 30 feet from a busy railroad yard, with black smoke billowing everywhere.

We hear about possible Mexican censorship performed on Victims of Sin, but that doesn’t explain two major discontinuities in the film. Singing star Pedro Vargas sings in the Changoo club — with a big sling on one arm. Is there no explanation for the sling?  Much more alarming is a big scar on Violeta’s left cheek that appears out of the blue, after the montage of birthdays that brings her adopted son to six years of age. It was definitely not there before. Is there a missing scene to explain the scar, or were events in the movie rearranged?

Filmmaker/archivist Viviana Garcí Besné carries the torch for the memory of the influential Calderón movie empire, that lasted almost a hundred years. She gives a spirited talk about Ninón Sevilla, depicting the star as a take-charge woman dedicated to building her career. In phone calls late in the star’s life, Besné talked extensively with Sevilla about the personalities and politics of her fame.

Also present is an older Spanish-language TV show, ‘Those Who Made Our Cinema,’ about the film’s genre roots. Essayist Jacqueline Avila of the University of Texas provides a useful foldout insert essay, dispensing a wealth of context for this pop-cinema musical thriller, that she identifies as an offshoot of the Mexican ‘prostitute’/’fallen women’ subgenre. This period of Mexican culture is described as ‘a time of rapid modernization, corruption, and changing gender norms.’ For the sex worker / rumbera, it’s all a battle against the patriarchy. Violeta’s talent, says Avila, gives her power and agency — she’s not the utterly helpless victim of earlier fallen women movies. The men in this movie perform violent macho rituals, but it is Violeta who breaks the rules, leaping through a window with her gun blazing, to save her son.

Avila describes Sevilla’s dance with Chimi Monterrey, as a guaguancó, noting that the gender roles are reversed. It’s Sevilla performing the more sexually aggressive moves. This exotic movie raises 1,000 questions, but the extras do have some of the answers.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Victims of Sin
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good; Very Unusual
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Interview with filmmaker and archivist Viviana Garcí Besné
Interview with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto on the work of Gabriel Figueroa
Archival documentary on cine de rumberas, featuring interviews with actor Ninón Sevilla
Trailer
Foldout insert with an essay by scholar Jacqueline Avila
Cover art by Lauren Tamaki.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 23, 2024
(7149peca)
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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Fred Blosser

Rodolfo Acosta! Forever in the Western Fans’ Hall of Fame as the Apache who kills HONDO’s dob.

Fred Blosser

Eh, dog, not dob! Duh!

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