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I saw a stunning movie last night. El Vampiro Negro, an Argintinian film whose title translates as The Black Vampire, is a remake of Fritz Lang's legendary M, starring Peter Lorre as a child killer. But this is no shot-for-shot remake. The acting is astonishing on all fronts, and the plot is tight and fraught with dread. And the look! Although the movie was released in 1953 (and almost never seen in the U.S.A.), a bit past the classic noir era, there's a distinct look of those gritty dramas afoot.
Teodoro Ulber (Nathan Pinzon), known as The Professor, is on trial for murder as the movie begins. After his attorney asks for confinement to a mental institution and the prosecution asks for the death penalty, a flashback reveals how Ulber made it to this point. Outside a dance hall, a short, portly figure drags the body of a little girl from a worn sack and throws it down a sewage shaft. The next day, a homeless man, deep within the sewer tunnels of the city, comes across the body. He alerts the police, who (of course) toss him in jail as a possible suspect, and the manhunt is on.
But Ulber's actions didn't go unseen. Through window in the basement of the dance hall, a young performer named Amalia (Olga Zubarry) spies the wretched little man. But she keeps quiet, at the behest of the club's unscrupulous owner. The owner fears he'd come under too-close scrutiny, and Amalia fears that she'll receive unwanted publicity for, although she's a dancer of ill repute (!), she does have a sweet young daughter whom she's been able to send to a private school, at her own great sacrifice.
What's more, one of Amalia's coworkers, Cora (Nelly Panizza) is actually acquaintances with Ulber, who awkwardly pitches woo at Cora. Without realizing that Ulber is indeed the Black Vampire, Cora and Amalia aid in his escape from the police (led by prosecutor Bernar, played by Roberto Escalada), which only opens up the possibility of more children being murdered.
This is by no means a gory film. In fact, there's almost no blood at all (and none anywhere near a child). But the harsh camera of Anibal Gonzalez Paz tells a story all on its own: the desperate vulnerability of Ulber, the jaded countenance of Bernar, the shadowy streets and tunnels and back alleys of the city. Gonzalez Paz artfully direct the viewer's attention not to what is present but to what may be coming just around the bend.
The movie premiered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October 1953 but didn't make it over to the States until January 2014. 61 years! 61 years before this masterful work by Roman Vinoly Barreto could be seen (with subtitles) over here, and more's the pity. El Vampiro Negro is a tremendous accomplishment that's not to be missed.
Huge thanks to the Film Noir Foundation and to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland for making this screening possible!
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