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Confronted with the unfortunate news that their favorite Streetcar, no. 133, is going to be decommissioned, two Municipal Transit workers get drunk and decide to "take 'er for one last spin," as it were. Unfortunately, the "one last spin" ends up being an all-night and all-day scramble to stay out of trouble, as they are confronted with situation after sometimes bizarre situation that prevents them from returning the "borrowed" Streetcar!Written by
Mark Toscano <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Illusion Travels By Streetcar (Luis Bunuel, 1954) **1/2
On first viewing – again, as part of that 2007 Bunuel/NFT retrospective – I had found this to be an enjoyable but rather insubstantial comedy; on this revisit, my opinion has not changed about this minor work from the celebrated Spanish director. Indeed, I was surprised to learn (from the opening credits) that Bunuel was not even involved in the screen writing process of this one – although, I do not think it is a coincidence that the film's comic highlight is a wonderful "Garden of Eden" pageant sequence early on (in which the three protagonists playing God, Adam and a swim-suited Eve, are tormented by a heavily-horned Lucifer wearing a shirt sporting the word "serpent"!).
The film is fairly similar to Bunuel's earlier (and superior) Mexican 'road movie' ASCENT TO HEAVEN aka Mexican BUS RIDE (1952) in that it is set, for the most part, on a means of public transportation. Besides, its plot line of an ancient vehicle being taken for one last ride before ending up in a scrapheap also harks back to such classic comedies as Harold Lloyd's SPEEDY (1928) and Ealing's practically contemporaneous THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT (1953). Incidentally, Bunuel's cinematic idol Fritz Lang, made his own railroad movie that same year: the noir-ish melodrama HUMAN DESIRE (which I own but have yet to watch) – itself a remake of Jean Renoir's LA BETE HUMAINE (1938).
As usual with Bunuel's films from this period, it starts with a faux-documentary narration and, in this case, amusingly concludes on a "this was just one of a thousand stories" line a' la Jules Dassin's seminal noir THE NAKED CITY (1948). The director's depiction of the downtrodden Mexican villagers' everyday life (culminating in a riot when the smuggling of corn as fertilizer is accidentally discovered by one of the bumbling protagonists) brought on comparisons with Italy's then-current Neo-realist movement – something which Bunuel readily denied. Indeed, while the story could well have been inspired by a similarly liberating ride through the streets of Paris made by the Surrealist movement in 1931, the truth is that the film was commissioned by a nascent Mexican public transport company to counter the bad press caused by an accident they had had the previous year!
Two regular actors from Bunuel's work in Mexico – the lovely Lilia Prado and the amiably rotund Fernando "Mantequilla" Soto (as a streetcar conductor named Tarrajas) – also appear here, alongside Carlos Navarro (as Prado's streetcar mechanic boyfriend) and Agustín Isunza (as Papa Pinillos, a nosy ex-railroad employee). The perennially frustrated attempts of the two company employees to take back the streetcar they stole before its absence is discovered is paralleled by Papa Pinillos' constantly dismissed claims of this very theft to his pompous former employers.
Among the commuters who inadvertently get to make use of the runaway streetcar (the film's alternate title) are: a schoolmistress with her classroom of unruly children who are, eventually, stranded on a film set (an orphan in their midst is told that the long-legged starlet being made-up is his long-lost mother!); two elderly ladies carrying a statue of Jesus Christ in "Ecce Homo" guise; a couple of 'penniless' politicians; a clueless American tourist who mistakes the protagonists' reluctance to accept fare – which would have aggravated their misdemeanor – as "Communist" behavior (possibly, former party member Bunuel's barbed comment on the "Red Scare" then currently scourging through Hollywood); and, most memorably, slaughterhouse workers carrying their slabs of meat along as 'luggage'! I cannot forget to mention that, very early on in the film, there is also a throwaway laugh-out-loud moment when a billboard reads: "Well so what?"
P.S. Surprisingly enough, the film played without a glitch on my Philips DVD player which, usually, has a lot of trouble dealing with DivX files!
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