Lionsgate’s new two-disc set of Luis Buñuel’s Gran Casino (1946) and The Young One (1960) provide excellent prints and academic audio commentaries. But there was a glitch in the labeling—the Gran Casino DVD plays The Young One and vice versa—and after momentarily panicking before realizing the error, I felt the gleeful spirit of Don Luis (who died in 1983) winking at me from the Great Beyond.
A Marxist by way of Karl and Harpo, it’s that brand of dry and impudent humor that made Buñuel unique. Simultaneously political, fantastic, religious, atheistic (yet steeped in Catholicism), serenely blending the blackest comedy with satiric tragedy, his pictures are ever-so slowly making their way to DVD. Whether modern viewers conditioned by the media away from such Buñuellian concerns as humility, shame, propriety and class consciousness can comprehend the dynamics and humor of the work remains to be seen.
Gran Casino has been dismissed (unfairly, to these eyes) as a hack musical adventure he took for hire, while The Young One is often singled out for its gutsy look at pedophilia and racism. In making these and other pictures in Mexico before his big splash in Europe in the 1960s, Buñuel explored deeper values than the scripts initially called for or warranted.
He acknowledged a viewer’s needs without placating them through bogus sentiment. “The essential thing about a script is, in the last analysis, suspense,” he wrote in his autobiography, My Last Sigh (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), “the talent for developing a plot so effectively that the spectator’s mind doesn’t wander for even a moment. You can argue forever about the content of a film, its aesthetic, its style, even its moral posture; but the crucial imperative is to avoid boredom at all costs.”
Gran Casino was his first effort following a fourteen year hiatus from the director’s chair. A charter member of France’s surrealist movement, Buñuel and Salvador Dali made a scandalous screen debut with Un Chien andalou (1928), soon followed by Buñuel’s L’age d’or (1930). Although decreed as blasphemous and obscene, they nonetheless got Buñuel offers from MGM and Warner Brothers. After the controversial documentary Las Hurdes (1932), his career was derailed by a series of circumstances—Civil War in his native Spain, for starters. He worked in production at Spain’s Filmófono Studios, edited anti-Nazi films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and supervised the Spanish dubbing of American pictures at Warners in Hollywood.
Filmed on a shoestring in less than two weeks, Gran Casino was released without fanfare to screens in Mexico and perhaps a handful of Spanish-language cinemas in America and Europe. (A reflection of a time not yet in tune with directors’ oeuvres or film culture, it wasn’t until 1950 and the critical reaction to Los Olvidados that Buñuel was belatedly welcomed back at Cannes.) Such anonymity enhances its scant subversive undertones, such as a romantic scene when the camera pans away from the kiss to a hand gently gliding a twig through sludge. Without calling attention to the shot, Buñuel’s boredom is made clear. Denying the anticipated action may imply hidden meaning, sending some hapless Freudians on a wild goose chase, but it’s simply a case of resourcefulness yawning over convention. Likewise, the lack of remorse for the story’s murder victims underlines a disdain for sentiment which followed Buñuel to his grave.
The throwaway plot has to do with a small oil company, the disappearance of its owner and his sister’s subsequent search, and a corrupt magnate’s move to shut down the competitive plant. (One of his henchman is Alfonso Bedoya, the ‘stinking badges’ bandito of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) At the time of release, the main attraction were stars Libertad Lamarque and Jorge Negrete, two popular Latin American singers. The director was obligated to film their musical interludes (grudgingly, one assumes), but an amusing recurring gag has Negrete crooning with a trio of singing charros who materialize on cue out of nowhere.
The cinematographer of Gran Casino was Jack Draper, an American who commuted between Hollywood and Mexico for thirty-five years. Remembered as “bad-tempered and vulgar” by the director in the interview book, Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1992), Draper was fond of 180-degree, reverse-angle shots against Buñuel’s better judgment. Still, there’s a technical expertise about Gran Casino not generally associated with Mexican cinema of the period. Unobtrusive tracking shots, close-ups and zooms, trademarks in later Buñuel, are used sparingly and effectively. For an extended musical number, Draper stays on Mercedes Barba dancing her way through a packed nightclub in one long, unedited take.
Set on an island game preserve off the coast of South Carolina, The Young One was actually filmed in Mexico near the end of Buñuel’s career there. (His cinematographer was Gabriel Figueroa, arguably Mexico’s finest, who worked with Buñuel on six other pictures.) After directing seventeen pictures in the fourteen years following Gran Casino, The Young One displays the considerable advances he’d made both technically and with pet themes. Observations on social class, culture, religion and intolerance—critiqued in Un Chien andalou and L’age d’or—were now skillfully blended into the narrative, laced with the cynic’s unforgiving irony.
Several modifications were made by the director and screenwriter Hugo Butler to their source material, Peter Matthiessen’s Travelin’ Man. Free of dialog until its climax, his short story has only two characters, a black convict (named Traver) and a white poacher (Miller), embroiled in a heated game of cat and mouse on a small island. While his indictment of racism is clear, the author’s use of silence and organic sounds, survival tactics and natural barbarism emphasize the compassion and desperation at war within the two men. (It may have indirectly inspired John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific.)
In an article in Zoetrope All-Story, Matthiessen recalls when he first met the filmmaker to discuss his intentions for the material: “Buñuel loved this stark idea, and we were all in complete accord about shooting the story straight.” Perhaps initially swayed by the director’s lucid adaptation of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (also co-written with Butler; 1954), Matthiessen was disappointed with the finished version of The Young One, but blamed Buñuel’s backers for insisting that he add a Baby Doll-like love interest, a second white bigot and a clergyman. Placed in the context of the surrealist’s oeuvre, however, these appear as deliberately selected constituents used to deflect convention. There are priests and social caricatures wandering through nearly all his films, and the Buñuelian ‘tragedy’ of an older man lusting after a much younger woman recurs in Viridiana (1961), Tristana (1970) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Quite cannily, he comprehends racism as a bourgeois conceit, not an inherent social disorder, transcending all religious, social and economic boundaries.
Above: Evvy admires Traver’s ‘licorice stick.’
Below: wary of sleeping in a bed used by a black man,
the reverend asks Evvy to flip the mattress over.
The second of two films Buñuel made in English (after Robinson Crusoe), The Young One stars Zachary Scott as Miller; Bernie Hamilton as Traver; Key Meersman as the backwater girl, Evvy; Crahan Denton as Miller’s Klan-ish buddy; and Claudio Brook (Simon in Simon of the Desert) as the visiting reverend. A Hollywood veteran remembered for Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and as the oily husband in Mildred Pierce (both 1945), Scott is suitably distracted working through Miller’s foibles: anger, fear, a longing for simplicity, and his growing attraction to Evvy.
With her full lips, narrow eyes and gangly body, Meersman is reminiscent of a young Liv Tyler. Inexperienced and in front of the camera for the first-time, the girl was “a nightmare” for Buñuel to direct—she made only one other film, Damiano Damiani’s Arturo’s Island (1962)—but her thumping inelegance works to the advantage of the character. Evvy isn’t related to Miller, but circumstances have left her under his charge. The increasing sway she holds over him, an unexpected sexuality softening his violence and bigotry, becomes the catalyst securing Miller’s demise. For Buñuel, pleasure invites catastrophe. He sees sex and sensuality as roads to embarrassment, reckoning and decay, a life sentenced to failure through folly. “The sexual act is like a form of death,” he once said. “Considered objectively, copulation seems both laughable and tragic at the same time. It’s the thing that most resembles death: the eyes rolled back, the spasms, the drooling. And fornication is diabolical: I always see the devil in it.”
Buñuel equates sexual impulse with animal action—literally, through quick inserts. After the seduction in Los Olvidados he flashes on wild dogs; the little girl’s rape and murder in Diary of a Chambermaid (1963) is juxtaposed with a wild boar chasing a rabbit; and a cat snares a mouse during the seduction in Viridiana (1961). The gimmick is less direct in The Young One: a raccoon devours a live chicken in a henhouse. As the chicken represents Evvy (‘eating chicken’ slang for cunnilingus—the director quietly reveled in dirty jokes), the raccoon could signify either Traver (‘coon’ American slang for black) or Miller (hiding behind a mask or façade).
After they’ve had sex and Evvy’s comically baptized and whisked away by the reverend, Miller’s anger dissipates, leaving him alone—isolated, left to ponder his shortcomings indefinitely—a punishment worse than death. A radical departure from Matthiessen’s story, it would be convenient to misconstrue Miller’s vanquished ethics as a hokey ‘love conquers all’ denouement. But throughout his career Buñuel worked off of high-minded characters like Miller to expose their frail beliefs and faulty logic. The Young One confronts racism as the byproduct of vanity, pride and fear. “The film is neither pro-black nor pro-white,” he said. “There are absolutely no bad or good characters. The racist gives the black man a cigarette, water to drink, but he can’t see him as an equal. This is not due to evilness, but rather to certain social influences.”