Bunuel in Order: Daughter of Deceit
“Idiot, twice an idiot — for gambling and getting married” — Don Quintin
Luis Bunuel’s eighth film, Daughter of Deceit (La hija del engano) (1951), is another collaboration with producer Oscar Dancigers and cinematographer Jose Ortiz Ramos. Produced and released the same year as Susana (1951), Daughter of Deceit is another foray into romance/comedy that has none of the sexual deviance of Bunuel’s previous film. Some noteworthy trivia, Bunuel produced an adaptation of this play (“Don Quitin el amargao o el que siembra vientos” written by Don Carlos Arniches) in Spain titled Don Quintin el amargao (1935) (uncredited) so he must have had some interest in the material beyond his contract obligations to Dancigers.
Daughter of Deceit is about a father, Don Quintin, who abandons his family upon discovering his wife is cheating on him. 20 years later, Don Quintin decides to track down his daughter because he feels guilty for being an absent father. This type of plot was used numerously during this period of Mexican cinema and it was usually treated seriously and in the melodrama mode. Bunuel’s treatment differs from the norm by constantly switching from screwball-comedy to melodrama to romance and never settling on one mode for his adaptation. Spanish plays from the twenties often mixed genres and tones so in some sense Bunuel’s adaptation might be an attempt to export some of his youth to Mexican audiences.
The film begins with Quintin as a disgruntled, repressed, and unsuccessful salesman. He is married to Maria and has a young daughter named Martha. One day his friend Julio sets him up with a job out of town where he can earn more money. Quintin appreciates his help but is forlorn that he must be away from his wife and daughter. Upon returning early from a work trip he discovers Julio is sleeping with his wife Maria. Quintin’s sheepish, meek demeanor gives way to a hypermasculine, violent, machoman. He throws his wife out of the house and forbids her to see their daughter ever again. In a desperate attempt to hurt her husband, Maria confesses that Julio is the father of their child. Quintin cannot stand the sight of his daughter so as he leaves the town he drops her off at a farm house, ridding himself of anything that will remind him of this primal scene.
The first sequence is shot like a Hollywood film noir complete with high-contrast lighting and numerous shadows in the mise-en-scene. This doom-laden atmosphere is frequently undercut with quick does of comedy. When Quintin drops his daughter off at the farmhouse, the couple that finds her squabble over what to do with this unexpected delivery. The father promptly decides that “the best thing to do is to drop her off at another door.” The wife quickly shoots down his idea and they decide to keep Martha. However, the wife’s intentions aren’t entirely altruistic because she hopes that their adopted daughter will somehow be able to repay them when they are older.
Twenty years have passed and the first words we hear from Quintin are “What’s all this bullshit?” as he breaks up a fight between one of his henchmen, Angelito, and a pesky gambler who refers to himself as “Home Run.”
Quintin has now become a ruthless and successful casino owner, called “The Inferno”. Here we notice a typical Bunuel brushstroke wherein class positions within capitalism are articulated through moral terms, for example, wherein to be rich means to be evil. The younger Quintin was pleasant and loving but poor and could not provide for his family’s financial needs or his wife’s sexual appetite. Bunuel’s Marxism articulates itself through this binary oppositions wherein rich + evil is contrasted with poor+good (not-evil) and the results for each combination are not positive. Quintin may be rich but he has no soul and younger Quintin may have been a good person but it doesn’t matter when he can’t satisfy the needs of his family. For Bunuel, existence in capitalism means success in one sphere is coupled with a degradation in another. However, Bunuel does not make these ideas the focal point of Daughter of Deceit and remains more interested in the potential for screwball-comedy rather than ideological critique in the social realist mode.
When Quintin discovers that his wife was lying about the paternity of his daughter he decides to make contact with the family and commits to sending $60 a week to support her. Martha’s relationship with her adopted parents is strained at best and her adopted father (Lencho) is a pitiful double of Quintin–just as ruthless and obsessed with money but without the wealth to compensate for his horrible personality. Martha wishes for a way out of her poor family and her abusive father. Shortly after a near-beating, Martha has a serendipitous encounter with a strapping young lad named Paco, a mechanic, on the highway. Their romance quickly blossoms — “I love you with all eight cylinders” Paco confesses after only knowing Martha for two weeks. Their moments together on Sundays are idyllic but always dampened whenever Paco notices a fresh bruise from one of Lencho’s beatings. They try to think of plan for Martha to leave her family but they are not aware that Quintin is paying them a hefty allowance for Martha’s care which her adopted father is pocketing.
Back to the Quintin side of the story, Maria is now on her deathbed and requests her ex-husband see her before she dies. Maria, after having a guilt-ridden last words speech from the local Padre, begs Quintin to find their daughter and redeem them both for abandoning her. He decides to find his daughter but refuses to forgive his wife. His bitterness seems to subside though when he tells his henchmen — who are genuinely confused by his pleasant demeanor — that they will find his daughter the next day. But unbeknownst to them, Martha has run away with Paco to the city.
Quintin and his crew find Martha’s family but Martha is gone. Quintin learns that her adopted father has been beating her and he becomes unglued once again, tossing around furniture in an attempt to get his hands on Lencho. The scene ends with a gunfight and Lencho escaping Quintin’s rage. Fast forward two months and Quintin has yet to find his daughter. Angelito and Home Run have been scouring Mexico city for her but because they don’t have a photo and don’t know what she looks like there is no way to find her. Quintin’s momentary relapse into happiness has made him even more bitter and cruel. When he sees customers enjoying themselves in his casino he orders them to leave. Furthermore, he forces the entertainers performing for his joint to only play sad songs. Quintin gets hopeful once Angelito suggests that they contact her sister in the country town who might know where Martha is.
When Angelito visits Martha’s sister, he becomes instantly distracted by his libido and tells her she can perform in Quintin’s casino, telling her that Quintin does whatever Angelito wants.
Angelito’s little scheme gets interrupted when Lencho walks in on them. He is enraged to see his daughter with Angelito and grabs a stick, chasing him in the street.
Three months have passed and now Paco and Martha are married with a child on the way. While celebrating they go to a bar that Quintin has commandeered for his own use, forbidding the owner to serve anyone but him. Quintin torments them because he can’t stand the sight of a happy couple, not knowing that he has tormented and embarrassed his daughter and new husband.
Paco rushes out with Martha but comes back in pretending to have a gun in his pocket. He forces Quintin to eat the olive he threw at Martha, forces Angelito to eat the pit, and throws cream in Home Run’s face. Everyone is shocked that Quintin would allow this insulting behavior but he was allowed it to happen because he “saw death in his eyes.” Two months passes after the run-in at the bar and Quintin is determined to kill Paco and has his henchmen searching Mexico City for him, sidetracking them from their quest to find Martha. The plot gets a bit more complex when Martha’s sisters comes to the casino to perform. She is the only one that knows what Martha looks like but she is unaware that Quintin is trying to kill Paco.
Bunuel ends this screwball plot with Martha cursing Quintin for his attacks on Paco. Right after, Angelito, Home Run, and Martha’s sister inform Quintin that the woman who cursed him is his daughter and Quintin wanders the streets in despair, hating himself for what he did to his daughter. After a lonely night filmed in a typical melodramatic mode, Quintin returns to his casino to find everyone waiting for him in his office. His daughter forgives him for everything and everyone starts hugging each other. Bunuel again cannot help but break the melodramatic/romantic tone of this scene. Quintin asks Angelito to kick him in the ass to prove that he is a new, happy man who won’t get angry anymore. Angelito complies, happily, and Quintin instantly tries to beat him up before Paco and Martha calm him down.
Daughter of Deceit is Bunuel’s most conventional film (aside from Gran Casino (1947)) but it is as enjoyable as his other Mexican movies made thus far in his career. The constant back-and-forth between comedy and melodrama make the film hard to predict even when using a fairly generic plot line. Many scenes are not resolved properly because Bunuel decides to introduce some sort of slapstick or screwball element that replaces closure with amusement. Like Susana and El gran calavera (1949), Daughter of Deceit is a work where a talented auteur elevates a rather conventional story with absurd brushstrokes. And as I mentioned above, Daughter of Deceit is also an attempt by Bunuel to bring his affection for Spanish dramas to Mexico where Bunuel’s disregard for tonal continuity was much more conventional in Spain than it was in Mexican and North American cinema in general. A minor work but one that will pleasantly surprise fans of Bunuel’s work.