Gran Casino (En el Viejo Tampico) (1947)
Directed by Luis Bunuel
Written by Michel Veber and Maurice Magdaleno
“Ay, chihuahua” – Gran Casino
After a fifteen year hiatus, Bunuel returned with this semi-musical drama from Mexico. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to watch this film. It is at most a minor work in the oeuvre of a master filmmaker.
Bunuel’s return to film came at the peak of the Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age (1936-1969 according to most film historians). The director and film producer, Denise Tual (the widow of Pierre Batcheff), wanted to work together on a film adaptation of the play La casa de Bernarda Alba for a Paris production company. Before going to Europe, the pair stopped in Mexico and asked Oscar Danciger, a producer active in Mexico, for financing. Dancigers didn’t like their project but wanted to work with Bunuel and convinced him to make a film with him.
Their project became Gran Casino, starring Libertad Lamarque and Jorge Negrete. Both actors were popular at the time and should have made this film a commercial success. The film was according to Bunuel a fiasco, both commercially and artistically.
For most cinephiles out there I would not recommend watching this film. Unless you’re a Bunuel fan or for some reason you want to explore the Golden Age of Mexican cinema then I would avoid watching this film. Bunuel’s fingerprints are virtually no one to be found on this film. Gran Casino looks as if it could have been directed by anyone.
The film begins with two men in jail. They begin to sing and play guitar in their cells while one of their cellmates files away at the iron bars of the prison window. The two main male leads in the film are Gerardo (played by Jorge Negrete) and Demetrio (Julio Villarreal). Gerardo and Demetrio escape from prison and travel to town that has a small oil-field owned and operated by Jose Enrique. They convince Enrique to hire them and they recruit some other men to work in the field. Gerardo and Demetrio eventually help Enrique create a thriving business. Life is good for Gerardo and Demetrio and everything is going fine until Enrique mysteriously disappears. These boys have horrible luck. Demetrio takes over the oil-field operation until he falls in love with a sexy dancer named Camelia, the same woman last seen with Enrique before he disappeared.
Like Enrique, Demetrio mysteriously disappears and now Gerardo takes over the oil-field. We are then introduced to Enrique’s sister, Mercedes (Libertad Lamarque) who has now heard of her brother’s disappearance and travels to this town to find him. She joins the Gran Casino as a singer so that she can look into Gerardo and his amigos because she believes that he is to blame for her brother’s disappearance.
The film ends with a surprisingly exciting and well-shot fight scene in a hotel room. Gerardo saves Mercedes from some thugs hired by Don Fabio, the representative of Big Oil. Like the gangster films, this film equates corporations with the mafia. Mercedes and Gerardo discover that Don Fabio was behind Enrique’s disappearance all along. Don Fabio was threatened by Enrique’s competition and resorted to criminal activity to squash the competition.
I look at this film as not a “Bunuel” film but instead as an assignment for the director to learn how to direct actors and create a narrative film that was not in the surrealist or documentary mode of storytelling. Even though it is banal and unremarkable in almost every way. I’m sure it was an excellent learning experience for Bunuel and helped him learn his craft.
Here is a quote from John Baxter’s book on Bunuel which describes the director’s directing style:
“Each of his films had about 125 shots, which he planned in detail beforehand at home, complete with measurements and durations […] He seldom needed more than two takes of a shot, and never covered himself with additional shooting. He never looked at rushes. Pierre Lary, his assistant on his last films, nervously called it ‘working without a net’ but admitted that it worked” (Bunuel, p.206)
The next film we will discuss from Bunuel’s filmography is El Gran Calavera (The Great Madcap), a Mexican comedy released in 1949.