Can't get a ticket to The Hulk? Try The Brute. Movies give all kinds of different pleasures to all different kinds of people. But there's no substitute for the special dirty pleasure of class-card playing melodramas; this is a pleasure we usually deny ourselves. Our critical establishment, from wattle-shaking newspaper dinos down to acne-pocked bloggers, are very careful to detect a film's inhumanity to fictional evil landlords, conniving bosses and cruel millionaires.
Being a cartoon character, The Simpson's C. Montgomery Burns gets a pass. Burns is reputedly based on a real-life Hollywood type, but he has some other real-life predecessors. (Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller is one; he put a lot of people out of business, lived to be enormously old, and ... this is so Burns ... survived in his last years off the breast-milk of a hired wet nurse.)
When villains became multi-faceted and tragic it was a step forward in literature, but for every gain you lose something. The spiciness and sordidness of the Mexican movie El Bruto is partially due to the plot. A muscle-headed chump has a brief moment of happiness, before getting what's coming to him in a class-war skirmish. But the film's salt is partially due to the villain, a weasley rich devil called Don Andreas (Andreas Solar) who is trying to kick a small village's worth of poor people out of an apartment. It's all so he can cash out and move both himself and his doddering old sinner of a father Don Pepe (Paco Martinez) up into a higher class of life.
Everyone in this slum-based movie, set near the sound of clanging factories and howling train horns, barely gets along. They chafe off of one another. A dutiful daughter sends her unwell dad Carmello off to his job, and she gives him a raspy time about how little food is in the house. Inside the house of the comparatively rich Andreas, it's sort of the same. Ancient Don Pepe, who looks rather like a plucked chicken, has been put on a strict diet by the doctors, but he's always trying to promote himself a sausage sandwich or some tequila; he likes to suck the liquor from his maid's fingers. Paloma (the wide-eyed and devastating Katy Jurado, above) is the slutty lady of the house. Her husband Andreas is distracted by a problem: His tenants are fighting an eviction, and aren't paying rent. Using a pair of scissors and some flowers, Paloma demonstrates what ought to happen to these no-good agitators -- they ought to be cut off right at the neck.
Taking in this advice, Andreas looks up a local bruiser named Pedro (Pedro Armendariz) who works the night shift at the local slaughterhouse. These scenes are the most typically Bunuel: first, a sarcastic glance at the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on a plaster wall, over-looking the carving up of steers. Then, below, Pedro horsing around, picking up and tossing an entire side of beef at some of his co-workers. Obviously this is just the hooligan Andreas needs. He seals the deal with this thug, even as the clean-up crew is sloshing buckets of water around the killing floor, soaking the cuffs of Andreas' fine suit. And Pedro wants to shake hands on the deal. Andreas shudders, looking at the gore on the Brute's mitt.
During his first night on his new job as a frightener, Pedro is all too efficient. In a dark alley, he threatens Carmello, the ring leader of the rent-strikers. Pedro punches him out and accidentally kills him on the spot. The police don't investigate. In the meantime, Andreas is given a little day-work at his patron's carniceria (butcher shop). Loitering there one afternoon, Paloma finds herself suddenly interested in Pedro's muscles.
Helping him fix up a storage room to live in, the bosses' wife gets so hot and bothered that she tries to take a bite out of Pedro's chest., but shuts him down when he tries to bite back. Then, late one night, Pedro is mobbed by the furious tenants who catch him alone. He tries to fight back, but there's too many of them. Breaking into an apartment to get away, he holds Meche (Rosita Arenas) hostage until the crowd dissipates. She bandages his wounds, and this begins his first clean relationship with a girl; unfortunately, Meche is the daughter of Carmello, the man he killed. Paloma is not interested in sharing Pedro the Brute, and she doesn't mind using a little blackmail to hold him.
Bunuel uses symbolic fire to show the difference between romantic and profane love. Meche and Pedro's nest is lit by candles. Another time, Paloma sneaks in, interrupting Pedro's dinner; and she keeps him so busy in the off- screen bed that he burns his steaks, the frying pan and part of his makeshift brick stove in a sizzling grease fire. Jurado's Paloma is a thoroughly evil piece of work, like a Latin cousin of Scarlet Street's Joan Bennett. She was one of the few Mexican actresses who made a dent in the American cinema. Best known as the girlfriend in High Noon, Jurado also turned up in Stephen Frears' good western The Hi-Lo Country before dying in 2002. Here's a website shrine for Jurado.
She has a good thug to sink her teeth into. Pedro Armendariz used to be called "The Clark Gable of Mexico," probably for sharing Gable's uncompromising masculinity. (As Pauline Kael put it, Gable was the one male movie actor who no one ever rumored was secretly gay.) As a Bond geek, I've always loved Armendariz's last performance as the affable Kerim in From Russia With Love. Later, the actor committed suicide because of terminal cancer. (The legend goes that Armendariz picked up the Big C right where John Wayne acquired it, on the radioactive set of The Conqueror.) It takes an actor of quality to transcend these sudden switches of character, the changing of allegiance between Meche and Paloma. It works thanks to Armendariz's embodiment of a physical man, a two-legged ox. "A mastodon": that's what one angry woman calls him.
Bunuel renounced this movie later, claiming it had been compromised. "They made me change it all from top to bottom. Now it's just another just another film, with nothing extraordinary about it," he says in Raymond Durgnat's study of Bunuel. Defending it, Durgnat comments that if El Bruto seems a little like gaslight melodrama, "It should be remembered that the Latin-American bourgeoise is, by our standards, distinctly Victorian." Bunuel himself made two of the greatest whore/madonna complex films Belle du Jour and That Obscure Object of Desire. And he was apparently fairly Victorian in his personal life. This, according to critic B. Ruby Rich who interviewed the director's widow Jeanne in 1995 for Sight and Sound.
No doubt matters have changed in Mexico since then. Serious film noir fans, worried about the fact that there are few noirs left to discover, would enjoy El Bruto's steam and juice. Mexicanophiles should like the film's last moments in which a black rooster-in folklore, Satan's favorite kind of bird-stares down the villainess on her way out of the picture. A detail I deliberately didn't mention reveals the depths of Pedro's tragedy. He's caught as a double-agent between the classes, and he picks the wrong side with such reliability that he pays for it. Ultimately, he's scorned by the poor people he saves, and by the rich cad who uses him as a human weapon.