Mexico’s first science fiction feature film is an intriguing curio that involves a team of scientists trying to capture the last image recorded in a dead person’s eyes. Highly derivative of US genre films, but competently made and quite entertaining. 5/10
The Dead Speak (Los Muertos Hablan). Mexico, 1935. Directed by Gabriel Soria. Written by Pedro Zapiain, Gabriel Soria, et.al.. Starring: Julián Soler, Amelia de Ilisa, Manuel Noriega, Miguel Arenas, Aurora Cortés, Isidro D’Olace. Produced by José Luis Bueno. IMDb 5.8/10 Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
There are a few times that one realises the limitations of the internet – one such instance is always when one tries to find out more on some slightly obscure subject more or less unknown to the English-speaking world. I have encountered this problem before when trying to research Russian/Soviet films, and am now also met by more or less dead ends when trying to find out more about Mexico’s first sci-fi film The Dead Speak (Los Muertos Hablan, 1935), and its makers. The film is made by one of Mexico’s sound film pioneers, Gabriel Soria, and is mentioned in a few footnotes and brackets in books on Mexican film, but has a relatively empty IMDb page. The film is nonetheless available on Youtube, and it is well worth watching, at least of you have some understanding of Spanish. I don’t have much of that, and still found it enjoyable.
Even though some of the romantic drama went over my head and I most certainly missed a lot of subtleties and nuances, I found that the The Dead Speak was not difficult to follow without subtitles or any sort of title cards, which is a testament to both screenwriters and the director. The film concerns itself with student Eduardo Molina (Julián Soler), assistant to the brilliant scientist Professor Jiménes (Manuel Noriega – no, not THAT Manuel Noriega!). Jiménes presents to his peers the idea that when a man dies, the last image he sees gets etched into his retina, and can be extracted, for example as to identify a murderer. He is laughed out of the room (alas, the fate of the movie scientist), but is adamant to prove his theory with a machine of his own design, which he thinks will be able to take a photograph of the last image of a dying man from his eyes.
Molina is the only one who believes in Jiménes’ idea, and together they set about to prove it – the only problem being that they need recently deceased people to work on, and the police and hospitals won’t cooperate. But through contacts at a hospital switchboard they get advance notice any time a violent crime has been committed, and along with another assistant, Simon (Isidro D’Olace), Molina sets out in a fake ambulance to collect the bodies before the authorities get there, and brings them to Jiménes’ lab.
But despite neon tubes and flickering lightbulbs in the Strickfaden-inspired lab, the good Professor can’t get the calibrations right. And pretty soon the police under the watchful eyes of Comandante Garcia (Gilberto Gonzáles sporting a healthy Mexican ‘stache) become suspicious about the missing bodies, and a team of agents set a trap for Simon and Molina. Simon is captured and Molina is mortally wounded by a bullet. He manages to get back to the lab and agrees to become the next test subject for Professor Jiménes, and dies in the arms of his girlfriend Marta del Castillo (Amelia de Ilisa). And when finally, stricken by grief, the Professor extracts the image, Marta’s face is clearly seen ingrained on the retina of Molina. Despite the bodysnatching and getting his assistant killed, Jiménes is ultimately honoured by the scientific community and Eduardo Molina gets an auditorium named after him at the university.
There is also a romantic subplot concerning del Castillo and Molina, and Marta’s father Ricardo del Castillo (Miguel Arenas), who for some reason does not approve of the romance. But this part required more knowledge of Spanish than I possess. And to be quite fair, it seems a bit tacked-on, but I might be missing some plot point here.
The idea of so-called optography was something of a fad within criminologist circles in the second half of the 19th century, when it was discovered that the rods of the eye contain a certain pigment that under ideal circumstances can work as a photo fixer. Indeed, scientists have been able to extract images from the eyes of animals like frogs and rabbits that seem to confirm this part of the theory. Nevertheless, these images have always been the result of highly controlled laboratory circumstances where the chance of getting an image has been artificially maximised, and the eyes have been examined directly after the animal is killed. Despite a widely publicised case in which a retina photograph was used as evidence in a 1924 murder in Germany, no definite proof that the theory works on human eyes has ever been set forth. One reason for the lack of success with human eyes is that a human retina is far smaller than for example a rabbit’s or a frog’s.
The first apparent description of optography in fiction was in Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s 1867 short story Claire Lenoir, later expanded into the novel Tribulat Bonhomet in 1887. Like the reference in Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 short story At the End of the Passage, de l’Isle-Adam’s story portrays the optogram in a metaphysical sense, rather than scientific. Jules Verne’s 1902 novel, Les Frères Kip (The Brothers Kip), contains a reference to optography as a key plot point.
The opening titles of Los Muertos Hablan state that the film is an adaptation of a novel or novella by Pedro Zapiain, and Mexican film lexicons expand on this by giving the author’s name as Pedro Zapiain Garcia. However, no such Spanish-language author is to be found, and later sources state that Zapiain Garcia in fact wrote a story treatment for the film and not a “novela”. The screenplay is written by Gabriel Soria himself, and according to different sources, either Emilio Férnandez, the well known Mexican actor, writer and director, famous as a brutal force in films like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and The Wild Bunch (1969) – or Robert Quigley (as Roberto O’Quigley), an American filmmaker relocated to Mexico – or perhaps both.
The film was was Gabriel Soria’s third, not counting a documentary short, and it is economically and soberly directed. While studying in Los Angeles in the twenties, on a grant from the Mexican newspaper Excelsior. While in the city he worked for The Los Angeles Examiner, as well as an assistant to technicians and assistant directors for the film studio Tiffany-Stahl Productions (Tiffany Pictures), and returned to Mexico with a good dose of Hollywood know-how in 1930. Although not seen as one of the great visionaries, he in nevertheless considered one of the early pioneers of Mexican sound cinema. Most of his work can be seen as derivative of other contemporary directors, and many of is films are based on Mexican novels, tradition or folklore. In that sense, The Dead Speak is something of a deviation from form. Soria’s cinematic hand is steady and there are clear Hollywood influences in some scenes, including the car chases, the Professor’s laboratory, and a curiously erotic scene in which Amelia de Ilisa drops her bathrobe and the camera follows her bare legs to a bathtub. In the earlier scene we have just seen her wake up in bed, all made up with perfect perm and a passionately dark lipstick, both of which survive the bath completely unchanged.
De Ilisa seems to have made only one other film – and although she is drop-dead gorgeous she is not much of an actress, and one suspects that she might have been a beauty queen or the like, rather than an aspiring actress. The sure-handed Hollywood-style camera work is courtesy of cinematographer Lauron “Jack” Draper, who made a dozen westerns before relocating to Mexico in the early thirties. In 1948 noted French Hollywood director Robert Florey (who almost directed Frankenstein) took Johnny Weissmuller and crew out to Mexico to film Tarzan and the Mermaids, and hired Draper as cinematographer. He filmed a handful of other Hollywood films when directors needed a cinematographer in Mexico who could speak English.
The rest of the acting in The Dead Speak is surprisingly naturalistic, compared to many contemporary Hollywood films. Most of the actors are quite adequate, and especially Julián Soler as the sensitive Molina stands out. Soler later became a noted director, helming over 80 films. All of the main actors in the film, save de Ilisa, had long and apparently quite successful careers. Aurora Cortés (the girl in the hospital switchboard) appeared in a short film as late as 2002. Manuel Noriega played in over 200 movies in his career, after which he apparently became the military ruler of Panama (just kidding).
Gabriel Soria only directed 10 feature films between 1934 and 1944, when he left Mexico for fascist dictator Franco’s Spain. In Spain he set up a distribution company for Mexican films, and also started selling audio and musical equipment. He is perhaps best remembered for his 1937 film Ora Ponciano! (Now, Ponciano!), a nationalistic film celebrating the bullfighter Ponciano Diaz Salinas, as well as the Mexican musical tradition. The film was nominated for the Mussolini Cup for best foreign film in the Venice Film Festival in fascist Italy in 1938, not necessarily an accolade one would like to ascribe to … After WWII the prize was renamed The Golden Lion. Gabriel Soria returned to Mexico in 1970, and intended to work within the Mexican movie industry, but passed away just a year later.
Los Muertos Hablan takes a while to get going, setting up the characters and the plot, and it isn’t until halfway into the 70 minutes long film that the action really gets going. This seems unwarranted for, since I was able to follow the proceedings perfectly well without even understanding all of the talking heads in the first half. When Soria kicks in the high gears the film is a breeze to watch, exciting, entertaining and even a bit of a nail-biter. I’m not sure if there is any moral conclusion to draw, but interestingly enough the ending is quite upbeat – the scientist is redeemed and honoured in the end, despite the seeming boundaries he has trespassed beyond. In Hollywood the film probably would have ended with the protagonist lying on his death bed contemplating ”things man should not meddle in”, but this Mexican film is conversely very upbeat about scientific progress, even if it means stepping over a few dead bodies. Refreshing.
The Dead Speak (Los Muertos Hablan). Mexico, 1935. Directed by Gabriel Soria. Written by Pedro Zapiain, Gabriel Soria, Emilio Férnandez,, Robert Quigley. Starring: Julián Soler, Amelia de Ilisa, Manuel Noriega, Miguel Arenas, Aurora Cortés, Isidro D’Olace, Jorge Mondragón, José Eduardo Pérez, Godofredo de Velasco, Ricardo Carti. Music: Mario Talavera. Cinematography: Jack Draper. Production design: Jorge Fernández. Production management: Ricardo Beltri. Produced by José Luis Bueno for Producciones José Luis Bueno.