Cine negro of the 1960s

This isn't going to end well, Los atracadores

Spanish cinema of the 1950s and 1960s is largely unexplored territory, in the English speaking world at least. Although hundreds of films were made – Spain wasn’t quite as prolific in terms of movie production as the US or Italy, but it wasn’t not far off – very few of them were released internationally. While other European product was used to support the appetite for second features or provincial showings, Spanish films remained undubbed, unsubtitled and unseen in the global market. Even with the arrival of video, DVD and, in more recent years, fandubbing and file sharing, they have remained a closed world; obscure, with the exception of a few prestige productions, to all but a small group of Spanish film historians and fans.

Most of the films made during this period were – as in Italy – comedies or melodramas, which intermingled with strands of a more local flavor, such as the musical (which largely drew on the flamenco tradition) and ‘toro’ (bullfighting) movies. They were generally inoffensive productions, designed for safety in the face of the censorship regime as imposed by the Franco government: depictions of transgressive behavior had to be carefully handled, because if in any way explicit or critical of the establishment the film would be banned or interminably delayed as a result. This political interference is one of the key reasons why it’s so difficult to draw up an accurate history of postwar Spanish cinema, as it had the effect that the release dates of many films was actually some considerable time after they were actually completed. A problem compounded by the regional nature of distribution, with official release dates tending to be the official release date in Madrid rather than the actual release date if elsewhere in Spain.

One of the most interesting (and obscure) cinematic movements of the 1950s and early 1960s was the so-called cine negro. As the name suggests, these films were Spanish takes on the American (and to an extent French) film noir. They tied into the melodrama – both genres tended to be set in an urban, middle class environment and feature characters being drawn into difficult situations beyond their control – but with their focus on cops and criminals, their twisting plots and their impressionistic style they owed just as much to the films of Cagney and Lang, Welles and Wilder. In many ways the fact that they existed in the first place is astonishing, given that by their very nature they touched on failings of society which the fascist government would be unwilling to see highlighted. As a way of getting round this they were frequently set in the supposedly decadent cities of other countries (most frequently Paris, which seemed to symbolise debauchery). There was also an aspect that, if not exactly state-sanctioned equivalents of foreign productions, they were acceptable because they provided a domestic – and more governable – alternative to them.

History of the cine negro

Unlikely crooks in Sabian demasiado
Unlikely crooks in Sabian demasiado

Some facts, or as near as. The cine negro began appearing in the post war period, with the generally accepted first examples of the genre – productions including Brigada criminalCrimen en el entreacto and Appartado de correos 1001 – being released in 1950. It quickly took hold as a format, with nine genre productions in 1950 and eight in 1951; although its heyday came in 1961 (21 productions) and 1964 (23 productions). The numbers, though, are relatively consistent: this wasn’t a genre that peaked and then faded quickly; it had a longer lifespan, for instance, than the later spaghetti westerns, swashbucklers or horror films. The busiest year (1964) was also just about the last, with the very number of films probably fueling audience apathy. While there were a number of titles released in 1965, many of these were international co-productions rather than purely Spanish affairs, with one of the last authentic or ‘pure’ cine negro being Julio Buchs’ excellent El salario del crimen (1964, but not released until the following year).

As is always the case, generic categorization is fraught with issues. In El auge del cine negro español, the key – and just about only – overview of the genre, titles such as Dos contra Al Caponeand El secreto del Bill North are included, however I prefer to limit the definition to include only works with Spanish directors or those who chose to settle there (a brutal cut off point, for sure, but one which serves the effect of limiting titles to those which were primarily Spanish productions, with some honorable exceptions). There are also several films which are cross-fertilizations with other genres, most notably comedies, but these are worth including because they were still theoretically inspired by the same thematic and stylistic conventions of the genre (a comic thriller is still a thriller).

Characteristics of the cine negro

Anticipating the giallo, Llama un tal EstebanSo what is it that distinguishes these films, that characterizes them as belonging to the cine negro genre? As a starting point and as the name suggests they were almost all shot in black and white. The monotone photography might have been driven by necessity – colour film stock was still rare and expensive – but it also became an integral part of the productions, with cinematographers such as Juan Gelpi and Aurelio G. Larraya learning from the American film noir, making use of shadows and light to create a creeping ambiance of paranoia and unease. It’s no surprise that the end of the genre corresponded with the general transition in Spain from shooting films in black and white to colour.

The stories they featured were largely, but not always, urban. From a stylistic perspective, they made extensive use of authentic locations – learning, perhaps, from the Italian neo-realist movement – with key sequences taking place in the streets and tenements of Madrid or Barcelona. For Barcelona, it seemed a particularly significant genre, with filmmakers led by local producer and director Ignacio Iquino using it as a launchpad for succesful careers; given the official pro-Castillian approach of the Franco administration – the Catalonian language was banned from the screen at the time, for instance – this fulfilled an important cultural role, helping to establish the city as a filmmaking centre in its own right.

Perhaps the state sanctioned primacy of Madrid was one of the reasons why Barcelona was such a popular location: after all, the films themselves focused on crime and criminality, which simply couldn’t exist if Franco’s Spain was as perfect as it liked to portray itself. Barcelona, however, could be shown as more lawless because it was Catalonian, it had a whiff of Paris about it and was further from – and less governable by – the central government. Make no mistake, though: wherever these films might have been set and however subtle (or cowardly) they might have been, they by their very nature carried an implicit degree of criticism. The criminals depicted may have been driven by their own flaws, weaknesses and greed, but they emerged from a society which allowed or drove them to be like that. As the genre progressed, these social elements became more and more ascendant, resulting in films such as Los atracadores, a cutting critique of the death penalty, or Los culpables, which portrayed a thoroughly alienated and self-indulgent middle-class.

Types of cine negro

The hoodlums are on the streets, Brigada criminal
The hoodlums are on the streets, Brigada criminal

There were several different strands of cine negro, all of which were united by the common thread of being about crime; the criminals who commit it and the cops who investigate it, the victims who suffer because of it. Some of them leant more towards the film noir, others towards the drawing room whodunnit; then there were those which anticipated the Italian giallo or the French policier. However it is possible to collect the films into particular groupings, which can be roughly broken down as follows.

The first and most numerous selection are what I would call ‘middle class thrillers’. These feature characters who are well off – despite frequently appearing to spend more of their time in nightclubs than doing anything so proletarian as working for a living – and ostensibly comfortable. However, it’s a facade of respectability which is peeled back to reveal that some of them at least are killers and tricksters. Most of these films include some kind of mystery element and they usually end with the climactic revelation of the true identity of a killer, the full details of a complex and previously unforseen plan or some other similar kind of twist (see, for example, Llama un tal esteban or Usted puede ser un asesino). A number of films, however, dispense with this and reveal the details of the ‘mystery’ early on, leaving the narrative to focus on the details of how it is that the devious schemes end up going wrong (which, of course, they always do). In short, they play like a cross between a Hichcock film and an Agatha Christie novel (with a smattering of what would become the Italian giallo thrown in for good measure).

Allied to this strand but less numerous were the ‘cop films’ such as Cero noventa y uno, policiá al habla. Almost all of the cine negro feature policemen as prominent characters, but in these films the story revolves around the police rather than the individuals they are investigating. There is a focus on the details of police work as well as considerable effort being given over to trying to humanise the law enforcers, to give them more depth by focusing on their relationships with family and colleagues. These films could be described as akin the to French policiers.

Towards the end of the 1950s another branch of the genre made an appearance, the ‘delinquent’ film. This ran roughly parallel to similar movements in both America (where James Dean had established himself as the go-to icon) and Italy (where the likes of La sida and Red Lips were proving successful). These films took the approach of focusing on young criminals, their narratives ranging from the conservative and vaguely hysterical (look what’s happening to our children, they’ve lost all boundaries and its all their own fault!) to the often equally hysterical but rather more liberal (look what’s happening to our children, they’ve lost all boundaries and its all our fault!) The films themselves depict young hoodlums going about their activity, robbing and killing as they attempt to compete with the increasingly materialistic worlds they see around them, but which they cannot access because of their lack of skills and their cultural alienation. Often, but not always, there is some kind of svengali character in the background; again this made sense from a political perspective, throwing the blame from the state itself onto individual bad apples (and the cure, therefore, was shifted from addressing innate flaws in society to introducing better policing and restricting civil liberties). The keystone work in this line was Carlo Saura’s Los golfos (although I personally think that Francisco Rovira Beleta’s Los atracadores is the best and most interesting example of the type).

Delinquents in sunglasses, Los atracadors
Delinquents in sunglasses, Los atracadors

The final key group of films were, inevitably, comedy films which simultaneously maintained and parodied cliches of the genre. These could be more or less broad – ranging from the humorous but still tense to the rather silly La pandilla de los once and Sabían demasiado (both directed by Pedro Lazaga) – and they were often tied to comic or romantic stars of the times, actors like Tony Leblanc and José Isbert. After the success of Jules Dassin’s Rififi and Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street, there were also a number of comic capers, in which groups of hopeless and generally loveable criminals attempt to carry out complex but unwise robberies (and invariably fail).

This has been a swift and hopefully instructive introduction to the genre. As previously mentioned, these films have been generally ignored and / or forgotten for too many years but they make up for a substantial and fascinating body of work. They also acted as a training ground for many of the directors who would go on to become key figures in Spanish cinema over the following years, from those at the trashier end of the spectrum (Ignacio Iquino, Leon Klimovsky) to more celebrated talents (Carlos Saura, for instance). As with all genres, there are some films that are good, some bad and some that are simply downright tedious; but for those with an interest in some of the more unexplored avenues of cinematic history, further exploration is highly encouraged…

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