Salon Mexico


Director: Emilio Fernandez
Year: 1949
Rating: 7.5
Country: Mexico

Can a cop with a heart of gold and a prostitute with a dented heart of gold find happiness on the sordid streets of the Red Light district of Mexico City in this black and white musical noir melodrama? Directed by Emilio Fernandez, one of the great Mexican Golden Age directors and also as a curiosity the model for the Oscar statuette, he creates a claustrophobic tiny world of despair with the walls of fate slowly closing in on its protagonists. Prostitutes, pimps, gangsters and cops dominate this landscape with only a sliver of light leading to something better outside of it. Beautifully shot in black and white that captures the imagery of the shadows overhanging everyone, the long stairway that leads to tragedy, the dank dark streets and the squalid short time hotel rooms. But into this picture of venality music and dance constantly explodes bringing moments of joy and escape to the participants - Mexican Danzon and African percussion beats are the soundtrack of their lives.

Every night the Salon Mexico opens its doors and the girls slowly arrive swinging their hips and flashing their eyes in hopes of finding companionship, drinks, a tip, a twirl on the dance floor and possibly a trip across the street to the dirty bed sheets that await. One of these women is Mercedes (Marga Lopez) who we first spot entering a dance contest with Paco, who we later learn is her pimp/boyfriend/dance partner. They win the 500 pesos which she desperately needs but he takes it all and leaves her with the trophy. He is a pimp after all with a few girls on the string. She sneaks into the short time room where he and a girl lay across the bed in post-coital sleep and steals the money. When she leaves she stupidly throws away his wallet which is witnessed by the cop Lupe Lopez (Miguel Inclan) and this sets in action the remainder of the film.

She is doing this work so that her younger sister can go to a good school and marry into a good family. That is her simple dream. Only that. Then retire from this business. But hiding secrets is not easy when you are on display every night and your face is marked by the fists of men. If this film had been made in Hollywood it would be up there with a lot of other well-respected noirs, but being from Mexico is has disappeared. I read about it a few weeks ago in a New York Times article that jogged my curiosity. I am glad it did. It isn't great by any means but the milieu that it is set in was pretty interesting for a 1949 film.

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