By Jeremy Carr.

The imagery of Los tallos amargos is not only its most strikingly noirish attribute, but it’s among the more dazzling of any film, of any genre.”

A cursory survey of film history would seem to suggest that Hollywood had cornered the market on the best of what classic genres had to offer. Dig deeper, however, and this was hardly the case. Surely, the most iconic genre features were generated by American studios, but other nations also contributed to the rich diversity of such forms as the western, the musical, and the gangster film. Film noir was also a prevalent genre in other countries and, more than that, there was a fundamental essence to noir that made it especially malleable to a host of diverse settings and scenarios, far from the measures of Hollywood implementation. The flexible application of noir characteristics, treated in total or in part, have in fact caused some to question film noir’s standing as an actual genre in itself. But wherever one falls on this particular matter, standard noir tropes are splendidly rendered and put to exceptionally evocative use in the 1956 Argentine film, Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems, 1956), an international case in point directed by Fernando Ayala.

The Bitter Stems (Los Tallos Amargos) (Flicker Alley) [Blu-ray + DVD] :  Carlos Cores, Vassili Lambrinos, Fernando Ayala: Movies & TV - Amazon.com

Here, a noirish foundation is established at the outset with the moody lighting to suit the foreboding behavior of two male figures. There is, first, the enticing notion of causal dynamics left unstated, the ominous ordering a one-way train tickets that suggests a definitive decision from which there is no return (a narrative crux echoed throughout the ensuing film). Alfredo Gasper (Carlos Cores), asserting his role as prime protagonist by launching into a voiceover, affirms the noirish bent of Los tallos amargos further by commenting morosely on the act of forgetting, of memory, of the past. Sure enough, and true to form, the film indeed goes back several months before to situate Alfredo’s predicament as a catalyst for where the picture began.

As one noirish turn leads to another, Alfredo is revealed to be a newspaper man, but rather than have his career choice lead to streetwise acumen, a part and parcel character trait in many an urban noir, the profession proves to be the source of profound fatigue. The role of a reporter would normally provide a gateway to the respective journalist’s coverage area; he (and it’s usually a he) knows his city, the populace, the ins and outs and comings and goings of his bustling cityscape. But here, Alfredo is thoroughly disenchanted with his work, lamenting a lack of accomplishment and suffering under the occupational pressure. He has reached an existential turning point and, with that awareness, recognizes the need for change.

Also per the norms of noir, a key factor of Los tallos amargos is the acquisition of quick and easy money, and to that end, Liudas, a Hungarian bartender played by Vassili Lambrinos, quite fortuitously enters the picture. Liudas and Alfredo strike up a friendship and concoct a scheme to reap the fraudulent profits of a dubious correspondence course in journalism. It’s a fateful partnership and before long, seeds of doubt are planted and begin sprouting the “bitter stems” of uncertainty and panic. Liudas has concealed a family from Alfredo and so, knowing everybody in noir has secrets, he, and we, wonder what else has been hidden. And when a shady lady appears to cast additional doubt on the actual aims of Liudas, ostensibly confirming Alfredo’s mounting reservations, Alfredo perceives a comprehensive certainty that again we too take for granted. That our identification with Alfredo and his subjective assessments become so entwined is one of the reasons Los tallos amargos succeeds so well. 

Alfredo’s need for a quick fix to his stagnant livelihood, his headlong alliance with Liudas, and his reactionary approach to apparent jeopardy would be slightly less consuming were it not for the accompanying facets of his character. When visiting his family, Alfredo is practically tucked in by his mother at night, and a surreal, stylized dream sequence ripe for interpretation supports the impression of unfulfilled yearning, including, it seems, his frustration with having never been a war hero like his late father. Alfredo is a man with deep-seated issues, a lack of purpose and place, and the solution to his lot in life is a self-destructively swift course correction, with rash decisions and a rush to judgment that propel his inevitable downfall; “Everything is fixed in a jiffy,” he portentously states at one point.

Los Tallos Amargos (1956) | Cinema of the World
Director Ayala and cinematographer Ricardo Younis fashion an unnerving visual expression of increasing paranoia.

Cores is captivating as Alfredo vacillates between enthusiasm and despair, and owing to his psychological grounding, the skewing or upsetting of preconceived perspectives becomes a central motif of Los tallos amargos. The emergence of Liudas’ son, believed by Alfredo to be a fabricated component of Liudas’ backstabbing intrigue, is one twist in his calculated scenario, and the revelations of a supplementary flashback are another. What Alfredo thought he heard had in fact been obscured by drubbing nightclub music and his piecemeal understanding of Liudas’ comments only served to precipitate his impulsive charge.

The resulting choices made by Alfredo lead to a nightmarish descent into a well of hasty response and equally dire consequence. Accentuating the tension is an air of palpable, stifling heat and the sharp, intensely applied lighting that both illuminates and obfuscates any given setting. With ubiquitous spinning fans and sweaty, frame-filling faces, director Ayala and cinematographer Ricardo Younis fashion an unnerving visual expression of increasing paranoia. It is said by many, including Argentine film archivist Fernando Martín Peña and author and noir aficionado Eddie Muller, both of whom are featured on the Flicker Alley release of Los tallos amargos, that Younis was something of a protégé to the legendary Greg Toland, and the Citizen Kane-esque transitions with light dropping out to signal the emerging next scene are one of the many graphic enhancements that seem to bear out this influential association. But not so fast says author and film historian Imogen Sara Smith, who provides a commentary track on the Flicker Alley disc; she’s skeptical of the collaborative cinematographic connection due to what she says is a lack of evidence.

In any case, the imagery of Los tallos amargos is not only its most strikingly noirish attribute, but it’s among the more dazzling of any film, of any genre (American Cinematographer ranked the picture 49th on its list of the “100 Best Photographed Films of All Time”). Muller, who provides instructive historical context for the film in his introduction, says he first saw Ayala’s film, just the director’s second feature, sans subtitles. He was nevertheless struck by the deep focus photography and nocturnal shadow play, and while the twisting plot of Los tallos amargos is certainly part of its appeal, one can easily see where Muller is coming from — this would be a stunning film to behold even if one has no idea what’s happening. Smith, who cites noir’s “flexibility,” “variety,” and its “universal” qualities as disqualifiers for genre status, likewise praises the picture’s tactile “physicality and sensuality,” and indeed it is a remarkably visceral film. She and Muller also call due attention to its evocation of political trauma and its emigrational social milieu, inherent traits of noir that were demonstrably germane to the many Europeans who made some of America’s finest noir entries, and they nod approvingly to Ayala’s juxtapositions of the morbidly ironic with the romantically idyllic, of Alfredo’s horrific desperation and his darkly humorous diversions.  

Based on a novel by journalist Adolfo Jasca, Los tallos amargos was a resounding success upon its release, critically and commercially. But then, in an unfortunate case all too common in film history, especially in nations frequently disregarded by the superficial chronicle of the medium, it basically dropped out of circulation. At least with Los tallos amargos, though, the abandonment wasn’t permanent, and Muller and Peña recount the film’s eventual rediscovery, restoration, and re-release, a laudable progression for which we should all be grateful.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and is a Contributing Editor at Film International. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).

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