The structure of The Beast Must Die is the first thing to notice about it. It has a now standard, in 1952 much less routine “Several months earlier”… plot gambit. The first 20 minutes of the movie take place before the major driver of the story, which is the death of a child in a hit and run.
The film was directed by Uruguayan-Argentinian director Romany Vinoly Barreto, who was a major figure in the bustling Argentinian film industry in the mid-20th century. The Beast Must Die is an Argentinian film noir from 1952. And the first 20 minutes, where the patriarch of a family is murdered and everyone is a suspect, felt much less like an American cool film noir, and more like a telenovela. The murder victim is so loathsome, he should have been twirling his mustache. The women surrounding him, when he dies, go into such hysterics that not a single piece of scenery apparently goes unchewed.
Twenty minutes in, I was ready for continued hysteria, and not much quality. Because that was what I’d felt the film was providing: entertaining emotionalism, but nothing much in terms of storytelling. But The Beast Must Die proved me wrong, because in its now clichéd flashback structure, it brought both an emotionalism and a cleverness to the storytelling that told a multi-layered story from what could have been a simple who-dun-it style mystery.
The Beast of the title is the monstrous Jorge. What he does for a living is itself a mystery, but he has a lot of money and he throws his weight around. He beats his wife and his step-son, while making time with his sister-in-law, much to the chagrin of his mistress. Already, his sins are multifarious… but when he runs over a young boy, the child of mystery novelist Felix Lane, he develops an enemy more than worthy of his powers.
The Beast Must Die is based on a novel by Cecil Day-Lewis, father of (among others) Daniel Day-Lewis. Writing as Nicholas Blake, his story was one of a series featuring his detective Nigel Strangeways. Strangeways has a couple of scenes in this film, but he’s in no way the protagonist. That’s the revengeful father, Felix Lane, who essentially seduces the evil Jorge’s sister-in-law to infiltrate the family, and get close to Jorge to hopefully enact his revenge. In so doing, he encounters Jorge’s son-in-law, Ronnie, who so reminds him of his dead son that he forms an attachment that might prove detrimental to his cold-blooded revenge plan.
The Beast Must Die, though based on an English novel, is an Argentinian film, and has significant differences from an American film made in the same era. First, and maybe most superficial, there’s the costuming: American films knew breasts existed, but they weren’t happy about the reality, and kept them as tightly under wraps as possible. In this film, the female characters, in particular Linda Lawson (Laura Hidalgo) whose bust is practically her main characteristic, are more prominently displayed. Her other main feature is her Latin temper, which would have seemed a wild stereotype were she not in an Argentinian film. Second, there’s the difference in what is acceptable in a character. Our protagonist spends the film planning a murder, and it is his (and the audience’s) deepest wish that he succeed. This would be completely unacceptable in a contemporary American film without some form of mitigation. The Beast Must Die offers none – the bad dude deserves whatever happens to him.
For entertainment values, The Beast Must Die rewards patience. The first 20 minutes of the film are fun, but rather histrionic. Honestly, the story seemed silly, with Latin women playing every scene at 11. There’s even a scene where Linda comes raving at Felix, and ends up groveling at his feet begging for forgiveness at the end of it. It felt like soap opera stuff, and would have been too much for an entire film. But the storytelling calms down into something with more sophistication and pathos. There’s decent twists and turns and cleverness, so the acute mystery fan will not feel bored, even though the murder occurs in the first 10 minutes of the film.
Barreto creates some striking visual sequences. The scene where Felix finds his dead son is harrowing, with his bloody hand outstretched, seeking comfort it shall never find. There are several sophisticated montage sequences demonstrating Felix’s initial unsuccessful investigations into his son’s death. It’s a glimpse into a world of filmmaking that is probably unfamiliar to most American audiences – it was to me. And it left me with an interest in seeking out more.
The Beast Must Die has been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley. Extras include an audio commentary by Guido Segal. Video extras include an “Introduction to The Beast Must Die” (7 min) by Eddie Muller; “New In-Depth Conversation (33 min) between film archivist Fernando Martin Pena and the director’s son, Daniel Vinoly; and a “Profile of actor Narciso Ibanez Menta” (5 min). There’s also a booklet with an essay on the film by Eddie Muller.