The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz (Ensayo De Un Crimen) (1955) shot in Mexico and filmed in Spanish is director Luis Buñuel’s (Los Olvidados, Simon of the Desert, Belle De Jour) sexy, dark comedy, thriller about a wealthy man who wants to be a great saint of a murderous sinner.
In the turbulent days of the Mexican Revolution, privileged young Archibaldo is given a music box by his mother while his sexy young nanny (Leonor Llausas) spins a story about its magic origin. As Archie listens transfixed on the box and the tale being told of genies and wild wishes, the poor nanny is killed by a stray bullet. Fascinated and aroused by her exposed stockinged legs, Archie is convinced that it was his thoughts and that magic music box that caused her death.
Fast forward to the dashing adult Archie (Ernesto Alonso) in a hospital as he relates this story to a pretty young nun who he plans on killing to prove a point. As Archie pulls a straight razor, the nun flees and falls down an open elevator shaft to her death. Called before the judge investigating the nun’s death, Archie bears his soul and confesses to her killing and a few others.
Archie spills it all: how the music box was taken by looters during the revolution and how he stumbled upon it while shopping. The disturbance it created in his mind began after he cut himself shaving. The blood and the music from the box brought back the memory of his dead nanny, her sexy legs, and his desire to kill.
Archie begins to hear a twisted version of the music in his head without having the box near to hand. He can recall it all, he remembers! Remembers meeting the loud, loose-moraled, flirt Patricia (Rita Macedo) who he planned to kill with a straight razor until her returning husband, Willie (Jose Maria Linares Rivas), spoiled his fun. Archie finds out the next day that Patricia has taken her own life via straight razor after another terrible fight with Willie.
Next is the one that got away, the gorgeous Lavinia (Miroslava Stern), who he meets at a bar that specializes in flaming drinks. His vision for her is the fires of his kiln. She’s saved as a group of tourists show up at Archie’s door, ready to explore a real ceramicist workshop and grand old home. Archie would have to settle with burning a mannequin modeled after Lavinia instead.
His blazing desire to kill will finally consume the life of his fiance, Carlota (Ariadna Welter). She lied to him! Said she was pure but Archie’s tipped off by her secret lover that they still meet in the shadows. He’d off her on their wedding day after making her kneel and say her prayers like a good girl. That doesn’t pan out either as Carlota’s ex-lover beats Archie to the punch and puts a bullet in her soon after the nuptials.
After hearing Archie’s confession, the judge laughs it all off, saying he can’t possibly prosecute someone for wishing people dead. It’s all in his head. He gives Archie one last piece of advice, “use an electric shaver.” Poor Archie finally has enough and throws the music box in a pond where it sinks with gulp and Archie triumphantly bounces off. As he walks from the pond, he stops and ponders killing an insect but he joyfully lets it go. See, it is all in his head. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. As Archie heads home, he sees the lovely Livinia once again. They chat briefly, she’s broken off her engagement, they happily walk off arm in arm. I’m happy VCI provided good subtitle options in both English and Spanish as the sound on my Blu-ray disc goes out here and I’m left watching the ending like it’s a silent film from a bygone era.
Buñuel takes no surreal trips or real social commentary detours. Easy to follow from beginning to end but that doesn’t mean it’s bland or lazy by any means. His themes are everywhere. One doesn’t have to try too hard to notice. There’s catholic imagery, sexy women (including the nun), mad obsession, devout dedication, and wonderfully framed scenes. He brilliantly ties certain events together by bookending them with flames, blood, or religious icons. While weaving Archie’s leg obsession into it all: the nanny’s as she lay on the floor shot; Patricia as she pauses before getting into her car to ask Archie if he likes her legs; the mannequin has a leg fall off as it’s being dragged to the kiln to burn in effigy.
Dysfunctional couples seem to be another theme throughout. There’s Archie and his fiance. Patricia’s stormy relationship with Willie. Lavinia is set to marry an older gentleman so she can be set for life. Thinking about it, this could explain the soap opera-esque organ music that introduces the movie.
Criminal Life is also considered one of those “cursed films” where tragedy strikes during and/or after filming. J. M. Linares Rivas died and troubled star Miroslava took her life before the film’s debut. Film historian Dr. David Wilt’s 26-minute insightful video essay goes over this and much more. Including facts like how some people compare this movie to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo due to its portrayal of obsessive desire and that Ariadna Welter’s sister, Linda Christian, married Tyrone Power.
This VCI Blu-ray edition has surprisingly great picture and sound quality. Explained by a note that appears on the back cover of the disc and before the movie begins to play which states in part that the movie “is part of the project for the preservation of Mexican Cinema…Image Digitization was performed from the original 35 mm negative acetate. 129,589 frames were restored. The sound was worked from a composite positive copy, using the optical sound negative to fill in the missing audio.” That last bit could also explain why the sound cuts out at the end of the picture. If it is, no ones talking about it and I don’t recall any mention in Dr. Wilt’s video either.
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz is not exactly what I expected but I’m not at all disappointed. Buñuel delivers an intriguing, dark comedy / thriller filled with beautiful women, wonderful scenery, and great framing. This well-filmed, well-acted work of Cine Mexicano is well worth the 90 minutes as we watch the would-be serial killer Archibaldo’s crimes thwarted by fate and carried out by others. All he really manages to do is get himself into some awkward situations, burn a mannequin, and cut himself shaving. In the end, it’s just his imagination running away with him.
A quick note on the Blu-ray cover, the images I’ve seen online have Buñuel’s name misspelled.. The copy I received has that error corrected as well as the wonky font on the spine.