La Cara Oculta (The Hidden Face)
Thriller fans have been snotty about La Cara Oculta. They complain that the script shows insufficient regard for credibility. Jonathan Holland in Variety said that the film ‘was throwaway entertainment’. He needs to get out more or at least read Jane Eyre.
Horror fans are not devotees of realism. They expect and even anticipate the unreal. La Cara Oculta is in three parts. The middle part is a long and bold flashback that brought back pleasant memories of 40s Hollywood. The first part of the film has horror elements, and the final part unites the two elements of the past in the present through the two main female characters. Meanwhile the movie has moved from horror to thriller via romantic melodrama. This is admirable.
Admittedly the plot relies on a dopey local police force ignoring a hidden room built by a Nazi war criminal that escaped to Columbia after the Second World War. Film critics need to be careful. We have made mistakes before in under-estimating Nazi determination and ingenuity. After all, the room was built to be undetectable. Sceptical critics think that the police should have at least looked. Considering how little we see of the police in the film, it would have done no harm. But Vertigo is now rated the best film ever and that has an absurd plot.
Hitchcock is dead but, if alive, he might have been tempted by the script of La Cara Oculta. His own remake of Jane Eyre was lauded. That film was called Rebecca and, like La Cara Oculta, it combined suspense with romantic escapist melodrama. La Cara Oculta also adds slight horror and pays satisfying homage to the conventions of the different genres. Hitchcock was not averse to realism, as he showed in The Wrong Man, but he preferred beautiful people living in beautiful homes that had tamed countryside on the doorstep. This did his masterpiece Notorious no harm. No one believed that plain Claude Rains would think that beautiful Ingrid Bergman fancied him. We did not care because we were too busy worrying about her love affair with Cary Grant.
La Cara Oculta may not be the equal of a Hitchcock masterpiece but it has merit. The daftness that does exist has an appealing neatness. The twenty question sequence at the washbasin is not believable but all will watch to see how the dialogue unfolds. The climax of the film requires an appearance and contribution from a Rin Tin Tin look alike. His presence may be dubious but it is about time that the famous Alsatian and valued actor had some contenders.
La Cara Oculta is glossy and polished and a surprise for those who might expect low budget South American realism from Columbia. We see the gifted and glamorous at play. They wear elegant clothes and impeccable make up. For completion there is classical music on the soundtrack. La Cara Oculta echoes the smooth escapism of upmarket French cinema.
Martina Garcia plays Fabiana the woman that orchestra conductor Adrián meets after he is abandoned by Belen. There are moments when Fabiana even exceeds male fantasies. Barmaids are entitled to respect but working behind a bar is tiring. Few look like Fabiana after working a late shift or settle so easily into the glittering world of a famous artist. Her social mobility is a glorious conceit only found in romantic melodrama.
Unless you work for Variety the references to Jane Eyre should be obvious. Feminism has influenced criticism of that literary masterpiece for some time. Now we have revisionist versions of Snow White that have the Evil Queen as a bruised ageing heroine determined to maintain a home and resist the adulterous alternatives of the young and overambitious Snow White. Jane Eyre was feminist protest fit for the Victorian age; only talented women need apply. Before Jean Rhys gave a sympathetic account of the first wife of Rochester in Wide Saragossa Sea, nobody worried too much about disposable female victims. The aristocrat and handsome Rochester was troubled. A madwoman locked up in the attic was more than a man could bear. When Mrs Rochester perished in the fire at Thornfield Hall, there was relief for everyone. The movie Vertigo was a male fantasy from a sexually frustrated overweight man but it may have helped Hitchcock sleep at night. The movie may not be rooted in reality but it is honest and open. Today the clear eyed honesty of Hitchcock exposes that fantasy as male manipulation. The film has a feminist warning. The greats give us more than we want and that they intend. It is how their talent operates. Charlotte Brontë insisted on emancipation of women in Jane Eyre but she also indulged the flawed appetites of Rochester and his lack of compassion.
La Cara Oculta has a hidden room/attic in a remote Columbia retreat and a good one because it was built by German efficiency. Jane Eyre avoids the attic in deepest Yorkshire. She is virtuous whereas the first wife of Rochester is mad and generally difficult. In La Cara Oculta the attic is a more complicated destiny, and no one can be sure what will happen inside the attic and who may finish there. Apart from being useful for really terrible Nazis the attic exists as a protest against romance. It insists that, because of memory, past lovers remain to haunt future relationships. Few of us have an ancestral mansion to burn down and we have to live with the burden. Adrián has three girlfriends. They are separated by chronology but the relationships overlap and, as the attic proves, none can be abandoned by him. At one point, and without him knowing, all three are in his life. The women are similar but different. Belen his first girlfriend has a juvenile appearance. Her small face makes her look like a schoolgirl. Fabiana the barmaid follows Belen and is an adolescent fantasy, opportunist perhaps and a social climber but pliable and great in bed. Verónica is the last to arrive and she is a talented violinist and has curves. Belen and Fabiana are attractive but they have boyish figures. Adrián has matured as a male and progressed from the nubile to the hot to the capable and equal, except it is not progress but indulgence.
The plot is driven by the behaviour and ambition of Belen and Fabiana. Adrián is not the main character in La Cara Oculta. He is in the narrative because the film requires the fantasy male figure of romantic melodrama. Adrián is rich, quietly spoken and has plenty of hair, although the actor does look a little like Joe Allen who plays for the Liverpool football team. Cary Grant he is not. In Notorious the character played by Grant is known as Devlin, his surname. The single name tells us he is a narrow man. But Devlin is capable of rescuing the trapped Bergman from Claude Rains. There is a man in La Cara Oculta who has genuine love for a woman and is not dominated by immature sexual need. He is not like Devlin. This man is one of the dopey policemen who ignore the hidden room. The house may be beautiful and the classical music familiar from melodrama but the men do not impress. The three women take the men or the prizes they offer too seriously. The competition between women for worthless men, and prizes that will pall, causes ruin.
La Cara Oculta pays tribute to escapist movie genres, and viewers can bathe in the celluloid gloss but none of the characters escape from the plot without being harmed. All of them deserve their wounds and fate. La Cara Oculta is sly and knowing. It understands male ambition and how it changes. Powerful males and more than a few of the rest progress through women and leave casualties. All of us, men and women, build attics for our victims. We are obliged to be discrete. But we also exist in the attics of others. Charlotte Brontë may have realised this but if she did she refused to accept the harsh truth. Brontë burnt down the ancestral home. Daphne Du Maurier was obliged to do the same in Rebecca.
La Cara Oculta is less optimistic. At different times Belen and Fabiana are both desirable Jane Eyre and the must to avoid madwoman in the attic. Verónica may play a violin and be self-sufficient but neither should she be optimistic. The heroine anticipates fulfilment at the end of Jane Eyre. The ending of La Cara Oculta makes no promises and suggests that more confusion will follow. James Stewart is left to look at the abyss way below his feet at the end of Vertigo. Adrián is obliged to look at himself in the mirror and be baffled. Unaware of what has happened, of himself and his behaviour the powerful and gifted Adrián knows less than the Rin Tin Tin lookalike Alsatian at his side.
In Notorious, Cary Grant is both a fabulous hero and an inadequate male. His complex morality means that we can watch Notorious repeatedly. La Cara Oculta may not have the depth of Notorious or Vertigo but it does not deserve to be thrown away. The film is a lot more knowing than glib critics who too easily think they know enough.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.