We Were Strangers (John Huston / U.S., 1949):

John Huston's subversion starts out with a Thomas Jefferson quote ("Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God") and continues with the contrast between the Cuban senate as an oppressive law is passed (disinterestedly, indolently) and the underground fighters as they accept a suicide mission (resolutely, somberly). The setting is 1933, Machado is yet to be ousted and passing leaflets earns a young activist a hail of bullets on the steps of the university; Jennifer Jones, his sister, joins the rebels for revenge but falls for the terse passion of the mastermind (John Garfield), her house becomes the group's hideout as they dig a tunnel under the Havana Cemetery and towards the dictator. Dynamite is concealed in conga drums, Gilbert Roland ("something of a poet") grabs a pickaxe and delivers the first blow on a rocky side, "this is for the President." Huston's overt sympathy for sedition might be a jibe at the McCarthyism just around the corner, and his filmmaking is up to the task -- the stark claustrophobia of the compositions (a bedrock for Le Trou, The Great Escape, Kanal) is continuously goosed by an urgent surrealism out of Buñuel's Mexican period, as in the moment when the heroine, roused by nightmares, descends into the tunnel as if into a tomb and is startled by Garfield's face covered in red dust. Jones with a machine-gun in hand anticipates Mao's ode to female warriors ("Spirited and attractive, with a five feet rifle..."), while Pedro Armendáriz as the dapper government jackal offers a virtuoso rehearsal for El Bruto, decrying Yankees for their lack of romanticism while slurping crab and gulping rum. The rebels' plan is capped with a fine Hustonian collapse, though the revolution nevertheless erupts right on cue for the couple's bittersweet adieu -- the director understands how far Hollywood will allow insurrection, and casts himself as the forlorn employee in the bank teller's cage. With Ramon Navarro, Wally Cassell, and José Pérez. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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