In 1915, in Mexico City, a gang creates an atmosphere of terror by its criminal activities: robberies, kidnappings, and worse. This crime wave actually occurred.
El automóvil gris, directed by Enrique Rosas, began as a silent serial, to which additional editing was applied to fashion a theatrical feature; sound effects and voices for the “dialogues” were subsequently also added. The title refers to the nondescript nature of the gang’s vehicle disseminating this message: the gang might strike at any moment, when you least expect it.
The film, much of it shot in the open air, admits divided aims: breezy entertainment, along the lines of French and Hollywood criminal-adventures; the delivery of a stern message regarding crime and punishment.
In some ways, the film is engagingly postmodern; the police investigator is played by the actual police investigator in the actual case. The criminals disguise themselves as soldiers, suggesting on the part of the filmmakers an antiwar stance. Much intrigues and delights.
However, the film is most famous for its grim and exacting finale, where the actors playing the criminal parts are deftly, swiftly replaced by actual condemned criminals in an actual scene of execution against an outside prison wall. At the same time, Sunday-dressed citizens have gathered to observe the theatrical delivery of comeuppance in accord with serious “law and order.”
The mass snuff-stuff is grisly and shocking; for me, at least, sympathies turn to the criminals and against the law, capital “justice,” and the state. In no small measure, however unforseeably, this may be the result of “the wall,” which twenty years hence Jean-Paul Sartre would identify with Franco’s mass executions of political prisoners—republicans—during the Spanish Civil War.
Try as we may, “the wall” is too potent a twentieth-century symbol for us to disregard. This film predates it, but we do not. Between the time of the film and our own time, much history weighs enormously on our hearts.
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