Friday, January 16, 2009

Ricardo Montalban: A Groundbreaker in Dark City

Like most people my age, I grew up with two images of Ricardo Montalban (who died Wednesday at the age of 88). One, he was the old guy on Fantasy Island. Much more importantly, he was Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I don't have much to say about Fantasy Island because I only saw it a few times when I was a kid. Of Star Trek II, I can say this: his performance elevates the whole film. I'm not a Trekker, but perhaps that's my main qualification for recommending that movie. As a non-aficionado, I can testify that it's an exciting piece of science fiction and that Montalban is excellent in it. Take my word on that for what it's worth.

I know a lot more about film noir than I do science fiction, however, and on this subject I can highly recommend a couple of films you might be interested in. In the late forties and early fifties, Ricardo Montalban put in some time in the land of perpetual night, turning in good performances in two enjoyable noirs directed and shot by some of the genre's masters.

The first noir was Border Incident (1949), which was probably the best noir about illegal immigration (yes, there were others) made in during the classic period. It was directed by Anthony Mann and lensed by the incomparable John Alton. It's a good piece of work, with Montalban starring as Mexican agent who goes undercover to bust a gang of crooks who sneak migrant workers into the country and then double cross them once they get here. It's interesting to see this issue play out in a late-forties drama, and even more interesting to see Montalban's portrayal as the upright Mexican lawman.

His other film noir was the superior Mystery Street (1950) directed by John Sturges. Here Montalban is in Boston trying to track down a killer. The film (like Border Incident) is notable mainly for Alton's incredible lighting, but Mystery Street, in its way, also marks an interesting progression in the depiction of race in American films. Here's an American mystery story from 1950 where the hero is a Hispanic-American. It's not even part of the plot; he's just the good guy. Montalban might be best remembered as either an old dude in a white suit or as Captain Kirk's archnemisis, but fans of classic film would be well-served to check out his contributions to film noir.

No comments: