by Allan Fish
(Spain 1963 90m) DVD2 (Spain only, no English subs)
Aka. Not on Your Life; The Executioner
The future executioner
d Luis Garcia Berlanga w Luis Garcia Berlanga, Rafael Azcona, Ennio Flaiano ph Tonino delli Colli ed Alfonso Santacana m Miguel Asins Arbo art José Antonio de la Guerra
Nino Manfredi (José Luis Rodriguez), Emma Penella (Carmen), José Isbert (Amadeo), José Luis López Vásquez (Antonio Rodriguez), Angel Alvarez (Alvarez), Guido Alberti (prison director), Maria Luisa Ponte (Estefania), Maria Isbert (Ignacia),
It’s one of the forgotten great films of the sixties. I myself have only been able to view it very recently, and its reputation more than preceded it. Despite the sixties alone offering such Spanish masterworks as Buñuel’s Viridiana and Saura’s The Hunt, native critics consistently named El Verdugo not only the greatest film of its director, but the best Spanish film of its decade and even of all time. Take in what that means. Better than anything made by Buñuel on Spanish soil (admittedly most of his best stuff was made in France or Mexico), better than anything by Edgar Neville, by Erice, by Almodóvar, by Medem, by anybody. There was a danger of over-inflated expectations when I finally put the sought after DVD into my player. It was quickly dispelled.
José Luis Rodriguez makes his way to the prison one day for what is, for him, a regular duty. He’s an undertaker, and he’s there with his colleague to pick up a recently executed prisoner and take his coffin away, followed by the family mourners. One thing is slightly different this time; he’s persuaded to give a lift to the executioner, a small, mouse-like old man who keeps forgetting his terminatory equipment. When he gets to where he wants to go the old man leaps out and disappears leaving his case behind him. José Luis follows him and makes his way to the old man’s house. There Amadeo, as he is called, is living with his unmarried daughter Carmen. Carmen immediately takes a fancy to José, and thinking nothing of it, José and Carmen do the dirty deed – remember this is Catholic Spain here – and gets her knocked up.
At first José agrees to marry her, but when it’s discovered that if his daughter is married he’ll not be able to keep the new flat they want for his retirement, José most reluctantly accepts the offer of being put on stand-by as an executioner, with Amadeo telling him that he can always resign if and when the day comes, and that more often than not, a pardon comes just in time to save you the trouble. Needless to say, the day does come, and the family combine the trip to the prison in question with an overdue honeymoon and holiday, but the authorities are after José Luis to do his duty, which he absolutely does not want to do.
As a black farce, it’s a film with few equals, let alone successors. One thinks of the old man discussing how to deal with unsympathetically strong necks when asked to perform the duties of hangman, or getting a signed copy of a book entitled, quite simply, ‘Public Garrotting’, and of the hilarious wedding ceremony where one religious zealot is anxious to take down the trappings of an opulent wedding only just finished seconds before. It’s a fast-moving film, which betrays Spanish’s status as the fastest talking language of them all with subtitles that, to translate everything said, run to three lines and require an ability to read as fast as Fagin can count money. Isbert is superb as the old verdugo – the word means executioner – and Penella is fine as the woman caught in the middle, yet it’s dominated by Manfredi, one of the great nervous wrecks in cinema, dragged kicking and screaming to perform his duties as executioner while the prisoner makes his way calmly to his fate. It’s a turn worthy of Mastroianni, and it’s a shame that he and the film are so unappreciated – and so unseen – outside of Spain. And Berlanga, too, whose pacing is pitched to perfection, remains a name marginalised in film history. If this ever came out on Masters of Cinema or Criterion, it would be an instant hit. So we pray, pray to our deities in the cutting room in the sky, give this film a break.