El Enmascarado de Plata/The Silver-Masked Man (1954)

‘Just get up for a rabbit shot!’

A series of seemingly natural disasters sweep across Mexico, including a raging hurricane and flooding. These have been engineered by a masked supervillain who plans to hold the government to ransom. Fortunately, a wrestling crime fighter is out to thwart his dastardly plan…

Important early film in the development of the Mexican wrestling genre from director René Cardona and writer José G. Cruz. Originally released as a serial in the United States, it was trimmed to a two-hour feature for domestic audiences, and it’s only this version that survives today.

It’s a hard life being the ‘Man in the Silver Mask’. Fulfilling evil plans for world domination is a complicated business, after all, and it costs money, lots of it. So, not only do you have to invent and operate diabolical machines of destruction, but you also need to run a criminal gang to obtain the necessary cash. And that means planning robberies and dodging the police (not a problem) and masked wrestler El Médico Asesino (not so easy). Yes, a big, muscly man in doctor’s scrubs is his nemesis and the film’s hero. But, hang on, where is El Santo? Wasn’t the star of more than 50 movies, many directed by Cardona, known as ‘El Enmascarado de Plata’? And wasn’t he a hero? Of course he was. So what’s going on here?

Appearing in the ring as the silver-masked El Santo, by the end of the 1940s, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta was arguably the most popular wrestler in Mexico. But his character was a villain, and it was necessary to turn him into a hero to capitalise on that success. Part of this process involved a series of comic books launched in 1952 and written by José G. Cruz. These were highly popular, and a movie seemed the next logical step. However, Santo passed on the project for reasons that seem unrecorded. Cruz was less than impressed with the decision and so tweaked his original screenplay to turn ‘El Enmascarado de Plata’ back into a villain. Another real-life wrestler, El Médico Asesino, was brought in to play himself as the story’s hero.

As we join the action, the villain’s diabolical plan is already in progress with the country devastated by his hurricane. Curiously, though, rather than blackmailing the authorities immediately, instead he focuses on masterminding a series of robberies. Perhaps forward planning isn’t one of his strengths, and operating his machines of immaculate destruction has taken him over his allocated budget. They do appear again later on, but then he only uses them to demolish a building, so I guess stories of their dreadful power may have been a little exaggerated.

These world-shaking events are followed by journalists Alfredo (Victor Junco) and Julio (Crox Alvarado), who are not only fighting over the next scoop but also the hand of the beautiful Elena (Aurora Segura). Both are strangely absent from the action every time El Médico Asesino saves the day, and the audience is invited to guess which one is beneath the mask and surgeon’s scrubs. Our grappling hero also gets himself a perky sidekick in the form of street urchin Freckles, played by the director’s son, René Cardona Jr.

But then, gasp!, things get weird when El Enmascarado de Plata dies halfway through the film! When he’s unmasked, it turns out that he’s just the head waiter from shady nightclub ‘The Paradise’. Cruz having another poke at El Santo for turning down the film, perhaps? Yes, the old silver mask was only the frontman for the real mastermind, the impressively masked El Tigre (you can’t have too many masked characters in a film). The arch-enemies lock horns for a final confrontation in the gripping conclusion. Who will win, and which of our heroes will Segura choose as her suitor (a somewhat less gripping outcome).

Leaving aside the slightly convoluted genesis of the film, this is an interesting halfway point between the US serials of classic Hollywood and the Mexican wrestling films to follow. From the former, we get the usual round of fistfights, narrow escapes and kidnappings, but there are fewer actual cliffhangers, which presumably made it easier to cut down the original episodes into a coherent feature. Fans of the Mexican films to follow will recognise the obsession with masks and secret identities (three!), although they may feel a little short-changed by the prioritising of fisticuffs over wrestling action. Despite being a real-life fighter in the square ring, El Médico Asesino seems a little slow and awkward compared to the more athletic fighters that followed in his footsteps.

Although the film does contain some genuinely enjoyable moments, it feels a fair bit longer than its two-hour running time as the story never really develops. This was quite probably down to its origins in the serial format, but the endless round of captures, escapes and repetitive fight choreography becomes a little wearing long before the final curtain.

It’s perhaps not surprising that El Médico Asesino made way for other more charismatic screen luchadors, although he did appear in all-star wrestling cavalcade ‘The Champions of Justice’ (1971). Cardona went on to a spectacularly long career in cult cinema with dozens of noteworthy features to his name, including ‘Santa Claus’ (1959), ‘Wrestling Women vs The Aztec Mummy/Las luchadoras contra la momia’ (1964), ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure/Santo en El tesoro de Drácula’ (1969), ‘Night of the Bloody Apes’ (1969), and ‘Santo and the Vengeance of the Mummy/Santo en la venganza de la momia’ (1972). His son soon moved behind the camera to join him and has a very similar directing pedigree. Spy thriller ‘SOS Conspiracion Bikini’ (1967) was followed by feline horror ‘The Night of a Thousand Cats/La noche de los mil gatos’ (1972), Jaws ‘homage’ ‘Tintorera’ (1977) and ‘El ataque de los pájaros’ (1987) a film about killer chickens.

A film for those interested in the evolution of the Mexican Wrestling movie phenomenon. Somewhat less than essential for everyone else.

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