1952's Si muero antes de despertar is adapted from a novella by William Irish, better known as Cornell Woolrich. Adapting the story to an Argentinian setting makes little difference, and in fact the added element of Catholic guilt perhaps darkens and intensifies the noir atmosphere. The poetic handling of this tale of murder and suspense, and the way a train blasts through the frame, strobe-lighting a frightened child, recall Val Lewton's production The Leopard Man, also set south of the border and also based on a Woolrich tale.
Carlos Hugo Christensen had a particular liking for the film noir aesthetic and stories of shadowy deeds (the same year also saw him release a striking compendium film, No abras nunca esa puerta / Never Open That Door, based on two short stories by Woolrich). He brings expressionistic brio to the story of a truculent schoolboy who is sworn to secrecy by a little girl about the mysterious adult friend who gives her sweeties. When she goes missing, he feels unable to break his silence, because everyone tells him that an oath is sacred. Then another little girl, recipient of coloured chalks from an unknown benefactor, goes missing. Now the boy wants to tell the authorities, but owing to his past misbehavior, no one will believe him. He sets out to find her by following the chalk marks she always liked to leave on walls...
The only flaw in the film is a tendency to extend scenes and effects a little too long, a result of padding a short story to modest feature length. But as with most works by Woolrich, there is also a benefit to be gained by stretching out the tension to outrageous lengths. Christensen and his screenwriter Alejandro Casona add a spoken prologue explicitly relating their tale of a modern child killer to fairy tales of the past, and there's a wacky dream sequence taking place in an expressionist void dotted with bizarre objects: a carousel, a winding path into nothingness.
Best of all is a scene showing the young hero trying to go about his everyday life, where every object he sees triggers memories of his little friend's grim fate and his own appalling secret.
The climax is unbearably tense, as the hero tries to rescue the abducted girl from a shack in the woods. There's particularly fine use of moonlight, as a passing cloud allows illumination to spread like a blanket, creeping towards the kids who are trying to stay hidden. Of course, the mad killer chooses this moment to turn up, and says the most terrifying thing possible under the circumstances. "Ah, there's two of you now? Even better."
Like 1949's gripping The Window, the movie wrings enormous suspense from placing its child protagonist in adult-level jeopardy, something that's almost lost to us now that movies are market-tested, so that scary movies for teenagers and grown-ups never star little kids.
The lead boy is at first refreshingly, if unappealingly obnoxious, an arrogant brat, which makes it almost pleasurable to see him reduced to quavering terror. But as we're reduced to quavering terror too, we finally find ourselves sympathising with the little tyke.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.