El Verdugo (1963)

The past year has been a rather tragic one when it comes to classic cinema: Jean Simmons died in January; Lena Horne passed on in May, and then, just a little over a month back, Tony Curtis died. And, about a week ago, I got an e-mail from blog reader and friend Bawa to say that Spanish director Luis García Berlanga had died. Berlanga, the audacious film maker about whom Franco is supposed to have said, “Berlanga is not a Communist; he is worse than a Communist, he is a bad Spaniard.” Berlanga, creator of the superb Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!, which Bawa gave to me and helped spark off an enthusiasm for the work of this immensely talented film maker. Berlanga, who with this film derided capital punishment and made himself so unpopular with the Spanish government that they tried to stop the screening of El Verdugo at the Venice Film Festival… RIP.

El Verdugo (The Executioner, also known as Not on Your Life) does not have the laugh-out loud funniness of Beinvenido, Mister Marshall! It is funny, but in a more subtle, subdued sort of way. And the humour – unsurprising, considering that the two main characters are an executioner and an undertaker respectively – is dark. 


For instance, there’s this scene where the undertaker visits the executioner at home and notices a portrait photograph on the wall. That’s one of the men I executed, explains his host. On the wall opposite are other similar photos. The undertaker’s gaze automatically travels to them. There’s an unspoken question here, and the executioner says “No, those are just my relatives.”

But. To rewind. In Madrid, the old executioner, Amadeo (José Isbert, who also played the delightful mayor in Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!) is on assignment at the jail when he first meets the young undertaker, José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi). José Luis is somewhat wary of Amadeo; there is something pretty gruesome about a man who makes a living by killing other people, after all. But José Luis’s partner, all jovial and friendly (and also perhaps a bit morbidly curious about Amadeo’s work?) offers the old man a lift home in the undertakers’ van after the job is done. Amadeo accepts.

When they drop Amadeo off, he forgets his case in their van. José Luis is obliged to go after him to return the case. His visit to Amadeo’s poky little home results in José Luis meeting Amadeo’s daughter Carmen (Emma Penella). Carmen offers José Luis a cup of coffee; Amadeo insists that yes, their guest must stay for coffee; – and poof! there’s a definite whiff of chemistry in the air.

Now that we’ve been given a glimpse of Amadeo’s home, we also get to see José Luis’s home, which is nothing to be envied. He lives in the house (well, tiny hovel, actually) of his brother Antonio (José Luis López Vázquez) who works as a tailor. Antonio has a shrewish wife (who’s constantly nagging José Luis) and a brood of children, one of whom shares José Luis’s bed because there’s no space anywhere else.

So José Luis isn’t exactly wallowing in comfort. But after his getting to know Amadeo (and more importantly, Carmen) life begins to look up. The two undertakers soon become good friends with the executioner and his daughter, going off on picnics together…

and, unknown to Amadeo, José Luis and Carmen are soon having an affair. She admits to him that she’s never been able to hold the interest of any man because the men steer clear of her when they find out her father’s an executioner. He confides that no woman wants to marry him because he’s an undertaker.

In the midst of all these confidences, Amadeo unexpectedly comes home and makes the shocking discovery that José Luis has been sleeping with Carmen. José Luis tries to pacify the old man and even says (egged on by Carmen) that he would like to marry her. But Amadeo is too indignant and angry to listen. But it emerges, a few days down the line, that Carmen is pregnant. José Luis prevaricates; this job as an undertaker is a bummer and his greatest ambition has long been to go to Germany and train to be a mechanic. Maybe he’ll do that, and will send for Carmen once he’s settled in.

All of that comes to nothing, and they end up getting married. [The wedding scene is delicious. A large and ostentatious wedding has preceded José Luis and Carmen’s relatively low-key wedding, and even as our hero and heroine are getting hitched, the deacons and choir boys are busy setting the church to order: rolling up the carpet, removing the prayer cushions, snuffing out the candles. The candles next to the priest and the young couple are snuffed out one by one, until only one is left, offering a meagre light, by which the priest is straining to read the service. And all of them – José Luis, Carmen, Amadeo, their handful of relatives and friends – end up shuffling along, clustering around that one burning candle too.]

Anyway, now that they’re man and wife, they have to find a place to stay. What with things being so cramped in Antonio’s house, there’s no chance of Carmen going to live there; it’ll make a lot more sense for José Luis to move in with Carmen and Amadeo. Fortunately for all of them, Amadeo is to get a flat (thanks to his 40 years of service as an executioner), and it’s a lovely flat, with a fine view, three bedrooms, a comfortable balcony, a lift… and contenders who insist that this is their flat.

Amadeo ends up having to go to the government office to enquire into the allocation of his flat. Here, some shovelling through the paperwork, and a startling fact emerges: Amadeo, since he’s going to retire soon, is not entitled to a flat. The old man, undaunted, tries another tack: he has his daughter to support, he needs the flat. The official behind the desk (looking at Carmen’s big belly) points out that only single offspring can be considered dependants – to which Amadeo, quickly hustling José Luis out of the way – says that oh, she’s single all the right, the problem is that she’s single, and now this.

But none of this works. Amadeo, since he’s retiring, cannot get the flat. The next best solution? (And this is Amadeo’s idea): José Luis should apply for a job as an executioner. He becomes an executioner, he’ll be able to get a flat and they can all live in comfort.

The problem is that José Luis cannot stomach the idea of having to cold-bloodedly kill people for a living. Amadeo can pull strings, can talk to people (including a famous author of grisly books about the executioner’s trade), can plead and bully and use emotional blackmail – but will José Luis agree?

He does, after being browbeaten, coaxed and assured that most criminals get pardoned and don’t end up being executed. But can that assurance really hold true for all of José Luis’s career?

I watched El Verdugo in two sittings, just over an hour on one night, and the remaining 15-odd minutes the next night. When my husband asked me, after the first instalment, what the film was like, I said, “Not as funny as Beinvenido, Mister Marshall!, but okay, humorous enough. I like it.” And I did: this was a sweet, part-romantic, part-fun film about a man, his small family and his job. His job, mind you. Not his JOB, as it suddenly became in that last 15 minutes of the film. It was almost as if I was watching a completely different film: those few minutes turned out to be vastly darker and more disturbing (though with still a dark humour tingeing them) than the rest of the film.

That, I think, is what makes El Verdugo such a fine example of Berlanga’s genius. On the surface, the film beguiles you with the frothy, funny, sometimes silly vignettes of life for a lower-middle class family, coping with the problems of everyday life, celebrating the little triumphs and happinesses of everyday life too, the love for a spouse and the pride in one’s cute offspring… and then suddenly, Berlanga turns it on its head. There is something grotesquely, satirically funny in the sight of an executioner so reluctant to execute that he (more than the condemned man) has to be supported and cajoled and taken to the garotte. But that humour leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Is this a film about one man’s personal joys and sorrows and fears, or is this more? Is it not about the flippancy with which human lives are treated by the state, even while society itself makes a big show about the sanctity of human life? Why is the executioner so important to law enforcement, but despised by just about everybody, both within the infrastructure of which he’s a part, and outside? Why this hypocrisy?

What I liked about this film:

Berlanga’s deft handling of the subject matter. As I mentioned, El Verdugo starts off being light and reveals, only at the very end (or so it seemed to me!) its deepest truth. There are, when I look back on the film as a whole, little indications now and then of what Berlanga is saying beneath all that humour – but the deeply disturbing finale still came as a shock. Very well made: well scripted, acted and directed, and unforgettable.

What I didn’t like:

Let me begin by saying that this doesn’t mean that there’s actually anything wrong with El Verdugo; it’s just a result of my not knowing Spanish and therefore having to depend upon subtitles. Some scenes in the film consist of a number of people talking simultaneously, very fast and often at cross-purposes. When that means having to read something like four or five lines of subtitles at a time, it can get very frustrating; I ended up missing out on some text and had to go back to see what that was all about; and of course I was so busy reading the subtitles, I missed out on the details of what was happening onscreen.

But I guess that could be resolved by rewatching those scenes. I wouldn’t boycott El Verdugo for that; it’s too good a film.

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37 thoughts on “El Verdugo (1963)

  1. Hello! Glad you managed to watch it despite all that was going on with your computer. Liked your review, it is a dark film.

    One thing that might explain all the supposed frothiness with the underlying darkness is the heavy Censor board that existed during Franco’s dictatorship. Directors either produced films “in-lin” with the state policies (a popular one showing a family with 10-12 kids and a grandfather happily living on one job!!! and the wife all pretty and happy to boot!)

    Other filmakers like Berlanga tried to get round this censorship by pretending to make lighter/ irrelevant films, al the while showing aspects of life in Spain: the game was how much they could get away with. El Verdugo was very much in this spirit.

    I don’t know if you read that the last scene of the film was based on a real-life incident, where the executioner refused to execute a woman, Pilar Prades, condemned to death for posioning her employer, and then was got drunk enough by the other prison authorities until he was able to do the “job” (1959).

    Another event from the same year that El Verdugo was released was the execution of Julian Grimau, a leader of the Spanish Communist party in exile in France, who made clandestine visits to Spain to the resistance, was caught and sentenced to death in a summary military trial for supposed crimes in the Spnaish Civil War. Being a military trial, he was sentenced to death by the firing sqaud, the Guardia Civil (police force with military
    status), the squad in question refused- in itself an unprecedented thing- and they got a group of young people doing compulsory military service to do the firing. They were inept or un wanting and actually fired 27 shots wounding but not killing Grimau. The Lieutenent in charge then went up close range and shot Grimau in the head twice.

    This will perhaps give you a little bit of the background in which Berlanga was operating (his Thursday, Miracle and Placido, an indictment on religion and church) and the reason why it was the death penalty was a taboo subject in more ways than one.

    My husband was saying the same, that language would be a hinderance to in a Berlanga film, where not one line fo dialgue is said without some meaning, or irony or a dark joke. And the realism he uses when he has several talking at once (very common in Spain!)

    A fine review.

    • Thank you so much for all that background, bawa! That really helps – and thank you for suggesting El Verdugo. It’s an amazingly haunting film; those scenes towards the end literally gave me gooseflesh… full marks to Berlanga, for having the courage to make something like that. And your explanations about Pilar Prades and Grimau make the executioner’s story even more understandable. I think I’ve heard about the Grimau story somewhere… can’t remember where, but there’s something very familiar about it.

  2. As usual, a great review and an intense need to watch the movie NOW. My repertoire of movies has been extended since reading your blog, that’s for sure! Thank you my dear.

    • Thank you so much, Veen! Do look out for this one (or, for that matter, the absolutely superb Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!). Both are fantastic. I am very grateful to Bawa for gifting me that DVD – before that, this blog concentrated only on Hindi and English films; I’d never meant to venture into foreign language territory, but Bawa gave me the leg-up I needed, and thanks to that, I’ve managed to see some truly memorable films.

      • Since bawa gifted you this DVD, I’m guessing that you can’t tell me where I could buy it, but could you give me some information from the case that could help me track it down? Also, does your DVD have English subtitles?

        • AJ, just to clarify: bawa gifted me the Bienvenido, Mister Marshall DVD. I’ve had a close look at the DVD cover – it’s lying in front of me right now – but other than the fact that a ‘Video Mercury Films SA’ seems to have produced it, I can’t really see any signs of who markets it, or whatever. All the information on the cover pertains to the film itself, not the DVD version. And yes, it does have English subtitles.

          • Sorry for the mix-up. Did you watch “El Verdugo” on DVD? If so, was it also from Video Mercury Films? If so, did it have English subtitles? (Sorry for all the questions, but I’m trying to track down a library that has it so that borrow it via an inter-library-loan, but I can’t find a version that claims to have English subtitles.) Thanks for your help.

            • I must admit that I saw this in a somewhat convoluted and not strictly legal way – a friend who’d downloaded it copied it onto my laptop for me, and yes, it did have English subtitles. If you can find even a library which has a version that isn’t subtitled, perhaps you could download the subtitles separately, copy the DVD onto a computer, and watch it that way…? Or, if you’re willing to wait, I know Amazon has the subtitled version listed, but out of stock – with no knowing when it will be available.

              I hope you are able to watch this.

  3. Must you keep adding to my mile-long to-watch list? ;D

    Talking of executioners, I remember a rather horrifying short story from my school English curriculum. The executioner does his best to keep his trade a secret from his family, and embraces the profession for the sake of a much-loved son. All to no avail – turns out that his last job as an executioner is that of electrocuting the same son! I can’t remember the name of the story or the writer…

    • That sounds like a very grim tale indeed… I am surprised sometimes at what a lot of stories in my school text books used to focus on crime and/or punishment. Two of my favourite stories – The Man who Hated Time and Seventeen Oranges – were both about theft, in two very different ways.

        • Yup, you’re right. It’s Armistice Day, and at 11 AM on 11 November, everything stops for a 2-minute silence… except the hundreds of watches ticking in the boot of the smuggler’s car. The story is told in flashback by a tramp with a silver watch, to a stranger he meets in a cafe. The stranger thinks the tramp was the smuggler, but it turns out he was the Customs Officer, who accepted a bribe from the smuggler and began working with him – until he was caught and jailed.

          Good story. And I love Seventeen Oranges!

  4. With the death of Berlanga, a lot of his work is being rediscussed. For his 1957 film, Thursday, Miracle, apparently a priest was “assigned” to be with him on the film continously and made 200 pages of changs to the script! Berlanga was eventually kicked off it for refusing to change the ending, and the last scenes were written by this priest and another director finished the filming. The end has to be seen to be believed.

    Spanish TV broadcast his film La Vaquiila (The Heifer) -1985- a madcap comedy set in the Spanish Civil War, which he actually wrote in the 1950s, although given the story, no way it could have been actually produced in those times. And filmed in one of my favourrite places, the village of Sos de Rey Catolico: that it not a set!

    • “The end has to be seen to be believed.”

      Hmmm… so does that mean in a way that’s totally preposterous? Or cinematically superb? Something tells me it’s the former, not the latter. I assume the ‘assignment’ of the priest was to ensure that Berlanga stayed within the limits imposed by whatever censorship existed.

      Incidentally, while reading about Berlanga I read that he prided himself on being the director most frequently summoned by the Spanish censor board to answer charges!

  5. Any person Franco derides can only be good!
    RIP Luis García Berlanga
    I am so moved by the review and the story!
    Have to look up Berlanga at the local videothek!

    Thank you Bawa for the comments, the background helps a lot!

    • Since you do appreciate European cinema, harvey, I thought of you while writing this review – I think you’d like El Verdugo.

      Thank you again, bawa, for recommending this!

  6. Some of the European films are really good but as you rightly pointed out we often miss out on important dialogues. Believe meyou cannot depend on subtitles they sometimes mess it up with incorrect translations.

  7. Yes, they can truly mess them up :(
    English language films are dubbed in Spain: there is a huge industry and actors specialising in the field so it is the best it can be. Dubbing also allows for a more detailed translation as in subtitling you inveitably have to shorten and summarise.

    However, I find that I prefer reading subtitles with the original voices rather than the dubbing for films in languages I do not know, Italian, French or even Japanese. Somehow, even without the words, the tone, the inflection, the way of speaking, says a lot to me.

    And the beauty of cinema is that a great film in any language is impressive.

  8. Sorry for the longish silence – I’ve been very busy, and since my computer was out of commission anyway, getting net access was difficult. The computer’s repaired now and I’ve more free time on my hands and the weekend’s nearly here and I’ve been missing films, so I’m back again!

    I agree with you, bawa, completely: I prefer subtitled films to dubbed, even when it means that perhaps I can’t get all the dialogues, and/or the subtitles are sometimes too long to read at one go. After all, a lot of an actor’s acting has to do with voice – and that goes if you’re watching a dubbed film.

    • Not to mention how hilarious dubbing can sometimes be. The dialogues have to be translated fully and match the lip movements as far as possible – it leads to a lot of weird sounding dialogues. Through a mix-up in ticket booking, I once ended up watching Jurassic Park in Hindi and it was more comedy than action-thriller because of the dialogues – the translation of the swear words was absolutely hilarious!

      • That way films and TV series dubbed in Spain are amazingly well-done, I have to admit. Dialogues are translated so that lips match a very different sentence, especially in close-ups. Guess it comes from long experience. Also all major actors have a “voice” assigned to them asap, so that e.g. Harrison Ford always speaks with the same “voice” in all his movies.

        Still, if I have a chance to watch the original version, always do. As you say, a major part of acting is voice….

        I love Miyasaki’s animation films for instance, but the American-english dubbing voice just feels unsuitable, and then you listen to the original version, and just the sound of the language and speaking style seems to blend in so well with the spirit of the movie.

      • My parents live in Meerut, having shifted there after my father retired in 1997. Around that time, Jurassic Park (part 2, I think) was released, and since the English film audience is very limited in Meerut, only the Hindi dubbed version was shown. Mum and Papa had enjoyed the first film, so they decided to go watch the second, even if it was in Hindi. My mother still laughs when she remembers the experience – the Hindi dialogues were ridiculous!

        Bawa, I wish more cinema and TV companies would take lessons from that! All too often, I’ve even noticed that people who’re dubbing seem to have only one qualification: that they can speak the language. Not necessarily emote. Listening to a flat and toneless voice droning on while the actor onscreen is obviously doing a fine job of acting can be very frustrating.

        • The people doing the dubbing in Spain are actors, some of them very wll-known in their own language: this is a lucrative occupation for actors here! And they change their voice according to the actor they are dubbing: forninstance, it is one actor who usually dubs for Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro and Sylvester Stallone. There are dubbing directors and a whole production team.

          In Germany too, dubbing is done on these lines: being an entire branch of the acting industry.

          I can believe the Hindi dubbing to be awful! Curiously enough, dubbing into English in the US and UK is also really terrible, because there is no real tradition of doing it.

          Trivia: In Almodovar’s first international success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (his one film I relly like), the main actor, Carmen Maura, and her ex are dubbing professionals, and you can see the process in one of the early scenes in the film, very nicely woven into the story.

  9. Hi! Recently have finally found a few more Spanish classics and have enjoyed them a lot.
    Some of them are crime-mystery stories, but all are rather whacky.

    All from the 1940s. Edgar Neville’s La Vida en un Hilo (Life in a single string), La Torre de los Siete Jorobados (The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks) and Domingo de Carnaval (Carnival Sunday), El Crimen de la Calle Bordadores and finally Eloisa is under the Almond Tree by Rafael Gil

    • Bawa, thank you for all those suggestions! They go into that notepad file in which I list all the films I have to look out for – a file that’s getting too long!

      I remember you having mentioned Eloisa is Under the Almond Tree; I’d looked for it too, but hadn’t been able to find it. Will search again, also for the others. Gracias!

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