Sep 18, 2009
Four with Ricardo Montalban
It is appropriate that Ricardo Montalban will always be best known as elegant Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island and as the sophisticated gentleman he portrayed in a series of Chrysler commercials. These two upbeat, confident personas showcase the best elements of his charisma. However, there is much more to Montalban. He was a versatile actor, comfortable performing in anything from dark film noir to colorful musicals. Montalban is one of many great actors we have lost this year. I wanted to celebrate him on this day, when he will be honored with a special tribute at the Alma awards.
Here are four movies that demonstrate Montalban’s ability to charm in any genre:
Mystery Street (1950)
This clever, low-key noir was the first to star a Latino lead. Montalban plays a small town policeman who attempts to solve the mystery of a dead party girl. The detailed forensics scenes could have become tedious, but with his jaunty, intelligent manner Montalban brings life to this procedural.
Border Incident (1949)
Montalban is riveting in this dark, tense drama set in the Southern California farmlands. He plays a Mexican agent collaborating with his American counterparts in a high-risk undercover operation in order to expose the exploitation of illegal workers. There are moments in this movie that are so brutal that they retain their shock value today. Montalban’s brave and decent character elevates the sordid proceedings.
On an Island with You (1948) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
In his two Esther Williams musicals, Montalban is a suave, romantic delight. Richard Thorpe, the dour director for both productions, was perpetually irritated by his cheerful costars. It didn’t help that Williams and Montalban were also morning people. This exuberance shows up on the screen. In Island Montalban has his somber moments, but he also gets a chance to show off his elegant dance style with Cyd Charisse. He is more consistently upbeat in Neptune’s Daughter, where he debuts Baby It’s Cold Outside in a playful scene with Williams.
I must add that I think Ricardo Montalban was the best celebrity pitchman ever. Just listen to the way he says “soft Corinthian leather”:
Here he is on Letterman, admitting, in the most charming way, that Corinthian leather was a marketing term: