“It is what it is. I don’t know if I did or did not want to make a melodrama,” said Luis Buñuel of El Bruto (The Brute). If the similarities between Fassbinder’s Martha and Buñuel’s El are unavoidable, there are also striking similarities between El Bruto and Fassbinder’s The Stationmaster’s Wife: butcher shops, misogynistic men, domineering women and their hen-pecked husbands. Bruto (Pedro Armendariz) represents brute force as a weapon of oppression. When a group of tenants refuse to be evicted from their homes, slumlord Don Andres (Andrés Soler) hires slaughterhouse worker Bruto to “rough up” Don Carmelo Gonzalez (Roberto Meyer), the slum’s most vocal troublemaker. An already sick Carmelo dies from wounds sustained by Bruto’s powerful hand and it’s not long before the men in town are out for blood. Don Andres’s much younger wife, Paloma (Katy Jurado), falls hard for Bruto as he contemplates the power of his punch by knocking around pieces of meat hanging inside the old man’s butcher shop. If Buñuel was uncertain as to whether he was consciously making melodrama, his two leads knew exactly what they were doing. Buñuel may have been correct in cautioning against reading El Bruto as a film specifically about social problems if only because the film reads entirely better as a Frankenstein allegory.
“I wish I had the power to exterminate that bunch of revolutionaries,” says Don Andres of his problem tenants. Just as Buñuel seems to map out a socio-political problem in the film’s Mexican ghetto, Paloma declares, “Don’t exaggerate.” Sure, El Bruto is relatively apolitical but that’s because Buñuel is drunk on animal magnetism. Both Armendariz and Jurado would go on to have very long Hollywood careers, but Paloma still remains one of the actress’s most infamous strong women. She tears Bruto’s shirt off and begins to kiss his predictably hairy chest. And just as he forcibly reaches in for a kiss, she all but screams rape. “Get your dirty hands off of me,” she says. She defends her willingness to control their sex and, for a moment, Buñuel seems to ask, “Who really is the brute here?” Bruto falls for Meche, Carmelo’s daughter, and soon begins to sympathize with the plight of the film’s impoverished tenants. He kills Andres in a fit of rage but not before a very jealous Paloma attacks Meche for stealing her man. Clothes torn and face bloodied, Paloma begs to be hit some more by an enraged Bruto before she sends the police after him, not for killing her husband but for spurning her animal affections. Bruto frees the slaves, dies for Paloma’s sins and, in the end, no one could care less. A satisfied Paloma walks away a winner, leaving Bruto’s body behind only to stop and stare challengingly at the face of a cock no doubt ready to blurt out his morning song.