Even for a film from Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz—the on-screen title for which translates as Rehearsal for a Crime—is surprisingly obscure. Though this 1955 film came out on the artsy VHS label of Waterbearer Films in the late ‘90s, I only encountered it thanks to the tantalizing clips from it in Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997). Those sent me in search of the film, which turned out to be available on a French DVD. It was worth the effort, if only because it is perhaps the lightest and most purely playful film of Buñuel’s career. It’s an oddly charming black comedy dressed up as a kind of thriller.
Aspects of it may remind you of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948), but in reality it more closely resembles a dark-humored variant on Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943). Indeed, the structural device of having Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso from Buñuel’s Wuthering Heights) confess his “crimes” to a police commissioner (Carlos Riquelme) is almost identical to Don Ameche presenting himself to Laird Cregar’s Satan in the Lubitsch picture—as are the results. In essence, de la Cruz is a delusional man, who dreams of committing the perfect murder—an idea born of a childhood incident. And, as presented, he has some fairish—if somewhat misogynistic—reasons for these ideas. He plans and schemes and rehearses, but things never go right—or at least they never go right in the way he intends. Saying more would be unfair to the film, since much of its charm comes from the surprise of how what goes wrong manifests itself. Yes, it’s Buñuel lite, but it’s nicely tasty in the bargain.