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Saturday, 16 February 2008

Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953)

It was surprising to see that this was a Selznick release, given that almost everything about it is Italian. Sure, the stars are Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift but the director is Vittorio De Sica. Beyond Dick Beymer as Jones's nephew and Truman Capote who wrote the dialogue, every other name on the cast and crew seems to be Italian. We even start in Rome where Jones, as Mary Forbes, the American wife of the title, has fallen head over heels for a local man named Giovanni Doria, son of an Italian father and American mother and played well by Clift, with only a hint of an Italian accent.

Of course the Selznick release is only the American version, probably only released because Jennifer Jones was his wife. The original was Stazione Termini, 87 minutes long compared to the 63 minutes of the American release that I saw and even though this version is so short, it's notably packed full of life. Almost all of it is set in the Rome train station, which becomes a character of its own, and for the most part there are crowds, but distinguishable ones. Here's a group of priests, there a troop of schoolkids spitting on their hands to clean their faces, here a row of porters with carts, there a group of soldiers marching towards the train, here a man pushing trees on a cart, there one carrying flags. Many of them sing though we have no idea what they're singing and it's hardly a musical. The songs are there as life punctuating the overblown romantic soundtrack.

The plot is simple: Mary is trying to leave Giovanni for her husband, which sounds deliberately bizarre, but Giovanni doesn't want to let her. The characters connect and flare with passion, then disconnect, just as passionately, and the plot bounces around with their indecision. It's like a tortured version of Brief Encounter, one with British reserve replaced by Italian passion. It looks amazing and like any passionate encounter, feels just like a whirlwind.

The director's cut is apparently far darker and it would be fascinating now to see what his vision really was. I'm used to seeing originals first and then seeing the heresy done by people remaking them or just reworking them into something else. This time I see the reworked version first, and so it seems powerful without seeming heretical. Experience tells me it probably is.

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