Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948)

The simplicity of most cinematic realist movements has always been deceptive. From the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s to the British “angry young man” or “kitchen sink” school and the Brazilian “cinema novo” or “new cinema” approach of the 1960s, there has been an overriding concern with the lives of ordinary people at the expense of what many feel are the contrivances of Hollywood plotting and technique. But this austerity has not muted the power of many of the works created by the immensely talented filmmakers involved. Of course, the Brazilian directors (especially Glauber Rocha) were heavily influenced by Godard, which often led to a more flamboyant visual and structural filmmaking, but with the same commitment to the “class struggle.” No film successfully conveyed the trials of the ordinary man more than Italy’s THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948), a most moving collaboration between director Vittorio de Sica and the film’s main screenwriter, Cesaré Zavattini. Enacted by a cast of non professionals and shot on location in the streets of Rome among that city’s impoverished denizens, this simple film is of grand historic significance. It inspired most of the movements and filmmakers mentioned above and remains a fitting testament to the all-encompassing reach of the human spirit.

Family man Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is lucky enough to get a job in a world where such things are hard to attain. All he needs to start work as a poster hanger is a bicycle to get around the big city. However, he had pawned his bike to feed his family just days before landing the coveted employment. His wife Maria (Leanella Carell) takes the family bedclothes to the same pawn shop in order to obtain enough money to get the bike out of hock. The bicycle now in his possession, Antonio proudly starts work the next morning. While he is busy hanging a movie poster (of Rita Hayworth – a startling contrast to his drab life) a young man makes off with Antonio’s only means of transportation. But not before he snares a good look at the culprit. Since lack of action would mean both the loss of his cherished job and the end of his ability to feed his family, Antonio, accompanied by his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), sets off on an epic quest to find his stolen bike.

Antonio’s pride in his new job is illustrated with a few master strokes. At first he cannot believe his luck. “My God, a job!” he exclaims upon first learning of his good fortune. He is overjoyed that all employees of the poster company have their own lockers. Pointing his out to Maria, he says “see how big it is!” and follows this with “and there’s the overtime!” He is especially impressed with the uniform, particularly the cap. He informs Maria that he has found her work as well: She will have to take in the cap which is slightly too large. Antonio’s boss is just as excited, telling the new employee on his first day “See, Ricci, to do this job you must be very intelligent, have a good eye and work fast!”

These are concrete traits of which a man can truly boast, and Antonio likes to think of himself as firmly grounded in reality. When Maria visits a Psychic (Ida Bracci Dorati) to thank her for providing her family with hope, Antonio scoffs at what he calls “nonsense…stupidity.” And he is no friendlier towards organized religion. He and Bruno encounter an old man who may be able to lead them to the thief, but the elderly gent wanting no part of it, escapes to a mission, followed by father and son. Once inside, Antonio is approached by a woman who gives him a Bible tract. Without even looking at it, he crumples it up and discards it on the floor. There is only time for the here and now – the problem at hand.

Like many Italians before and since, Antonio distrusts authority and especially the police. Maria tells him he resembles a “cop” when he first places the cap on his head. He pretends to slap and rough her up over this insult, before planting a gentle kiss on her. The feigned anger is just a joke on Antonio’s part, but this is also a telling moment, as we often speak truths when kidding around. And cops are everywhere in the film, playing prominent roles throughout. Most interestingly, on a couple of occasions as Antonio threatens to call a policeman when someone impedes his search. Threatening a person with arrest is an acceptable action when things don’t go our way – even in a society unfriendly to the police. And the depictions of the police here are often harsh, such as when Antonio reports the theft to the police chief and receives treatment that is brutish at best. The chief tells him directly to “look for it yourself”, explaining he has more important things on his plate. “Nothing, just a bicycle”, he tells another cop who enquires about the case. Almost as ubiquitous as the police are the children that inhabit the landscape of post-war Italy. In any society, children are the most cruelly afflicted with the circumstances of that world. The child who plays an accordion as Antonio is given a lesson in poster hanging, is chased away by the novice’s boss. Antonio’s own son means the world to him, yet this central relationship is not without blemishes, as we see when Bruno is told to “shut up” by his Father, who even slaps the boy at one point. This child – at once so precious and vulnerable yet so worldly – is the kind of child produced by years of a war fought in his own land. He complains that the pawn shop may have dented the bike: “Who knows how they take care of them. They don’t pay for the repairs.” Later, when the search begins, it is Bruno who knows the exact make of the bike and the frame number. This information comes in handy when Antonio’s friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda) tells them the bike has almost certainly been dismantled for sale on the black market. Baiocco takes the pair to an outdoor bazaar of sorts, where such items are sold. As Antonio walks along countless rows of tables, perusing hundreds of gears, chains, wheels and tires, we feel as though his life has been dismantled and scattered before him in pieces. But Antonio and Bruno must be strong for each other.

When Antonio and his son finally encounter the teen-aged thief, they harass him until he suffers an epileptic seizure. There is an icy irony in that this sickly youth may need the bicycle even more than Antonio. “Instead of insults, you should give my boy a job!” his Mother cries. Chased away by the thief’s neighbors, Antonio is left in an even more desperate state. It is here that we discover the meaning of the film’s original Italian title: BICYCLE THIEVES. As Antonio and Bruno sit dejected on a curb outside a soccer stadium, and endless sea of bicycles speed past them. Accompanied by the sounds of the soccer fans roaring their approval, Antonio gives into temptation and, after sending Bruno home, steals a bike parked down the street. The owner, his friends and several others, chase the second of the film’s bicycle thieves, finally catching him as Bruno (who was too late for the streetcar) sobs “Papa.” In another moment of irony, the owner shows more compassion than Antonio had shown the first thief. “Be thankful he didn’t have you arrested” one man remarks. A second bystander then delivers the film’s final line and, perhaps, its ultimate message: “And you can thank God.” We are left to wonder if Antonio will take the man’s advice. Realizing his son has witnessed the entire degrading incident, Antonio joins hands with Bruno. Both close to tears, they walk home disappearing into the crowd.

THE BICYCLE THIEF is a quintessential example of a fortunate meeting of minds. In this case the Christian Vittorio de Sica and the Marxist Cesaré Zavattini, frequent collaborators. Marxism is represented by the film’s preoccupation with class struggles and Christianity finds its ultimate expression in its theme of forgiveness and brotherly compassion. After sixty-five years these concerns have never been more simply or beautifully depicted in film.

CREDITS: Produced by Giuseppe Amato. Directed by Vittorio de Sica. Written by Cesaré Zavattini, Vittorio de Sica, Suso D’Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci and Gerardo Guerrieri. Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. Photographed by Carlo Montuori. Edited by Eraldo Da Roma. Art Direction by Antonio Traverso. Music by Alessandro Cicognini. WITH: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci and Ida Bracci Dorati.

September 18, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, ITALIAN CINEMA, neo-realism, screenwriters | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941)

You would never know from watching it, but the screenplay for THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941) was written by two of the men who penned CASABLANCA (1942). That was the job of a good studio contract writer – to adapt to your material and serve the producer, while working in a number of genres and styles. The scenarists in question – brothers Philip and Julius Epstein – were as skillful at the task as anyone during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. With films like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) and MR. SKEFFINGTON (also 1944), the team more than proved their mettle. Also a fine example of a studio employee was the film’s director, William Keighley. Making films in a breathtaking variety of genres, he frequently displayed a smooth, elegant technique, rewarding to audiences. But he was no “auteur”. He never developed a personal vision like Ford or Hitchcock and was content with serving his studio bosses – men such as Hal Wallis, production executive at Warner Brothers for many years, and executive producer of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, a near perfect example of studio run efficiency. All the various departments (acting, producing, writing, directing, photography, art, music and editing) work together to create a delightful unified whole. It may have been an assembly line, but it produced a number of Cadillacs.

As part of an effort to garner support for his lecture series, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a famous writer and critic, agrees to have dinner at the home of the Stanleys, an Ohio family made up of Father Ernest (Grant Mitchell), Mother Daisy (Billie Burke), daughter June (Elizabeth Fraser) and son Richard (Russell Aims). The incredibly snooty and rude Whiteside insults Mr. and Mrs. Stanley when they meet him at the train station, proving how boorish east coast snobs can be when dealing with the denizens of “fly over” country. It is enough to make you believe in Karma when the elitist boob slips on the icy steps of the Stanley home, fracturing his hip. But it is the host family doing most of the suffering when they are stuck with Whiteside as a most unpleasant house guest during his convalescence.

Whiteside’s personality is skillfully illustrated from the very start with a few colorful stokes. At the station, an awestruck Mrs. Stanley asks him two questions: How was his trip and will he indeed be having dinner with her family? His reply to the first query? “Charming. I killed a woman in the next compartment. She asked me to lunch!” This after he pretends to be a Frenchmen in order to avoid speaking to them. His secretary, Maggie (Bette Davis) sums things up to him succinctly: “You have one advantage over everybody else in the world. You never had to meet Mr. Sheridan Whiteside!” But there is a hint of thawing to come in his handsome tipping of a black porter.

Whiteside’s inflated view of himself is seconded by many of his hangers-on in the show business, newspaper, literary and political worlds. Even Winston Churchill calls to wish him well, causing Mrs. Stanley to gush “Winston Churchill – on our telephone!” But even his most committed fans joke about his influence. A line in a newspaper article about his accident reads “Christmas may be postponed this year!”

Once hunkered down in his new digs, Whiteside refers to the Stanley home as a “moldy mortuary” and the elegant library he will be working in as a “drafty sewer.” The joke here is that this home is actually a lush mansion, as Mr. Stanley runs a successful munitions factory. Whiteside cordons off parts of the house for his own use and demands that the family members come and go by the back entrance. All of this serves the purpose of making his gradual warming more tantalizing, and for this reason THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is set during a particularly nasty and frigid mid-western winter. When Whiteside is drawn into the lives of aspiring photographer Richard and love-sick June and her beau Sandy (Charles Drake) the setting is the plush living room next to an inviting fireplace and its cozy, comfortable fire. This imagery is offset by the depiction of a world seemingly cloaked in ice. Whiteside’s close friend – visiting actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) – even covers herself with “ice” (read that jewelry) and sports a snowflake broach. She is in town – at the behest of Whiteside – to foil Maggie’s intention of marrying hunky newspaperman and playwright Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). It seems Maggie has plans to abandon her old boss and dedicate herself to her new husband, if she can snag him. Lorraine’s mission is to preoccupy Bert with plans to produce his new play and keep his mind off of Maggie.

For all its humor, the film contains a remarkably dark view of marriage: When Bert takes Maggie to the Railway Express Agency to pick up a yuletide gift he has purchased for her, there is an unusual conversation with the man at the mail center. He is gifting his wife with a pipe this Holiday season. Says Bert: “That’s not very sensible.” The man replies, “It’s as sensible as the vacuum cleaner she’s giving me!” There is more of this cynicism, as it happens that Bert’s gift is a charm bracelet made up of previously sold trinkets and engraved with the sentiments of long forgotten lovers from the past. These begin well enough with “a fair lady” but end on what Maggie and Bert agree is a pretty grim note: “iron bars a cage.” Eventually this dark view extends to all family life, including a macabre aside involving Ernest’s crazy sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian) who, it turns out, murdered her parents with an ax a quarter of a century earlier.

There are many in jokes on hand for pop culture enthusiasts of that long ago era, as well as those of today who may have a historical bent. First, the character of Sheridan Whiteside is patterned after Alexander Woollcott, a well-known crusty malcontent columnist and critic. Whiteside’s friends, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner) and “Banjo” (Jimmy Durante) represent Noel Coward and Harpo Marx respectively. These little touches add a delicious layer to THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. As one who has not seen the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it is difficult to know where Kaufman/Hart leave off and the Epstein brothers begin. One thing is clear: These were four talented guys involved in a studio system that has often been maligned, but at its best produced some of the most entertaining movies ever made.

CREDITS: Produced by Jack Saper and Jerry Wald. Directed by William Keighley. Written by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Photography by Tony Gaudio. Music by Frederick Hollander. Edited by Jack Killifer. Art direction by Robert Haas. WITH: Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Grant Mitchell, Billie Burke, Richard Travis, Elizabeth Fraser, Russell Arms, Reginald Gardiner, Jimmy Durante, Ruth Vivian, Mary Wickes, Edwin Stanley, Betty Roadman, Charles Drake, George Barbier, Nanette Vallon and John Ridgely.

September 11, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, American Films of the 1940s, film comedy, film directors, films based on plays, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment