Wednesday, 16 February 2011

AFED #46: Indiscretion of an American Wife [aka Terminal Station] (US/Italy, 1953); Dir. Vittorio De Sica

When Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica agreed to work with David O. Selznick it was probably a disaster waiting to happen. Although the legendary producer had enjoyed great success with work such as Gone With the Wind, Selznick was also an infamous control freak, often clashing with his directors (including frequent collaborator Alfred Hitchcock) over control of the final edit.

For De Sica, whose Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. had brought world renown, one suspects the motive was mainly financial. Why else agree to shoot a film in English when you can scarcely speak a word of the language? Add to that Selznick's requirement his wife Jennifer Jones lend her attractive but insipid presence in the lead role and the term 'Faustian pact' springs to mind.

Yes, Indiscretion of an American Wife is an inconsistent and disappointing slice of fifties cinema.


The plot could almost be sumarised as the final station scene of Brief Encounter stretched out to (barely) feature length. Mary (Jones) a married American woman who's had a short-lived fling with Italian Giovanni(Montgomery Clift) whilst on holiday, is about to terminate their affair and take the train away. Just as she's about to leave Clift rushes to the platform and she changes her mind. Mary vacillates for the remainder over whether to leave on the next train or accept Giovanni's plea to be with him.

Note that I described the film as inconsistent as there are both bad points and good. On the negative side Montgomery Clift is absurdly miscast; he sounds nothing like a native Italian and really doesn't look comfortable in the role, the method acting techniques - face rubbing, et al - only making his performance appear more self-conscious. Brando and Burton were both considered for the part and the story goes that De Sica actually hired another Italian actor for Clift to mimic in order to convey his direction, much to Monty's chagrin.

Jones is more at home but that's unsurprising given the part was all but written for her. She and Clift don't have the greatest chemistry but it's passable. It's said (anecdotes surrounding the production being more interesting than the picture itself) that Jones was infatuated wth Clift until she discovered to her horror that he didn't swing that way.

On the plus side G.R. Aldo's cinematography is splendid; a sumptuous, deep focus monochrome. Visually at least it's a cut above the standard Hollyood production.

As the title intimates the film's true theme is not love but guilt and the fear of condemnation. Throughout the couple, and Mary in particular, are subjected to reproachful or meaningful glances from those they encounter. Religious iconography - such as the recurring figures of some Jesuit priests loitering around the station - pervades.

At one point Mary seeks atonement by giving chocolate to young wastrels in the third class waiting room; it's both a sentimental and rather pathetic gesture. After an altercation with the authorities brings the threat of a criminal trial and possible exposure of the couple's infidelity, the senior policeman's decision to destroy the report and let them leave is nothing short of an absolution.

De Sica evidently had something more sentient to say and other different circumstances who knows what this might have yielded. Perhaps the longer (89 minute) director's cut of the film comes closer to his vision, although some shortcomings would require more than a longer running time. As it is Selznick's butchering down to just 61 minutes leaves it wanting for substance.

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