Random Double Feature: The Barefoot Contessa and Ladri di Biciclette

Every once in a while (in truth, probably a little more often than the average person), I will watch two movies in one sitting. Thanks to Netflix instant streaming and my handy-dandy Blue-Ray player with built-in wi-fi, I am able to select two movies almost at random to watch on my TV anytime. Of course, if it were truly random, the potential list would include every film ever made and I wouldn’t have any choice in either of them. That would be an interesting experiment, indeed. But since I do have a say in the matter, I pick films from my bloated queue (usually), which means I must have a pre-existing interest in any given component of any given “random” double feature.

Last night, the films I chose were Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s 1954 Hollywood melodrama The Barefoot Contessa, and Vittorio De Sica‘s 1948 Italian neorealist classic Ladri di Biciclette. Although made within a few years of each other and each taking place at least partly in Italy, the movies are worlds apart in theme, look and sensibility. It may even seem unfair to compare them, like comparing apples and clothes hangers. But I found this pairing surprisingly useful in clarifying some of my personal cinematic tastes. Readers of this blog will no doubt have different takes and tastes. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Why, of all movies, was The Barefoot Contessa on my queue, you might ask.  In truth, it’s not a movie I’ve ever been dying to see. I’m not a huge fan of All About Eve (1950), Mankiewicz’s previous and more celebrated meditation on pre-feminist female fame, though having seen both films now, I will say that I appreciate Eve much more. At least it makes use of actual drama. I was mainly drawn to Contessa because of Humphrey Bogart. But I also tend to like (find fascinating) 1950s Hollywood cinema, and I love reading memoirs of filmmakers from that era. I was hoping this movie would satisfy both of those long-standing cravings of mine.

Not quite.

It began promisingly enough, with beautifully photographed technicolor images by Jack Cardiff of a funeral in a Roman cemetery. In fact, the photography is far and away the best thing about the movie. If not for it, it would be difficult even to think of this as a movie. A talkie, yes. Movie, not so much. And, boy, is it a talkie! This is a movie in love with the sound of its own voice. It suffers from the common Hollywood disease of overwrititis, which you will find especially in movies with writers as narrators. It always seems to me as though Hollywood screenwriters of that era, perhaps feeling inferior to the counterparts in publishing and theater, felt they had to show off. So they write semi-profound, pseudo-wise lines like this: “Life, every now and then, behaves as though it had seen too many bad movies, when everything fits too well – the beginning, the middle, the end – from fade-in to fade-out.”

These particular words are spoken in the first of many flashbacks by Bogart’s Harry Dawes, a recovering alcoholic writer and director being given a second chance by a dictatorial spoiled rich boy producer named Kirk Edwards (woodenly portrayed by Warren Stevens), who is loosely modeled on Howard Hughes. Dawes, Kirk and PR man Oscar Muldoon (played by Edmond O’Brien, who, unaccountably to me, won an Oscar for the role) travel to Spain to take a look at Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), a nightclub dancer they’ve somehow caught wind of, for a lead in Dawes’ comeback film. They have just missed her act, which is freshly over as they enter.

Oddly, Mankiewicz decided to film the club during the act, but he never settles the camera on Vargas. Instead, he cuts between brief, impressionistic glimpses of her and longer-held reaction shots of the mostly bored and distracted (it seemed to me) jet setty audience, who nevertheless burst out in rapturous applause when the act is over. Was this Mankiewicz’s attempt at a wry statement about how the taste makers self-regardingly make taste? Possibly. He might also have just wanted to let the audience’s imagination make a more perfect performance than he could have hoped to actually create, which is a perfectly viable tack to take. In any case, this inattention to Vargas’s art is consistent throughout the film. Mankiewicz is much more interested in her celebrity and luck (her fortune in being discovered by Hollywood as well as her good looks and sex appeal) and how they interact with her humanity than in her abilities as a dancer or actor. That sounds more interesting than it actually plays out. Essentially, we have to take the movie’s word for it that Maria is a money-making sensation at the box office. We have to take the movie’s word for a lot of what it’s trying to sell us.

(According to IMdB, the character was based on Rita Hayworth, whom Mankiewicz had originally hoped to cast before signing Gardner. As decent enough–though never brilliant–as Gardner is in the role, it’s definitely conceivable that Hayworth would have given the film much greater poignancy, or at least piquancy. )

It’s not worth going into the plot in great detail: it plays out mostly in a series of flashback narratives, shared by Dawes, Muldoon and Vargas’s husband, the Tragically (with a capital T) impotent Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini. This shifting of perspective is employed not, à la Rashomon, to question the idea that truth is knowable but, more prosaically, to seamlessly continue a straight narrative track when the other narrators are off screen. We eventually learn that the bulk of the film is nothing but a gaseously long-winded and pointlessly elaborate set-up for the real drama, which takes about 10 unsuspenseful minutes to unfold.

Ladri di Biciclette might be said to have a similarly involved and (wonderfully, profoundly) meandering set-up for a fast pay-off at the end, but how De Sica goes about telling his deceptively simple story, of course, is radically different from Mankiewicz’s overblown approach.

By the way, I’m referring to the film in its original Italian title because, until Criterion released its version under the title Bicycle Thieves (plural, as in the original Italian), I had always heard it referred to as The Bicycle Thief  (singular). It’s interesting to me how movies’ titles (or any works’ titles’) are rendered in foreign languages. Why did the original distributor pick the singular “Thief” instead of “Thieves?” It is a valid choice, certainly. But the Italian title gives a strong indication of how the story is going to play out. Did the English distributor want to deflect the naive viewer’s attention from the possibility that the thief in question was not the mostly off-screen character being pursued but the mostly on-screen one in pursuit? By making the title plural, did De Sica play on the naive viewer thinking of the theft of the bicycle at the heart of the film as possibly the work of a ring of thieves?

These may or may not be trivial questions. Pondering the title, in any case, has no bearing on the tremendously powerful punch this film delivers. Do I need to say much more? Actually, yes, I need to say much more, but I won’t right now. I think it’s better to see and savor this film than chatter about it. I don’t know why it took me 53 years of my life to finally see it, but I do know I’m the rare self-described cinephile who, until yesterday, hadn’t. When I noticed it listed on Netflix a year or two ago, I queued it instantly, but there were always other films I wanted to see at least a little more urgently, for one reason or another–until last night. I’m sure it was my dissatisfaction with The Barefoot Contessa that left me starving for a film of solid substance. Certainly, Ladri has that reputation, which, not surprisingly, I found well deserved.

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