BARE INDISCRETION OF AMERICAN WIFE!
When Warner Brothers recut Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in America, they excised the soul from an acclaimed director's greatest achievement. Leone's version is a languid but powerful film that was thrust into obscurity through the studio's unflattering intervention. Producer David Selznick treated Vittorio De Sica's Stazione Termini (Terminal Station) the same way, chopping languid scenes to leave a lean but unpoetic core. Selznick's crime is not that heinous: neither version of Terminal Station is particularly good. It is unlikely that future cinephiles will kick up much fuss. Just in case, Criterion allows us to see both versions and weigh the results for ourselves. The real treat isn't so much the films, but Leonard Leff's piercing commentary and the chance to judge editing in action.
Facts of the Case
Mary (Jennifer Jones) is visiting her sister in sunny Italia. She picks up some postcards, an Italian leather handbag, plaster busts of Caesar, and a hunky boy toy named Giovanni Doria (Montgomery Clift, fresh off of I Confess and headed From Here to Eternity ). These items won't all fit in her suitcase, so she decides to leave poor Giovanni behind. (After all, he's much bigger than a bust of Caesar and requires more maintenance.) She sneaks to Stazione Termini to make a discreet exit. Inexplicably, Giovanni shows up just as Mary's train is leaving. Is this awkward or what?
Mary tries to give him the brush off, until his dusky good looks set her eyebrows to arching in that special "come hither" way. The battle won, Giovanni escorts his regained love away from the train. But she changes her mind again. This goes on for quite awhile, until Mary's nephew Paul shows up. Will Paul remind her of old fashioned American values like family and fidelity? Or will Giovanni's plaintive plea of love melt Mary's resolve?
Director Vittorio De Sica had ten films under his belt (including The Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan, and Umberto D) and a solid international reputation when he made Terminal Station. After lackluster previews, producer David Selznick feared for its American release and severely edited the film. Selznick's cut of Terminal Station, retitled Indiscretion of an American Wife, presents a leaner yet ultimately similar version. The core is intact, but the poetic context is lost. Beware, because my review will pick apart this poetic context (known as spoilers by some).
They might as well have named it "Interminable Station." Despite De Sica's best attempts to have us care about these two, the relationship simply isn't very interesting. Without the gravity granted through viewer buy-in, the problems of Mary and Giovanni don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I watched in dutiful suspense to see why this indecisive woman had to flee. Ahh, she has a lover that she wants to leave. He wants her to stay. They talk about it a lot. I'm not seeing the central conflict here.
In and of itself, this narcissistic focus isn't too damaging. Many a fine
romantic tragedy has been penned under shakier constraints. Audiences usually
play along, care because they are supposed to care. But this pair makes caring
difficult. Mary is wishy-washy, vacillating between resolve and poorly concealed
lust. She tells Giovanni goodbye then walks away on his arm. For his part,
Giovanni is too grim, wounded, and plaintive to arouse much support. We never
see why he is worth the fuss. He talks about what he didn't do, what he didn't
say, unrealized plans he had for their burgeoning love. The Go-Go's said it
Romance isn't the real problem, though. The worst aspect of Terminal Station is the unbelievable, melodramatic, and manipulative string of deux ex machinas. Giovanni found Mary because her sister tipped him off? Really? In another dramatic moment, Giovanni spies Mary across the terminal and rushes towards her across the tracks—despite the onrushing train! Priests, nuns, and plain regular folks all lift their hands to their mouths in horror as Giovanni leaps in front of the train. Will he make it? If not, the movie will be really short.
The worst of these contrivances is the couple's arrest for making out in a vacant train car. Come on, this is Italy! Aren't Sicilian scoundrels wooing comely American lasses behind every corner? The real hoot comes when the cop informs the two that they'll stand trial for their crimes. (Strange but true side note: I once vacationed in Europe. My sister and I wound up in an empty First Class train car where we weren't supposed to be. Onlookers summoned a cop who boarded the train car and "accosted" us. He told us to get lost, end of story. So I can say with certainty that this subplot is a load of nonsense.) The whole thing is so absurd that later worthy attempts at dramatic tension fizzle.
Speaking of dramatic tension, it is not enhanced by playing a pompous score more loudly. The audio was harsh to the ear and jittery to the soul. Brassy swells of melodramatic music served to irritate rather than absorb me. I wished I could reach into the DVD and turn down the "score volume" dial.
These noteworthy weights bog down an otherwise proficient film. Both versions show flashes of heat, where the cinemagic confluence of acting, dialogue, lighting, and cinematography mesh to produce worthwhile moments. One such moment is the stolen interlude in the train car. The lovers passionately collide, stare at each other in palpable proximity while backlit in pools of shadow. Another moment is the sequence where Mary uses Paul to escape Giovanni's increasingly hostile aura. For a few terse moments I sat upright, thinking that the title "Terminal Station" was clever foreshadowing of a brutal scorned lover in a fatal love feud. But invariably these moments of heat are subsumed into the gray porridge of the plot.
What of the differences between the two versions? Stazione Termini is generally considered the more artistic film. De Sica shows us groups of Italians in a running subcontext, reinforcing Mary's outsider status. We pick up on a dockside harassment vibe as the men sniff Mary's little secret from a mile away. The takes are longer, with more dialogue and more vignettes to add Italian color. For example, a wandering "dirty old man" prowls the station and dwells near every young lady. The dramatic "train jumping" scene is longer. In general, more is said and shown to increase our immersion into the station.
Indiscretion of an American Wife was made to suit American tastes. Well, color me American. I typically rail against interference with a director's vision, but I also appreciate effective cuts. The former version is insufferable in parts, especially the interminable dialogue. If I don't care about Giovanni's thwarted plans for lifelong togetherness, I sure as hell won't care more if he dwells on it for an extra five minutes. (By the way, could you pick an accent and stick with it, Clift?) If Mary is indecisive, she becomes more so when she can't make up her mind whether to send a telegram (or what to say in it). Every shed scene was a lightened load, smoothing the ride by clearing mud from the wheels. I was able to grasp the thread of the plot, pick up on tension and menace that was obfuscated in the original cut. Don't get me wrong, there are some boneheaded decisions made in Indiscretion of an American Wife, such as the eight-minute fluff piece at the beginning. Patti Page sings mournfully in her apartment about days gone by. It played poorly in 1953 and plays worse now.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though the films are suspect, the presentation is not. Leonard Leff gives a commentary that is at once dryly informative and slyly derisive. He tells us of the many crew members who went uncredited in the picture. This is an interesting factoid, but more interesting is the unspoken implication that said crew members chose to remain anonymous. (Most amusing is Truman Capote, who later claimed he "only wrote a few lines" of the dialogue.) Leff's comments are occasionally less oblique, such as when he tells us the Patti Page preamble is trite. His words are carefully chosen, and you can tell he is having fun with the film while he highlights its greater aspects. Out of my three viewings, the one narrated by Leff was by far the most enjoyable.
As usual, Criterion has done a fine job with the transfer. For the first time, I noticed excessive edge enhancement in a Criterion transfer. The shot in question is when Paul and Mary are descending a ramp to escape Giovanni: Paul's coat has a nice thick halo around it. The surrounding ground is grainy so they might have felt the need to enhance the scene. I also picked up on crawl in Patti's cheeks. I suspect this was due to digital noise reduction, but it could have been particularly assertive grain. Overall, despite minor examples of edge enhancement the transfer looks sharp.
The acting is solid. Both leads are capable artists who summon a perfect "breakup" vibe. Though I found his performance believable, Montgomery Clift irritated me somewhat with his stutters and fidgets. The commentator tells us that Clift learned these techniques in his formal training, but they distracted me. His better moments are the quieter ones. He isn't a bad actor, but he just doesn't do it for me in this role. Jennifer Jones was more watchable, with her subtle eyebrows and head tilts. Tasty yet refined, she was the ultimate prize to be won. Dick Beymer gives nephew Paul real bearing. You can sense Paul's importance even if you can't put a finger on it.
Who can explain why a journeyman crew and lower tier stars make a masterpiece like Casablanca, while an internationally acclaimed director with a hot cast and crew produce a clunker like Terminal Station? It is a cinematic conundrum. Terminal Station isn't an awful film by any stretch; it just isn't inspiring or compelling.
What is compelling is the urge to compare the two versions. This is the true draw for this package. How often do we get the chance to observe two cuts side by side, second guessing the editors? It is an empowering game to play.
Vittorio De Sica, you have crafted more worthy films than anyone could ask of you. Despite some missteps, Terminal Station is not bad enough to taint your impressive body of work. Special thanks go to your defensive counsel, Leonard Leff. Mr. Leff cast your exploits in their most favorable light. As for this matter of the indiscreet affair…please. Is it really worth such a fuss?
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