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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953) - Full of Atmosphere and Tragic Romance, but not for everyone



This film fits right in with Hollywood's 1950s fascination with Americans finding love in Europe.  "An American in Paris," "Roman Holiday," the list goes on and on.  Perhaps it was a feeling among some that there was a social freedom in Europe that was temporarily missing back in the States?  It was a passing trend, but it left its mark with films such as this.



The greatest flaw in this film is that it pulls its  punches.  It had to, because of the Hays code.  An American wife on holiday falls in love with a suave local, then has one last "fling" with him in an empty train car.  Naturally they are found out, and....  Well, that's the set-up.

Problem is that it is difficult for a film to have impact when the circumstance that sets the plot in motion is neutered.  Two people kissing in an out-of-service railway car?  Doesn't see that big a deal.  Now, if they were doing something else there....  As with so many films of the era, you have to use your imagination a bit and fill in the blanks for this film to work, and even then, it really seems like much ado about nothing, which is this film's fatal flaw.  Director Vittorio De Sica did his best, and the advertising campaign had more innuendo than an old Rod Stewart song, but even for films like this, there were limits.

"Indiscretions" is an odd little film that for some reason really captivated me. It has the mood of a Jim Jarmusch film or even a toned-down David Lynch effort, throwing emotionally strained characters into increasingly odd and unpredictable situations which ultimately resolve back into ordinariness. Such films are an acquired taste, either you enjoy them or you don't.



Jennifer Jones, who often played exotic beauties such as in "Duel in the Sun" and "Madame Bovary," here is made to look as pretty in a conventional way as possible. The film hinges on this married Philadelphia housewife's need to leave her Roman pick-up behind as she continues her grand tour of Europe by rail after visiting her sister in Rome. Jones is lovely, as always, but not quite convincing as someone who one minute passionately throws herself at her paramour, and the next abruptly dismisses him. Sure, her conflict is obvious, but except here and there she does not seem troubled except when pressed by her lover. She shows tremendous passion when it counts, though.

Montgomery Clift is the very macho (perhaps a little inside joke there) Italian who Jones met on the Spanish Steps, then romanced. His casting works for me, because Clift's odd diction and weird grimaces always look distinctly foreign (if not particularly Italian) and they fit the character. Clift's intensely emotional, physical acting style just plain works, as his character spends the entire film in a sort of extended emotional meltdown. No, I don't care that he doesn't look Italian, that he speaks perfect English throughout, and that he looks as out-of-place in Rome as Jones does. That's just who the character is, suspend your disbelief and nit-picking and go with it or skip the film completely.



The climax of the film comes after Jones suddenly (and improbably) gives in to her passions and enters a parked rail car in order to, um, visit one last time with Clift. Unfortunately, they are observed entering the deserted car by a railway worker, who summons the police and has them arrested. Director Vittorio De Sica can't actually show the two in a compromising situation, but one can imagine what they were supposedly doing. Significantly, the officer who reads their charges omits the words describing their precise offense (which must have been more than is shown, since it requires a court trial), leaving it somewhat to our imagination (though somebody whispers that they were "making love."). De Sica couldn't get away with being too explicit in the 1950s.

The film has some nice touches that provide a sort of commentary on relationships in general. When Jones, in the middle of her tortured goodbyes with Clift, unexpectedly spies her nephew (played in a mildly annoying way by Richard Beymer) at the station, she attracts his attention by calling him over and ruins the mood. This gives Clift a marvelous opportunity to look exasperated and later react strongly, but really, isn't that just how people can be? Jones also whines about losing a gift she got for her daughter - clearly, even with Clift there, her heart belongs with her family.



Anyway, all sorts of odd, eccentric and just plain weird characters pass by the lovers during their journey, adding that local color to prove that the film was not set in, say, the somewhat similar-looking (pre-1964) Penn Station instead of Rome's main train station (still called Stazione Termini, by the way). Large European stations look the same now as they did then, if you've traveled by rail there recently the settings in this film may look familiar despite it being made well over half a century ago. Jones' difficulty in getting a seat at the last minute on the last train to Paris is a nice touch of realism (try that yourself some time!). I mean, you can only suspend your disbelief so much, we all have our limits!

I like the actors, the raw emotions, the local color. Well worth watching if you, too, appreciate those things, otherwise spare yourself the pain and avoid this one.

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