Indiscretion of an American Wife Review
Fresh from changing the history of cinema with a remarkable series of neorealist films (Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle In Milan and Umberto D.), Vittorio De Sica embarked on his first English language feature in 1953. An Italian/American co-production, Stazione Termini was eventually taken out of the director’s hands by producer David O. Selznick, recut and released as Indiscretion of an American Wife. What remains isn’t entirely satisfactory, but the sense of conflict that must have been engendered by the production is evident on many levels of the final film and it makes for intriguing viewing.
The most obvious sense of conflict is one between the two principal characters, which is as much a battle of the sexes and even a battle of acting techniques as much as it that of a love affair. Mary (Jennifer Jones) is at Rome’s Stazione Termini train station, waiting on a train to take her on her journey back home to her husband in America. She’s running away from a man she has just met and fallen in love with, Giovanni (Montgomery Clift), an American born Italian, but he has come to the station to prevent her from leaving without ever having given him a chance to show the kind of life they could have together. She doesn’t want to give him that chance because she might just succumb to it. And she nearly does. Giving him a little grace by skipping the earlier departure to Milan for a later direct train to Paris, she listens to the persuasive arguments from this handsome Italian man of the kind of life she could have with him, a life very different from her marriage to her husband in America.
The film is also then about the conflict of illusion versus reality. With a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s collaborator on his neorealist films tinged with a romantic illusion of hope, and scripted by Truman Capote and Ben Hecht, it’s a persuasive dream that is not only designed to win over Mary, but it’s one that creates an illusion strong enough to blind the viewer to the deficiencies in the credibility of presenting Montgomery Clift as a hot-blooded Italian male. Mary indeed is almost won over, but the reminder of her daughter back home reawakens her sense of responsibility and the reality of the situation. Looking for something to further anchor her in the real world, she grasps at the chance meeting of her nephew Paul (Richard Beymer) who is also at the train station to see her off. But it’s not enough. Before she can break the hold that Giovanni has over her, she needs to be punished and shamed for her “indiscretion”.
A neorealist director, De Sica finds an intriguing and unusual way of presenting that conflict. Taking place entirely within the confines of Rome’s principal train station, Stazione Termini then becomes a microcosmos of the world outside, the rich and poor, clerical and military - or at least a representation of the one that Mary has to face within her mind. Her sense of compassion is awakened by a poor family she meets, her sense of weakness as a female and fear of submission to an overt and domineering sexuality is expressed by the Italian men who constantly ogle and lust after her, and her sense of shame at the judgement society will make is exposed when she is hauled out of the dark confines of an isolated train carriage and submitted to the public glare of a Kafkaesque trial by the unsympathetic authorities for a seemingly minor indiscretion.
All these various levels of conflict make the film an intriguing prospect, but there has to be a resolution on the most important level, and it’s in that gap between realism and the metaphor that the film ultimately fails to convince. Realising this, American producer David O. Selznick set about reworking the film, excising a number of minor incidents and a great deal of the talkiness that characterises the film, cutting it back considerably. That butchered version, minus the song by Patti Page included in Selznick’s edit of Stazione Termini under the title of Indiscretion of an American Wife, is the version included here in Fremantle’s UK DVD release and it amounts to no more than 61 minutes (the original full version of the film is available on a Criterion DVD release). It’s this final conflict that most profoundly influences the end result of the film and it’s one that is ultimately proves too much for it to withstand.
Indiscretion of an American Wife is released in the UK by Fremantle. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is not region encoded. It’s available now at a budget price (less than £4 from some of the on-line retailers linked to at the left of this page).
It’s a pity that the film is not complete because the transfer on this edition is very good indeed. The black and white tones are beautiful, the image clean, clear and sharp with any softness being appropriate for the film. There’s a little bit of grain and some minor brightness flicker, but nothing excessive. Cross-colouration (patches of yellow and purple) may be evident on displays sensitive to this issue, but otherwise the progressive transfer is most impressive.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and it’s generally fine, though pitched rather low and showing some deficiencies in tone. Dialogue however is always relatively clear and audible.
There are no subtitle options. The main language spoken is English, and although Italian is spoken occasionally, it’s not meant to be translated.
There are no extra features or even scene selection. The DVD menu presents only an option to play the film.
Despite the evident problems with the film and the production difficulties that weigh heavily on it, Indiscretion of an American Wife has more than enough intriguing elements to make it interesting viewing, not least of which is its history and the calibre of the talent involved in its production. It’s even worth a viewing in this mutilated form that only runs to an hour long, particularly as the transfer is so good on this budget Fremantle release.