Il bidone Review
WARNING: This review may contain possible spoilers. Those who are yet to see the film, and wish to know nothing of it, would be best advised to head straight to the section marked 'The Disc'.
Il bidone is one of those films which sneaks up on an audience. Set in the world of conmen, it occupies a place in a subgenre similar to that of the heist movie. These are films which are predisposed to be chirpy, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek and driven by elaborate set-pieces. Indeed, Fellini opens his picture with one such example, yet there’s something which isn’t quite right. The Nina Rota theme is being heavily deployed, and Fellini may be outwardly suggesting his lighter side, but the target of the con is a tired old woman with little money and the barest of existences. Is this to be a satire, then? Or perhaps black comedy?
In fact, Il bidone is offering neither, rather it’s going for something a little deeper. Fellini takes us beyond the con, if you will, and draws us into the “other” lives of this trio of swindlers, played Broderick Crawford, Richard Basehart and Franco Fabrizi. Certainly, they may possess a little charm at first and maybe even some seductive qualities as we see them hit a night club, but as the film progresses we move further and further away from the popular image of the big screen conman. Here we get to witness an amoral stance (they never once target people who are in any way deserving of their attentions), the lies and the effects their lifestyles have on those around them – both the targets themselves and their own family members.
Particularly telling is the manner in which Fellini utilises Giuletta Masina, here playing Basehart’s wife. A somewhat formidable presence at the centre of her few scenes, particularly a tour de force of a New Year’s Eve party, she represents a certain innocence amongst a sea of cheaters and women who are all too easily cajoled into taking their tops off. Yet whilst she may offer a certain focal point – and therefore emphasise a certain moral standpoint - Il bidone is never overtly judgemental on Fellini’s part. Rather his interests lie more with the character study, and the best way to do this is to take a few steps back.
The key figure then is the Broderick Crawford character. A man who claims he can “sell ice to Eskimos”, the longer we stay with him, the more we realise this is simply a façade. In modern terms, imagine Benjamin “Leftie” Ruggiero, Al Pacino’s character in Donnie Brasco, as played by James Gandolfini and you’re approaching Crawford’s sense of hulking resignation. Slowly becoming wary of the world in which he forever occupies a lower rung, he’s the perfect window into its bitter tensions, constant one-upmanship (do conmen have their own class system, or are their associations spilling over into the Mafia?), violence and anger. Indeed, the closer we get, the more realise just how stark Il bidone is – a huge remove from the lighthearted romp we perhaps expected from the opening moments. Just compare Crawford’s character to that of the one he portrayed in Born Yesterday. They may share a number of similar traits, but there he was primarily a figure of fun. Here he’s not even allowed a redemptive ending, rather we have Fellini fling rocks at him, one of which hits him square in the face.
The BFI’s Region 2 release of Il bidone marks it DVD debut in full-length form, adding 17 minutes to the previously available editions (Image’s Region 1, Waterfall’s budget Region 2). Moreover, this release also marks a huge improvement in other areas too, with a fine presentation and worthy extras. We are offered the film in its original Academy ratio and a print which is wonderfully free of damage and dirt. Admittedly there are some problems with contrast during the darker scenes (the one set in the cinema is a little on the murky side), but otherwise the clarity of the image is especially pleasing. Indeed, this also extends to the soundtrack, which presents the original Italian mono (spread over the front two channels and accompanied by optional English subtitles) without a single technical hitch to speak of.
To further entice the prospective buyer, the BFI have also included a lengthy interview with Dominique Delouche, Fellini’s assistant director from the mid- to late-fifties. Chatting in French – again with optional English – to film critic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Delouche takes us through his experiences with the director, from their initial meeting (following an ill-fated festival screening of La strada) to coping with Crawford’s alcoholism. Indeed, it makes for a great 39 minutes as we mix the formal with the informal, from discussions of Fellini’s work methods to his associations with “dubious characters” during Il bidone’s production.
Rounding off the extras package we also find room for a gallery of photos taken by Delouche at the time and a fine booklet which contains new liner notes by Nowell-Smith, an archive review by British filmmaker Paul Rotha from Film and Filming, extracts from Delouche’s diary, and brief bios for Fellini and his assistant. All told, it’s a worthy package to accompany a fine film.